I believe that it’s healthy to make mistakes. They help you to learn, grow, and go in directions you wouldn’t have otherwise explored. I don’t like making mistakes when it comes to brewing because there’s so much time and expense involved. But when I do, I try to salvage the situation whenever possible. All brewers do this – some more frequently than others.
I fully admit Yarzenbina was the result of a mistake. I was adding hot water to the mash for a traditional Polish beer called Grodziskie when the phone rang. It was my husband, whose sense of bad timing is impeccable, and I was foolish enough to pick up with only a few liters to go. By the time I explained I was busy, I had overshot my mark and the mash had gotten too hot. The beer was going to be too sweet.
I added cold water – knowing that this rarely works out well for me – and then I had cooled the mash too much. The beer was going to be way too dry. I had to add more hot water. I kept adding more, mixing well, and taking a temperature reading, but it was still too low. I did this using the maximum amount of water I could to stay within the workable water:grain ratio. I reached the maximum and the temperature was still too low. This beer was going to be shit if I didn’t come up with a last-minute improvisation.
The choices were to abort now (dumping what I had) or add more grain so I could add more water. I opted for the latter option. I was no longer brewing Grodziskie but at least I could make a reasonable beer out of the specially ordered oak-smoked wheat malt. The only bag I had. So I added some German crystal malts to add unfermentable sugars to compensate for the low mash temperature, as well as a whole lotta Vienna malt to complement the base malt.
I’d had these rowan berries that needed to be used. I had an idea about recreating a long-lost recipe for an ancient Welsh rowan ale, but inspiration hadn’t hit me yet. I decided to add them to the boil to make the beer more interesting. I also used the Northern Brewer, Sladek, and Hallertau Tradition hops as originally planned for the Grodziskie.
I completed the brew without any further problems, chilled the wort, pitched the yeast, and moved the fermentor into the Fermentation Chamber.
In the following days, the Fermentation Chamber smelled like a deli – very smoky. Not an unpleasant smell, just something atypical of what usually came out of there. When we bottled the beer, it smelled pretty nice. We had some tastes of the unfinished beer and were pleasantly surprised by the flavor. This was going to work out!
The Polish word for “rowan” is jarzębina, which, if you spell it out phonetically in English, is “yarzenbina.” So that’s how the name came about. Think of it as the Polish Word of the Day.
I went to Poland for the first time in February 2015 for a long weekend in Gdańsk. I enjoyed tasting from an endless variety of Polish craft beer (what a great place for beer!) and I finally got to try a genuine Grodziskie. The bartender thought I was a little weird for wanting to try it, as if he was expecting me to not like it. I admit, it wasn’t the greatest beer in the world but it was a bucket list moment for me. And I could see how the beer could be improved. After all, this was just one brew, one interpretation, by one microbrewery.
Rowan (Sorbus aucuparia) is also known as mountain ash. According to A Modern Herbal, rowan berries contain “tartaric acid before, citric and malic acids after ripening; two sugars, sorbin and sorbit, the latter after fermentation; parasorbic acid, which is aromatic and is converted into isomeric sorbic acid by heating under pressure with potassa; bitter, acrid and colouring matters. A crystalline saccharine principle, Sorbitol, which does not undergo the vinous fermentation, has also been found in the fruit.”
You can definitely taste the malic acid from the berries in the beer – that’s what gives it a slight tang, as well as the citric acid.. And some of its sweetness is possibly imparted by the sorbitol.
The beer was ready to drink in just two weeks, and it had a delicate, savory smokiness as well as a sour fruitiness. The combination was a winner. I took unlabeled samples to a Meet the Brewer event at the Arena Theatre and everyone loved the Yarzenbina, a lot more than I expected. I served a keg of it to Sacre Brew supporters at a keg party in June and it was very popular there, too. One of my assistants, who absolutely despises smoked beer, had a whole pint of it and then asked for another. I think that’s an endorsement if I ever heard one!
Still, there’s no accounting for taste so not everybody is going to like the same thing. But the fact that people not keen on smoked beer actually liked it is a very interesting thing. I personally love this beer so much that I will add it to the Sacre Brew Pantheon of beers. This is a mistake I will definitely repeat again, thanks to my careful notes. I won’t get to brew it again for some time, so if you can get your hands on one of the few 220 bottles remaining, seize the moment.
The label art features some rock wall paintings found in St. George, Utah – where I’ve camped/hiked a few times. A truly gorgeous place. Here’s a photo of the petroglyphs, which look like they could be mountain sheep.