Nonni’s Molasses Cookie Ale (v1.0)

I don’t know that I can recall ever seeing my grandmother, Nonni, actually consume a beer.  Wine, certainly, but beers were my grandfather’s bailiwick.  When Nonni passed away some weeks ago, I pondered what I could do in memoriam, and of course the idea of a beer came to mind.  Choosing to brew a beer is, by nature, a self-centered decision for me, so I thought hard on how I could connect specifically with my grandmother on this occasion.

The first thing that came to mind was a pizzelle cookie beer.  Pizzelles are a traditional Italian cookie that are made with anise seed and are cooked on the stove using a special waffle iron.  I love them.  I scarf them up whenever they’re around, which is to say, Christmas and the occasional visit with or from my mother.  Drinking a beer with a black licorice flavor didn’t strike me as the best choice, though.  Maybe someday.

Until a recent trip back to Albuquerque, I hadn’t realized that the molasses cookie recipe my mom gave to me years ago actually came from Nonni.  During Nonni’s funeral preparations, more than one person mentioned the cookies, and in retrospect, my father had raved about them, too, so the decision was made organically.

There’s nothing particularly surprising about molasses as an ingredient, and certainly wouldn’t be the first time molasses was used in beer for flavor or fermentables.  The orange glaze on the top of the cookie could also be replicated — orange is regularly added to beer for flavor (Reinheitsgebot be damned).

From there it gets a little more dodgy.  I struggled to come up with something that would put this beer over the top.  As luck would have it, the answer was obvious:  Wheat.  Flour is one of the primary ingredients in a cookie, yeah?  Wheat isn’t uncommon for a beer, either.  If you’ve had a hefeweizen or a weissbeer, you’ve had a beer where wheat was a significant part of the recipe.

Done. Deal.

I threw some numbers into Beersmith and came up with a basic recipe.  Gravity wasn’t going to be too high (1.062 or so).  Wanted to keep the bitterness low (14 IBUs, give or take).  I got hung up on how to make it darker, until I realized that it just didn’t matter.

Despite the ease with which the recipe came together, I was intimidated.  My last foray into wheat brewing resulted in my only batch of beer that never made it into the boil kettle.  I’d read about how wheat tends to stick the mash, and I used rice hulls to help it drain better, but it still got the best of me and I was done with it.  I tossed a lot of raw ingredient that day, and this time had to be different.

Perhaps Nonni was smiling down upon me, but the brew really did work out well.  I added A LOT of rice hulls and had no issues with a stuck mash.  I even used the Blichmann Tower of Power, which recirculates the mash and fires the mash tun to maintain temperature.  I thought for sure I’d be hosed by the recirculation but the rice hulls did their job and I got the sweet wort into the boil kettle surprisingly efficiently.

I chose a single hop for this batch and added them over the course of an hour.  I also threw in the bitter orange peel and molasses towards the end.  Despite boiling for an extra half-hour, I still had excess volume and a correspondingly lower OG of 1.059.  This is an inefficiency that I need to resolve, but it does give me some room to work with to blow off trub and yeast sediment over the next few weeks (conical fermenters, FTW!).

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Barely into September, but recently the temperatures have dropped into the 40s overnight. I was hoping to keep the fermenter out in the garage this time around but the temperature fluctuations would be too much.  Hauled it in and hooked up a temperature controller to a heater to keep it right and it’s bubbling away as I type.

I pitched a Northwest Ale starter I started a couple of days in advance.  I really love how the yeast, when I prep it like this, is ready to go as soon as it hits the wort.  It’s been rare that fermentations have taken more than twelve hours or so to get going.  This isn’t necessarily proof of a great fermentation but it’s been working well.

I tasted the sweet wort and it really did taste like a molasses cookie!  The wheat, molasses and orange were all there.  The yeast will mix things up a bit, though, and I’m curious to see just how it works out.  There will be adjustments, but I’m feeling particularly optimistic with this one.

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