Ben Stange on November 11, 2015 12 Comments As the weather gets colder and the days get shorter, most beer nerds start craving darker, maltier beers. From the sweeter, smoky Scottish ales to the dry Irish stouts, the flavors of the darker malts go very well with colder weather and fall and winter foods. One of my favorite winter beers is the vanilla porter. There is something about how the roasted, chocolatey malts interplay with the bitterness of the hops and the sweetness of vanilla. It’s a wonderful combination, especially when the temperature starts to drop. Achieving the right balance is the most important part of brewing a vanilla porter, and the secret to achieving the right balance, is in brewing the right porter base, choosing the right vanilla, and using the vanilla beans to their best advantage. Let’s take a closer look at each of these, so you can brew the best vanilla porter possible. Brewing the Right Porter To make the right base for a vanilla porter, all you need to do is pick your favorite porter recipe. It should be a well-balanced porter recipe with some dry chocolatey notes from roasted grains and a nice thick body. Start with a good base malt of Maris Otter or Two-Row, depending on your taste, then add some roasted barley, black patent malt, chocolate malt, and some roasted wheat. Using Maris Otter instead of Two-Row will add a little bit of a toasted bread flavor behind the specialty malt flavors, while the two-row may be a bit sweeter. The specialty malts are chosen to give a broad spectrum of roasted flavors, from chocolate to bitterness. The roasted wheat adds some nice head retention and some body. For hops, the lion’s share should be in the first addition, as you want bitterness without too much aroma or hop flavor. The vanilla and the malt flavors are the real stars of this show, and hops should really only be a low-light if you notice them at all. In my vanilla porter recipe, all of the hops are used in the first addition, and there aren’t any real flavor or aroma hops at all. I aim for a bitterness balance of about half of the OG points in IBUs. For instance, in the vanilla porter recipe detailed below, I have 29 IBUs and an original gravity of 1.052, or 52 gravity points. If you divide the IBUs by the gravity points, you see a BU:GU ratio of 0.56. Using this BU:GU is a handy trick for to get a rough estimate of how bitter a beer will be based on its recipe. For the yeast, I encourage you to make a starter, but it’s not strictly necessary if you know you have good, viable yeast. For this recipe, we use Safale US-05. You can also use Wyeast 1056 or White Labs WLP001. If you choose not to make a starter, make sure you rehydrate the yeast according to the instructions. This will ensure you have viable yeast and will get a good start to your fermentation. Choosing the Right Vanilla There are a lot of flavors you can add to beer using extracts without compromising too much by way of quality. Vanilla is not one of them. While there are some excellent vanilla extracts on the market, these are not the ideal way to get the right vanilla flavor in your beer. Using vanilla extract in beer typically lacks the depth of flavor achieved by using vanilla beans. While this will work in a pinch, it is not ideal when it comes to brewing a vanilla porter. There are several types of vanilla beans on the market, as well. You don’t need to buy incredibly expensive vanilla to get great flavor. There are a few things to watch for, however: Make sure your vanilla was “water killed”, not “sun killed”. Vanilla pods have to be killed to stop their growth, and this is done one of two ways: Water-killed (bourbon) vanilla, named for the French Bourbon Islands (now Madagascar), is softer and cuts cleanly. This is what you should prefer. Mexican vanilla is commonly “sun killed”, which involved drying on hot slabs of pavement in the sun. The result of this method is a woodier vanilla bean, which is harder to cut. Grade A Vanilla does not necessarily make better beer than Grade B Vanilla. Grade A Vanilla simply has more moisture, which does not affect overall flavor. For the most bang for your buck, get some good grade-B Bourbon-killed vanilla. With Grade A Vanilla, you pay quite a lot for appearance, which does not matter for making beer. Looks for very slight cracks at the end of the vanilla beans. This indicates that the vanilla was fully ripened when it was harvested. Vanilla beans with this telltale sign tend to have the most intense flavor. Having said that, I usually go with what’s available at my local health food store. I can usually buy a couple of vanilla beans for very little money from the bulk section, and they are always Grade B bourbon vanilla from Madagascar with great flavor. If you can’t find the right vanilla beans at your local health store, try checking with your local homebrew shop or look at homebrew suppliers online, sometimes they will sell you them individually or provide them within various ingredient kits. Using the Vanilla Beans There are essentially three options for homebrewers when adding spice to beer. The first of these is to boil the spices in the last ten minutes of the boil. This is ideal when making a Belgian Wit, but vanilla has a lot of volatile aromas which will be driven off by the boil. The second method is to make an extract or tea. This works well for a lot of spiced beers and is great for ensuring consistency when using stronger spices. I use this method for my Holiday Ales, because ginger and cinnamon can be overwhelming if they are over-spiced. For vanilla, however, I prefer to use the “dry-hopping” method, in which you add the spices to secondary fermentation. Because the flavors of vanilla are delicate an complex, I prefer the slow extraction of the flavors through this method. To use this method, perform the following steps: Once the primary fermentation of your beer is complete, sanitize your secondary fermentation vessel. Slice the vanilla beans lengthwise and open them up. Scrape the tar-like interior of the vanilla bean out of the husk and put it and the husk into the bottom of the secondary fermenter. Rack the beer on top of the vanilla beans before placing the lid and airlock on the secondary fermenter. Wait 2-4 weeks for the vanilla to extract into the beer. Sampling periodically is fun, but not strictly necessary, as it will be difficult to get too much vanilla in the beer. (This is my opinion, but it might just be because I love vanilla). Once the beer has extracted enough vanilla goodness, package it just as you would any other porter. I prefer to keep my carbonation levels around 2 volumes, but if you typically bottle for 2.5 volumes, it would still be appropriate and may even bring out more vanilla aroma. Vanilla Porter (All-Grain Recipe) I developed this vanilla porter recipe and brewed it for a friend of mine. His name is Mike Show. Recipe Specs Recipe Type: All-Grain Batch Size: 5 gallons Volume Boiled: 6 gallons Original Gravity: 1.052 Final Gravity: 1.011 SRM: 37.6 IBUs: 29 ABV: 5.3% Ingredients: 9.5 lbs 2-row base malt 6 oz. Roasted Barley (500L) 4 oz. Black Patent Malt 4 oz. Chocolate Malt 4 oz. Roasted Wheat (550L) 1 oz. Glacier Hops at 5% AA (5 AAU) for 60 minutes 0.5 oz Challenger Hops at 8% AA (4 AAU) for 60 minutes 0.5 oz Cascade Hops at 6% AA (3 AAU) for 60 minutes 2 Grade B Vanilla Beans (in secondary) Yeast Options: Safale US-05 Dry Yeast, White Labs WLP001, Wyeast 1056. Procedure: Mash at 152° F for an hour. Mash out at 170° F. Sparge with 180° F water to make 6 gallons. Heat to boiling and then add all of the hops. Boil 60 minutes and turn off the heat. Cool as quickly as possible to 70° F. Immediately rack to your fermenter and pitch yeast. After 7-10 days, rack to secondary fermenter on top of two prepared Grade B Vanilla Beans. Vanilla Porter (Extract with Grain Recipe) This is the same recipe that’s described above, with only a few minor changes for extract brewers. All changes to the procedure or ingredients are mentioned below. Ingredients: Substitute 5.7 lbs of light dry malt extract for the 2-row malt list above. All other ingredients will remain the same. Procedure: Steep your grains in water and heat water to 170° F for at least 20-30 minutes (the longer they steep, the more flavor you’ll get – to a point). Remove the grains and add your malt extract. Stir well, dissolving all clumps. Heat to boiling and then add all of the hops. Boil 60 minutes and turn off heat. Cool as quickly as possible to 70° F. Rack to your fermenter and pitch yeast. After 7-10 days, rack to secondary fermenter on top of two prepared Grade B Vanilla Beans. After 14 days, prime and bottle or keg. Now that winter is rolling in, start brewing this vanilla porter recipe, let it ferment and enjoy! Cheers!