June 21, 2011

Thunderbolt Pale Ale: Hop Substitution Experiment

So far, it's been a hot summer and a short summer. And that's to say summer hasn't officially yet begun. As manic as winter had been, summer crept around the Twin Cities like a lurking radioactive monster. From windy to above average hot, that was only after the tornado season began in north Minneapolis.

One can imagine how fun it is to be a siren enthusiast. Oh yes! There is such an internet culture that posts homemade videos of rotating civil defense sirens for those who seek. A huge variety of people across the globe are into it. Truly they make up a fraction of homebrewers' ranks, but I'll say that the first Wednesday of the month or possibly a storm-laden afternoon summons my hobbyist ambitions as first-wort hopping would.

My spare time fascinations led me to envision drinking an IPA with the wailing taste of the iconic yellow-orange Thunderbolt siren. To me, the contrast of bittering & aromatic uses of Simcoe lay one & the same with the ominously beckoning tone of those long-necked, square-horned sirens of the 1950's.

Hey, if terrible weather or nuclear attack sends you to the basement, why not have something bottled in the cellar to match taste & ambient sound when the event arises?

I made a recipe late last summer and tweaked it over the course of two more batches (one all-grain & one extract). By the third batch I had what I was looking for: a balanced IPA that matched the color of the deafening object from beside which I wanted to drink. But the tale got seized up, come this summer...

Like a Thunderbolt with a bad air compressor, the supply of Simcoe hadn't weathered the winter well. Though the hop only occupies two additions in the recipe, the valid consensus among fellow brewers remains that no hop can replicate the resiny-piney-grapefruity-ness of Simcoe.

So would I bow to the supply scenario & put away the recipe like so many cities across America have done away with their old supercharged sirens? Would I favor a cheaper recipe that 'does the job' in the same way Thunderbolts have been replaced with new sirens that are little more than giant electronic speakers?

No, my friends... I am rebuilding the recipe with new parts to give this wailing barley beast continued year-round life!

Lucky for me, one of the homebrew clubs of which I'm a member hosted a single-hop pale ale tasting comparison this past winter & Simcoe was featured. My notes recalled resinous pine flavor riding a wave of orange flavored bitterness. Grapefruit zest was well-represented too. Other dried fruit flavors were in the Simcoe cocktail too. These club notes were very helpful, much easier to reference than the countless other pales, homebrewed & commercial which featured 'Sims (why else would it have gone scarce?).

The multitude of characteristics suggest the need for a blend of varieties, proportional to the perceived flavor of Simcoe. Treading subjectively into this, I'm estimating the following blend for my initial experiment recipe:

1 oz. Simcoe pellets @ 14% AA =
0.15 oz. Chinook @ 11% AA
3.5 mL Amarillo Hopshot 7.8% AA
0.2 oz. Styrian Goldings @ 5.6% AA

In a definitely unscientific way, I judged the proportions of Sim's various flavors as they might be extracted from other hop varieties that share those characteristics. This experiment leaves out variables such as cohumulone rates, beta acids, and pays only lip service to the non-Sim flavors present in the replacement hops. Truly, it's not perfect. I have only my existing experience using these hops to guide me.

The product of this pursuit will shape the next trial recipe for my beloved pale. All the while, the real subject of comparison remains how my ear tells my mouth how a siren would taste if it were a beer. I'm exposing this experiment for advice & maybe some encouragement; either from homebrew hop blend scientists or possibly others that don't heed a siren's call but bask in it as if it could be held in a glass.

Tasting notes to come. Please give input, advice or just plain banter!

Original Recipe
Thunderbolt Pale Ale
OG: 1.079 FG: 1.019 IBU: 91

11# Rahr 2-Row
1# Rahr Pale Wheat
0.75# German Light Munich
0.5# Canadian Honey Malt
0.5# Simpson's Med. Crystal
1# Corn Sugar (At beginning of boil, no mash)
Mash @ 151 F. for 60 min. Sparge to collect 7 gal.

Boil 75 min.
1 oz. Simcoe @ First Wort
0.75 oz. Summit @ 60 min.
1 oz. Mt. Hood @ 20 min.
1 oz. Centennial @ 20 min.
1 oz. Centennial @ Flameout
1 oz. Simcoe @ Flameout
1 oz. Columbus @ Dry Hop
1 oz. Centennial @ Dry Hop

2L starter Y1056, ferment 2 weeks primary @ 68 F.
4 Weeks Secondary, add dry hops 7 days before kegging/bottling
2+ weeks in keg/bottle before serving


  1. Sounds Tasty. You will have to let us know how the "Hop Coctail" tastes compared to the Simcoe. I am curious and I am sure everyone else is too.

  2. There are 2 major points here. The first is that I don't feel like anything can substitute for Simcoe. It's flavor is awesome, bittering forceful, and if you dry hop with it... legendary. The second point is that people get too fixated. There are so many great varieties of hops available (which you cannot possibly have used all of) that when a hop is expensive or unavailable, you should try a new one. Read profiles, compare AA%. Making single hop, identical on the malt bill, IPAs is a great way to see the bittering, aroma and flavor of hops. It's a big hoppy world, get out and enjoy!

  3. Could you list the extract version that you have?

  4. I totally agree that Simcoe is on a pillar all its own. That's what made reformulating this recipe so heartbreaking, it shared inspiration on a hobbyist level for me! When I have to shortlist a single hop to replace Simcoe, Ahtanum comes to mind, but majorly lacks the pine flavor of Sim...

    I also nearly had to double substitute the alternative hoptail when we almost ran short of Amarillo hopshots...

    An extract version:
    7 lbs. Briess Pilsen DME (3# added @ 10 min. left in boil)
    2 lbs. Munton's Amber DME (1# added @ 10 min. left in boil)
    1 lb. Corn Sugar
    Steeping Grains:
    0.5 lbs. Simpson's Medium Crystal
    0.5 lbs. Gambrinus Honey Malt

    Hops same as all-grain

  5. On another note, NB world HQ is within spitting distance of another 'modern' siren, which went off for both a Tornado watch & warning today. I must add that www.wunderground.com is the best weather resource online today! It features access to nationwide NOAA weather radio stations & Nexrad radar sites that take the unknowns out of weather forecasting. I love being able to track storm rotation, anywhere in the world from any computer!

  6. http://youtu.be/L2u4qywqDMo

    My thunderbolt from my hometown!

  7. We feel your pain and have started a more scientific blending program utilizing our lab, gas chromatograph, etc to build oil profiles accourding to varietal blends. Your recipe is a great shot but I would add...get rid of the Amarillo too... Relying on Simcoe (proprietary) to only replace with another licensed variety is inviting more issues, IMO.

  8. Thanks James, perhaps Ahtanum then...

  9. The T-bolt was finally brewed last night. The hop blend had aroma similar to Simcoe in all aspects except, maybe overall funk. Now fermenting away. In five weeks I will submit a new entry with tasting notes.