Camping with Uncle Charlie – A Sweet Stout: A Beer Story

Surprise! “Camping with Uncle Charlie” a sweet stout we brewed with Stiggs Brewery is going to the 2022 Michigan Brewers Guild Winter Beer Festival. Wait, what? Yes, I know it is crazy. In December, Mike from Stiggs Brewery in Boyne, Michigan, invited us to brew with them, we were excited but a bit worried; we really didn’t know how to brew beer. But it all worked out! (Protip – You can brew with Stiggs too! Check out their Brew School.) 

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Camping with Uncle Charlie – A Sweet Stout: A Beer Story  

Our love affair with Stiggs Brewery got started during the Detroit Fall Beer Fest in 2017. Mike Castiglione (AKA the Beer Guy) offered to give us a tour the next time we’re in his next of the woods, Boyne City. He was probably a little surprised when we turned up on his doorstep a few months later. (Short story, they let us in.) 

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When Chuck received Mike’s email inviting us to brew a beer, you’d have thought we just received an invite to have tea with Queen. Thankfully we were working out the details for attending the Great Beer State Conference and were able to combine both events into a beer immersion experience. (I’m still pinching myself.) What an amazing beer week. 

Brewing Beer with Stiggs Brewery 

“I can’t believe LifeInMichigan.Com has never been invited to brew a beer,” Mike said when we arrived. I was thinking to myself, “I’m not. We are clueless when it comes to brewing beer.” I didn’t share this detail as I figured Mike would figure it out soon. What I said was, “Nope, we are beer brewing virgins.” I got a funny look from Chuck so I clarified. “I’m a beer brewing virgin. I’m not sure about the rest of them.”

The Fire

Camping with Uncle Charlie is a sweet stout and hopefully will taste a bit like a smoky s’more. Naturally, it required a campfire. Our daydreams about this day included us sitting around a warm fire, roasting marshmallows, wrapped in a blanket, and sipping a beer. So when we arrived in Boyne City and it was barely above zero, we were a little rattled. 

Mike didn’t seem phased. As we would soon discover Mike is pretty unflappable. Picking his words very carefully he said, “It will probably work just fine but we should get the fire going early so there are plenty of hot coals.” (Side question have you watched Chef’s Table BBQ? Well if you have you’ll understand when I say we felt like the pitmaster Tootsie Tomanetz getting the coals ready.) 

While Jeff and Chuck were tending the fire, Mike rigged up the large pot on the cooking stand which Stiggs’ Home Brew Club uses. Angie and I were already cold and had fled to the taproom and were watching from the window. (Yes, I know we were being cold babies but they looked like they had it handled.) 

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Recipe 

One of the advantages of brewing with someone with 20 years of brewing experience is they have recipes. Mike walked us through the recipe for Camping with Uncle Charlie explaining each of the ingredients. We nodded along like it made perfect sense. It was like making cookies with your grandmother. She shows you her rumpled cookbook and as she does scraps of paper fall out. She then sets aside the cookbook and never looks at the recipe.

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The Mash

We just learned at the Great Beer State Conference how breweries have sensory evaluation programs to evaluate raw materials in beer. Finally an opportunity to use our new skills. After a bit of malt and barley tasting, we measured everything and put it into the mill. We added a special s’more ingredient (graham crackers), and water. Jeff gave it a hearty stir and Mike checked to be sure it was the right temp. We were ready to sit for a spell and enjoy a pint.  

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Mashing Not to be Confused with Moshing 

Like expectant fathers waiting for the doctor to come out of the labor-delivery room, we waited in the bar. The bartender bounced around the taproom like she was on a pogo stick and constantly on the move. She talked nearly as fast as she served drinks. Her movements were so fast, we didn’t get a single picture of her.

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While drinking our pint of beer and waiting for the mashing of Camping with Uncle Charlie to finish, there was fire tending to keep us busy. (Protip: I didn’t make up the word mashing to rhyme with moshing to be funny. It is a brewer’s term for the hot water steeping process which hydrates the barley, activates the malt enzymes, and converts the grain starches into fermentable sugars. Believe me, moshing is totally different.)  

Stiggs’ pitmaster was keeping an eye on us and our fire, giving us pointers. He must have either felt sorry for us or liked us because he shared a sample of his smoked pork, turkey and beef brisket. (A little secret, I love a good pork BBQ. Yes I know I’m a vegetarian. Just don’t tell my vegetarian friends.) The smoked pork was delicious; like Texas BBQ but a smidge better. 

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“It’s time,” Mike said with a twinkle in his eye hinting at the smile under his mask. “Oh, but what expressive eyebrows you have,” I wanted to say to him channeling my inner Little Red Riding Hood. Mike is more like a teddy bear than a Big Bad Wolf so I probably could have said it and got away with it. It was time to slowly drain the wort from the mash.
 
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The Wort 

I posted on Facebook a picture of Mike pouring the wort into the large pot hanging over the fire. Angie leaned over and said, “You spelled wort wrong.” My heart did a flip-flop in my chest. I spun through my Facebook feed to find the picture. Oh sweet relief. “No I spelled it right,” I said. Confusion washed over her face. Merriam-Webster to the rescue. I showed her a definition of wort: “a sweet liquid drained from mash and fermented to make beer and whiskey.” 

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“Now,” Mike said, “we hope it will boil.” A watched pot never boils definitely applies here. Not familiar with this idiom? This phrase is not literal in meaning since scientifically a pot kept to boil will have absolutely no effect if one is watching it. It is a poetic way of saying that time seems to slow down when one is waiting for something to happen desperately. Benjamin Franklin wrote this proverb under his pseudonym, Poor Richard, in his annual almanac during the years 1732 to 1758. Ben also said, “Beer is proof that God loves us and wants us to be happy.” So I’m thinking he was making beer when he penned the famous phrase, “a watched pot never boils.’

While waiting for the pot to boil Chuck’s boots fell apart. The artic air was too much for those old boots. He tried to duck-tape them. Next time you see Chuck ask how well that went. A few members of the Stiggs Home Brew Club stopped by to check on our progress. More wood was added to the fire. We ate more smoked goodies supplied by Stiggs’ pitmaster.  Yes, it felt like time was standing still as we waited for Camping with Uncle Charlie to boil.

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Finally, the moment had arrived; it was boiling. We could add the hops! 

The Hops 

I assumed we’d dump a large bag of hops into the pot. No, it was just like a small plastic Dixie cup and not even a large red Solo cup either. Our friends at Hop Alliance and Top Hops Farms supplied hops. We went with Fuggle Hops which are perfect for a sweet stout.

“Fuggle is a workhorse hop in terms of style, favored in darker beers like porter, stout, and mild. It adds a classic English signature used alone or as part of a blend for late and dry-hopping English bitter, pale ale, and ESB.” 

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S’Mores 

With the sun hanging a little lower in the sky, it was time to add the marshmallows and other sugars. We even roasted a few marshmallows and added them to give it a “smoky” flavor. We made a few s’mores and prepared to wait for s’more. 

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With a flourish, Mike pulled the fire pit from underneath the cook pot, like a matador flipping his cape. It was done. How clever I thought, I would have never thought of doing that. I would have probably struggled to move the pot away from the fire and likely spilled it. 

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More waiting for it to cool so it could be siphoned into a keg. (Yikes our beer is going into a keg!) It was still too hot to add the yeast. Mike would do that later. The keg will hang out in Stiggs’ basement for a few weeks fermenting before it is ready to be tapped. 

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Thanks Mike!  

Thanks, Mike for inviting us and giving us this experience of brewing Camping with Uncle Charlie. Good Lord, it was fun. 

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Special Thanks to Cowboy Doug

In 2015 we had the pleasure of hearing Cowboy Doug’s presentation on brewing. Thank you Cowboy for guiding me through this post. Your presence was felt. Hopefully, I got all the beer facts right! RIP my dear friend.  

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