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As owner and brewer of Choice Bros Brewing, Kerry Gray is accustomed to incorporating unconventional ingredients into his beers—and most involve animals, interestingly.Since launching his gypsy brewery last August, Gray has attracted attention for unique meat-married beers like Roast Lamb & Mint and Hand Pulled Pork. It was Choice's latest release, however, that incited a circus of international media coverage and even government questioning: a stout brewed with deer semen.
Gray lives in Brooklyn—but a different Brooklyn than most of us, roughly 9,000 miles away in Wellington, New Zealand. (The city has blossomed into the country's beer capital, earning the nickname of "Little Portland.") Although he declined interview requests after the release of Stag Semen Stout last month, Gray recently opened up to MUNCHIES about the beer, some of his other experiments, and his philosophy on brewing.MUNCHIES: So, how did the idea to make a beer with stag semen come about? Kerry Gray: A local pub in Wellington has an event they host every two years for a wild-food challenge using semen.I think they made horse-semen shots for it one year. Their owner heard I've brewed with some weird stuff before, and so they approached me to make a beer for it. I initially thought, Are you fucking mad? But after a few seconds that turned into, Hey, this could an interesting social experiment. I always wonder how ingredients, even used in a small or basically nonexistent amount, affect how people perceive a beer. Would this one be a "mind over matter" battle? So I said, "Let's do it."
Did you do any research before brewing with it? Not really, because we knew the semen wasn't going to provide any flavor or attributes. Most of the work went into designing a stout that would taste great and also pour creamy on hand-pump and nitro. I did discover that semen is high in zinc, a mineral that occurs in lower levels in wort, though. When you increase the zinc levels in wort, it reduces the chances of acetaldehyde, a cider-like off flavor in beer and cause of hangovers. So semen may well be the cure for hangovers. [Laughs.]
Semen may well be the cure for hangovers.
How did you use the semen in the beer? I blended it with the base, the chocolate stout, before adding both to the fermenter. I was initially nervous using it in case I introduced a bacteria that would ruin the brew. That's why I pasteurized it first. But we used such a small amount, I wasn't too worried.How much did you use? Thirty-five milliliters was all we were able to get. It's actually pretty expensive. It came from a local stag farm where it was collected via "electric stimulation," and they sent it via cold storage to the brewery I was using that day. Thirty-five milliliters doesn't sound like much, but it was an impressive load! I keep saying that to my friends. [Laughs.]Did the semen affect the beer at all? It didn't add anything to the final product. But again, I knew that going in. Perception is really what I was most interested in—it plays a huge part in taste. Some drinkers told me with this they tasted saltiness, also creaminess. The creamy mouthfeel is due to serving the stout on nitrogen, but I thought it was interesting that some people thought it was from the special ingredient.
How do you think the beer came out? I loved it. It had the trademark characteristics of the stout style: nice coffee and roast aromas, a massive chocolate flavor that goes from sweet to bitter. I was very happy with it.What was the overall reaction? Mostly positive, but we did have one complaint. I stopped responding to most interview requests around that time because it was getting too crazy. I was bombarded with emails from around the world, but not a single one of them wanted to know about the beer, how it was made, or what it tasted like. It comes with the territory of using something so odd, I guess. But the complaint is along the same line of thinking. Someone contacted the New Zealand government about the beer.
Really? Yeah. Then they called me and said they needed to investigate the processes I used in making it, specifically how I used the semen. I gave them all the info and a microbiologist signed off on the paperwork so they could see it was legit. It's just crazy how someone took offense to the point they wanted it removed from sale.
Would you ever make a beer like Stag Semen Stout again? I'll always be open to the idea of experimenting. I don't see the need to revisit using semen again, but I'm sure there are other taboo ingredients out there that would create a debate and make the drinker question the beer and themselves. One of my brewer friends from Tuatara Brewery, he actually just made a beer with smoked goose. That could be cool. I like to use meat, so I'll use it in beers again in the future. Unlike semen, [meat] can give subtle flavors and affects mouthfeel and body.That's a perfect transition. I was going to ask you, how did you start brewing with meat? I love cooking and food in general. Pairing beer and food is my favorite thing, so it's a natural extension of that. The second homebrew beer I did, I added frozen strawberries. And any time friends would suggest crazy ideas, I would always do them. Believe it or not, you can get meaty attributes in certain beer styles from the yeast character, so I started picking those styles and building on that. Bacon seems most popular with people, so that was the first commercial brew I did.
I love experimentation, pushing boundaries, and creating mental taste perceptions that are not a direct response from one of our senses.
Hand Pulled Pork, right? How did you make that one? That was a lot of fun. I was inspired by Rogue's bacon doughnut beer, but that tasted too fake for my liking so I knew I wanted to use the real thing. We added pork to the boil, so it was cooked and safe, and we dry-hopped the beer with cured bacon. I made it for International Bacon Day, so we poured it through a Randall full of freshly fried pork! It was insane and people loved it.What type of base beer was that? An English-style amber ale, basically. Sweet, minimal hops, smokey, and a massive mouthfeel from the fat.Let's talk about another one: Roast Lamb & Mint. That just sounds outrageous. It was. A lot of stuff went into that one: vegetables, potatoes, sage, mint, and the lamb. The idea was to create something with all the ingredients of roast lamb and mint, which is like the ultimate Sunday meal in New Zealand.How did you brew it? I've found that using a meat reduction helps to balance, as you can add in small amounts at the end to get the right volume of concentrated flavor. So I added all the roasted vegetables in the mash and then made a lamb reduction, slow-cooked in pinot noir wine with spices. For the mint, I made a simple syrup and soaked fresh mint leaves in it. Then I strained it and chucked that and some sage into the boil in the last ten minutes.What did people think of it? I would personally describe the beer as an English pale with a hint of meat flavor on the nose and some spicy flavors. When people tasted it, they commented on how meaty it was and how much it tasted like a roast lamb. But really the meat flavor wasn't present in the [beer] flavor, at least as much as in the Hand Pulled Pork. Most of the meat herewas lost during fermentation, and also from battling with the mint and sage. But people still perceived a lot of meat, as that was what they were searching for in the flavor.It sounds like you enjoy messing with people. [Laughs.] It's part of it. I love experimentation, pushing boundaries, and creating mental taste perceptions that are not a direct response from one of our senses. But with all of these wild beers, as a brewer, balance is still my primary goal. If I can make a balanced beer, one that can pair well with some food—or in my case be made with some great food—I'll never be disappointed.Thanks for speaking with me, Kerry.