He picks up the blood orange in his large hands more gently than would seem possible. With a quick stroke of the peeler he liberates a long section of the peel and turns it over on his cutting board, “See, no pith. That’s important.” Thor has been filling Randalls at Rebuen's Brews for years, making a name for himself as the go-to-guy in the Pacific Northwest for knowledge on how to infuse beer through these contraptions. Based mostly on his own trial and error, he explains. At the bar, he prepares the day's Randall using a citrus that is soon to go out of season.
The apparatus in front of him is one he designed himself, forged from years of experience working with the beer infusion devices coming out of Dogfish Head. This device, a canister that sits on the draft lines somewhere between the keg and the tap, allows beer to linger among ingredients before being poured into your glass. That process gives the beer a new dimension of flavors.
“Citrus works well, so do herbs,” he says, and then goes on to explain that the secret is looking for oil-based flavors, not those that are water dependent. Fruit sounds like a great idea, the flavors are right, but after the first pint or two the juices are gone. The citrus peel, and oils it contains, is where the real magic is.
As a long-time brewery worker, as well as culinary school graduate, he is a rare breed. Thor is one of the few whose skill set converges in the Venn diagram of flavors where both beer and food overlap.
The core issue facing Randall programs across the nation is that every taproom jockey saddled with the task of filling this type of canister starts at the same place: blissful ignorance. There aren’t many places to acquire knowledge, share tips, exchange both success and failures, which leaves everyone in this position to go through the same process of testing, trying, failing, and finding.
Successful pairings are often simple and obvious: A stout paired with coffee beans or cocoa nibs, a pale ale with lime and cilantro, a wheat beer with orange peels, those will work every time.
But some pairings that seem brilliant end in disappointment, or even equipment catastrophes. “We tried to Randall trail mix once,” Jana from Fremont Brewing confesses as she pours a sample of a porter beautifully Randalled through coffee beans and vanilla pods. Not only did the trail mix flavors not work, the lines had to be professionally cleaned to avoid contamination for nut allergies.
Now they keep a log of what’s been successful, and what hasn’t. At Fremont they let any member of the staff try their hand at Randall Alchemy. “The people who are into food do the best job,” she says, explaining that those interested in a diverse array of flavors have a better sense of what will work, even wandering around the local markets looking for new and exciting ideas.
Dean, the owner of The Pine Box, one of the most well respected craft beer bars in the Pacific Northwest, can attest to the successes that Fremont has had with their Randalls. “Their wheat beer, with lemongrass and Thai basil, is one of my all-time favorite combinations.” He isn’t just your average beer-drinking-patron, he has a buzz-worthy Randall program of his own.
Pine Box throws two large Randall events every year: The Twelve Randalls of Christmas, as well as a head to head Randall-off during Seattle Beer Week that pits breweries and their combinations against on another. He’s also hosted events that Randall the same beer, usually a more neutral pale ale, through different hops allowing drinkers to get a true sense of what each hop tastes like – a brilliant idea for those looking to develop a palate able to differentiate hop flavors.
“We tried cubes of ham once,” he offers up in an almost apologetic tone. He confesses it didn’t go well. The trail towards the pursuit of brilliant flavor combination is littered with failed pints. One of his most talked-about combinations came during Twelve Randalls of Christmas event when he passed a Christmas ale through rum soaked currants, a combination still requested by those who where in attendance.
Randall The Enamel Animal – the device's full and proper name – started as a whim. Sam Calagione, owner of Dogfish Head, wanted a competitive edge in a beer competition, The Lupulin Slam, centered around hop oils. Sam decided to repurpose an old mash filter, fill it with hops, and pipe beer through it before it reached the glass. This new way to drastically increase the hop perception of his East Coast beer would help him compete with the hoppy West Coast beers that would be his ultimate competition at the event.
“We didn’t even test it, but we had faith that it would work, so we packed it the day before and then we hooked it up,” said Sam two years after the device went viral. Before the event was over, he had several brewers asking to buy it from him. He decided to figure out how to make and sell Randalls to tap houses and breweries as affordably as he could. “Karmically, I don’t want to make any money off this thing. I’d rather do this at cost, and whoever wants to buy these things can buy them. I think it’s really good for the industry.” He sees it as a teaching tool, a way to educate consumers about hop flavors, and what they do to beer.
Back at Reuben's, Thor tops off his canister of blood orange peels (fruit segment thrown in for good measure, and the joy of eating them after service), with dried mosaic hop cones to add a new, dry-hopped-like flavor to the pale ale he’s chosen for this nights Randall.
As he works, he recounts the errors he made in the dawn of his Randall experimentation. Most novice Randall operators seem to make the same mistakes: overfilling the canister with hops that end up expanding and causing equipment failures, filling the Randall with fresh fruit on the idea that an IPA pressed through fresh pineapple will be a homerun until they realize that the flavor doesn’t last more than a pour or two, using ingredients that break down too quickly and fill the lines, and not understanding how to pair ingredients with beer styles.
Thor offers his knowledge freely to those who ask, out of his pure love of craft beer and its community. His advice is sage, and should be headed as such:
• Avoid fruit, other than the peel. The flavors wash away too quickly.
• When using citrus peel avoid the pith, it creates bitterness.
• Look for flavors that are transmitted through oils.
• Don’t forget that this is a cold infusion, anything that needs heat to translate flavors won’t work.
• Fresh herbs are your friend.
• Hops, along with many other ingredients, expand in the process, take care not to overfill the canister.
• Quality control is key. Certain flavors are only good for half of a keg, some become over-potent when the line has been sitting dormant for too long. Sample throughout service to test the flavors, making adjustments as needed.
• Choose strongly flavored beer to stand up to strong flavors. A bold flavor will bulldoze a pilsner, opt instead for an IPA.