Monday, 8 December 2014

Failure: Spontaneous Fermentation

A little over a month ago I tried my first foray into brewing a spontaneously fermented beer.  I decided at the start that along as it started fermenting within a week or two, I'd let the beer age out no matter how bad it tasted at first.  Sadly the beer failed to cross even this low hurdle!

I started to write up a post about my process anyway, and in doing it I found myself thinking about why a home brewer would be interested in fully spontaneous beers at all.  In the end I wound up with a rather long and rather rambling discussion of that topic.  I've decided to post the whole thing, in case it was helpful or of interest to other homebrewers: the first half discusses my process, and the second half contains some general layman's thoughts on spontaneous fermentation.


First, the background stuff that is largely irrelevant now that the beer's been ditched. The grist was a blend of wheat malt and pilsner, with about 100g of flaked oats steeped in the wort after mashout to add some starch (in place of a more traditional turbid mash).  I boiled for only ninety minutes, using aged pellet hops at a rate of 4-5 grams per litre.

After flameout, I transferred the kettle to a spot adjacent to an open window and wrapped it up in the insulation I use while mashing (a cut-up exercise mat and a sleeping bag).  Here I was trying to follow advice that Cantillon's Jean van Roy gave to homebrewers in this interview with Basic Brewing Radio (direct link to audio).  He mentions the cooling rate of the wort as a potentially significant difference between beers brewed at Cantillon and beers brewed on a smaller scale: their larger volume of wort takes considerably longer to cool, and this might determine the kind of organisms that are dominant in the wort over the following days.  As evidence of this he mentions a beer brewed on a smaller scale at a local commune that didn't turn out so well---so anecdotal evidence at best, but I thought it was still worth implementing.

After wrapping the kettle in the sleeping bag I removed the lid and covered the opening with a thin mesh bag, then left the kettle by the open window to cool overnight.  The forecast was for temperatures just above freezing, but there had been some colder nights in the preceding week.  Next morning the beer was still in the low 80s, significantly warmer than the temperatures mentioned by Jean van Roy (I'd have to listen again, but I think he mentions temperature that are 10-20 degrees lower).  I transferred the beer to a sealed carboy to let it cool further, but in hindsight I wonder if I shouldn't have left it out for a longer inoculation.  This is one of the points at which I will change my process if I do this again: perhaps longer exposure at lower temperatures would have encouraged inoculation by wild yeast?

Lambic brewers rely as much on organisms inhabiting their barrels as they do on the spontaneous inoculation during cooling, so to imitate this aspect of their process I soaked an oak spiral in my gallon jug of "house culture" for several weeks before brew day, then added it to the cooled wort hoping that it would introduce further diversity into the fermentation.  This is the second point at which I will change my process if I do this again.  I was essentially relying on the spiral for the main inoculation, and I worry that by only leaving it in the house culture for a few weeks I didn't give the brettanomyces and other organisms enough time to establish themselves in the wood. This might also explain the fact that fermentation didn't start as I'd expected.

After inoculation, I waited patiently for signs of fermentation.  A few days in I saw a thin white pellicle form on top of the wort (blurry photo below), which made me optimistic that things were going to plan.  But then after that nothing happened.  Five, six, seven days past and the wort looked exactly the same: a thin white pellicle on top, but no activity in the airlock and no other signs of fermentation.

Eventually, after almost two weeks, I decided to open the fermenter up and take some measurements.  To my disappointment the beer had only dropped a few gravity points, and its pH was still up at around 4.9.  That was high enough that I didn't want to risk tasting it, so I transferred the wort to a smaller carboy to see if the oxygen pick-up helped start a fermentation.  But everything seemed the same the next day, and I decided to give it up.  It wasn't the first beer I've poured down the drain, and it probably won't be the last!

Thoughts on Spontaneous Fermentations

While going through all of this I was thinking a lot about why a homebrewer might be interested in spontaneous fermentation in the first place.  Obviously it has to do with the fact that Belgian lambic brewers use these processes to make such wonderful beers---but can we be more specific about what it is we're trying to imitate, in a way that might help with translating these practices to a smaller scale?  What follows are my own half-baked reflections on why I am interested in spontaneous fermentation, and why I'll probably give it another shot next year.

I'm sure that for a lot of people the allure of spontaneous fermentation comes from the idea of capturing local yeasts and bacteria that might provide a unique range of flavours by the end of fermentation.  I suppose there are two distinct points here: first, the desire for "sense of place", which is often expressed in terms of the notion of "terroir" (there's been a lot of talk about "place-based beer" recently); and second, a desire for the unique range of flavours produced by mixed fermentations.

I'm certainly attracted by the idea of a house character arising from mixed fermentation that would create a distinctive and recognizable flavour profile in my beers; but I don't know that I care if this comes from "local" organisms, bottle dregs, commercial strains, or a mix of all three.  (I guess I'm a little skeptical about the way ideas like "terroir" and "sense of place" are used in marketing beer.  I've been making my way through Authentic Wine in the past few weeks, and one thing that became apparent very early on was how complicated and contested a notion terroir is in the wine world.)

But anyway, if what you want is local organisms there's no need to go through the risk of trying a spontaneously fermented batch; you can try to capture them on a smaller scale in leftover wort, grow them up selectively based on sensory impressions, and pitch as you would a regular yeast.  This is how Jester King cultivated their house culture.  That seems like a much more reliable option than the techniques used by lambic brewers, and its one that's been adapted successfully on a home brew scale.

On the other hand, what if you just want to a mixed fermentation, and don't really care if the organisms are "local"?  The obvious answer is that you can pitch a variety of dregs and cultures at the start of fermentation or as it progresses, but this won't get you anything like the diversity of organisms present in traditional spontaneously fermented lambic (see e.g. this paper).  General consensus seems to be that by the time they are bottled there are only a few organisms active in these beers, and commercial blends are usually limited to a few strains of yeast and LAB.  But why might such diversity be desirable?

This brings me to another reason for imitating the practices of lambic brewers: to encourage a similar fermentation cycle as the one found in their beers.  As lambic ages, different organisms become dominant, fermenting out the remaining sugars and modifying byproducts left by activity earlier in the fermentation.  One thought you might have here is that the sugars and other compounds available at each point play an important role in shaping the flavour profile of the final beer.

Let me give you an example of what I mean, based on my layman's understanding of Wild Brews and the paper I mentioned above about the organisms present in lambic wort. We know that the dominant organisms in the first few days after fermentation are enterobacter.  That might seem to be something undesirable, since these bacteria produce fatty acids and create various unpleasant off-flavours.  In fact, Jeff Sparrow mentions that some lambic brewers have taken steps to prevent this stage of the fermentation (though, based on the paper, that is clearly not true of Cantillon).  However the fatty acids produced by the activity of enterobacter can act as precursors for ester formation by brettanomyces.  In other words, these wild yeasts take an unpleasant compound like butyric acid, which is produced by the enterobacter and smells rancid; and convert it into another compound, ethyl butyrate, which smells like juicy fruit, pineapple, and cognac!  That being the case, some small amount of initial activity by enterobacter might actually be desirable, as it would produce compounds that could be transformed at a later stage in the fermentation.

What about sugars?  Reading through Wild Brews again I was also struck by the claim that the activity of enterobacter in the early days and weeks of fermentation might shape the rest of the cycle, since the enterobacter will consume amino acids in the wort before the saccharomyces get a chance to use them. This will slow down the growth of the yeast and limit their ability to ferment the wort---Sparrow gives O.G.s of 1.022 after 3-4 months, and 1.012 after about 8-12 months. That means that there is lots of fermentable sugar left when Lactic Acid Bacteria become the dominant organisms and take over fermentation. It also means that brettanomyces doesn't become active until relatively late in fermentation, since it grows even slower than saccharomyces, especially in this nutrient poor environment.

So here we have one early stage of fermentation, distinctive of spontaneous beers, that shapes the rest of the cycle by determining the sugars available as each organism becomes dominant and by ensuring there are various compounds present in the beer.  I find the numbers that Sparrow provides quite striking: I don't think I've ever had a beer with an O.G. in between 1.040-50 be as high as 1.022 after three months of secondary fermentation, and I've certainly never had one be as high as 1.012 after a year. What's more, based on what these books say I suspect that the fermentation cycle of a typically inoculated home brew looks pretty different from a traditional lambic; for instance, I'd guess that brettanomyces becomes dominant much earlier in the fermentation, even if its population grows slower than saccharomyces.

Does any of this matter?  I'm not sure. Its certainly true that you can make great sour beer without a spontaneous fermentation.  Its also true that you might be able to achieve some of the same effects by other means.  For instance, Vinnie Cilurzo at Russian River imitates the cycle of lambics by staggering the inoculation of the wort with different organisms (though homebrewers don't seem to have had as much success with this process---perhaps because Vinnie can halt fermentation by filtering the saccharomyces out before he transfers the beer, leaving plenty of fermentables for the LAB and brett).  And perhaps most importantly of all, a fully spontaneous inoculation is a risky affair, especially if you're relying on a single batch rather than the wide range of barrels a real lambic blender can pull from.  There's no guarantee that the brettanomyces will clean up the off-flavours produced by the enterobacter, and there are other risks here too (e.g. the enterobacter will produce acetic acid, which is undesireable in anything other than small amounts and might encourage the formation of an excess of ethyl acetate, making the beer smell like nail polish).

As I finish writing this, my thoughts keep coming back to the long slow fermentation cycle of lambic beers.  One reason that Dave Marliave gave for adding starch to the wort (in imitation of a turbid mash) was that it would extend the life-cycle of the beer: whereas a beer that was mashed high or had maltodextrin in it would be fully fermented after a year or so, in a beer with a starchy wort the slow breakdown of complex starches would result in more residual sugar in a year-old beer, leaving a more balanced flavour profile and creating an extended period of development.  The slower fermentation resulting from the various organisms involved in lambics would also have the same result.

At any rate, I'd certainly like to give spontaneous fermentation another shot, if only so that I can see first hand how such a beer develops over time.

Sunday, 30 November 2014

Brew Day: Bug County Solera

As the number of sour beers fermenting in my closet increases, the way I think about individual batches has started to change slightly.  When I first began brewing sours a few years ago I thought of each batch as a separate beer: that was a Flanders Red, that was an Oud Bruin, etc., and when they were done I'd bottle the whole batch like I would any other.  But these days when I brew sours I don't really think of each batch as a beer in its own right.  Instead I've started to see them as possible components in future blends, or as a base for further experimentation.  The beers I'm most excited about at the moment are a Flanders Red-style beer that is aging on cherries and raspberries, and various saisons that are undergoing an extended secondary fermentation after being cut with a small amount of aged sour beer.  My goal in brewing more sours has become having more components around for projects of this sort.

With that in mind, when my bottle of this year's ECY20 arrived I started thinking about the best way to use it.  One vial is more than enough for several batches on the scale I brew at: last year I spread one vial between a number of beers, using some as a sole fermentor, some along with a sacch strain, and even adding some to beers that were already undergoing secondary fermentations.  This year my fermenter space was much more limited---both in terms of the number of fermenters available, and the room I had available for buying new ones---so I knew I would probably be more limited in the number of batches I could brew.  In the end I decided the best thing to do was to use most of it in another solera-style project, so that the diversity that characterizes the blend could be maintained into future batches.

What passes for a solera round here is pretty small fry: I brew two regular three gallon batches and combine them in a six gallon carboy.  The idea is that I can then pull off half of this into a three gallon carboy some time later and replace it with a single three gallon batch.  Later again, when I do the next pull from the six gallon batch, I could either pull from the three gallon carboy into smaller jugs and then top up with the pull from the main solera, or I could just pull into a new three gallon carboy so that I had beer at different ages readily on hand.  I already have a few batches going on this system, and I'll begin pulling from them and topping them up again in the next few months.

With the ECY20 batch I wanted to brew something that I could use for cutting future saisons, where the aged beer could provide microbial diversity and sourness and give me a higher overall yield (since I can just about brew four gallons of saison on my current equipment, then age this with one gallon of older beer in a five gallon carboy).  With that in mind I went for a relatively straightforward grist of 70% base malt and 30% adjunct, but to keep things interesting I varied the malts used in each batch: for the first I did a cereal mash with both spelt and buckwheat, hoping to provide some mouthfeel in the finished beer, and also perhaps some precursors for interesting flavours from the brettanomyces; for the second I went with a more typical blend of wheat and oats.  I'm hoping this beer will get reasonably sour, so to encourage the LAB I mashed on the higher side and kept the hopping rate below 15 IBUs.

The O.G. for both batches was 1.044, and they are currently fermenting separately in two different buckets; in a few weeks, after some of the yeast has dropped out, I'll combine them into the six gallon solera. I'm hoping to be able to take the first pull in around 6-8 months and to use it as part of some blended saisons.  Of course those will also have to age for a few months, so it will likely be almost a year before I get to taste any of this, but I'll at least have an ongoing source for future blends after that.

Wednesday, 26 November 2014

Tasting Notes: Oud Bruin w/ Wyeast 3209

Here's some tasting notes for the Oud Bruin I made with Wyeast's blend earlier this summer.  The beer was at 1.017 after primary fermentation; I transferred it to secondary after about 2 weeks and added 5lbs of tart cherries.  I then left it for 5-6 more weeks, during which time the gravity continued to drop down to 1.006.  I don't know if that was further activity from the original blend, or if the cherries introduced some wild yeasts.  Either way, its been in the bottle for almost a month with no signs of over-carbonation.

The pH is around 3.7 at 15°C according to my meter; so not blisteringly sour, but certainly tart.  Its probably about right for the style.  The beer is fine but a bit one-dimensional; as you can probably tell from my tasting notes below, I'm not particularly excited about it. I may enter it in some local competitions at the start of next year to get some more objective feedback.

Appearance: Deep brown colour, verging on reddish when held up the light.  Lightly tan-coloured head that dissipates to a small lingering cap.

Smell: Soft cherries and almonds, with a strong lactic note underneath it.  Slight mustiness too---maybe a bit of sulfur?

Taste: Medium tartness hits first, followed by a slightly sweet fruitiness.  Latter is pretty generic, a bit of cherry, maybe some plum.  More pronounced cherry as it gets warmer. Not much in the way of maltiness, and the mid-palate disappears quickly.  Warming alcohol at the end.

Mouthfeel: Slightly thicker mouth-feel than the lactobacillus and brettanomyces beers I brewed earlier this year, which may be in part due to glycerol from the yeast but is also probably a result of the higher ABV.

Drinkability & Notes: This is a perfectly drinkable beer, but otherwise pretty unremarkable.   The cherries don't pop out in the way I'd hoped, and the base beer is nicely tart but a bit one dimensional.    To be honest I'm a bit disappointed that I used 5lbs of cherries on this, its just not a good enough beer.  Maybe the second-extraction beer with added brettanomyces will be more exciting.

Sunday, 23 November 2014

Brew Day: Bitter Saison

This post is about another attempt to brew a beer inspired by Brasserie de la Senne's Taras Boulba.  But before I get to that I thought I'd mention that I've started a Facebook page for this blog; I don't know if I'll keep it, but my thought was that I could post shorter things about beers that don't make it onto here, along with links that I find interesting etc.  In fact the first link I posted was to a recent interview with Yvan de Baets of Brasserie de la Senne.  Its in French, but I managed to make my way through it despite my pretty poor knowledge of the language----context and knowledge of brewing vocabulary helps, and its an interesting interview that's worth the effort.

Its no secret how much I love this brewery.  You only need to look at the way they describe their beers to see that they fit my palate: low-alcohol, bitter, dry.  But there's also the way in which they make beers that are genuinely informed by a knowledge of tradition and locale ("bières à l’ancienne", as they put it on their site) without falling into either sentimentality or fantasy about the past nor being solely backwards-looking or conservative in their attitude towards brewing.

The interview builds on some of the things mentioned in the Philosophy section of their site (translated into English here) as well as things Yvan mentions in his essay on saisons in Farmhouse Ales.  He says that "bières à l’ancienne" is a kind of catch-all concept, and that really they brew the beers they love to drink.  But again, "bières à l’ancienne" can be divided into two categories---those characterized by their bitterness, and those characterized by their acidity.  That pretty much sums up the kind of beers I brew, particularly the ones I call "saisons"---my starting point for those beers is Yvan's essay and the beers he brews, which I think are pretty different from the majority of saisons brewed in the U.S.

After not being able to find fresh Brasserie de la Senne beers for several months due to problems with their distributor, I've been very lucky recently as a local store got in a shipment of relatively fresh bottles of Taras Boulba and Zinnebir (along with some equally fresh De Ranke XX Bitter, which was quite a treat).

One nice thing about having fresh bottles on hand is that it presents the opportunity to try growing up a pitch of healthy yeast, and that's exactly what I did with my last bottle.  Yvan discusses the brewery's yeast in the interview, saying that it originates from a well-respected Belgian brewey and was "Le plus beau cadeau de ma vie" (the greatest gift in his life).   I sniffed the starters a few times as I was growing it up, and it certainly smelt familiar, but all I could think of was Taras Boulba and Zinnebir.  I wonder if the brewery is De Ranke or somewhere else?  One thing that is striking is that, though distinctive, the yeast not quite as expressive as the strains usually classified as being for saisons in the US.

I decided to base the first beer I brewed with the yeast on a bitter saison I made a few months ago, the distinctive feature of which was that it used massive amounts of low alpha hops.  That earlier beer was largely a product of circumstance---some free Celeia hops were included in an order from Label Peelers, and since they had a low AA content I saw no reason not to to throw large quantities into a single beer.  It turned out to be one of my favourite saisons to date, and the one that was probably most reminiscent of Taras Boulba.  I liked it so much that I think I probably drank the almost the entire batch myself.

This beer was brewed along the same lines, only this time I used low AA Hallertau Mittelfruh in place of the Celeia, and supplemented them with some Bramling Cross to increase the spicy, citrusy character.  My first instinct was to repeat the grist from the earlier beer, which included a reasonable amount of unmalted spelt.  I think this gives the beer a slightly fuller mouthfeel, which helps prevent the bitterness from becoming astringent and unpleasant.  However I was pressed for time during this brew day and wasn't able to do a cereal mash, so I went with a more straight forward blend of pilsner, wheat and Munich in a single-infusion mash.  It will be interesting to see how much of a difference the spelt really makes.

As is my usual practice with saisons in this gravity range, I left the beer in my fermentation chamber for 24 hours in the high 60s; today I checked to see if fermentation was underway, and turned the chamber off to let the yeast free-rise to wherever it wants to go.  Fermentation looked healthy and vigorous, and smelt fantastic.  I'll probably try to top-crop some of the yeast in the next day or two so that I can brew more beers with it and perhaps even try streaking it out and isolating it properly for long-term storage.


Measured O.G: 1.040
Measured F.G:

Mash: 149°F


84.0% Pilsner
10.0% Wheat Malt
6.0% Munich


Hallertau             60               12.8 IBUs     (28g@2.69%)
Bramling X         60               14.9 IBUs     (10g@2.69%)
Hallertau             20               4.30 IBUs     (28g@2.69%)
Hallertau             10               2.60 IBUs     (28g@2.69%)
Hallertau             5                 2.10 IBUs     (28g@2.69%)
Bramling X         0                 0.0   IBUs     (15g@2.69%)


De la Senne

Tuesday, 18 November 2014

Tasting Notes: Farmer in the Rye w/ Wallonian Farmhouse

The second beer I brewed with The Yeast Bay's Wallonian Farmhouse strain was based on Ed Coffey's Farmer in the Rye, inspired by this write up of his own experiences with that yeast.  The beer has subsequently come first in its category in two local competitions: Brixies Brewers' Brixtoberfest and Chicago Beer Society's Spooky Brew.  All credit to Ed and his excellent recipe! It scored 36 overall at Brixtoberfest, but frustratingly the organizers misplaced my scoresheets so I didn't get any feedback; that was why I entered it in Spooky Brew as well, where it scored 40 (and was, I think, judged by Jeff Sparrow of Wild Brews).  Since people seem pretty interested in these new strains, I've reproduced the judge's tasting notes below (as best I could---the handwriting was difficult to decipher in places).

First Judge

Aroma: Dominant fruity pineapple and lemon citrusy aromas.  Moderate spicy, peppery aromas in background.  Touch of sugary sweetness in finish.

Appearance: Pale golden in color with a slight haze and lasting, cream white foam.

Flavor: Starts with pleasant peppery phenols balanced by a touch of sweetness and enhanced by a touch of acidity.  Fruity, citrus character comes across in background with a fruity, peppery finish.

Mouthfeel: Medium-light body and high carbonation good for style. Exhibits a moderate astringency and notable[?] [?????]  warmth. [probably "alcohol", though it doesn't look like that!]

Overall Impression: Fruit and pepper with a bit of sweetness and acidity in background for support.  Just a bit of astringent, perhaps oxidized character in the finish.

Second Judge:

Aroma: Strong, high citrus esters, with a lemon character; medium to low pepper spice aroma; low bready malt aroma; low solventy, alcohol aroma; low earthy hop aroma.

Appearance: Beautiful light straw color with medium haze; large head, white with long retention and a delicate texture.

Flavor: Medium-high tartness and lemon-like ester predominate; medium pepper spice flavor follows; medium to low bitterness and cracker-like malt flavor; perhaps a low cardboard flavor is perceived in the aftertaste.

Mouthfeel: Light body, high carbonation with a lively effervescence; medium alcohol warmth with a puckering sensation on the tongue.

Overall Impression: A refreshing, easy to drink example of the style -- well done!  The tartness and lemon esters predominate and are pleasant.  There may be a slight oxidation problem which I am perceiving as staleness in the aftertaste; might be interesting to manage the yeast to increase the spicy component.

So, there you go!  Much better than the tasting notes I would have written for this beer---some of the most detailed and helpful I've got from the few competitions I've entered, actually, so I'm grateful to the judges.

I'd be remiss if I didn't mention that, for a long while, this was my least favourite of the three beers I brewed with this strain. I felt that it needed a little more tartness or bitterness to cut against the sweetness---not at all something you'd gather from the judge's tasting notes, which probably just goes to show how idiosyncratic my palate is here!  I've actually noticed with all the WF beers that the tartness has increased steadily over time, and as that happens I find myself reaching for bottles of this beer more and more frequently.

One final note: I think the carboard aftertaste was there in the first beer I brewed with this strain.  That doesn't mean its not a process-related issue: in fact, I noticed a few months ago that the spigots on one of my bottling buckets lets in a small amount of oxygen if not opened properly, which might explain this, though its possible that there is some other yeast-derived flavour that the judges are picking up on.

Sunday, 16 November 2014

Brew Day: Aged Hop Saison

One thing that comes up repeatedly in Yvan de Baets' essay on historical saisons is the affinities these beers had with lambic and gueuze.  Yvan mentions the "wine-like character" of well-made beers, a vinous and sour side accompanied by the distinctive aromas associated with wild yeasts and barrel-aging.  Obviously the mixed fermentation, along with the practice of cutting young beers with sour older beer, go some way towards explaining these connections.  One other thing mentioned in the chapter is the use of aged hops:
"It is likely that when a brewer wished to produce a saison with a predominant sourness, he would use a greater proportion of old hops so as not to contribute too much bitterness and to encourage the development of lactic bacteria.  Farmhouse breweries would most likely have a stock of old or imperfectly stored hops on hand.  The use of older hops was frequent, bringing saisons close to traditional lambic."
I happened to have about 50g of aged pellet hops left over from a failed attempt at making a wort for spontaneous fermentation (more on that in another post), so this weekend I decided to try making a saison along these lines.  The grist was nothing special---my usual mix of about 90% pilsner to 10% wheat----and all of the hops went in at the start of the boil.  I maxed out my kettle/mash-tun again, making over four gallons of wort which will be fermented out in primary by Wyeast 3726.  Rather than going for a mixed primary fermentation, I decided to combine this four gallons of wort with one gallon of the adjunct sour I brewed a few months ago, blending them for an extended secondary fermentation.  The adjunct sour is already down around 1.000, but its still plenty cloudy and already fairly tart, so I'm hoping that it will continue to sour as the starches are decomposed.  I expect the saison portion to finish pretty dry, but this strain often leaves a few gravity points after secondary which the LAB can consume.  I'm not planning on aging it quite as long as I would for a lambic-style beer, but at the moment I'm assuming it will spend at least 6-8 months in secondary.

I'll be curious to see what kind of difference the aged hops make to the flavour profile of the finished beer.  I rather enjoy the mouthfeel and bitterness you get from using large quantities of low alpha hops, but assuming these were aged properly there should be very little bitterness by the time I start drinking this beer.  Some people speculate that the fatty acids provided by aged and oxidized hops provide precursors for ester production by brettanomyces, leading to the aromas characteristic of lambic-style beers.  Perhaps I'll get some of that here as well.  The main thing now is exercising some patience, as I'm running out of carboy space and many of the beers I've brewed over the past few months won't be ready until at least late 2015.

Monday, 10 November 2014

Coupage: New Hop Saison and Rye Saison

Inspired in part by the techniques described by Yvan de Baets in his essay on historical saisons, I've brewed a few beers recently that have been cut at bottling with the no-boil sour I made over the summer---this brett-fermented wit, for instance, and this hoppy saison.  So far I've been pretty happy with the results.  The sour adds a bit of tartness to the final beer, which seems to gradually increase over time (even when the gravity suggests that there is nothing fermentable left in the beer); and the brettanomcyes strains also start to produce some light funk once the beer has been in the bottle for month or two, presumably thanks to precursors left by the saccharomyces strain used in the base beer.  All things considered, it seems to be a pretty effective way of adding some tartness and complexity to a beer without an extended secondary fermentation.

I have about 1.5 gallons of the no-boil sour left, and I decided to use them all up in two more beers.  The first is essentially a rebrew of the hoppy saison mentioned above.  The original was hopped with newer varieties from Hop House Brewing Supply---Hallertau Blanc and Eldorado---and cut with around 2 litres of the no-boil sour at bottling.  I could do this with confidence because the Wallonian Farmhouse yeast I used to ferment the base beer took it right down to 1.000 (though I did use heavy bottles for half the batch to make sure I could age some safely without worrying about bottle-bombs).

Sticking to the same theme, this time I used some other new hops varieties---Mandarina Bavaria and Huell Melon---and replaced the Wallonian Farmhouse with Wyeast 3726 from the table beer I brewed a couple of weeks ago.  In my experience this strain usually finishes around 1.002-1.005 with the kind of beers I brew, which is high enough to be a potential concern if I added the brettanomyces at bottling.  To accommodate this I pitched the dregs from my brett-fermented wit into the primary, hoping that this will take the beer down an extra few points before bottling.  If the F.G. still seems a little high, I'll just use heavier bottles and aim for slightly lower carbonation.  I've copied the recipe for this beer at the end of the post.

The second beer I brewed was essentially a stepped-up version of the table beer I brewed a few weeks ago.  I liked how this tasted when I racked it---fruity, but with a slightly lemony kick to it---and I thought it would work pretty well with a bit of tartness behind it.  Rather than just blending three gallons of base beer with a few litres of sour at bottling, with this batch I decided to go for four gallons of base beer (about the maximum I can do on my system), and then blend this with one gallon of sour in a five gallon carboy.  This should help the gravity stabilize before bottling, and also gives me the chance to add a dry-hop if I think that would fit the flavour profile.

I hope these beers turn out well, because I think that this yeast strain really needs some tartness to play off if its going to work in the kind of beers I enjoy.  Its been very fruity in all the beers I've brewed with it---banana at first (which thankfully disappears quickly), but then pears and grapes as it ages---and by itself this fruitiness can be a bit overwhelming.  My hope is that a bit of tartness and light funk will balance this nicely, as they do in the saison I brewed with this strain and ECY20.  Using a no-boil sour to achieve the same result makes for a shorter and only slightly more complicated fermentation.

After this I'll be out of the sour, so its time to think about brewing it again.  I fed my lactobacillus starter last week, and I now need to decide whether to go for an all brett fermentation again, or to brew a more traditional berliner weisse  with sacch and hive off a few gallons for blending.  More on that in a few weeks!


Measured O.G: 1.041
Measured F.G:

Mash: 149°F.


51% Pilsner
34% Pearl
15% Flaked Wheat


Hallertau (US)            60             10.0   IBUs     (12g@4.7%)
Mandarina Bavaria     20             6.9     IBUs     (15g@6.9%)
Huell Melon               20             4.3     IBUs     (10g@6.4%)
Mandarina Bavaria      0              0.0    IBUs      (15g@6.9%)
Huell Melon                0              0.0    IBUs      (10g@6.4%)


Wyeast  3726

Wednesday, 5 November 2014

Tasting Notes: Milk Stout

Here are some tasting notes for my version of the 1952 Mackeson's Milk Stout recipe posted at Shut Up About Barclay Perkins. The beer finished at 1.017, giving it an ABV of 3%.

Appearance: Dark brown colour, changes to a clear, red-tinged brown when held up to the light.  Lingering head right to the end makes for a pretty pint.

Smell: Toast, cocoa, and a bit of hop spiciness. Bit of tobacco as it warms up. Very pleasant.

Taste: More toast/breadcrust, with some chocolatey notes.  Light fruitiness as it gets warmer.  There's a lingering taste that reminds me of cheap cola-flavoured popsicles I used to buy when I was a kid.  Not at all sweet.

Mouthfeel: Although the beer isn't sweet, it does have a nice fullness to it, especially given its low ABV. Carbonation is a touch too high, which is somewhat biting and detracts from the smoothness.

Drinkability & Notes: I have to say, I'm surprised by how much I like this beer---much more than most milk stouts I've tried.  I think its because its not particularly sweet, despite being more full-bodied than most bitters or milds I make in this ABV range---the bitterness, toast, and chocolate notes all make it very moreish, and the flavours become more developed as it warms up.  With most milk stouts I can imagine drinking (and genuinely enjoying) about half a pint, but this is a beer I could easily drink for a few hours.  The slightly-too-high carbonation detracts from it a little (though its still very low compared to most beers)---I imagine it would be even better served via a hand-pump.

Monday, 3 November 2014

Brew Day: Buckwheat Saison

Like spelt, I usually have some buckwheat groats on hand for baking and other purposes, and I've been meaning to use some in a beer for quite some time.  I finally got round to using some in the grist for a saison I brewed this weekend.  The immediate cause of this brew day was reading about a beer I'll probably never get to try, the Blaugies/Hill Farmstead collaboration Le Sarrasin.  It sounded pretty delicious, and since I'm using the Blaugies strain anyway at the moment, now seemed a good time to try to brew something along the same lines.

The grist was very straight-forward.  The Hill Farmstead page mentioned using 30% spelt, so I followed suit, making up the rest with pilsner and a small amount of 6-row to help with conversion.  I crushed and boiled the groats into a thick and goopy porridge, then added this back to the main mash as I took it through the steps described in Farmhouse Ales: 113°F, 131°F, 144°F, 154°F.  The final wort was hazy and had a slightly silky mouthfeel---perhaps a sign that there were unconverted starches, though I was actually a little over my predicted O.G.  I'm not particularly worried if there is some starch in the wort, as it will provide food for the LAB during secondary fermentation.

I'd originally planned to use a blend of Sterling and Crystal for the hopping, but at the last moment I decided to use up some 2012 Amarillo pellets in place of the Crystal.  They gave the wort a really nice floral character that I hope carries over into the final beer.  Since I'm going to sour this beer I kept the bitterness fairly low, and added the final hops as the wort was cooling.

Primary fermentation will be done by Wyeast 3726.  I have a year old lambic brewed with ECY20 that I'm hoping to transfer onto some fresh fruit in the next few weeks.  I'm a little concerned about how its going to taste, since it has more headspace than many of my aging beers and I've had to move the carboy around a few times, all of which might have increased the oxygen in the beer and encouraged acetobacter.  Assuming the beer is fine, I'll use whatever doesn't get transferred onto the fruit to inoculate this saison in secondary---it probably won't be more than a 500ml or so.  If the beer tastes vinegary, I'll inoculate with dregs.  I may also add some white wine and oak, depending on how it tastes after primary.

It will be interesting to see how this beer ages.  Apparently buckwheat has a significant amount of caprylic acid in it.  Since this fatty acid is associated with various off-flavours in beer (goaty ones presumably), it would generally be undesirable.  But brettanomyces should be able to convert the acid into the ester ethyl caprylate, which is described in Wild Brews as "Waxy, Wine, Floral, Fruity, Pineapple, Apricot, Banana, Pear, Brandy".  That would blend pretty well with the flavours I am hoping for in this beer, though when Michael Tonsemeire tried something along the same lines he didn't get much of this character.  I'm planning to age this one for a few months before bottling, so time will tell.


Measured O.G: 1.044
Measured F.G:

Mash: Farmhouse Ales step-mash.


74.5% Pilsner
29.0% Buckwheat Groats
6.5% 6-Row


Hallertau (US)        60              9.4  IBUs     (10g@4.7%)
Sterling                    20              6.6  IBUs     (15g@6.6%)
Amarillo                  20              5.0  IBUs     (10g@7.5%)

Sterling                     0               0.6  IBUs     (15g@6.6%)
Amarillo                   0               0.0  IBUs     (15g@7.5%)


Wyeast  3726

Wednesday, 29 October 2014

Brew Day: Table Beer III

The school year is well and truly underway at this point, and brewing (and this blog) must to some extent take a backseat while I'm preparing for classes and grading papers.  But I did manage to fit in quite a few brewing-related things this weekend, and I have more planned for the coming month.  In this post I thought I'd write something quick about a low-alcohol saison I brewed on Saturday.

I've tried making table beers before---that is, light beers with around 3% ABV that I can drink on a week night without worrying about how sharp I'll be the next day.  I was quite happy with how those beers turned out: noone would confuse them with a higher strength beer, and their shelf-life was somewhat short, but while they were in their prime they were both flavourful and refreshing.

The beer I brewed on Saturday was a variation on Table Beer I: another hoppy saison.  For the earlier beer I relied on the glycerol produce by Wyeast 3711 to ensure that the final product was dry but not too thin.  But while the mouth-feel and high attenuation of Wyeast 3711 are both attractive properties for the kind of beers I want to brew, I often find the flavour profile a little lacking: I've had it vary from muted citrus with earthy notes to full on stewed oranges and black pepper, and while its worked better in some beers than others I can't say that any of the saisons I've made with it have been among my favourites.

This time round I decided to come back to another strain I'm ambivalent about: Wyeast 3726, supposedly the strain from Brasserie de Blaugies.  I've only used this strain in one series of beers (so three or four total), and again I had mixed results.  All of the beers tended towards a fruity profile that almost reminded me of white wine: pears, grapes, white stone fruit, etc.  Since I seem to prefer beers with more esters than phenols, this ought to have been a desirable result---but some of these beers, despite their dryness, seemed almost cloyingly sweet because of all the fruity flavours.  A single glass was enjoyable enough, but I never found myself going back for a second because the fruitiness was a bit overwhelming (and I still have a few bottles lying around as a result).

The strain worked best in beers that had some tartness to set against these esters---in fact, used alongside brettanomyces and lactic-acid bacteria it produced one of my favourite home-brews to date.  I'm going to try to keep this in mind as I use it this time round by setting its fruity flavours against some tartness in the beers I brew with it.

Well, except this table-saison.  Since this beer is doing double-service as an extra large starter, I didn't want to throw in any LAB from the start, as this would determine what I could brew in subsequent batches.  And as it was such a low-gravity beer, an extended secondary fermentation with brett and bugs didn't seem to make much sense.  Instead I focused on making something with a little spiciness and bitterness that might also balance the fruity esters of the hops.

The grist was very simple: 70% pilsner and 30% rye.  Unlike Wyeast 3711, I don't remember this strain giving much mouthfeel to its beers, so part of the reason for including the rye was to yield some body in the final product.  The other reason was to get a little bit of spiciness alongside the pilsner---and it was building on that idea that led me to chose Bramling Cross and Saaz Special as the mains hops.  I'm hoping all of this combined will provide a nice contrast to the yeast, leading to a beer that is refreshingly crisp and drinkable.

Of course, the other nice thing about table beers is that if these flavours don't balance in the way I'd hoped, I haven't wasted much grain or hops in producing the beer, and it will provide me with harvestable yeast however it tastes.  I overshot my predicted O.G. by a few points, aiming for 1.024 but ending at around 1.027.  No big deal. I'll be harvesting before next weekend, and I plan to use this in a couple more saisons over the next month or so.


Measured O.G: 1.028
Measured F.G:

Mash: 149°F:


70%  Pilsner
30% Rye Malt


Bramling Cross       60              10.0 IBUs     (8g@6.3%)
Bramling Cross       20              6.3   IBUs     (15g@6.3%)
Bramling Cross        0               0.0  IBUs     (15g@6.3%)
Saaz Special             0               0.0  IBUs     (10g@6.3%)


Wyeast  3726

Saturday, 25 October 2014

Coupage: Hoppy Saison with Wallonian Farmhouse strain

Here's some tasting notes for the third beer I brewed with the Yeast Bay's Wallonian Farmhouse strain (I'll write up some summaries of the beers I brewed with this strain, and the saison blend, in the next week or two).  The base beer was a pale saison dry-hopped with Hallertau Blanc and Eldorado hops that I won in a recent HBT giveaway by Hop House Brewing Supply.  At bottling I blended this beer with ~2 liters of the no-boil sour I brewed earlier this summer.  At first the hop character was a bit too much, but as its faded this has turned into quite a nice saison.

Appearance: Pale yellow colour.  Thin but lingering head with some lacing.

Smell: When it was freshly bottled, the aroma from the dry-hop of Hallertau Blanc and El Dorado was pretty strong, almost dank.  Now that's faded a bit its left a really intriguing combination of light fruitiness (yellow stone fruit, berries, lemon) and spice from a combination of the hops and yeast.  Light brett c funk is beginning to show itself as well.  Not as complex as an aged saison, but enjoyable.

Taste: Lightly tart. Fruity, slightly spicy hops are prominent, along with a very subtle musty funk.    Slightly astringent bitterness---I'd back down a bit next time, or use a variety that gives a softer bitterness.

Mouthfeel: Moderate carbonation, and slightly slick mouthfeel---this strain seems to produce a lot of glycerol, a bit like Wyeast 3711.  The tartness balances it nicely though, making it more drinkable than other beers I've brewed with this strain.

Drinkability & Notes:  I like this beer a lot.  Certainly my favourite of the three I've brewed with the Wallonian Farmhouse strain.  The tartness from the sour cuts nicely against the fruitiness from the yeast and hops, producing a beer that is complex but drinkable.  I could drink several of these back to back, which isn't true of the other beers I've made with this strain.

Sunday, 19 October 2014

Brew Day: Nineteenth Century IPA

This weekend I brewed another in the series of beers inspired by old English stock ales: an IPA based on Mitch Steele's descriptions of the beers brewed in Burton-upon-Trent in the nineteenth century.  It was actually reading that book that first prompted me to start brewing English-style beers inoculated with brettanomyces---the role played by wild yeasts in British brewing is mentioned several times in the opening chapters, and there's also a few paragraphs about their role in IPAs in particular in the chapter devoted to Burton IPAs.  But more on that below.  I'll spend the rest of the post explaining how I came up with my recipe and process for the beer.

Water.  The importance of the mineral profile of Burton brewing water has been recognized since these beers were first brewed there.  Steele mentions that as the popularity of IPA increased, some companies opened new breweries in Burton to take advantage of the local water, while others began adding salts to mimic its profile.  But since brewers were drawing from various sources (wells, the river itself, etc.), its a little difficult to say exactly what the mineral profile of their water would have been like, though it would certainly have had high sulfate and calcium levels.   Rather than "Burtonizing" my Chicago water, I decided to simply add enough gypsum to get my sulfate levels around 300ppm---lower than many "Burton" water profiles, but high enough to lower my mash pH and significantly shape the flavour profile of the final beer.

Malt. Rather than use an English base malt I went with Dingemans pilsner in an effort to emulate the white malt used by IPA brewers.  Steele mentions that "[w]hite malt is very similar to today's Pilsner malt, which, interesingly, was itself developed after an industrial espionage mission by Czech brewers into England's best malthouses".  I suppose something like Thomas Fawcett lager malt might be a good approximation, but I went with what I had on hand.

Hops. The hops were supposed to be 100% East Kent Goldings---a lot of them!---based on the hopping schedule for the 1839 Reid IPA in Ron's excellent book.  I was actually a little short, so I ended up adding a small amount of hallertau to make up the ninety minute addition. Really I should be using this year's crop, following the practice of the Burton brewers who used their freshest hops in these beers---but it will probably be a few months until they show up on the US market, and the Goldings I used have been stored frozen and vacuum-sealed since I purchased them.  I may try to find some fresher ones when I dry-hop it next year (more on that below).

Mash. Steele also outlines the kind of mashing schedules used by breweries during this period, but I didn't take any special steps to imitate them, going instead for my usual single-infusion mash at around 149°F, aiming to end up with a highly fermentable wort that will produce a dry beer.

Fermentation. Now the fun stuff.  Primary fermentation will be done by Wyeast 1028, but this evening I'll also be pitching dregs from a bottle of my brett-fermented wit, which contains White Labs brettanomyces clausenii and trois.  Hopefully these strains will be well-enough established to promote a long, slow secondary fermentation as the beer matures.

Steele devotes a couple of paragraphs at the end of the chapter on Burton IPAs to speculation about the role played by brettanomyces in their secondary fermentation, quoting Clausen on the role these yeast played in developing "that peculiar and remarkably fine flavour" characteristic of the best English stock ales.  Ron also has some interesting research on his blog, including evidence that Bass pale ale had brettanomyces in it as late as the 1940s.  It seems likely that the beer picked up these wild yeasts from the wooden casks it was aged in (although, based on these notes from Adnams brewer Brian Lee, brettanomyces was all over their brewhouse in the 1940s, including in the bottling line!).  Steele speculates that it accounted for the dryness of the beer and its sparkling condition on reaching India after being completely flat when shipped.  If you read through the comments on Ron's post, he and others make some interesting speculation about the character of these beers, mentioning Orval as a beer that might be somewhat similar (and perhaps even historically linked to English pale ale brewing).  All interesting stuff!

I'll probably bottle the beer in 9-12 months, dry-hopping for a week or two beforehand.  Based on descriptions in Steele's book, and questions I've asked Ron by email, I think that the Burton IPAs were probably aged on dry-hops for several months or longer.  It seems that this might even have played a role in promoting secondary fermentation.  I'm undecided as to whether I should copy this part of their process---they surely knew what they were doing, but it goes against what I've been taught by contemporary brewing practice.  If I had a bigger batch, I'd split it into two 3 gallon carboys and try both, but since I'm only making 3 gallons I'm a bit wary of taking the risk and ending up with vegetal and grassy flavours in the final beer.

Well, that's it for now.  I haven't decided whether to make an imperial stout as well---more on that next weekend I guess.  Now that I'm finishing up with these stock ales for the time being, I'll soon be back to brewing Farmhouse Ales again, and I have a couple of fun ideas for things to try out over the next couple of months.


Measured O.G: 1.057
Measured F.G:

Mash: 149°F:


100%  Pilsner


EKG               90               84.7 IBUs     (85g@5%)
EKG               60               64.8 IBUs     (65g@5%)
EKG               30               33.0 IBUs     (65g@5%)


Wyeast 1028

Monday, 13 October 2014

Brew Day: English Summer Ale

Following on from the bitter I brewed last week, this weekend I brewed another pale and hoppy English-style beer, based on a recipe from Randy Mosher's Radical Brewing.  I had intended to brew it this summer, but somehow never got round to it---instead it will be brightening things up in a month or two as the winter starts to set in.

Martyn Cornell has a brief but informative chapter on "Golden Ale" in his book Amber, Gold, and Black.  He mentions that the tradition of golden beer goes back to at least 1842, referencing an advertisement for "East India Pale and Golden Ales" from William Saunders' brewery in Burton on Trent.  I would have thought A.K.s might fit in this tradition too, but Cornell seems to differentiate between beers that are golden and beers that are simply pale or straw-coloured---at any rate, he discusses A.K.s in a different chapter.  He identifies two beers as key players in shaping contemporary golden ale: Exmoor Gold, originally brewed in 1986 by the Golden Hill brewery; and Summer Lightning, brewed by John Gilbert of the Hop Back brewery in 1989.  He goes on to describe what might look like a bewildering array of 'summer', 'blonde', and 'golden' ales and bitters that have cropped up since.  The terminology isn't really fixed, and as always the characteristics of these beers probably vary quite a bit, but for me at least there's a definite expectation of the kind of beer I'd get if I ordered something with one of those names in a pub back home.

Mosher provides a nice summary of the characteristics of some of these beers in his book:
"Paler than most English bitters, summer ales are likely to be a little more intensely hopped as well.  Most versions hover between 4.5- and 5-percent alcohol.  Hops have center stage, with moderate to high bitterness backing up loads of fresh, citric aroma.  Late kettle additions, and perhaps even dry hopping, contribute to this forward expression of hop personality."
I suppose it sounds a lot like an American pale ale, and Cornell mentions that modern golden ales are often brewed with American hops, though of course many still stick to English and European varieties.  Perhaps its just the fact that I'm used to drinking them on cask, but I still think of these beers as being slightly different from their American counterparts---and I suspect that if you come to them expecting an American pale ale, you'd be disappointed.

Anyway, I've gone on before about the fact that the variety of beers encompassed by "Bitter" often seems to be under-represented here in the U.S, in a way that gives a distorted picture of what English pale ale has been in the past and what it can be today.  I think that goes hand-in-hand with some other gems that I've heard, like "Bitter isn't bitter".  I did a little research this weekend, and noticed that the current BJCP guidelines do recognize that bitters needn't be copper-coloured and caramel flavoured---hopefully the new guidelines, which I believe are going to include a category for golden bitter, will reinforce this further.  I care about this because these pale ales are some of my favourite beers, and ones I think might find an appreciative audience with at least some American beer drinkers.

A few quick notes on the recipe.  Randy Mosher calls for Maris Otter base malt, and demerara sugar; I used Golden Promise and Invert  #1.  I didn't have any Saaz on hand, but I did have some "Saaz Special" that I won in a recent HBT giveaway by Hop House Brewing Supply.  Otherwise, it was a pretty typical early morning brew session.


Measured O.G: 1.047
Measured F.G:

Mash: 152°F:


62%  Golden Promise
25%  Pilsner
8 %   Wheat Malt
5%    Invert #1


Challenger     60               27.8 IBUs     (17g@8.2%)
Challenger     30               8.30 IBUs     (10g@8.2%)
Challenger       5               2.70 IBUs     (10g@8.2%)
Saaz Special    5               2.0   IBUs     (10g@6.0%)


Wyeast 1028

Friday, 10 October 2014

Tasting Notes: Bitter Spelt Saison

Here's some tasting notes the third and final beer I brewed with The Yeast Bay's saison blend.  It's another attempt to brew a bitter saison in the mold of Brasserie de la Senne's Taras Boulba and the beers Yvan de Baets describes in his essay on Farmhouse Ales.  I was prompted to brew this one when, on opening an order from Label Peelers, I found that they'd included a free pound of year old Celeia hops in 1 oz. bags!  Large doses of low alpha hops are exactly what Yvan calls for in his description of these beers, so I decided to throw most of what they gave me into a single three gallon batch.

Appearance: Hazy yellow colour.  Thin lingering head with good lacing down the glass.

Smell: Floral and a little spicy, with some hints of pear and lemon in the background.  Doughy malt as well.

Taste: Dominated by a herbal and spicy hop character that is very reminiscent of Taras Boulba.  Similar malt profile as well, but also a slight tartness and more prominent yeast character.

Mouthfeel: Soft and slightly creamy mouthfeel from the spelt/wheat helps balance the bitterness to some extent.  Still dry, and of course a firm and lingering bitterness.  Its perhaps a little much by the end of the glass---not astringent, but it builds and becomes a bit minerally if you're not eating something along with the beer.

Drinkability & Notes: When I opened the first bottle of this beer I thought I'd ruined it with the dry-hop of Styrian Goldings.  It had an over the top pear/floral character that was quite off-putting.  But now that's faded slightly, I'm quite happy with how this one turned out---its probably my most successful attempt to brew something along the lines of Taras Boulba, though its certainly not a clone of that beer.  The bitterness means I could never enter this in a competition as a saison, but its the kind of beer I want to brew for myself.  Still needs more work, but getting closer to what I have in mind.


Measured O.G: 1.039
Measured F.G: 1.004

Mash: 149°F main mash
Cereal mash for spelt.


58.0% Pilsner
16.3% Flaked Wheat
14.8% Unmalted Spelt
10.9% 6-row 


Celeia             60               15  IBUs     (28g@2.69%)
Celeia             30               7.7 IBUs     (28g@2.69%)
Celeia             15               4.0 IBUs     (28g@2.69%)
Celeia             5                 2.5 IBUs     (28g@2.69%)
Celeia             0                 0.0 IBUs     (28g@2.69%)
Styrian G.       Dry Hop                        (20g)


Yeast Bay Saison Blend

Monday, 6 October 2014

Brew Days: Golden Bitter and Second Extraction Sour Brown

The school year at my university started up again last week, and since then I've been busy getting to know my new students and planning classes for the rest of the quarter. Still, I manged to fit in a couple of brewing-related things this weekend, and I thought I'd write a quick post about some of them.  The most exciting news is that a saison I brewed with The Yeast Bay's Wallonian Farmhouse strain won a gold medal in a small local competition.  It was based on Ed Coffey's "Farmer in the Rye" recipe, brewed with slightly different percentages of the malts, and slightly more hops.  I'll post more once I have the judge's scoresheet in front of me---or perhaps in a few weeks, since I entered it in another local competition as well, and it will be interesting to compare feedback from both.

I also managed to fit in two brew days.  One was a rebrew of one of my favourite recipes (and favourite ways to blow through large amounts of hops): Kristen England's Crouch Vale Bitter recipe, with Amarillo subbed for Brewers Gold.  I wrote a longer post about this recipe back when I started this blog---the only real difference this time was that I based the water-profile on Bru'n Water's pale and hoppy profile, and took pH readings throughout the brew day.  I'll include all of that information with my tasting notes if I think it has a significant impact on the final beer. The beer is also serving as a starter for a pitch of Wyeast 1028, which I'll be using in a series of four or five beers over the next fmonth.

The other beer was a brown ale brewed with Wyeast's Ardennes strain (3522).  I brewed this one on a whim.  I'm planning to bottle my Oud Bruin in the next week or two, and thought it might be worth trying to get a second extraction from the tart cherries I added to it (especially since the oud bruin is currently a bit disappointing, such that it feels as though I wasted these cherries on it).  Since I had some top-cropped yeast in the fridge that was only two or three weeks old, I figured I might as well brew something to rack on the cherries.   There's a chance the fruit will be completely spent, but Cantillon and Jester King both seem to have had success with this technique.  If nothing else, the lactobacillus from the Wyeast blend should give the beer some tartness.  I'll probably pitch some fruity brett strains in there as well, perhaps using the dregs of my Lochristi grisette.

Anyway, work permitting I'll have some tasting notes up during the week, and some write-ups for more interesting brew days coming before the end of the month.

Wednesday, 1 October 2014

Tasting Notes: Old World's Mantra

This beer was based on the recipe Yvan de Baets contributed to For the Love of Hops.  It was the first of a couple of beers that ended up attenuating significantly more than expected, most likely as a result of pitching too much super-healthy top-croppped yeast.  Yvan's predicted final gravity was 1.012, whereas this went down an extra 5 or 6 points to something like 1.006-7!

I remember when I first started home-brewing my main concern was to make my beers as dry as possible.  I find many commercial beers too sweet (especially American interpretations of English and Belgian pale ales), and in those early days before I made starters or top-cropped yeast, my beers would also often finish on the high side.  As a result I'm often a little blasé about where my beers finish, basically just trying to make them as dry as I can.

After tasting this and a couple of other bitter beers I've brewed recently straight after tasting some fresh Taras Boulba at Zwanze Day, I've decided I need to finesse things a little more here.  Obviously Brasserie De La Senne beers lean firmly towards the bitter side of things, and so might seem unbalanced to some.  But to my mind they do have a balance of their own, and its something I think is missing from my beers.  One or two extra gravity points, or perhaps a water adjustment, would round out my bitter beers just enough to give them that added complexity and maybe a slight softness that they're missing right now. The challenge is to come up with my own sense of what a balanced beer tastes like, and what's involved in brewing one on my system.

That's not to knock this beer, which I've been enjoying a lot.  But I take this silly brewing thing pretty seriously, and want to brew the best beer possible.  I've made the transition from obvious off-flavours to clean beer to beer that has something like the flavour profile I'd like.  This next transition, where you really come to understand and perfect the balance of the flavours you're looking for, seems to me like a more difficult and interesting one.

Appearance: Hazy when poured from the fridge.  Nice colour though, and would look lovely if it were bright.  Tight, stable head, and decent lacing.

Smell: Earthy hops, slight fruitiness that seems like a mix of the hops and malt.  Pretty generic description I know.  It smells like a Bitter, let's put it that way.

Taste: Brief sweetness up front, but quickly becomes slightly spicy, and then a tingling minerally bitterness.  Struggling to come up with non-beery descriptions

Mouthfeel: Lowish carbonation works well.  Dry and very drinkable, with a firm persistent bitterness that isn't at all harsh.

Drinkability & Notes: Despite what I said above, I've been really enjoying this beer.  It goes nicely with food (pictured with homemade bread/chutney), and the bitterness makes it very moreish.  But it is a bit one-dimensional, and would be improved if I could round out the flavours without adding too much sweetness.  Definitely a recipe I'll come back to.

Sunday, 28 September 2014

Brew Day: Plain Old Pale Ale (plus Sour Reds)

Racking and Brewing
As is probably the case for a lot of home brewers, many of the first batches I brewed were American pale ales and IPAs, made in a effort to emulate the beers I was enjoying when I first started brewing.  But as time went on I found myself brewing these style much less frequently---looking back over my brew log, its been over a year since I made an American pale ale, and significantly longer since I made an IPA!  The excuse I usually give is that there are plenty of affordable and tasty pale ales and IPAs on the shelf round here, all of which are probably better than anything I could make with my current setup---whereas its pretty hard to find an ordinary bitter, and sours are often prohibitively expensive.  But the truth is, whenever I buy commercial beer these days, it tends to be single bottles of sour and wild stuff, and as a result we rarely have hoppy American beers in the house.

Well, I've been promising J I'd rectify that for a while now, and as our friends get back into town for the new school year (and the football season gets underway), this seemed like a good weekend to brew a simple pale ale.  I received a new load of grain from a CHBG group buy last week, and rather than formulate a recipe I just used a combination of the base malts that wouldn't fit in my storage buckets (2-row, pilsner, golden promise), along with a small amount of carapils.  For hops, I went with Cascade all the way through, keeping it simple, and for yeast I used an old packet of US-05.  I strained out the dregs in the kettle, and I'll be using them this week to grow up a pitch of Wyeast 1028 for my next series of English beers.

One nice thing about brewing something fairly straight-forward is that it gives me a chance to play around with my water chemistry a little more, and see if I like the results.  For this batch, I took Bru'n Water's bitter pale ale profile as my base line, adding slightly more chloride to see how it rounds things out.  The finished profile was the following:
Calcium: 92.4     Magnesium: 11.8     Sodium: 8.4     Sulfate 111.9     Chloride 58.9
Bicarbonate -23.2     Total Hardness: 280     Alkalinity: -19    Residual Alkalinity -92
 The mash pH seemed to settle at around 5.4 after 15 minutes, right where the software predicted.  I forgot to take a measurement during the boil, but the pH at knockout seemed a little high, also settling at around 5.4.  I'll take a measurement from the final beer to compare with others I've brewed recently.  I've noticed that my meter takes a long time to settle on a stable reading, often drifting slowly upwards over time---I may just be using it incorrectly, but I hope this isn't a fault.

Cherries and Raspberries
During the boil I also racked a Flanders Red that was getting close to its first birthday onto a blend of two varieties of tart cherries and a small portion of raspberries.  It probably ended up being about 4lbs of fruit in a 3 gallon Better Bottle.  I then used the last 1-2L of this beer, along with a small portion of the yeast cake, to inoculate the English Sour Red I brewed a few weeks ago.  That beer was still tasting very green, with a fair bit of acetaldehyde, but that should be cleaned up fairly quickly by the remaining saccharomyces. It also had a fairly high gravity, as I hoped, at around 1.018.  There wasn't quite as much dark fruits in the flavour as I wanted, but I think this will come out more as it ages and the gravity continues to drop.  I'll bottle the fruited version in a couple of months, and I placed the English sour red at the back of the closet where it will sit undisturbed until some time next year.


Measured O.G: 1.049
Measured F.G:

Mash: 153.5°F:


97%  Base Malt Blend (2-row, Pilsner, Golden Promise)
3% Carapils


Cascade         FWH          18.4 IBUs     (15g@5.6%)
Cascade         60               27.9 IBUs     (25g@5.6%)
Cascade         10               3.3   IBUs     (15g@5.6%)
Cascade         0                 0      IBUs     (15g@5.6%)


Safale US-05

Wednesday, 24 September 2014

Tasting Notes: Raspberry Berlinerweisse

Last Saturday was Zwanze Day 2014, and after missing it in 2013 this year I finally made it to the celebration at West Lakeview Liquors in Chicago.  I haven't been to many beer events before, and even though I find certain aspects of American beer culture a bit strange and alienating this festival was really fun.  The Cantillon beers were a rare treat (I've never been able to find any on the shelves here), and all very enjoyable.  I also got to try my first beer from Hill Farmstead, Society and Solitude #7---even for someone who doesn't get all that excited about double IPAs, that beer was a real standout.  But one nice thing about being a bit at odds with beer geek culture is that the beers I enjoyed most stayed on tap the longest.  As people went up for the rarer/stronger stuff,  I had glass after glass of Taras Boulba (probably the freshest I've ever had) and this really tasty lager from Amager Bryghus.  I would happily have stayed all day, but we had to leave mid-afternoon to find some food and ended up nipping in to Goose Island Clybourn to see what they had on cask.

Anyway, to mark the occasion, here are some tasting notes for the portion of the no-boil sour that I aged on raspberries (a lambic would have been more appropriate I suppose, but I don't have any bottled homebrew efforts yet).

Raspberry Berlinerweisse
Appearance: Brilliant pink colour---my photo doesn't do it justice.  One of the most striking beers I've brewed.  Billowing head recedes to a thin but persistent cap.

Smell:  Jammy raspberries, but also seeded multi-grain bread.  The seed smell is really distinctive---its almost certainly from the raspberry seeds, but reminds me of a particular bread I used to get from a supermarket back in England.

Taste: Tart up front, followed by more bread and ending with an aftertaste of raspberries,  Very pleasant.

Mouthfeel: Effervescent, prickly carbonation overcomes any thinness in the body.

Drinkability & Notes:  Very happy with how this one turned out.  Its super drinkable and refreshing, nicely tart but with a bit of complexity as well.  J thinks its one of the best beers I've brewed, but really I think a lot of the credit goes to the delicious raspberries I used from Klug Farms.  They tasted so good that I had second thoughts about putting them in a beer, but I'm glad I stuck with my original plan.  Between this and my blackcurrant berliner, berries seem to be a good complement for this kind of sour beer.

Sunday, 21 September 2014

Brew Day: Stock Ale

Following on from the sour red ale I brewed last week, today I brewed a strong brown beer based loosely on nineteenth century recipes for stock ales.  The grist and hopping rates are based on the recipe for the 1887 Fuller's XXK in Ron Pattinson's book, but I decreased the amount of invert #3 slightly, and added a small percentage of dark crystal to imitate the effects of kettle caramelisation,  The beer will be fermented out with  a large pitch of Wyeast 1318, and I'm also planning to add the dregs from a bottle of my brett-fermented wit later this evening, which should consist of lactobacillus, brettanomyces trois and brettanomyces clausenii.  The high hopping rate probably means I won't see much contribution from the lactobacillus, but hopefully the two brett strains will be well enough established to ensure a long slow secondary fermentation.

When I was picking a recipe for this beer, one thing I kept wondering about was how far back I'd have to go to find a recipe for something that was likely to have had undergone a secondary fermentation of this sort.  In Principles & Practice of Brewing (Walter J. Sykes & Arthur R. Ling, 1907), there is a description of the long slow secondary fermentation that took place while stock ales were stored in vats or casks.  They state that during this fermentation "maltodextrins are gradually and slowly degraded by the hydrolytic action of the special yeasts" and "certain compound ethers or esters are also formed" that are "much concerned in the fine flavour characteristic of fully ripened and mature ales".  But having described this slow conditioning, the authors go on to complain that it is falling out of fashion:
"[T]he demand for beers of this class seems to be gradually passing away; the tendency nowadays is towards less ripe and mature ales, and consequently the period of storage is often reduced to weeks, or is even omitted altogether."
They were writing at the beginning of the twentieth century, but it seems that at least some aged beers survived this trend.  In Amber, Gold, and Black, Martyn Cornell mentions a beer called Colne Spring Ale which was deliberately infected with brettanomyces, and which seems to have survived with secondary conditioning well into the twentieth century (Cornell mentions that it survived the 1957 takeover of Benskin's by IndCoope, and states that it was pasteurized after this point rather than bottle conditioned).  These 1958 tasting notes from Andrew Campbell are worth quoting in full:
"[Colne Spring Ale] is probably the strongest of all the commercially available bottled beers available in Britain today.  Matured for seven years, it is dark, mellow, and pours like wine, very slightly carbonated.  It is rich and luscious in flavour, in no way edulcorated [sweenteened] ... beer that should be treated with the very greatest respect."
The beer I brewed today is part of an ongoing effort to try to recreate some of these older brettanomyces-influenced British beers.  So far I have the Keeping Porter, the Stingo, and this strong stock ale.  In the next few months I'm planning on brewing a nineteenth century IPA, and perhaps also an Imperial Stout, both again to be inoculated with brett (in fact, I'll probably keep using the dregs from the last remaining bottles of the wit beer to do this).  With any luck, in a year or so all of these beers will be tasting pretty good, and stable enough to bottle (though I'll probably bottle the darker ones flat, or with very low carbonation, so continued fermentation shouldn't be a problem).But even if they dry out too much or gett too funky, I'm sure they'll make a good basis for blending with each other, or with young beers in the glass.


Measured O.G: 1.076 (Aiming for 1.080)
Measured F.G:

Mash: 153.5°F:


43.3%  Paul's Mild Malt
33.7%  TF Golden Promise
2.9%  Medium Crystal
1.9%  TF Dark Crystal II
18.2% Invert 3#


Fuggles          60          45.7 IBUs
EKG              30          37.4 IBUs


Wyeast 1318