Wednesday, 19 March 2014

Bitter Belgian

IMG_1707[1]This post is based on one of my favourite beers, from one of my favourite breweries: Brasserie De La Senne’s Taras Boulba.  One of the founders of the brewery is Yvan de Baets, whose chapter on saisons in Farmhouse Ales has been a reliable source of inspiration for me (expect a few posts based on it soon). I imagine that Taras Boulba is deliberately reminiscent of the beers he described there, and since I love the summary description that ends the chapter, I’ll quote it in full:

A saison must therefore be low in alcohol (in the modern—and therefore Belgian—sense of the word in any case), around 4.5 to 6.5%.  It must be highly attenuated (90-95% on average, if not more, as apparent attenuation) and dry.  It must also be either sour or very bitter (with bitterness obtained by the use of a massive amount of hops low in alpha acid).  It shouldn’t in any case be smooth.  If spices are used, it should be with the utmost moderation.  A saison is not by any means a spice soup.  Ideally, it should be fermented, at least partially, by wild yeasts as well as cultured varieties.  An authentic saison has a small “wild” side, rustic, indefinable, far from the clean aspect of certain engineered beers today.  In one word, it must have an extraordinary character.

Taras Boulba surely fits the first half of this description: dry, low in alcohol, bitter and citrusy from large doses of low alpha hops.  And that is exactly the kind of beer I tried to brew here. 

But although this beer is inspired by Taras Boulba, it was never supposed to be a clone.  This is the way I tend to take up commercial beers and clone recipes when I’m home brewing: I think about what it is that makes me enjoy the beer, and try to brew something that I will enjoy for the same reasons.   Obviously this means that the beer I end up with might taste very different from its inspiration in a side-by-side comparison, and that’s exactly what you have here.

The recipe (reproduced below) was very simple: a 90/10 split of base malt and wheat, hopped aggressively with low-alpha varieties (I was using up some old hops from previous years), and fermented with a characteristically belgian strain (albeit not the most highly attenuative).

The result was a fairly good beer, but it needs more work if it’s going to match the beer from De La Senne.  The flavour of the malt is not really there, and as a result the beer is more fruit-forward from the hops.  While this fades quickly to a pleasant dry bitterness, it doesn’t have the full profile I was looking for.  I almost have the bitterness right, but it lacks the minerally cripsness of the original, a flavour that blends wonderfully with the graininess of the pilsner malt.

Unfortunately the bottle of Taras Boulba I had for this was pretty old, bottled over 8 months ago and probably sitting unrefrigerated on the shelf at Binnys since it arrived in the US.  (They still have some Schieven IPA on their shelves, which as far as I can tell was brewed once in 2012, making the bottles 2 years old!)  I will try to pick up a fresher bottle some time soon—I noticed a few in the fridge when I visited The Beer Temple a few weeks ago.  Because of its age, the hoppy citrus  aroma of the beer was almost completely gone, leaving instead an almost flinty smell along with the grainy aroma of the pilsner malt.  J said it reminded her of Half Acre’s Pony Pilsner, which makes a lot sense to me.  The mouth-feel is slightly creamy from the carbonation, but not in a cloying way, ending dry and assertively bitter at the back of the tongue.  Here are my tasting notes for my home brew:

IMG_1710[1]Appearance: Hazy orange.  Thick white head that dissipates to 1/4 inch and lingers while I drink beer.
Smell: Very fruity.  Orange jelly sweets (if you’re British, it smells exactly like Fruit Pastilles) and marmalade.  Floral notes in the background.
Taste: Very fruity, following nose (Fruit Pastilles again!).  Slight sweetness from malt that accentuates the fruitiness, but malt itself does not make a clear flavour contribution as it does with TB. 
Mouthfeel: Creamy at first, with very slight wateriness in middle that is not there with TB.  Fades to firm, dry, slightly tannic bitterness.
Drinkability & Notes: Not a bad attempt.  Far more fruity/hoppy than the Taras Boulba, but partly due to age of the latter.  I think when TB is fresh it has a lemony aroma that I associate with European hops; mine is all oranges from the EKG.  Both firmly bitter, but TB more so, with minerally/flinty taste that blends pleasantly with flavour from the malt.  These almost completely missing from my version beyond slight sweetness.  I used 2 Row because I was running out of pilsner, and it definitely makes a difference to the flavour.  What’s more, the orange colour is striking given recipe.  Does the 2 Row make this much of a difference, or has something else happened (oxidized)?  I expected it to be pale and yellow, like Taras Boulba and the saisons I’ve brewed with a 90/10 : pilsner/wheat split, but its much darker.
Estimated O.G. 1.038    
Measured O.G. 1.037    
Measured F.G. 1.006    
ABV. 4.0%    
Mash: 149°F    
90% 2 Row      
10% Wheat Malt      
Crystal FWH 14.1 IBUs (15g @ 4.29%)
EKG 30 6.9 IBUs (15g @ 4.5%)
EKG 15 7.2 IBUs (30g @ 4.5%)
Crystal Whirlpool 3.6 IBUs (15g @ 4.29%)
EKG Whirlpool 3.8 IBUs (15g @ 45%)
Crystal Dry Hop   (15g)
EKG Dry Hop   (30g)
Wyeast Belgian Ardennes (3522)      





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