Wednesday, 23 April 2014

Farmhouse Ales II: Hops and Bitterness

This is the second in what I hope will be a series of three or four posts about Yvan de Baets’ contribution to Farmhouse Ales.  In the first post I wrote a bit about the role played by mixed fermentation in traditional saison brewing, and described a relatively young home brew fermented with a mix of Wyeast Farmhouse Ale and East Coast Yeast Bug County.  In this post I want to talk a bit about the role of hops and bitterness in the character of these saisons.

De Baets emphasizes the heavy hopping rates used in traditional saisons several times in his essay.  He suggests that hops were initially used for their superior bacteriostatic properties, helping to control the inevitably mixed fermentation I described in my last post.   While rates varied, he cites one source as specifying between 5/8g per litre (95-152g, or 3-5oz, per 5 gallon batch), with one third of this added towards the end of the boil. 

This might not sound like much, especially as the hops used would have been low-alpha varieties (between 2-4%).  However its important to remember that these were relatively low-gravity beers by modern standards, so we’re talking about BU:GU ratios of 1:1 or higher.  In fact, if you look at the recipes for old English stock beers that were made for keeping (like saisons) in Ron Pattinson’s new book, you’ll see ratios of 2:1 or more. De Baets cites old sources stating that “young, these beers naturally were not drinkable; however, the bitterness disappeared little by little and one knows that heavy doses of hops increased the conservation quality of the beers and preserved their flavour when they aged.”

So I suspect that the bitterness and overall flavour profile of these beers was pretty different from the hoppy, bitter beers that characterize the craft beer scene today.  Modern American IPAs get their bitterness from smaller additions of high-alpha varieties, or even hop extracts; or they are bittered by large charges of hops that are only added at the end of the boil.  In contrast, these old saisons seem to have had large quantities of hops present throughout the boil, along with a considerable quantity added at the end.  In my experience the bitterness provided by noble hops used in this way is quite distinctive.

What’s more, the sheer quantity of hop matter in the boil must have had other effects of the flavour and composition of the wort.  I sometimes get a tannic or tea-like quality when I use low-alpha hops in these quantities.  Moreover other compounds from the hops are likely to be present in greater quantities.  De Baets mentions that brewers who wished to encourage a more prominent sourness would have used aged hops, and there is some evidence that the organic acids present in such hops can be converted by brettanomyces to yield the distinctive flavours found in sour beers such as lambics.  The combination of mixed fermentation and aged hops may have contributed to the gueuze-like character of old saisons that De Baets mentions towards the end of the chapter.

Indeed, De Baets emphasizes that the bitter character of these beers is “not at all incompatible with the sourness of the beers nor will it prevent their eventual acidification”.  This is a topic for another post, but he also mentions that sourness and bitterness needn’t be uncomplimentary, despite contemporary wisdom on the subject (cf. BFM √225).

This side of old saisons hasn’t really come back into fashion in quite the same way as mixed fermentation has, and the beers described here might be unrecognisable as saisons to some people.  For instance, the BJCP guidelines describe saison as having low to moderate hop aroma and flavour.  That said, there are at least plenty of brewers making saisons with large amount of aroma and dry hops (e.g. Prairie), but the emphasis seems to be on late additions rather than bitterness (e.g. Chad Yakobson says in his BN interview that he doesn’t really like bitter beers), and if American saisons are bitter they also tend to be have higher ABVs.  Of course, there are also some beers that do fit this description (De Ranke XX Bitter springs to mind, maybe Jester King’s Petite Prince, and of course the beers that Yvan de Baets is putting out with De La Senne).

Anyway, I’ve been trying to brew a bitter, hoppy saison for a while now, and this beer is one of my most recent.  It was fermented with the yeast cake from the spelt saison I made with the Yeast Bay blend---I suppose that might mean the brettanomyces cell-count is higher in this beer, but if that’s the case I can’t pick out any distinctive contribution yet.  It’s about 7 weeks old at this point.

IMG_1747[1]Appearance: Thin head at first but dissipates completely.  No lacing.  Hazy yellow colour.

Smell: Citrus and subtle spiciness.  Maybe some apricot notes?  Yeast blends nicely with the hops again, but aroma not as assertive as I’d hoped.

Taste: Apricot more pronounced, followed by slight doughy sweetness from the pilsner, but lacking in the middle.  I wanted something crisper, and more bitter.

Mouthfeel: A little thin and watery: I was aiming for a slightly higher carbonation to mitigate this but its not there yet.  Unsurprisingly this yeast doesn’t seem to produce the large amount of glycerol you get with Wyeast French Saison, which might mean taking other steps to avoid thinness in these lower gravity beers. For instance, I think the spelt in the last beer really helped here.  Perhaps the brettanomyces will eat through the last few gravity points and increase the carbonation in this one.

Drinkability & Notes: This is an OK home brew, something I would have been really pleased with a few months ago, but still lacking: the aroma isn’t as pronounced as I’d hoped, the beer tastes a little thin and insipid, and it doesn’t have the firm bitterness I wanted.  Perhaps it will improve with a little more time: there’s a chance it hasn’t fully carbonated yet, and even if it has the brettanomyces might yet make it more interesting.  I’m still very excited about this yeast strain, as once again it blends nicely with the hops, but I think I can brew a better beer than this with it.

29/4/14: A quick update.  The carbonation has increased even over the last few days, to `prickly’ levels, and its improved the beer quite a bit.  Still not as aromatic or flavourful as I’d hoped, but it fixes the thin and watery mouthfeel.  I guess I should make sure I give beers more than two weeks to carbonate before writing these notes.


Estimated O.G. 1.045
Measured O.G. 1.044
Predicted F.G. 1.004
ABV. 5.2%
IBUs 44.8
(Farmhouse Ales 113°F 30 min
Saison) 131°F 15 min
  144°F 45 min
154°F 30 min
168°F 5 min  
81.5% Floor-malted Pilsner
9.2% Vienna      
9.2% Wheat Malt      
Hallertau (US) 60 min 32.3 IBUs (30g@ 5.4%)
Hallertau (US) 15 min 8.6 IBUs (30g @ 5.4%)
Sterling 15 min 3.9 IBUs (10g @ 7.4%)
Sterling 0 min ~1.8g/l (20g @ 7.4%)
Sterling Dry Hop ~2.7g/l (30g@ 7.4)
The Yeast Bay Saison/Brett blend

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