Wednesday, 16 December 2015

How We Talk About Beer Styles

This post is a little different from the usual stuff I put up on this blog.  It was prompted by a recent discussion of beer styles in the Saison, Bière de Garde, & Farmhouse Ale Appreciation Society Facebook group, along with some other discussions I've come across online.  Together they got me thinking about the way people categorize and talk about various kinds of beer, and in particular the way ideas about 'style' figure in those discussions.

What follows is a list of four different ways of thinking about 'style' as it relates to beer.  In dividing them up like this, I don't mean to suggest that they are mutually exclusive, nor that one particular approach is superior to the others.  In fact, as I hope comes across in what I say below, I think ideas associated with each approach can both complement, but also stand in tension with, ideas from the others. What struck me as interesting was the ways in which disagreements about 'style' often stem from putting emphasis on different entries in this list.

(1) Flavour-Profile

I'm thinking of this as primarily involving an emphasis on the sensory profile of a kind of beer.  A Pale Ale is a "clean, fresh, hoppy beer with enough malt backbone to carry moderate hop character and bitterness", whereas an Dunkelweizen is a "moderately dark, spicy, fruity, malty, refreshing wheat-base ale" (quotes chosen at random from Brewing Classic Styles).  One of the main purposes of this kind of categorisation is telling a drinker what they can expect from a particular beer, particularly if it is something they are unfamiliar with.  As such its probably no surprise that its become such a central part of the craft beer scene that's emerged in America over the past few decades.  Its a tremendously useful way of thinking about beer, especially when it comes to buying, selling, and marketing it as a commercial product, since it gives the consumer some idea of what they can expect when they buy a particular beer.  Its also essential to BJCP-style competitions, where the idea is to judge the beer in front of you against a general picture of what the style should look, smell, and taste like.  Its difficult to see how organized and wide-ranging competitions could take place without something like this idea in the background.

(2) Process

I'm thinking of this as primarily concerned with the ingredients and techniques involved in making a particular kind of beer.  But one can take this in various directions.

A style-centric approach, which emphasizes my first category, might think of this as whatever process(es) tend to create the proper flavour-profile in the final beer.   Want to brew a pilsner?  Soft water might help, as might decoction, though neither are necessary since you can get the same flavours in other ways.  Want to brew a Kolsch?  You should probably use a Kolsch strain, though you might get by with another neutral ale strain in a pinch.    Want to brew a Bitter?  Better not make it too hoppy or use the wrong kind of hops, because then it will be more like an American Pale Ale.  Whether you agree with my examples or not, hopefully the general idea is familiar.

A further (optional) development of this approach would be to claim that it is particular processes or ingredients that make something belong in a particular category: Saisons are brewed with saison yeast strains, for example, and Bitters are brewed with old-world hops.  This is typically understood in combination with (1), the thought being that this is the best or only way to get the flavour-profile characteristic of a particular style.

A more historical approach, which emphasizes the next two categories, might place more emphasis on the specific processes that were part of the historical production of these beers, whether that be decoction in certain types of lagers, spontaneous inoculation in lambic, or particular processes associated with an indigenous tradition of farmhouse brewing.  To some extent, the question of whether these processes were essential for achieving a particular profile might seem irrelevant here.  And in some cases, processes associated with historical versions of the style would not produce flavour-profiles characteristic of today's versions.  A cursory study of the history of a style like IPA shows this to be true. 

(3) Tradition

These ideas get more hazy as we go down the list, but I'm thinking of this one as primarily concerned with the history of a particular kind of beer, and the practices associated with it.

Again, a style-centric approach tends to put a particular spin on this: beers with a particular flavour-profile emerged at various times from particular locations, often as a result of such things as the quality and kind of ingredients available in that location (water is a typical example here).  Flavour-profile is still central here, with the history behind the beer primarily of interest insofar as it led to the emergence of that profile.  Tradition in this sense is usually a matter of connecting a particular beer to a particular location, and perhaps to particular breweries, understood to have produced characteristic and excellent examples of the style.

As a side-note, its interesting to see how these ideas get taken up in discussions about beer.  For instance, some U.S. homebrewers are quite happy to refer to their beer as a Kolsch, but would baulk at calling their beer a Lambic.  (I don't mean to suggest that there aren't good reasons for making such distinctions; but I do think that they come from emphasising different entries on my list in different cases---flavour-profile in one, tradition and history in the other.)

One might also be interested in the history associated with a particular kind of beer without trying to distill style-guidelines or flavour-profiles from it---and even think that this interest helped one better understand the style of beer in question, where that has nothing to do with setting down strict rules for what counts as an example.  This is especially true when, as is often the case, the characteristics and processes associated with particular kinds of beer have changed (often quite dramatically) over time.  To see this one only need compare historical uses of words like 'Mild' or 'Stout' or 'IPA', and the practices associated with them,  with contemporary beers categorized in those styles.

For many of us, this kind of history is interesting in its own right, without being at all in the service of formulating strict guidelines for categorizing beers.  But it does provide another lens through which we can look at what certain kinds of beer have in common, or what sets them apart.  I'm thinking in particular here of the points that Lars Garshol has made about the continuing existence of a farmhouse brewing tradition in various parts of Europe, and the ways in which it diverges from more industrial traditions, both on a commercial and domestic scale.  As Lars says, this is partly a matter of things belonging in category (2), i.e. distinctive processes that are handed down from generation to generation, or particular ways of using unique ingredients like Juniper or certain yeast cultures.  And it would make sense to think of beers with very different flavour-profiles all belonging in the same tradition in this sense.

As another aside, I have occasionally come across people insisting that the historical versions of a particular beer should provide the guidelines for categorizing a style: only beer approximating C19th IPAs should be called 'IPA', or only beers approximating the (often imagined) practices of French and Belgian farmhouse brewers should be called 'Saisons'.  One thing that strikes me as confusing about these claims is that they tend to involve freezing a beer at a particular point in its history (or worse, imagining what a beer 'must have been like' at a certain point in its history), without any clear argument as to why that particular snapshot of the beer should be privileged.  Perhaps there's more to be said here, but I'm mentioning this because it seems to be an attempt to formulate strict style-guidelines on the basis of something other than flavour-profile.

(4) Ideology

'Ideology' isn't perhaps the best word here, since it tends to have a negative connotation that I don't necessarily want, but I can't think of anything better right now.  In some ways, this is an offshoot of (3), but whereas there I was emphasising the material aspects of beer production, here I mean to be drawing attention to some of the ideas and values associated with it.  If I had to put it in very general terms, I'd say it had to do with the way producers and consumers of beer understood what was valuable or important about a particular kind of beer and its history.

For instance, what does it mean to say that "geuze is a drink of the people”, an idea that comes up a few times in this article, and something which I hope we'll hear more about in future posts from Dave at Hors Catégorie?  How might that be an important element in understanding the kind of beer that lambic is, its history, and what its future might be?  Well, one way of finding out is by asking people who take themselves to be brewing in that tradition what it means to them, or just listening to some of the things they say about their beers.  I'm thinking in particular here about comments made on The Sour Hour by Jean van Roy of Cantillon about the pricing of his beers, and why it was important to him to keep them affordable. I'm sure the other bearers of that tradition have more to say about this.

Perhaps in the same vein are the various ways people talk about Saisons or 'farmhouse beers', where there is often an emphasis on localism, indigenous ingredients, 'using what you have', and so on.  Here I think there is as much frustration with, and reaction against, certain aspects of modern life as there is direct participation in an ongoing historical tradition, and as such it occasionally strikes me as having more to do with nostalgia and fantasy than any real historical knowledge about the production of beers on Belgian farms.  But even if that's true (and I wouldn't say it of all cases), it needn't be a criticism, except perhaps of specific unfounded historical claims.  These ideas have been the source of some really exciting developments in American craft beer over the past few years, perhaps epitomised in a brewery like Jester King in Austin, Texas, and if they are a source of continuing creativity and excellence in craft brewing the last thing we should do is squash them.  (There is an analogy here between the ways in which various myths about the history of IPA played a part in the creation of a popular and exciting style of beer, and the importance of getting the actual facts straight when we make historical claims.)

Further Thoughts

Part of my reason for writing out this list was to get clear on what people were disagreeing about when they argued about a particular style of beer.  There are various issues that come up here, and the kinds of questions one poses, and the way one answers them, often reflects an emphasis on one or another entry in my list.

Here's some examples of what I have in mind:
  • What does it mean to identify something as a particular kind of beer?  
  • What is involved in claiming that one is making a particular kind of beer?  
  • Is it just a matter of flavour-profile and process?  
  • Is it a matter of tradition and history?  
  • Or even a question of the values and ideals associated with a particular kind of beer?
For example: for some people, decoction isn't an important part of brewing a pilsner if you can achieve the same flavours in other ways (presumably if you could not they would embrace decoction).  For others, decoction is an essential part of their brewing, not because it is the only way to achieve a particular flavour, but rather because it connects them to a tradition associated with this beer.  Most people probably fall somewhere in between, partly interested in decoction for any flavour differences, partly interested because of its historical significance.

It also seems to me that disagreements tend to emerge along the fault-lines sketched in this list:
  • 'How can you call that a lambic when its just sour and one-dimensional?'. 
  • 'How can you call that a lambic when it wasn't spontaneously inoculated?' . 
  • 'How can you call that a lambic when it wasn't brewed in Belgium?'.   
  • And maybe even 'How can you claim to be inspired by the lambic brewers and yet charge so much for you beer?'.  
It doesn't fit all 'styles', but you can imagine the same spread of questions for something like 'saison' or 'farmhouse ale', which is what got me thinking about all of this.  For some people, its fine to call something a 'Farmhouse Ale' if it tastes a certain way.  For others, it had better have been brewed on an actual farm.  And for still others, it should perhaps have be brewed in a particular tradition, using particular techniques, and so on.

Anyway, I intended this post to be descriptive more than anything else.  I doubt these kind of discussion are going to end any time soon, and as a home-brewer and enthusiast I'm interested in all of these ways of thinking about beer.  I suppose I think that a really rich and vibrant beer culture will involve all of them, and that discussion about beer tends to suffer when too much emphasis is placed on one at the expense of the others.  Currently, I suspect that is most likely to happen with (1) in my list.

Sunday, 13 December 2015

Spelt Saisons

Since the end of the summer, I've made a series of spelt saisons, each with a different combination of saccharomyces strains, and each intended for a different treatment post-fermentation.  I've written here before about the fact that I like to keep unmalted grains around for both baking and brewing.  Pictured below is the lunch I ate while writing this post mid-brewday: the bread was based on a recipe from Chad Robertson's Tartine Book No. 3 for a loaf that included spelt flour and sprouted spelt grains (see here for the process).  The beer was an earlier attempt at a bitter spelt saison.

Speaking of the Tartine book, I made one change to my process this time round, based on some of the techniques used in baking.  Robertson includes a number of recipes for breads that include a sort of adjunct porridge, much like the kind we make when we do a cereal mash, and he mentions in passing that this can be made in advance and kept in the fridge until needed.  Copying this, I've started doing my cereal mashes a day or two before brew day.  As well as saving me some time on the day itself, this means that the porridge is already made by the time I start my step-mashes, which means that the spelt is in the mash for the protein rest at 131°F, whereas before I added the porridge after this step to bring the mash up to saccharification temperatures.  I'm hoping that including the spelt at this earlier stage will lead to an improvement in head retention.

Each recipe was basically the same: a 70/30 split of base malt and unmalted spelt, with the majority of the base malt being pilsner, in some cases supplemented by 5-10% of either Golden Promise or Vienna to see if I noticed and liked the differences these made.  Each beer came in with an O.G. somewhere between 1.042 and 1.044, and each was hopped quite aggressively to around 38 IBUs, although since I used EKG in all cases but one the bitterness should be a bit softer than the numbers might suggest.

This is actually one of the things I'm looking to test here.  My original idea was to dial-in a recipe for a bitter, hoppy saison, with the spelt providing some of the additional mouthfeel needed to balance and round out the bite from the hops.  But some of these beers will be sitting for quite a while before I can package them (simply because I'm running out of heavy bottles, and have a quite a few batches I'd like to condition to 3+ volumes), so I expect that bitterness to soften a bit with age.  I'm inclined to think, without any real evidence I suppose, that the the tannins provided by large doses of low AA hops help beers age gracefully.  I certainly think it provides a different quality of bitterness to small doses of high AA hops.

I'm planning to blend two of these beers with a small amount of pale sour left over from this Autumn's blending session, and I also backed down a little bit, but not by much, on the bitterness of these beers.  Brewing lore has it that sourness and bitterness shouldn't mix, but I have to say I'm not convinced of that: some lambics seem to me to be characterized by a sort of earthy bitterness, as are some well-regarded saisons like BFM √225.  I suspect its more a matter of the character of the bitterness, and the way it balances with any acidity.  

I've included descriptions of the various beers, along with their post-fermentation treatments, in a list below.  Some will be dry-hopped, some are under-going a secondary fermentation by various brettanomyces blends, and it will be some of these beers that I go on to blend with a pale sour for a bit of acidity.  One batch, which was fermented by a blend of Wyeast 3726 and a saccharomyces strain that a fellow brewer isolated from a bottle of Hill Farmstead, has been turned into a sort of small solera, which I may keep going for a few pulls if I like the results.

Spelt Saison 1: Clean

Yeast Strain(s):  Yeast Bay Saison Blend II
Grist: Pilsner, Vienna, Unmalted Spelt.
Hops: EKG
Post-fermentation treatment: This beer will be kept 'clean', besides anything it picks up from my saison equipment.  When I transferred it to secondary I noticed that the gravity was still relatively high, at 1.010, even though most of the yeast had dropped out of suspension.  In an effort to bring it down a few more points, I added some of the still-fermenting wort from Spelt Saison 4, hoping that the saccharomyces strains from that fermentation would attenuate it further.

Spelt Saison 2: Brettanomyces and Dry-Hops

Yeast Strain(s): Wyeast 3726
Grist: Pilsner, Unmalted Spelt
Hops: EKG
Post-fermentation treatment: Wyeast Brett C added to secondary.  Once secondary fermentation is complete, this will probably get a light dry-hop with Styrian Goldings before packaging.

Spelt Saison 3: Brettanomyces and Coupage

Yeast Strain(s): Wyeast 3726
Grist: Pilsner, Golden Promise, Unmalted Spelt
Hops: EKG
Post-fermentation treatment: Yeast Bay Lochristi Blend added to secondary. Once secondary fermentation is complete, this beer will be blended with a small amount of sour beer leftover from the blending session from my pale soleras.  Compare with Spelt Saison 4 below.

Spelt Saison 4: Brettanomyces and Coupage

Yeast Strain(s): Wyeast 3724, Wyeast 3726
Grist: Pilsner, Vienna, Unmalted Spelt
Hops: Crystal
Post-fermentation treatment: Yeast Bay Beersel Blend added to secondary.  Once secondary fermentation is complete, this beer will be blended with a small amount of sour beer leftover from the blending session from my pale soleras.  Compare with Spelt Saison 3 above.

Spelt Saison 5: Solera and Dry-Hop

Yeast Strain(s): Wyeast 3726, HF isolate
Grist: Pilsner, Vienna, Unmalted Spelt
Hops: EKG
Post-fermentation treatment: Blended with two gallons of aged-hop saison.  This was a beer I brewed about twelve months ago.  The original was four gallons of saison cut with one gallon of mixed-fermentation pale sour.  I racked three gallons of the old beer onto about 15g of Crystal dry-hops, and then racked this batch onto the remaining two gallons of aged beer.  In a few months I'll either take off another three gallons for dry-hopping, and add a further three gallons back, or simply dry-hop and package the whole five gallons.

Saturday, 31 October 2015

Autumn 2015 Blending: Bière de coupage and Leftovers

As I mentioned in my post about the pale sour blends, I deliberately set aside some of those beers in one and half gallon jugs to use for cutting saisons over the next few months.  I did the same with the sour red ale as well, only this time I had already brewed two beers to be cut with beer from the red solera.  This post is about the final blends I made during the sour red blending session.

Dark Saisons cut with Sour Red

I thought about calling these bieres de garde, but dark saison will do.  I brewed two separate beers with the yeast cake from the Autumnal Saison I made with my pack of Wyeast 3725.  The idea was to make some darker, maltier beers that might blend nicely with the leather and fruit character of the sour red.

The first was a basic spelt saison, supplemented with some Munich malt and a pouch of D-90 candi sugar.  Due to some issues with the cereal mash (I didn't crush the spelt finely enough), my efficiency took a dip, which meant that the beer didn't come out as strong as I'd predicted, starting at around 1.054.  The candi sugar gave the desired colour (both these beers looked quite beautiful, a deep rich brown), and after primary fermentation it tasted like a pleasant though one dimensional belgian beer.  It was still relatively young, but I didn't get much in the way of distinctive saison character from the yeast, although it did bring out the flavours from the malt-bill as I'd hoped.

The second beer was all malt, based roughly on one of the recipes for biere de garde in Phil Markowski's Farmhouse Ales.  The base was a blend of pilsner, Golden Promise, and Munich, rounded out with small amounts of Dark Crystal and Amber malt, and a touch of Midnight Wheat for colour.  This time I hit my planned gravity right on: 1.074.  After primary fermentation this beer also had a very nice malt character, so much so that I could have been quite happy to package it as it was.

Because I was getting tired by this point in the blending session, I neglected to take gravity readings for either base.  I had previously checked on the Candi Sugar beer, which was already around 1.006.  Wyeast 3725 seems to be pretty attenuative, so I hope that they were both already quite dry.  For blending, I simply siphoned around three litres out of each carboy, and replaced it with three litres from the Sour Red solera.  Easy.

Both beers fermented on Hungarian Oak cubes, and I transferred a few of these across into the secondary fermenters with them.  I'm going to let each blend sit for at least 3-4 months so that some secondary fermentation can take place.  If they seem sufficiently dry after that time, I'll package them and allow them to continue to develop in the bottle.

Odds and Sods blend

Since these beers started off as three gallon batches, after blending them I ended up with about six litres of dark saison.  Originally I was thinking of just dumping this, but on blending day I noticed that I had a little extra top-up beer for the solera: enough that I could perhaps pull a little more than I'd originally planned.  I also had about a litre of the ECY20 pale sour that I'd used to add acidity to the sour blends.  So at the last moment, I combined all of these in a three gallon carboy, topping it up with some more beer from the sour red solera.  I added a few Hungarian Oak cubes, and set it at the back of my closet.  I'm basically thinking of this beer as a freebie: if it turns out well, great, and if not, I'll dump it.

So that's the end of my Autumn 2015 blending.  I'll be brewing some pale saisons to blend with the leftover pale and red sour ale in the coming month.  Each solera was topped up with three gallons of fresh beer, and I'm hoping that they will start to mature more quickly as time goes by.  I'll check on them again in the Spring, and may even try another blending session then.  If they don't seem ready, I might still pull off three gallons from each into separate carboys, and top up the base again so that I'll have more beer available next Autumn.

Sunday, 25 October 2015

Autumn 2015 Blending: Red and Brown Sours

When it came to blending dark sours, I already had some fairly set ideas about what I was going to do before I sat down to try out the blends.  Last year I made a strong ale that I called a 'Stingo', based on an article in Zymurgy and some research into historical versions of the style.  It underwent secondary fermentation by lactobacillus and brettanomyces clausenii, and while it never got particularly sour, it ended up with a very nice array of dark fruit flavours.  As I tasted it over the past year, I started to think that it might be interesting to use it as a component in a blend with a sour red ale, which would add some sourness and some slightly brighter fruit flavours to round out the beer.  In fact, why stop at one beer?  By varying the proportions of Stingo to Red, I could come up with a few beers on a spectrum from red to brown.

So when I sat down to try out some blends, I was already thinking about doing one beer with two parts Stingo to one part Red, and one beer with one part Stingo to two parts red.  I was also planning on coming up with a three gallon blend of reds to transfer onto fruit, and on saving a few gallons for cutting some dark saisons I brewed for that purpose (more on them in another post).  The blends all tasted good enough, so I didn't do too much experimenting.  The one thing that was lacking a bit was the sourness.  At the last moment, it occurred to me that I could use some of the pale sours I'd set aside for cutting saisons to increase the sourness of these blends.  So I pulled out a gallon jug of the ECY20 pale solera, and included some of it in the two Stingo blends.  The fruit in the third beer should add sufficient sourness by itself.

I was a bit less prepared this time, and made this adjustment on blending day.  This meant that the proportions of each beer were a bit less precise, as the bucket I used for blending only has gallon markings.  In future I'll use one with litre markings for more accurate blends.  Tasting the final beers, I was a little worried I'd overdone it with the sour element: I only used a small amount of the pale beer, but I've found that a little goes a long way when it comes to increasing sourness.  Hopefully the elements will continue to meld as the beers ferment in carboys over the next few months.

If these beers turn out well, I'm planning to start another solera using this old ale I brewed a few months ago.  The idea would be to have a strong dark ale to blend with the red solera to make a range of red and brown beers.

Base Beers

Gravity: 1.008
Brew Date: 02/08/14
Notes: Dark fruits, Xmas cake.  Still a bit of alcohol bite.  Very light tartness.  Blends well.

Gravity: 1.002
Pull Date: 08/02/15
Notes: More leather than younger version.  Berries.  Fruit aromas more muted.  Light tartness.

Gravity: 1.002
Start Date: 28/08/14
Notes:  Berries and darker fruit.  Some leather.  Slight astringency.  Light tartness.

Gravity: 1.007
Brew Date: 17/09/14
Notes: Jam, toast.  Cherries and red berries, but more subdued than fresh solera pull.  Light tartness.  Nice base.

Blended Brown

The main component of this blend was two gallons of Stingo.  To this I added a little less than a gallon of the Old Solera Pull, which rounded it out a bit and complemented the aged flavours.  I finished it up with some of pull from the ECY20 solera, which added some sourness.  These were transferred to a CO2-flushed three gallon carboy, to which I also added about 10g of Medium Toast Hungarian Oak cubes

Blended Red(ish)

This blend consisted of the rest of the Stingo (around one gallon) blended with just less than a gallon each of the English Red and the Old Solera Pull.  This brought out more of the berry and cherry fruitiness.  Again I finished it up with some of the ECY20 pull to add some sourness.  The finished blend was probably closer to brown then red.  These components were transferred to a CO2-flushed three gallon carboy, to which I also added about 10g of Medium Toast Hungarian Oak cubes.

Red w/ Black Raspberries and Cherries

This blend consisted of a bit less than a gallon each of the English Red, the Old Solera pull, and the New Solera Pull.  These were transferred onto about three pounds of Montmorency cherries, and one pound of black raspberries, picked up at a Farmer's Market this summer and stored in my fridge since.  I will top this up with more sour red once the fruit has finished its refermentation.  Again I added about 10g of Medium Toast Hungarian Oak cubes.

In the next and final post, I'll talk about some dark saisons I blended with beer from the Red Solera.

Thursday, 22 October 2015

Autumn 2015 Blending: Pale Sours

[Edit: The pale sour described in this post won gold in the European Sour category at NHC 2016.]

Over the last year or two I've changed the way I think about brewing sour beers. In the past I'd brew a batch, wait till I thought it was ready, perhaps add fruit, and then package.  But as I read more about the practices of professional sour brewers in books like American Sour Beers, and interacted with other homebrewers in forums like Milk the Funk, I started to think that this wasn't the best way to approach sour brewing.  Instead of thinking about each batch as an individual beer, I switched to thinking of them as elements in potential blends.

In some cases this involved simply saving batches for this purpose, but I also deliberately started a number of five and six gallon soleras, using different combinations of brettanomyces and LAB in each with the intention of always having a range of different sours available for blending.  I've already started using some of these beers as a small element in my saisons (i.e. as part of a bière de coupage), but this month I finally got round to creating my first proper blends.  In this post I'll talk a bit about my experience and describe the pale sours I made in my first session.  In future posts I'll talk about dark sours, and a few bières de coupage as well.


I was always planning to do this blending at the start of Autumn, so in the weeks and months prior to the final session I made various preparations.  First, I had to brew top-ups for the soleras.  I stuck to the same base recipe, but used aged hops, added some oak cubes to the primary, and used US-05 as my yeast instead of my preferred choice of Wyeast 1318.

About two weeks before blending, I took a small sample from each beer, and spent an hour writing some basic tasting notes.  My main goal was to check that each beer was ready for blending, but this also gave me some idea of what I was working with, and gave me a basis for beginning to think about potential blends.

I knew that blending for the first time was going to be pretty difficult, so I decided to set some basic parameters.  First, I decided on the beers I would be blending in advance: five gallons of pale sour, to be bottled immediately; four gallons of pale sour, to be transferred onto cherries in a five gallon carboy; and three gallons of pale sour, blended or separate, for use in cutting beers over the next few months.

With this baseline in place, I also decided to think of the blends in terms of one gallon units, with the possibility of going down to half gallons if I thought it was necessary.  For instance, the five gallons of pale sour would consist of five parts.  All I had to do on blending day was decide what those five parts would be.

A few days before blending I took samples that were large enough to provide gravity readings from each beer.  These provided me with plenty of beer to check my tasting notes and start experimenting with possible blends.  I measured blends using a syringe, usually taking 4ml of beer for each part of the blend.  With the pale sour, for instance, I would take five 4ml samples from the various elements, and blend them in a single glass.  So one blend might have been 8ml Roeselare, 8ml Mélange, 4ml ECY20, and so on.

To be honest, I found it quite difficult to settle on a final blend.  It was usually easy to tell if something didn't work, in part because I already felt like some of the base elements were better than others, and tended to prefer blends where these made up most of the whole.  But beyond this it was difficult to find criteria for choosing between acceptable blends, especially since, given the relatively high finishing gravity on at least one element, I expected further fermentation to take place in the bottle.

An added difficulty came from the speed with which I found myself getting palate-fatigue, even with regular breaks.  Sometimes the same blend would taste completely different ten minutes apart---I wonder if this was partly due to the base beers opening up a bit as they sat out on my desk.  I mitigated this to some extent by testing the blends a few days before bottling.  This meant that I could taste my final blend with a fresh palate when I packaged the beers, and check that I hadn't gone horribly astray.

I eventually settled on blends that were identical to the ones I'd envisaged on my initial tasting.  They tasted fine, and I figured that observing how the base elements contributed to the character of the final beer after some conditioning time would help give me a better basis for future attempts.

The Base Beers

Roeselare Solera
Gravity: 1.007
Start Date: 13/10/13
Notes: Stone fruit, honey, pencil eraser.  Light to medium sour.  Strong component in blends.

ECY20 (2014) Solera
Gravity: 1.001
Start Date: 28/11/14
Notes: Grainy, lemons, slight plastic.  Medium+ sour (mouthwatering).  Works well as sour note in blends.

Mélange Solera
Gravity: 1.001
Start Date: 2/4/15
Notes: Strong aspirin/medicinal note, soft fruitiness behind it.  Medium sour.  OK component in blend but medicinal note is a little strong.

ECY01 Solera
Gravity: 1.000
Start Date: 28/8/14
Notes: Woody, minty, distinctive.  Bitter.  Light sour.  Works well as a small component in blends but decided to leave this out to age longer.

ECY20 (2013) Adjunct Sour
Gravity: 1.004
Brew Date: 17/12/13
Notes: Soft barnyard, apples, slight plastic.  Light sour.  Nice component in blends, though perhaps a little oxidized?

Pale Sour Blend

This ended up being 2 parts Roeselare Solera, 1 part ECY20 Solera, 1 part Mélange Solera, and 1 part Adjunct sour.  The Roeselare provided a nice base flavour; the Adjunct sour rounded this out with some soft barnyard funk; the Mélange added another layer of complexity; and the ECY20 enhanced the sourness without making it overwhelming.

Since the Roeselare, which made up two out of five parts of this blend, had a relatively high final gravity of 1.007, I decided I should allow for further re-fermentation in the bottle.  To accommodate this in my priming sugar calculations, I made use of Jeffrey Crane's very useful spreadsheet.  I had to guess the highest temperature the beer had been stored at (my apartment does not have air-conditioning, so it might have been quite high).  I also decided to aim a little high in my desired carbonation, to around 3.5 volumes.  As far as I can tell, the calculation is based on the assumption that the blend will attenuate to the F.G. of the driest component.  I have no reason to believe that's incorrect, but I didn't want to rely on it entirely for a decent level of carbonation, so I aiming a little high made sense.  The various components were combined in a CO2-purged bucket, and bottled right away.


This consisted of 2 parts Adjunct Sour, 1 part Roeselare, and 1 part Melange.  I was aiming for something less sour (anticipating the contribution of the cherries), so I decided to leave out the ECY20 entirely, and use the lightly tart Adjunct Sour as the main component of the blend.  I was also hoping that the soft barnyard funk of this beer might emerge behind the cherries and provide a nice backdrop.

This blend was combined in a CO2-purged bucket, and transferred onto around 7lbs of cherries: a combination of Montmorency and Bing cherries that I picked up at the farmer's market earlier this year and stored in my freezer.  Ideally I would have like to use 8lbs, with more sweet cherries in the mix.  My reason for using a combination like this is that I tried some sour cherries grown on my Uncle's farm in England this summer, and I felt that they had a slight sweetness and depth that was missing in the American cherries I'd bought.  I hoped that adding in some sweet cherries might help approximate this flavour, but I realized at the last moment that I didn't have quite enough in the freezer.

Future Coupage

This left three gallons of beer, besides the 3 gallons that was carried forward in each solera: one gallon of Mélange, and two gallons of ECY20.  I transferred these to CO2-purged 1 and 1/2 gallon containers.  I'll be using them to cut saisons that I want to add a little tartness to.  I think the Mélange might bring out the fruitiness I've seen in some of my buckwheat saisons, and the ECY20 is tart enough to add an interesting dimension to a dry and hoppy beers.

Saturday, 26 September 2015

Brew Day: Autumn Saison w/ Wyeast 3725

Making slants of Wyeast 3725
After taking the summer off, I'm finally back to brewing on a regular basis, which should mean a return to regular posts here.  Most of my batches for the next few weeks will be top-ups for my various soleras in preparation for a blending project next month.  But I also picked up a few saison strains via RiteBrew's preorder program, and on Friday I made a batch with a strain I've never used before: Wyeast's Biere de Garde (3725).

Despite the name, the online consensus seemed to be that this wasn't really a typical biere de garde yeast (in his book on the style, Phil Markowski focuses more on lager and hybrid ale strains).  But the official blurb from Wyeast---"Malty and full on the palate with initial sweetness. Finishes dry and slightly tart"---made me think it would work well for some non-typical saisons I had planned.

The first of these was a rebrew of the Saison de Pipaix recipe from Farmhouse Ales.  I made a version of this beer last year with The Yeast Bay's Wallonian Farmhouse strain, and found the result intriguingly different from my usual pilsner-and-adjunct saisons.  The combination of Vienna malt with a small amount of Amber gave the beer a distinctively bready, toasty flavour, which to me at least brought up various Autumnal and harvest-related associations.  I have no idea how well the recipe matched up to the original beer (twice now the bottles I've bought have been completely flat), but I found the results interesting enough to make a mental note to come back to the recipe next Autumn.

The flavour profile of the yeasts sounds like exactly what's called for here: something to emphasise the malt and suggest at slight sweetness, while also drying the beer right out.  And if nothing else, it will give me a healthy pitch for some of the other projects I have planned, which include some higher gravity beers, along with a few more yeast blends.

Due to some technology-related issues I don't currently have access to my old BeerSmith files, so I couldn't check the exact details of the old recipe.  I followed the percentages mentioned in Farmhouse Ales for the grist (58% pilsner, 38% vienna, 2% amber), and used some Triskel and Fuggle hops I had lying around for bittering and aroma additions.  This was all decided at the last minute, but my hope is that they will complement the maltier character of this beer.  A bit of online research suggested I was more likely to get the flavour profile I was looking for by keeping the yeast on the cooler side, so I pitched in the mid 60 °Fs and set it in the fermentation chamber at 70 °F.  It will have to come out after about 36 hours to make way for another batch, so at that point I'll let it free-rise to wherever it wants to go.  I also added 10g of oak cubes, as part of my ongoing effort to see whether the addition of some amount of oak to the primary fermentation will subtly affect the structure and flavour profile of the beer.  At the moment it is fermenting away vigorously in the fridge.

I'll end by mentioning a few things I have planned for the next couple of months: the blending project should yield some pale and red sours, some of which will end up on fruit purchased earlier this summer; I'll use some of the leftover sour beer from the soleras to cut some fresh beer (including some darker, maltier saisons made with this strain that I'll cut with beer from my Flanders Red solera); I want to work on perfecting my base recipe for a bitter spelt saison; and since I recently purchased a small kegging system, I'll also be working on ordinary bitter recipes, and seeing how well I can emulate cask conditioning in a keg.

Tuesday, 11 August 2015

England Trip 2015

Tomorrow I'll be flying back to the U.S., after spending the past month visiting my family in England.  Since I didn't schedule a post for this week, I thought I'd put up a link to some of the beer-related photos (with descriptions) from my trip. They include, among other things, a visit to the Hook Norton brewery in Oxfordshire, a beer festival in Liverpool, and a few of my favourite local pubs. Needless to say I've enjoyed some excellent cask ales while I've been home (along with some mediocre ones), and I'm feeling excited to start another year of homebrewing and blending once the heat of the summer dies down back in Chicago.

(NB:  in case anyone cares, stand out cask ales from the trip include Marble Brewing's Manchester Bitter, Brimstage Brewery's Trapper's Hat, Milestone Brewery's Black Pearl, and various beers from Melwood Beer Company.  I only tried a few of their beers, but Burning Sky are definitely the brewery I'm most excited about.)

Beer related photos from my trip home

Monday, 3 August 2015

Using a Corona Mill to Make Fresh Masa

In keeping with the general theme of finding multiple uses for brewing related ingredients and equipment, I thought I'd write a quick post about an alternative use for Corona mills.  In fact, I shouldn't say 'alternative', since these mills are sold for grinding nixtamalized corn to make masa, and are being re-purposed by budget-conscious homebrewers like me for crushing grains.

To make masa you need dried field corn.  I've been using this stuff from Amazon, but when I get back from England I plan to see if I can find wholesale suppliers for all the unmalted grains I use in brewing and baking.  I also plan to try using this corn in some beer---either ground up into grits and boiled in a cereal mash, or maybe even in the form of mealy masa added straight to the mash.  But that's another post.

Once you have your dried corn, you need to nixtamlize it so that it will form a dough.  I first learnt about this process on an old episode of Good Eats, but recently I've been relying on the excellent description of the process in this post.  Nixtamlizing the corn involves boiling and soaking it in an alkaline solution: the most common way to do this is by using 'cal', which is also sold as pickling lime.  I add one tablespoon per pound of corn, make sure its well covered with water (it will expand as you soak it), then bring it to a boil for twenty minutes before letting it soak and cool overnight.

The next day you need to give the corn several rinses in clean water to get rid of the lime.  At the same time, you should try to agitate it or rub it together so that the hulls fall away from the corn (this will already have happened to most of them---they seem to sort of dissolve).  Then once the corn is clean and drained its time to get out your Corona-style mill.

Unlike brewing, we're not at all concerned to preserve any husk material here, so its fine to screw the mill down to its tightest setting.  I go down as tight as possible, so that it won't move, then back off a fraction and crush the corn.  Its a bit of work, and often frustrating as the mill works itself loose, but ultimately not that much effort.  The result is a mealy grain that compacts into a rough dough.

Now comes the hard part: do you want to run the grain through the mill again?  Lots of people recommend this, and it certainly leads to a finer texture in the finished product.  The problem is that milling the meal is much harder than milling the corn (at least with my Corona), because you have to force it into the drive shaft as you mill (it won't fall in by itself as grain or whole kernels do).  This makes milling the grain a second time significantly more difficult and time consuming.  I've done it four of the five times I've made masa, but on my most recent attempt I only milled it once, and I thought the results were acceptable in the tacos I made.

Once you have your meal, its time to decide what you want to do with it.  I've made tamales in the past, but the easiest thing (if you have a tortilla press) is to make tacos.  You work small amounts of water into the meal until it forms a smooth dough.  Be careful here: if you add too much at once, the dough will get sticky and it will be difficult to press it.  I've settled on a consistency I like through trial and error, but I get there by touch rather than specific amounts.  I then press golf-ball sized rounds of dough on a cast iron press lined with a cut-up ziploc bag.

Finally, I remove the bag and carefully peel off the tortilla: if you've got the consistency of the dough right this shouldn't be too hard, but sometime they stick, especially if the dough is wet.  I cook them on a wide griddle, following instructions from one of Rick Bayless's books: he has you lay the tortillas on part of the griddle set to low heat for about fifteen seconds, until they release from the metal.  Then you flip the to a hotter part of the griddle, cooking them for about 30-45 seconds on each side.  I like to transfer them to a basket lined with a kitchen towel at this point to steam for a few minutes.  After that, they're ready for filling!

I really like the results, but it is a lot of work, especially if you grind the meal more than once (this might be easier on a better mill).  We can get pretty good corn tortillas in the supermarket here (certainly much better than anything I ever had access to in England!), so this is only something I do when I have a bit of time on my hands.  That said, the masa seems to keep reasonably well vacuum-sealed in the freezer, so I've started making big batches and portioning it out for later use.  This means a lot of work up front, of course, but I think its worth it in the long run.

Monday, 27 July 2015

Bread and Beer: Buckwheat

As I've mentioned before on this blog, one reason I like using unmalted grains in my beer is that I can find other uses for them around the kitchen, particularly when it comes to baking bread.  I've been using buckwheat a lot recently, both in baking and brewing, so I thought I'd follow up on my earlier post on spelt and combine some tasting notes for a couple of buckwheat saisons with pictures of how I use buckwheat groats in baking.

Buckwheat seems to have at least some history in brewing.  G. Lacambre mentions it in his 1851 book on brewing in Europe. (Yvan de Baets cites this book in his essay on the history of saison, but its contains very little about historical farmhouse beers, as Lacambre was more interested in the 'fancy' beers brewed by commercial brewers.  There are some interesting sections on Lambic though.)  Anyway Lacambre doesn't seem to think much of buckwheat as a source of fermentables.  He says its used rarely (occasionally in some parts of Germany, less commonly in Belgium), though it does contain a decent amount of starchy matter and is often fairly cheap.  He even describes his own experience with it: a small amount gave the beer a distinctive and disagreeable bitter flavour, prevented the beer from clarifying, converted poorly and caused problems because it became gummy in the mash.  Hardly a glowing recommendation!

Some contemporary brewers might be interested in using buckwheat because it doesn't contain gluten, but I was first drawn to it because I was curious about whether brettanomyces would convert its relatively high levels of caprylic acid into the ester ethyl caprylate.  Caprylic acid is not something you want much of in beer (it apparently tastes 'goaty'), but ethy caprylate is described in Wild Brews as "Waxy, Wine, Floral, Fruity, Pineapple, Apricot, Banana, Pear, Brandy".   Perhaps using larger amounts of buckwheat in a mixed fermentation might encourage the formation of these esters?

I've described how I use buckwheat in brewing in earlier posts: I crush the groats in my mill, boil them into a thick and goopy porridge, then add them into the main mash for the saccharification rest.  One thing I haven't stressed enough in earlier posts is that buckwheat is an absolute nightmare to lauter (as Lacambre warned us!).  I'm doing Brew in a Bag, which usually means I can get away with very gummy mashes using rye or wheat without too much difficulty, but buckwheat is a complete nuisance.  It forms a sort of gummy layer on the bottom of the bag, which means it just won't drain when you lift it out (or at any rate, drains very slowly).  This makes the bag difficult to maneuver (since it extra heavy with all the hot wort) and means it takes a long time to get enough wort from the grain.

In baking, buckwheat is much easier to use.  There are a number of ways you can incorporate unmalted grains into bread (including by making a porridge in a process that is basically identical to a cereal mash), but the method I use most frequently involves sprouting the grains and then folding them into the dough.  Buckwheat groats are particularly easy to use in this way: they only require a brief soak (about twenty minutes, where something like spelt needs four to six hours), after which I drain them, put them in a mason jar with a breathable seal (a coffee filter and a rubber band usually), give them a good shake so that there is plenty of oxygen in the mix, and then leave them till they start to sprout.  You can help them along by shaking once a day and maybe soaking and rinsing them again, but buckwheat groats sprout so quickly its usually not necessary.

Once they're just beginning to sprout, they're ready for use in bread.  I fold them into a wholewheat version of the Tartine loaf about an hour into the first rise (you need to do a few folds to develop the gluten first, as the sprouted groats will cut through it if added too early).  You can also grind up a small handful of the groats and use them to coat the top of the loaf.  They add a nice sweetness, along with a bit of texture, to the final bread.

Back to beer again, I've only ever used buckwheat in saisons.  I've brewed four versions of essentially the same beer now: a pale saison using up to 30% buckwheat.  In every case I've cut the fermented beer with some proportion of aged sour beer.  The very first version used a few litres from a lambic-style beer, but the three subsequent ones all used pulls from my Roeselare solera.   All of them have had flavours reminiscent of the description of ethyl caprylate above, though of course its difficult to say for certain whether this is because of the buckwheat and brettanomyces, or because of the saison yeasts and fruity hops (all versions have had late additions of Amarillo).  I've included tasting notes for two of these beers below.  I packaged the third version just before I left for England, and combined the fourth version (fermented with a different blend of yeasts) with the pale sour so that it can undergo a secondary fermentation while I'm away. The most recent batch was fermented with oak cubes in the primary, and I'm curious to see how these add to the overall flavour profile.

Buckwheat Saison I

This is the first version of the beer: I blended about 10 litres of saison with 2 litres of lambic-style sour, and added some Trimbach Pinot Gris as well.  Its about nine months old at this point, and has been in the bottle since the end of January.  You can read some earlier tasting notes here.

Appearance:  Pale and slightly hazy yellow colour.  Soft, foamy, meringue-like head with great retention.

Smell: Lemons and limes, followed by a hint of tropical fruit. Slightly floral edge as well, but more like dried flowers (almost reminds me of my Grandma's potpourri).

Taste:  Lemony acidity up front, but only moderate.  White wine comes across in the finish.  The strange waxy flavour is gone, or at least blended seamlessly with the rest so that its no longer offensive.

Mouthfeel: Crisp, with good carbonation, but the wine in the finish gives it a slight vinous character.  Nice balance of dryness with mouthfeel that I'm aiming for in using these unmalted adjuncts.

Drinkability & Notes: I'm very happy with how this one is tasting right now, and I'll probably start drinking the majority of the batch as soon as I get back from England, setting aside a few bottles to see how it continues developing.  This has all the elements I'm looking for in my saisons: its tart, fruity, refreshing, but with some complexity and structure as well.

Buckwheat Saison II

This is the second version of the beer, and the first that was blended with a pull from my Roeselare solera.  The idea with this and subsequent versions was to increase my overall yield by brewing four gallons of clean saison (about the most my system can handle) and then blending them with one gallon of aged sour.  This works well, and I plan to continue using this system as I keep brewing these beers.

Appearance:  Same as the first version.  Head retention on these beers is pretty solid.

Smell:  Lemons, yellow stone fruit, and hay.  Reminiscent of a younger version of the first version, but without the strange 'soapy' edge that I think came from the white wine.  Slight funk underneath it.

Taste:  Tart and lemony at the start, then again a more generic fruitiness with some floral honeyish elements.

Mouthfeel: Crisp and dry.

Drinkability & Notes: This one is still a bit sharp and angular, but hopefully with a bit more time in the bottle the edges will soften and become more rounded.  Still a very promising beer, and one of my favourite saisons.  Luckily I have more of this batch so I can check in on it more regularly.

Monday, 20 July 2015

Tasting Notes: Second Extraction Beers

Last summer I bought a lot of fruit at my local Farmer's Market.  Some of it went into pickles and preserves, but most ended up in sour beers.  The results were excellent, with some of the beers going on to take first place their categories in local competitions, so I've been looking forward to picking up more this year to use when I make blends from my soleras in the Autumn.  However, as a penny-pinching graduate student I was also very aware of how expensive all that fruit was, and I couldn't help wonder if I might be able to extend its use beyond single beers.  After all, Cantillon use their cherries twice, and Jester King have also tried a similar process for some of their beers.  What's more, by transferring clean beers onto the spent fruit, dregs, and secondary yeast cake of a sour beer I would be essentially repeating my process of cutting young beers with aged sours.

My basic idea, then, was to take clean beers that were already quite dry (mainly saisons) and transfer them onto the spent fruit and dregs from a sour beer.  I was hoping that the mixed culture might add some tartness and complexity to the finished beer, and that at least some of the fruit would come through as well.  Overall this has been pretty successful, especially with fruits that make a quite assertive contribution like Raspberries or Tart Cherries.  I'll certainly be repeating the process with more saisons this year.

Tart Brown Ale w/ Cherries from a Sour Brown

The base was a blend of American 2-Row and Pearl malt. along with some Medium and Dark Crystal for character, Pale Chocolate and Midnight Wheat for colour, and Golden Naked Oats to fill out the body.  I was going for a light tartness with this one, so I first let it ferment with a pitch of Wyeast Ardennes, and then transferred it on top of the spent fruit and yeast cake from a beer I'd brewed with Wyeast Oud Bruin.  I felt like the first beer I made with that blend was fairly one-dimensional and boring, and that's true to some extent of this one as well.  The fruit does come across nicely in the aroma though.

Appearance:  Dark brown with red highlights when I hold it to the light.  Thin but persistent head.

Smell:  Bright cherries prominent on the nose, along with darker fruit like blackberries or currants.  A sort of bready smell behind it, so that the whole makes me think of good quality preserves on toasted wholewheat bread.  Slightly metallic edge as it warms up.

Taste:  Light tartness first, kind of lacking in the mid-palate, and then a lingering taste that reminds me more of red currants than cherries. A bit disappointing after the aroma: a bit flat, I'd like more prominent fruit and more of that toasted bread in the background.

Mouthfeel:  The oats definitely give it a slightly fuller mouthfeel.  In fact, because of the low carbonation, it coats the back of throat in a way I'd describe a 'cloying' if it was sweet.

Drinkability & Notes:  The fruit comes across nicely on the nose, but the beer itself is a bit lacking.  I haven't managed to come up with a low ABV sour brown recipe that I'm happy with yet.  The oats certainly help with the mouthfeel, but there just isn't enough going on with the flavour.  With slightly higher carbonation it would be quite drinkable and refreshing: the tartness is just right.

Tart Saison w/ Cherries and Raspberries from a Flanders Red

The base was blend of Golden Promise and Pearl malts, aiming for a bit more character than plain pilsner.  I added some Golden Naked Oats again for mouthfeel, and around 1.5% Midnight Wheat for colour.  Once the beer had fermented out with Wyeast 3726, I transferred it onto spent fruit and and a small amount of beer left from a Flanders Red, and let it sit for about a month.  The O.G. was 1.044. and I'm sure it dried right out, giving an ABV of about 5.8%.

Appearance:  Reddish-brown colour.  I was going for a more brilliant red.  First pour is crystal clear. Head dissipates entirely after a few seconds.

Smell:  Raspberries and cherries dominant in nose, with some earthiness as well.  Smell of clean lactic sourness.

Taste:  Tart, jammy fruit up front.  Mid-palate is again a bit lacking, but it finishes nicely with a lingering taste of raspberries (fruit and seeds).  Hint of bready malt behind it.  Also fairly sour, to the point where I might struggle to drink more than one or two (my tolerance is low though).

Mouthfeel:  The high carbonation makes it crisp and refeshing.  Perhaps a touch thin, but it doesn't detract from the beer.

Drinkability & Notes:  Tart and refreshing, with the fruit coming through quite clearly.  Its actually a bit more sour than I'd like, but otherwise I'm quite happy with how this one came out.  I'll probably do the same thing again this year, perhaps adding some spelt for body and maybe some Munich and dark candi syrup for a bit more character and depth.

Tart Saison w/ Apricots and White and Yellow Peaches from a Golden Sour

I planned this beer as a pale saison that I would age on spent yellow peaches and apricots from a Golden Sour/pLambic.  The grist was  again a combination of Pearl and Golden Promise, rounded out with a bit of torrified wheat.  I added some El Dorado and Mandarina Bavaria hops to the whirlpool, hoping they'd accentuate the fruit.  Once it had fermented out with Wyeast 3726, I transferred it onto the spent fruit and dregs, but this time I added three pounds of frozen white peaches as well.

Appearance:  Pale yellow colour.  Crystal clear.  Billowing head that dissipates very quickly.

Smell:  Interesting aroma.  Lots of grass and hay.  Strongly evocative of cut grass that's dried out in the sun.  Reminds me of summers when I was a kid.  Peaches are very subtle in the background behind it, emerging a bit as it warms up, but I don't know that I'd pick that description if I didn't know they were there.  Aroma is probably more reminiscent of apples at this point.

Taste:  Tart, and a little juicy.  Peaches come across a bit more here.  Same warm and bready malt emerges in the background.  I quite like the dimension this adds.  Lingering tartness with a slight taste of peaches

Mouthfeel:  Crisp, with fairly high carbonation.  A touch thin though, which makes the sourness a little sharp, although is already softened a little compared to earlier bottles.

Drinkability & Notes: The 'dried cut grass' aroma is very striking, and wasn't there in the earlier bottles.  Peaches are subtle but there if you look for them.  All in all a tart and refreshing beer with a bit of added complexity.  I was hoping for a bit more from the peaches, but they seem to make quite a subtle contribution in all the beers I've made with them.  It'll be interesting to see how this one continues to develop over the next few months.

Monday, 13 July 2015

Tasting Notes: 1831 Truman Keeping Porter

Last year, as part of my ongoing efforts to make beers inspired by historical English stock ales, I brewed a Nineteenth Century Keeping Porter based on a recipe for an 1831 Truman beer taken from Ron Pattinson's excellent Home Brewer's Guide to Vintage Beer.  After undergoing an extended secondary fermentation by lactobacillus and brettanomyces clausenii, its been sitting in bottles for about a month. I haven't tried it since packaging because I don't have a Running Porter to blend it with.  I'll brew one as soon I start up again after the summer---essentially the same recipe, with a smaller amount of hops---but in the meantime I thought I might write some tasting notes with the help of a commercial beer.  Although there isn't much on the shelves that is likely to come close to the Nineteenth Century versions of these beers, a bottle of Samuel Smith's Famous Taddy Porter caught my eye.  No doubt well past its best at this point, but it was on sale and seemed like a good choice for blending.

I won't bother writing tasting notes for the Sam Smith's beer.  I tried each beer by itself, then blended approximately 1/3 'stale' beer with 2/3 'fresh' beer, in line with the descriptions in Ron's book.  I was pretty happy with the result, although the Keeping Porter is still a little rough around the edges.  Hopefully they'll smooth out as it continues to condition over the next few months.

Keeping Porter

Appearance: Dark brown colour, and fairly opaque.

Smell: Intriguing combination of toast, roast, and fruity sourness.  Very unique.  Powdered cocoa, dark fruity chocolate, toasted bread.  Suggestion of lactic sourness.

Taste: Very lightly tart.  Transitions to dry cocoa powder and then almost-burnt toast and bitter cold coffee.  Light fruitiness around the edges.  A bit rough still

Mouthfeel:  Low carbonation gives it a vinous character.  Slightly viscous.

Drinkability & Notes: Certainly interesting, though I don't think I'd care to drink more than a single glass at the moment.  The tartness is nice, and I enjoy the dark fruit and chocolate, but the burnt roast is a bit rough and astringent.  Hopefully it will continue to soften as the beer ages in the bottle.

~1/3 Keeping Porter & ~2/3 Taddy Porter 

Appearance: Dark brown with red highlights.  Good head that dissipates to about a quarter inch.

Smell: Similar to the Taddy Porter alone: dark fruits (raisins, prunes, figs), though less pronounced than in the original, along with a dusting of cocoa; but also a more pronounced breadiness.  Again the slightest suggestion of lactic sourness, which gives it an edge over the Taddy Porter.

Taste: The Taddy Porter is all dried fruit and chocolate with a slight tanginess and a hint of bitter coffee. This adds a tartness and lingering burnt roast that aren't there in the original, and transforms the overall impression.  Same elements but with a different emphasis.

Mouthfeel:  Not noticeably different from the Taddy Porter in terms of body, but there's added tang and astringent roast.  Dry and tart.  Very drinkable.

Drinkability & Notes:  The tartness really adds to the drinkability for me, since it clips the dark fruit from the original, and makes it transition to the burnt roastiness of the Keeping Porter.  Tangy up front, and then a lingering tartness and roast at the end, with dark fruit and cocoa in the middle.  Those transitions definitely add a complexity that is very satisfying.  The roughness of the Keeping Porter comes through as well though.  I hope it gets a bit softer with age.

Monday, 6 July 2015

Tasting Notes: Wheat Beer w/ Wyeast Brett. C

Here's some tasting notes for a beer I made with Wyeast's Brettanomyces Clausenii strain during its Private Collection release this spring.  To be honest, I'm no more or less interested in single-strain brettanomyces fermentation than I am in other pure cultures, which is to say that if I like the results I'll come back to a strain over and over again, but given the beers I tend to brew these days I'm quite happy with the English and Belgian strains I have in regular rotation.  In fact, now that Brett Trois has been outed as a saccharomyces strain in disguise, I can't have done more than a handful of all-brett beers over the past few years.

Of course, I'm very interested in what brettanomyces can contribute to mixed-culture fermentations, and I like to have various strains on hand to pitch into my beers.  The main reason I brew all-brett beers these days is because the bottle dregs provide an easy way of dosing other beers during fermentation. (I keep some half gallon jugs of strains I like going in my brew closet, but its generally easier to just drink a beer and pitch the dregs.)

After buying a packet of this yeast I wasn't sure what to do with it.  My ultimate goal was to use it to dose English stock ales for a traditional mixed fermentation, but I'm not planning on brewing any until the Autumn.  In the meantime I figured I could use it as a secondary strain in some saisons, and perhaps see what it was like fermenting a beer by itself (if only to use the bottle dregs later in the year).

Wheat beers seem like an obvious choice with brettanomyces, since their soft and fluffy mouthfeel can compensate for the fact that brett strains tend to produce less glycerol than their more familiar sacch. cousins.  I had a bunch of old but well-kept Galaxy hops, and a couple of citrus fruits (didn't note the variety but I think they were clementines), so I decided to throw it all together for a spur of the moment witbeer.  My original plan was to cut it with some no-boil sour to give it a slight tartness, but I didn't have enough heavy bottles to package it, so I didn't want to risk starting a secondary fermentation in the bottle.

The recipe was based loosely on this beer from Michael Tonsmeire's site, with the citrus and Galaxy hops thrown into the whirlpool.  The O.G. was 1.044, and the F.G. seemed to settle around 1.008.  I packaged the beer relatively quickly since the gravity remained stable over a whole week, but I was worried that putting the beer under pressure might start another fermentation.  It reached its apparent terminal gravity fairly quickly (within three weeks).  You can find plenty of people online stating that this isn't uncommon for brett beers, but most of them are talking about Trois, and the most recent interviews I've heard with Chad Yakobson suggest a primary fermentation with brettanomyces can take a little longer and go through a number of stages.  But I knew I was going to be drinking the beer quickly, so I aimed for a fairly low level of carbonation and hoped for the best.  The beer is about two months old at this point, and its carbonation has been consistent since bottling.

Appearance:  Soft yellow colour.  You can see a spiral of yeast because I wasn't careful with my pour.  Head recedes to about half an inch then lingers for most of the time I'm drinking it.

Smell: Unpleasant whiff of eggy sulphur when I first pour it.  As that dissipates a bit there's a lingering aroma of wheat and sweet oranges.  Maybe the slightest hint of musty funk, but could just be the sulphur.

Taste:  Clean wheat rounded out by a soft fruitiness.  Neither the hops nor the citrus are as pronounced as I expected.  Very subtle and smooth.  Light but lingering bitterness that might be from the citrus rather than the hops.

Mouthfeel: Very low carbonation, and a bit on the thin side (though not at all bad for a brett beer).  Still quite refreshing and drinkable.

Drinkability & Notes:  This was a bit of a throwaway beer.  I had the packet of yeast and didn't have any particular use for it, so I decided to brew something quick that I might enjoy drinking in the summer.  The result was a surprisingly clean wheat beer.  Nothing special, but perfectly enjoyable, thought the sulphur is a little unpleasant.  I think either blending it with some sour beer, or dry-hopping (or both!), along with increasing the carbonation, would have made it stand out more.  I managed to package a few in heavy bottles for longer-term ageing (though over carbonation is certainly not an issue so far).  As I mentioned above, this is mainly so I have an ready source of Brett C to dose other beers with, but it will also let me see how this changes as it ages.

Sunday, 28 June 2015

Tasting Notes: Saisons w/ Yeast Bay Saison Blend

As you might have already noticed, posts to this blog are going to be a bit more infrequent over the summer.  I'll try to schedule a few tasting notes posts for while I'm away in England, and I'll post any interesting beer related activities over on the blog's Facebook page.  Since I'm going to be posting less frequently, I've decided to try to combine various beers together into longer posts.  Here we have a couple of beers brewed with The Yeast Bay's saison blend.

This is the second time I've used this blend in an almost identical series of beers, and I have to say that overall, I'm a big fan.  It reliably delivers a 'classic', yeast driven saison profile that I think works very well for clean saisons.  It ferments relatively quickly, and seems to get beers reasonably dry as well.  Both these finished at around 1.004.  I can usually get them lower with Wyeast 3726, and in future if I brew these again I would change the the bitterness slightly to balance the higher F.G.  One thing I have noticed is that, at least when I've used it, the blend seems to put out a lot of sulphur in the second generation.  This doesn't seem to be unusual in saison yeasts (Wyeast 3724 did the same), and it usually dissipates before bottling, but it can be a bit unnerving if you're an air-lock sniffer like me.

After the tasting notes I've posted some thoughts about the carbonation and head-retention in these beers.  As I noted in my last post, I've made a number of changes to my saison brewing process over the last few months, so I'll try to include reflections on these in my tasting notes.  Here, because I was trying out a new camera, I took a range of photos over a short period of time, so I was able to record how the head dissipated on the beer.

Spelt Saison with Saphir Hops

This beer was based on previous recipes I've made using large quantities of low AA hops---in this case, 4oz of Saphir rated at 1.8%, supplemented with some Hallertau for bittering, all in a three gallon batch.  I generally prefer to get bitterness from large doses of low AA hops, in part inspired by Yvan de Baets descriptions of the hopping rates in old saisons, but also because I find it gives a pronounced bitterness that is rarely astringent or biting.  I suppose I should worry about getting grassy tastes from having so much vegetal matter in the boil, but I have never noticed this, at least not to any degree that I find unpleasant.  I think the spelt also helps to soften the bitterness by rounding out the mouthfeel slightly, which prevents the beer from tasting too sharp.  This recipe included 30% unmalted spelt in the grist.

The O.G. was 1.040, and the F.G. around 1.004, giving an ABV of 4.6%.  Given how rounded and soft the beer tastes, I think I could happily drop the O.G. down into the 1.030s, aiming to produce a beer around 4%.

Appearance:  Pale golden colour.  Billowing head on pouring that recedes to about half an inch after a few minutes.  (More on that below.)

Smell:   Distinctive yeasty 'saison' smell that I'm having trouble describing fully: it reminds me a bit of North Coast's Puck.  A bit of grapefruit and general citrus, very light peppery spice, and maybe a hint of plastic.  Lovely smell: the hops accentuate the yeast blend nicely.

Taste:   Slightly sweet up front, then grapefruit zest and white pepper.  Really nice, but then it finishes a touch too sweet for me.  The spelt adds a slight savoury note, which I want to try to make more pronounced in future, in line with what you see in Brasserie Blaugies beers like Saison D'Epeautre and La Vermontoise.

Mouthfeel:  Prickly carbonation with a round soft mouthfeel thanks to the spelt.   What lingers is a slight sweetness rather than the gradually building bitterness I'm looking for.

Drinkability & Notes:  As I mentioned above, both these beers finished a few points higher than I would have liked (though still drier than many other beers), and unfortunately this translates into a slightly sweet and cloying character.  Ideally I'd get round this by having the beer attenuate a few more points, but I think a more pronounced bitterness, accentuated with some gypsum, might have the same effect.  The blend definitely delivers in terms of classic saison character, and works nicely with the Saphir hops.

Classic Saison with Crystal and Sterling Hops

This beer is a version of the Classic Saison recipe from Farmhouse Ales, but with American hops subbed for the European varieties suggested in the recipe.  The grist was 90% pilsner and 10% wheat, and the O.G. was 1.050, higher than I usually go for my saisons.  With an F.G. of 1.004, this gave me 6% ABV.

Appearance: Standard golden colour, with a rocky head that dissipates to about a half inch.  Moderate lacing.  (Again, more on this below.)

Smell:  Same 'classic' saison character, but more subdued here.  Grapefruit is there but not as prominent, and I also get a bit of blackcurrant too, with less peppery spice.  Its all supported by a sort of musty, earthy funk---I don't know if this is from the hops, or if the beer picked up some brett from my saison equipment.

Taste:  Zesty, peppery saison character, but not as pronounced as it was in the other beer.  Transitions to that slightly musty funk along with a light bitterness at the end.

Mouthfeel:  Not as rounded as the spelt saison, despite that fact that it had a higher O.G.  Crisp and quite dry, with enough bitterness to balance the beer but not enough that it asserts itself.

Drinkability & Notes:  A fairly enjoyable spin on something like Saison Dupont, though not a clone by any means.  The slightly musty character detracts from the overall impression for me, perhaps because its not what I was going for. though its probably more subtle than these notes suggest.  The beer is crisper and more refreshing than the spelt saison, but I'm more excited about brewing modifications of the latter.

Step Mashing, Adjuncts, and Carbonation

These beers reflect a couple of the changes I've made to my process over the past few months.  First, both were made with a step mash that included a protein rest in the low 130s.  I didn't use an under-modified pilsner malt, but obviously the first beer contained a significant amount of unmalted spelt (30% of grist).  I think in this case I added the cereal -mashed spelt after the protein rest to get the beer up to the first saccharification rest, which might be the wrong way to do this (i.e. perhaps the spelt should be in the mash during the protein rest).

I also carbonated both beers to approximately 3 volumes (this works out at a convenient 100g of sugar per batch for me).  Its also worth nothing that both beers, but especially the spelt saison, had a lot of hop matter added in the boil.

Together these changes have yielded a definite improvement in the appearance of these beers.  Both had billowing heads on pouring, and there was some retention at around five minutes after pouring, as you can see from this sequence of photos.

The beautiful rocky head in the picture of the Classic Saison came from topping up the beer after the initial pour.  I'm not sure why exactly, but I think I've noticed this happening before: the first pour billows and dissipates somewhat, whereas the second sticks around and rises above the top of the glass.  My memory is that the Classic Saison had slightly better head retention, settling at over half an inch, and the pictures below seem to confirm that (though I wasn't particularly careful about the times,  and the different glass might also have supported better head retention).

As I said above, overall I'm much more excited about the Spelt Saison, even though the Classic one came out a little better this time round.  Its partly because I just prefer beers with lower alcohol, but also because I know that with a bit more bitterness to balance the slight sweetness from the rounded mouthfeel and higher than normal O.G., it will make for a really pleasant everyday beer.