Monday, 25 May 2015

Brewing Saisons: Some Thoughts on Process

I've brewed a lot of beers since April, most of them saisons, but as the temperatures start to get hotter and the school year wraps up, I'm starting to think about stopping brewing for the summer.  This is partly because I'll be going back to England for a month, but also because brewing in a hot and humid apartment is just not much fun.  I'm sure I'll fit in a couple of batches, but the next proper series of beers I have planned will be the top-ups for my soleras in preparation for a blending project at the start of the Autumn.

I'll probably find time to post here occasionally---I need to write tasting notes for a number of batches---but I'll be updating this blog's Facebook page more often than I write posts here.  I'm hoping I'll find time to go through some more old brewing texts, and I'll post anything interesting I find on that page.

Rather than write up brew day posts for the saisons I've been making recently, I thought I'd write a post summarizing some of the changes I've made in my brewing process during this most recent round of saisons.  This isn't supposed to be a general overview of saison brewing---for that, I can't think of a better guide than this post at Spontaneous Funk---but rather a summary of some of the changes I've made that might be of interest to anyone trying to brew lower gravity saisons (many commercial versions come in at 6% ABV or higher, whereas I aim for 4-5% ABV).  I'll come back to these points as I write tasting notes this summer, and try to see what kind of effect they have on the final products.  When I start brewing again after the summer, I'll be focusing more closely on water chemistry and pH during my brew day process, which will probably lead to a few more changes.

1. Carbonation

I'll start with one of the more obvious ones: aiming for a higher level of carbonation, somewhere around 3 volumes.  This probably seems obvious to anyone whose drank a lot of commercial saisons, since many if not most have fairly spritzy carbonation.  But the truth is, I didn't really start brewing these beers in emulation of commercial versions.  Instead I was captivated by Yvan de Baets' description of historical saisons in his essay in Farmhouse Ales, and set about trying to brew the kinds of beer he described.  My frame of reference was therefore a bit limited: I knew I liked Saison Dupont, but I hadn't tried many other Belgian versions beyond the beers from De La Senne and De Ranke, and I didn't like the bigger American saisons I'd had at that time.  This meant I took my starting point from the bitter, low alcohol English beers I'd been brewing up to that point (part of what intigued me in Yvan's essay was that the beers he described seemed to combine the best parts of bitter, with the complexities of lambic), and that meant aiming for a lower volume of CO2 in order to prevent the beer from seeming harsh and thin.

I still tend to prefer lower levels of carbonation in most beers, but after drinking many more Belgian saisons I want to try to capture the striking appearance these beers have when they're poured, with those thick moussey heads rising inches above the glass.  Higher levels of carbonation seem essential to acheiving this, so I'm going to aim for at least 3 volumes of CO2 for a while to see how I like the results.  (This is a little inconvenient as I don't have enough heavy bottles in rotation to package every beer, even after a recent group buy for champagne bottles.)

2. Cereal Mash With Unmalted Adjuncts

These next two points follow on from the last.  Higher carbonation risks making the beers seem harsh and sharp, at least to my palate, especially when dealing with the low alcohol saisons I like to brew.  My thought is that one way around this might be to include large volumes of unmalted grains in the grist to provide some mouthfeel and body.  Saison lore has it that farmers would use whatever unmalted grains they had available in their beers, and as I've mentioned before I usually have grains like spelt on hand for baking bread (I've started buying buckwheat explicitly for brewing, but I'll probably try baking with it soon as well).

Most of these grains require a cereal mash, which is a bit of a nuisance and certainly lengthens my brew day.  I could probably achieve something of the same affect by using flaked adjuncts like wheat and oats, but this would limit the grains I could use, and I also wonder whether the unmalted grains don't make a more distinctive flavour combination than their malted or flaked counterparts.  I love the savoury smells you get from a cereal mash with spelt or buckwheat, and I'm hoping some of that will come across in my beers (as I think it does in commercial beers like Saison D'Epeautre or Duchessic).

3.  Step Mash With Protein Rest

In his article on brewing saisons, Joe Stange suggested that including a protein rest and using undermodified malts might be key to achieving the thick head characteristic of beers like Saison Dupont.  I've been roughly following the schedule described in Farmhouse Ales, with protein rests at 113 and 131 (I often skip the first one), and then longer rests in the mid 140s and 150s. Since I'm doing a cereal mash anyway, its pretty easy to use this hot porridge to speed up the transition between steps, and the adjuncts should provide plenty of extra protein.  (I suspect that ideally the adjuncts should be in the main mash for the protein rest, whereas its more convenient for me to add them back to the main mash to get from the low 130s to the 140s.  I've tried both ways, and I'll try to note any obvious difference in the results).

4. Oak and Fermentation

This is another idea to improve the mouthfeel and overall flavour profile of my beers, inspired largely by listening this this old interview with Shea Comfort, in which he talks very knowledgeably about the uses of oak in fermentation.  One big takeaway is that judicious use of oak can improve the structure of a beer, rounding out and accentuating certain elements of its flavour profile, while also prolonging its life-span.  Comfort talks about different ways of using oak cubes, but the one that caught my attention was adding them for primary fermentation.  This seems to lead to a more subtle contribution, as many of the compounds associated with oak (vanillin in particular) are processed by the yeast during primary fermentation.  The hosts of the show taste three of Shea's beers in the final segment, the first of which is a Belgian beer fermented in  with oak cubes in the primary, and everyone seemed to agree that the contribution of the oak was very subtle, to the point where you might not even realize it had been used (unless you recognized its other effects).  This sounds like exactly what I'm looking for, and also echoes some comments I've heard certain brewers make on The Sour Hour about the contribution barrels make to their beer (i.e. that its not about tasting oak).

For now I've started experimenting by adding between 10-15 grams of freshly boiled oak cubes to the wort along with the pitch of yeast (only in one beer so far---hopefully in another if I find time to brew this week).  I'll see how I like these results, and if it works well I may start doing this regularly with most of my saison-style beers.

5. Yeast Blends and Cell Counts

I've covered this already in an earlier post.  Unfortunately two of those beers spent a bit too long in primary fermenters that allow in a lot of oxygen, and they may both have unacceptable levels of acetic acid.  I'll make that call in the next few weeks.  But I used one of the blends in several beers, so I'll have the opportunity for some comparison.  Since I'm probably done brewing for the next few months I might not get a chance to use them again, but if I like the results it won't be too hard to recreate them.

One thing that's come out of making these blends is that I'm gradually getting more comfortable with using my microscope to perform cell counts.  I did this for the last few saisons that I brewed, using the calculator at Mr. Malty to get an ideal pitching rate and then measuring out the requisite amount of each slurry after performing a cell count.  One thing that was striking here was how little slurry I needed, relative to what I'd been pitching before,  Overpitching isn't the worst thing you can do to a beer, but it may have had an effect on the way the yeast expressed itself, so I'm curious to see what difference this has.


  1. Hey Amos,
    I was just wondering if you've ever noticed a difference between beers brewed with a protein rest compared to ones with one without? As i've read in George Fix's book if using a well modified malt (an Kolbach index over 40%- I've found a value for Dingemans of 48%) a protein rest can actually lead to poor head retention and/or poor dull malt flavours and John Palmer suggests the same thing, he states to only use one if >25% of the grain bill are unmalted adjuncts.
    Just interested me as it goes against the grain, of the mash steps given in Farmhouse Ales. Any thoughts?

    1. Hello Roger,

      I've heard this too, and use it as a rough guide when deciding on which mash schedule to use. For the most part, if I'm using 85%+ highly modified pilsner, I'll just do a single mash rest at 149F. But most of the saisons I've been making recently either include 20%+ unmalted adjuncts (below Palmer's limit, but close), or were made with Weyerman Bohemian Pils, which is supposed to be under-modified.

      That said, I can't say I've paid close enough attention to notice any correlation between head retention and protein rests. I was surprised that one of the spelt saisons I made recently didn't have the best head retention. I'm trying to work out if this depends on the temperature at which I add the unmalted adjunct porridge, or whether it might be a result of step-mashing with a different (cheap, North American, and perhaps over-modified) pilsner.

      In general I've heard that European malts tend to be less well modified, which might explain why European saison brewers often still rely on multi-step mashes. But I don't have any concrete evidence to support that claim!

    2. Yes, it seems that it's a general consensus that EU malts are slightly less modified but I'm starting to wonder if this is backed up, as Weyermann Pils malt has a Kolbach index of between 36-42.5 so on the lower end of this range a protein rest would be justified especially with a large % of unmalted grains.

      I'm interested as i'm looking to improve my technique when it comes to brewing saisons and a step mash seemed a good place to start- for authenticity if nothing else.

    3. Now that I think about it, what I wrote above isn't accurate: recently even if I skip a protein rest I've been doing mash rests at ~145F and ~155F. Maybe 50 minutes at the first, and 20 minutes at the second. This might help with fermentability, which is also important in a saison.

    4. Agreed, what sort of attenuation do you get with this mash procedure? Just with a saison yeast, no Brett etc

    5. 85-90% in most cases, sometimes higher.