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.