Sunday, 26 June 2016

Brew Day: XX Bitter

I think that De Ranke's XX Bitter is for me what Saison Dupont is for many American saison drinkers: one of the beers that made me fall in love with the style and start brewing it seriously at home.  That partly reflects the indirect route I took to these beers, first becoming excited about them after reading the descriptions of old saisons in Yvan de Baets' essay in Farmhouse Ales.  That essay helped me to see a pattern in the kind of Belgian beers I enjoyed and the kinds I wasn't so keen on.  And XX Bitter (along with beers from Brasserie de la Senne) came closest to how I imagined the bitter versions of those beers.

Because of that, I've been meaning to brew a batch directly inspired by XX Bitter for quite a while.  Luckily, Nino and Guido are very open about how they brew their beers, making it a principle to "offer our customers insight in our brewery, the brewing process and the materials used, with nothing to hide".  This article contains almost everything you need to know in order to brew a beer along these lines, and there is also plenty of information on the De Ranke website.  Nino was kind enough to answer a few extra questions for me as well.

Here are the main takeaways I got from all of this:

  1. The recipe is 100% pilsner malt.
  2. Whole hops are essential.  The brewers are very serious about this part of their process, stating that they "use exorbitant amounts of hop flowers, which results in unmatched complexity and mouthfeel".  This certainly fits my own experience of their beers.
  3. There are only two additions of hops in the boil.  The first is of Brewer's Gold, added with 75 minutes left in the boil, aiming for 60 IBUs.  The second is with Hallertau Mittelfruh, at two minutes left in the boil.  Nino recommended that I add a minimum of 1.5g/l, and I ended up using closer to 2g/l.
  4. The brewery uses a dried Fermentis yeast.  Discussion with other homebrewers online left me fairly certain that this was Safbrew T-58.  Nino simply suggested that I "select a yeast strain that is quite neutral so the hops will shine through better". They also "use very little cooling during the brewing process", which suggests to me that the yeast is allowed to free-rise after a certain point.
  5. The beer finishes very dry, and is given a relatively long conditioning period at fairly high temperatures.  From the article: "We condition at higher temperatures than a lot of breweries, mostly at 15°C. We also allow for 4 weeks of conditioning after primary fermentation which is longer than a lot of other breweries. This gives us a really dry beer.”
That is more than enough information to base a homebrew recipe on, though I had to make a few changes to what I brewed.

I wanted to use the freshest whole hops possible, so I waited until Hops Direct announced that their new European crop had arrived, and picked my hops from there.  Unfortunately they did not have any Brewers Gold this year.  I ordered some Bramling Cross instead, since they have a similar oil profile and flavour description to Brewers Gold (plus I knew I could use them in some other recipes).  The only problem was that the AA% was surprisingly low, at only 3.3%.  This meant I had to use A LOT of hops to get to 60 IBUs.  I thought about supplementing with pellets instead, but decided that went against the spirit of the thing: if I had enough whole hops, why not use them and see how things turned out.  I adapted my water profile to emphasise this bitterness, going for around 150ppm calcium sulfate to around 50ppm calcium chloride.

My other main concern was about the yeast.  Nino states that the beer gets very dry, but from what I could learn from other homebrewers, it seems that T-58 is not a particularly attenuative strain.  With that in mind, I did everything I could to make a fermentable wort, including a long low mash rest at around 146°F (followed by a shorter one at 154°F).  Also, though I was using dried yeast, I gave the wort plenty of oxygen before pitching.

My predicted O.G. was 1.054, but both batches ended up higher than intended, between 1.058 and 1.060, perhaps due to the longer than usual mash rests.  This probably won't help with attenuation, but I decided to just let things be rather than adding water to get closer to my intended O.G.  After pitching the yeast, I kept the beer in the mid 60s for the first 24 hours or so, and allowed it to free-rise after that.

The batch brewed with T-58 was still at 1.020 after two weeks of fermentation.  I transferred it to a second keg and let it sit at room temperature with a spunding valve, and after four weeks it was down to 1.012.  I'd hoped to get it down to at least 1.008, so I was a little disappointed with where it ended up, but I decided to just got ahead and package it rather trying to start another fermentation with a different strain.

It's been in the bottle for about three weeks at this point, and while its a nice beer, it doesn't come close to XX Bitter.  First, the bitterness just isn't as pronounced as it is in the original.   Its definitely there, but doesn't have the lingering quality that I love in De Ranke's beer.  I don't know if this is because the beer didn't dry out enough, because I used lower AA hops, or something else entirely.  The fuller body also makes it less drinkable than XX bitter.  That aside, its a nice beer: aromatically complex, with both the yeast and the hops making their presence known.  But its just not what I was going for, and disappointing for that reason.

I think if I brew this again, I'll give up on the idea of making a 'clone' and use a yeast strain that I'm more familiar with.  I actually made some other beers along these lines using these same whole hops, but they're a subject for another post.  In the meantime, I plan to set the rest of this batch cold-condition in the fridge while I'm away in England, and I'm sure we'll have no problem finishing it off once we get back.

But wait, there's more...

As Nino mentions in that article, there was a period between 1994 and 1998 when the beers at De Ranke were brewed with yeast from the Rodenbach brewery.  Yvan de Baets has a very evocative description of that beer, and the flavour profile associated with old saisons, in his essay:
It is often said that sourness and bitterness do not go well together in beer but, because [saison] was a beer that had matured for a long time, the bitterness decreased, permitting the equilibrated development of the sour and vinous flavours of the beer. We had evidence of this until several years ago when the excellent XX Bitter, a heavily hopped beer from the De Ranke brewery in Wevelgem, was still fermented with yeast from the Rodenbach brewery in Roeselare. This yeast is in fact a mix of diverse yeasts, some of which are of the Brettanomyces strain, and of lactic bacteria. When the beer was young, bitterness dominated, balanced by a light tartness. As is aged, the bitterness diminished, giving way to a more pronounced and slightly vinous tartness. The balance of this beer was always perfect. It certainly came close to old saison beers.
With plenty of whole hops left over after I formulated the recipe for the clean batch, of course I had to give this one a try as well.  The recipe was exactly the same, but instead of using T-58 I pitched a packet of Wyeast's Roeselare blend, which is intended to imitate the yeast at Rodenbach.  As with the beer described above, I tried to make sure this one finished pretty dry, giving it a long, low mash rest and plenty of oxygen. I'm hoping this will help the beer attenuate fairly low after a month or two, so that I can package it while its still quite fresh, and see it develop in the bottle.  If that isn't possible (and as of posting this, its looking unlikely), I'll leave it to develop in a carboy over the summer.


  1. I used to think also that bitterness and sourness doesn't go well together but thinking in the way he describes it makes more sense, the bitterness will fade and the sourness and funk will appear. I'd like to try that.

    I use a lot of T58 blended with Belle Saison in a 1:1 ratio, it works very well for me and the flavor profile I want, I start a 21°C and let it raise 'till 28°C and attenuates extremely well.

    Thanks for your post, Amos!

  2. Strangly enough, I also found that a mix of T58 and Belle Saison was quite good. The T58 always gave out loads of esters, probably too much, but it was pretty much perfect after a few months. I actually have a fair few Brewers Gold in the freezer and think I would substitue the Hall. Mitt. with something similar.... Thanks for the inspiration Amos.Great post as ever!

  3. I like the idea of blending these two strains. My only concern would be that I've found Belle Saison to be almost too attenuative, like Wyeast 3711. It's always taken beers down below 1.000 when I've used it in the past. But I have packets of both in my fridge, so I'll have to try after the summer.

  4. After trying a pretty fresh bottle tonight, I think T-58 came pretty close to the yeast character of the original, attenuation aside. But I didn't even approximate the quality and level of bitterness.