Tuesday, 27 June 2017

Orval and Friends

Combining a casual interest in brewing history with the resources of a home-brewer provides an endless supply of recipe ideas.  The two bitter pales ales in this post were both inspired by comments from Yvan de Baets about earlier iterations of familiar beers: Orval, and De Ranke's XX bitter.

Bitter Pale Ale

Grist: Pilsner (50%) Golden Promise (25%), US 2-row (25%)
Hops: EKG, First Gold, Aramis
Yeast: Wyeast 3789-PC
O.G.: 1.052
IBUs: 39
ABV: ~5.8%

There's a fair amount of information out there on the history behind Orval and the current version of the beer (see e.g. Stan Hieronymus' Brew Like a Monk).  A common claim in most versions I've read is that Orval used to have a more pronounced bitterness that has been dialed back over the years:
When I asked about a rumor I'd heard from my friend Yvan DeBaets, a brewing enthusiast and unofficial brewery watchdog from Leuven, Belgium, my guide became more than just a tiny bit embarrassed. It seems that in 1993, Orval deliberately lowered the pH in the boiling stage of its beer, subtly but noticably diminishing Orval's trademark hop bite. The abbey's brewing water, drawn from its own well, is high in calcium carbonate, an alkaline mineral that has doubtless contributed to Orval's flavor by bringing out hop bitterness. The pH adjustment now moderates that effect. Coincidentally, the hopback was also cast into disuse as faster-acting hop pellets and extracts took over the bittering duties.
There's lots more in this article, including a great story about Yvan de Baets leading a protest against the changing character of the beer.  

All of this got me thinking about brewing a bitter pale ale with some of the characteristics of Orval.  In a way, I'm already doing this every time I brew a bitter saison with brettanomyces, or and C19th-style IPA.  But when Wyeast released their Trappist Blend (3789) last year, I decided to make something more deliberate.

As it turns out, the recipe for this beer bears very little resemblance to Orval, besides the yeast strain, but I had what I like about Orval in mind while formulating it.  I wanted something dry and drinkable, with considerable aromatic complexity, some nice colour, and hopefully a bit more of a bitter bite than Orval in its current incarnation.

The grist was a straight-forward mix of the three base grains I keep on hand : Golden Promise, Pilsner, and US 2-row.  I didn't use any sugar in this beer, but if I made it again, I think I might.  Perhaps even some invert sugar to give it a bit more colour and character.  For this batch I relied on an extended 3-hour boil for that.

I used a mix of EKG, First Gold, and Aramis hops in the kettle, and gave the finished beer an additional dry-hop with Aramis and First Gold before packaging it.  Its about five months old right now [at the time I wrote this--I think its more like six or seven months at the time of posting], and in a real sweet spot in its flavour profile.  The brettanomyces was apparent early on, but its stayed fairly subdued and blends quite nicely with the hops.  I think that combination of fruity, earthy English or noble hops, along with a hint of brettanomyces, is one of my favourite aspects of the beers I've been making recently.  I was hoping the brettanomyces would take the beer down a few more points and give it some extra carbonation, but there was no sign of that in the last bottle I opened.

The beer is certainly more bitter than Orval, but not by much.  I kept the sulfate to around 125 ppm, and I think if I made it again I'd probably go higher, and perhaps up the IBUs to 45 or 50.  It may also come to seem more bitter as it dries out in bottle.




Pale Bitter Ale (XX Bitter - Roeselare)

I've already written about XX Bitter, and the clean beer I brewed in homage to it.  When I brewed that, I also made a second version of the same recipe that was fermented with Wyeast's Roeselare blend.  Comments by Yvan de Baets were once again the immediate source of inspiration here:
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.
You can hear Nino talk a bit more about the flavour profile of that version of the beer in this excellent episode of the Belgian Smaak podcast.

My version of the beer had a few faults, but overall I'm glad I made this second version.  It dried out more than the T-58 batch, even in the first month, and that already brought it closer to the original beer.  The bitterness still wasn't right, which I blame on the low AA Bramling Cross and the conservative sulfate levels I used on brew day.  But the main flaw was what I was also too conservative with the priming sugar at packaging.  Writing this in the UK, I don't have my original notes to hand, but I believe the beer got down to about 1.006-8 after a few months in the carboy.  I was worried that the brettanomyces and pediococcus would take it down to at least 1.004, so I dialed back the priming addition accordingly.  However, after at least six months in the bottle, the carbonation is still too low, and that detracts from the overall impression of the beer.

However, the most interesting thing (the reason I made this) has been watching the change in flavour profile.  The beer is still bitter, with only a slight acidity (on the palate at least).  As the hops have begun to fade, the brettanomyces has slowly emerged from behind them.  There was a sweet spot at about six to eight months where the brettanomyces was just beginning to complement the fading hops, giving the beer a tremendous aromatic complexity like the Orval clone above.  Some of the bottles I've opened more recently have had an assertive barnyard/Wyeast Brett. Brux. character, something I've never been particularly keen on.

I still have plenty of bottles left, and it will be interesting to see how it continues to develop.  I just wish the carbonation had been higher when the hops and brettanomyces were perfectly balanced!

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