Wednesday, July 30, 2014

Solera Pull No. 2 - Straight and on Flowers

One of the great skills of the lambic brewers and gueuze blenders is identifying which barrels are best blended, fruited, dry hopped, saved, or served straight. It isn’t that the “best” beer is used for one application and the second best for another, they’ve learned what flavor work best for each application (or specific fruit). Instead of deciding on brew day what ingredients you’ll add to a batch of sour beer, try drinking a sample and imaging what flavors might enhance its positives and conceal its flaws (if either is required).

Here is a tasting of two versions of the second pull from the wine barrel solera in my basement!

Tasting the second pull from the solera Nathan and I started back in 2010!Solera Pull #2

Appearance – Slightly cloudy, appears to be yeast particulate (clearly I didn’t stop the pour early enough). Vibrant golden-yellow body. The white head is unremarkable, sinking to a thin ring after a few minutes of inspection.

Smell – Despite an additional pitch of Wyeast B. bruxellensis this wine barrel has consistently produced beers been less funky than most of my batches. It shares many similarities with Petrus Aged Pale rather than a lambic or gueuze. The vinous barrel shows through nicely, really the star of the aroma.

Taste – The flavor starts and ends with bright acidity. Very lactic, and firm while sidestepping harshness. There is a rounded malt flavor that compliments and even balances the acidity successfully. Fruity, faint Granny Smith? There just isn’t as much character here as I’d expect from the second pull from a solera fermented with ECY Bugfarm, I need some funky, earthy, citrusy something!

Mouthfeel – It has a medium-light body with moderate carbonation. Not light and spritzy enough for a lambic, which further enhances the Flemish-pale vibe.

Drinkability & Notes – A solid beer, but I think this one excels as a base for other flavors (with fruity dry hops for example it was transformed into one of my favorite beers). It doesn’t have the complexity that a sour needs to stand on its own. It’s probably passed time for another pull, or a decision that the solera has run its course.

While brewing the classics is always fun, I think most homebrewers enjoy venturing off the well-trod path occasionally. When Nathan (now a "savant" according to the WaPost) and I started our two soleras a few years ago we decided to use it to experiment with some of the more interesting concepts we could come up with: roasted butternut squash, cinnamon, and nutmeg; infused with elderflowers; aged on Cabernet Sauvignon wine grapes etc.

This is the same beer as above, but this five gallon portion was aged on one ounce each of dried chrysanthemums and jasmine flowers. We racked out of the barrel in May, 2013 into a carboy with the flowers and bottled a few weeks later.

Flora Solera

Gorgeous pour of the solera aged on chrysanthemums and jasmine flowers!Appearance – A bit more careful on the pour on this one and it has a stunningly clear golden body (thank you protein-munching bacteria). Head retention is actually pretty good for a sour beer, better than the plain portion.

Smell – While it might look like a lager, it certainly doesn’t smell like it. The mums lead with their weird-floral-herbaceous character. I don’t pick out the jasmine distinctly, but I suspect it is keeping the beer more towards the floral than the herbal. Relatively straight ahead sour beer behind that, it projects a touch of acetic/vinegar.

Taste – Big acidity leads. No vinegar, but loads of lactic. The result is a firm acidity, but none of the sharpness I get in the finish from vinegary beers. The jasmine adds a juiciness to the mid-palate, while the mums contribute an interesting almost toasty finish. The flowers combined to add some interest to the relatively bland base.

Mouthfeel – Medium-light body, works well with the slightly elevated alcohol. Firm carbonation, but nothing disruptive.

Drinkability & Notes – Intriguing, but not likely an experiment I’d repeat. The jasmine and mums don’t blend harmoniously with the base beer, they stick out too much. So many interesting flowers available, this likely won’t be the last time Nathan and I brew something “weird” like this!

Tuesday, July 15, 2014

Priming Barrel-Aged and Blended Sour Beers

In the Packaging chapter of American Sour Beers I included formulas designed to estimate the amount of carbonation that will be produced by the microbes when blending similar sour beers of different gravities. While I believe it is important to understand the logic behind the math, it is certainly much easier to simply plug in the numbers rather than solve equations by hand. A few weeks ago someone emailed a question about the formulas, which sparked me to put together an easier method. I finally found time to refine it, so here I present my Blending Priming Calculator spreadsheet! Unlike the formulas in the book, it can determine carbonation for a blend of up to five beers.

These formulas are only exact if the wort for each component is identical. Having the same carbohydrate profile ensures that the remaining dextrins in one batch would be fermentable by the bacteria and Brettanomyces present in another. You’d expect the final gravity of the blend to approach the final gravity of the driest component, which is why this component must be entered in a specific position in the spreadsheet. Even then there is no way to guarantee the accuracy of the calculation because more attenuative microbes could be "hiding" in a younger/sweeter component.

To use the spreadsheet, start by selecting the number of component beers you will be blending from the drop-down list. This selection controls which formulas are used from the hidden Calculations tab.


Input the peak temperature the beer reached after the gravity stabilized (this is the same as all other priming calculators). If you ferment a beer through a warm summer and it continues to ferment into the fall, but stops before winter, you’d note the temperature it was when you stopped seeing the gravity drop (assuming it didn't get warmer after that). If the beer fermented all winter, but aged into the hot summer, you'd note the hottest temperature it reached during the summer.

I’ve noticed anecdotally that long-term aging in a barrel knocks about half of the assumed residual carbonation out of the beer. The "Residual CO2 Volumes" in red will calculate automatically. If you happen to own a capable CO2 meter (aren't you lucky!), you could override these calculation and simply enter the measured volumes of CO2 in row 5.


At this point enter the current gravity reading for each component and the volumes of beer that you plan to include in the blend. With those pieces of information entered you can see how much residual carbonation the blend will contain at bottling, and after it completes bottle-fermentation (assuming no priming sugar).


Input the target volumes of CO2 desired, and the formulas will display how much table or corn sugar would be required to carbonate the beer to that level. As we are assuming the fermentation of dextrins from the blended beers, it may take 6-12 months of cellaring to achieve full carbonation (as is carried out by traditional Belgian gueuze blenders).









I’ll certainly update this spreadsheet as I think of improvements (and hear your suggestions). At a minimum I'll add a metric tab as the metric formulas are already presented in the book.

Tuesday, July 8, 2014

Saison 'Merican - Hoppy Funk

Spent hops left in the kettle after this saison.Brewing with newly developed/discovered ingredients is a necessity if you want to keep up. Sometimes I envy the people brewing 15 or 20 years ago when you knew what malts, hops, and yeasts were going to be available. These days it seems like every year there are 15 new yeast strains, 10 malts, and 5 hops. Then you find a great ingredient, but all of a sudden it's impossible to get your hands on again (looking at you Wyeast Brettanomyces anomalus, Golden Naked Oats, and Riwaka). Is it really practical (or even worthwhile) to brew with every new release under experimental conditions?

As much fun as I’ve had with split batch experiments to tease out the contributions of various sugars, hops, Brett strains, etc., in the end I’m not sure how well stripped down recipes answer the question of how to maximize an ingredient. Does using a crystal malt as the lone specialty grain in a low hopped beer really give you an accurate idea of what it will add to a hoppy porter? More than simply tasting and smelling the malt itself? Rather than trial The Yeast Bay’s Saison Blend in a bare-bones classic Dupont-style recipe, I opted to take their “grapefruit and orange zest” description to heart and load up on bold hops! The aroma blend (2:1:1 Mosaic, Citra, and Nelson Sauvin) was cribbed from the dry hopped solera that Nathan and I bottled last year (which skewed deliciously peachy).

This is the fuzzy looking rye malt, I tossed the last pound.The concept for this batch was heavily influenced by the hoppy-funky saisons that Prairie Artisan Ales has released (e.g., Hop, ‘Merica, Potlatch). Basic Brewing Radio has an excellent interview with their founder/brewer Chase Healey (James shipped me a couple bottles of their beer as well). I was surprised to find out Prairie dry hops as if they were IPAs and then pitches Brett at bottling with the beer already below 1P (1.004). I decided to do something similar, by keg-conditioning on the dry hops. I find that Brett produces an assertive character much more rapidly under pressure (key when you are looking to drink a beer like this while the hops are still fresh).

The rye malt from a previous batch, looks much more normal, no fuzz.
The only unexpected variable was the Thomas Fawcett rye malt (freshly delivered from Rebel Brewer). My first whiff was a bit musty, but not in a bad way. It wasn’t until after brewing that I took a closer look at the remaining pound and noticed a dusty coating (compare to say the rye malt in my Whiskey Barrel Rye Stout). Luckily the beer tastes fine, and I haven't started hallucinating....

Saison ‘Merican Tasting

A glass of saison on a sunny afternoon, pretty sight!
Appearance – The beer itself is not too far from orange juice (extra pulp). Hazy, but with a luminous quality. The head is billowy, sticky, and very bright white. Looks like a cross between an IPA and a rustic saison, no complaints here.

Smell – One of those magic sorts of smells with aromatics coming from the hops, saison yeast, Brettanomyces, and malt to form a unified wave of citrus, mango, and funk. Bold and inviting. The divisive Nelson “stink” starts to poke through as the beer warms.

Taste – The hops play lead despite being off them for more than a month, with loads of juicy tropical fruit. They dissolve into the funkier aspects in the finish (nothing too aggressive, more towards hay than horse stall). The saison yeast plays a supporting role with mild pepper. Much more citrusy than then blend in the solera, which I attribute to the yeast as well. Dry, but not bone dry thanks to the Golden Naked Oats. Moderate bitterness lingers for a moment, leaving me with the need for another sip.

Mouthfeel – Medium-light body, with medium-high carbonation. I was aiming slightly fuller than the classic saison to support the elevated hopping rate, and it works well.

Drinkability & Notes – An unequivocal success! One of the best saisons I've brewed (or tasted). This is exactly the sort of beer I love to drink, so much going on in such a neat little package. Not the sort of funk-bomb you need to struggle through, but enough to let you know it’s not a "Belgian IPA." I'll certainly be brewing this one again before too long.

Saison 'Merican Recipe

Recipe Specifics
-------------------
Batch Size (Gal): 5.50
Total Grain (Lbs): 10.75
Anticipated OG: 1.054
Anticipated SRM: 4.2
Anticipated IBU: 37.1
Brewhouse Efficiency: 77 %
Wort Boil Time: 90 Minutes

Grain
-------
74.4% - 8.00 lbs. Weyermann Bohemian Pils
18.6% - 2.00 lbs. Thomas Fawcett Rye Malt
4.7% - 0.50 lbs. Simpsons Golden Naked Oats
2.3% - 0.25 lbs. Weyermann Acidulated

Hops
------
0.75 oz. Columbus (Pellet, 13.30% AA) @ 60 min.
2.00 oz. Mosaic (Whole, 10.00% AA) @ 0 min.
1.00 oz. Citra (Whole, 10.00% AA) @ 0 min.
1.00 oz. Nelson Sauvin (Pellet, 12.00% AA) @ 0 min.
2.00 oz. Mosaic (Whole, 10.00% AA) Dry Hop
1.00 oz. Citra Whole (Whole, 10.00% AA) @ Dry Hop
1.00 oz. Nelson Sauvin (Pellet, 12.00% AA) @ Dry Hop

Extras
--------
0.50 tsp Yeast Nutrient @ 15 min.
0.50 Whirlfloc @ 15 min.

Yeast
-----
The Yeast Bay Saison Blend
White Labs WLP644 Brettanomyces bruxellensis var. Trois
Brettanomyces bruxellensis var. CB2 (Jason Rodriguez isolated)

Water Profile
----------------
Profile: Washington, DC

Mash Schedule
-----------------
Sacch Rest - 75 min @ 148F

Notes
-----
Brewed 5/4/14 by myself

Thomas Fawcett Rye Malt (smelled a bit musty).

2 g each CaCl and gypsum to the mash and sparge water. 1/2 tsp 88% lactic acid added to fly sparge. Collected 7.5 gallons of 1.046 runnings. Better efficiency than expected.

Added 0 min hops and allowed to stand for 20 minutes before starting the immersion chiller.

Chilled to 75F. Shook to aerate. Pitched tubes of The Yeast Bay's Saison Blend, White Labs Brett Trois, and dregs from my Single bottled with CB2. Left at 70F to ferment. Added 1/2 gallon of spring water to lower the OG.

5/15/14 Down to 1.011, 80% AA (tastes pretty good). Racked to a flushed keg with dry hops and 3
oz of table sugar. Left at warm room temperature.

5/20/14 Removed the dry hops, left at room temperature to continue conditioning.

6/4/14 Put on gas in the kegerator.

Monday, June 30, 2014

Earl Grey Mild Ale Recipe and Tasting

I've been so distracted with the book release and trip, most recently to the 2014 National Homebrewers Conference in Grand Rapids, that this batch of Earl-Grey-tea-infused dark mild was ready to review before I posted the recipe. So here's a two-in-one recipe and tasting notes spectacular!

A couple months ago, Audrey and I were at a holiday party at our friends Bill and Christie Newman's house. They had a wonderful homebrewed English dark mild on cask that had an ever-so-faint tea-like aroma produced by the combination of English hops and malt. Audrey was so taken with the flavor that she requested we brew something similar, but with actual tea. She selected Earl Grey to add some citrus notes along with the herbal black tea. Sounded good to me, I'd had a sample of Namaste Brewing's gold-medal-winning Bitterama at GABF 2013, which was delicious, but a bit more potent (in terms of both alcohol and bergamot) than what we wanted to have on tap.

Russian Earl Grey Tea with lemongrass, orange peel, and hyacinth flowers.
Over Memorial Day weekend the two of us drove to Charlottesville, Virginia for our first anniversary. We visited Blue Mountain Brewery, South Street Brewery, Albemarle Ciderworks, and drank plenty of other great local beers from the likes of Three Notch'd and Champion (not to mention visiting Montecello, and hiking up to Humpback Rocks). During the drive south we stopped for lunch in Fredericksburg, VA and to walk around the Civil War battlefield. While waiting for a table at Foode, we walked across the street to PA Dutch General Store, which had a huge selection of herbs, spices, and teas. After smelling all the options, we opted for Russian Earl Grey which adds lemongrass, Spanish orange, and what looks like hyacinth flowers.

On brew day, a few weeks earlier, I'd guided Audrey in picking malts for the base beer by eating specialty malts leftover from previous batches. At the moment Golden Naked Oats are tricky to get hold of, but I had a half pound remaining from a funky/hoppy saison. The goal was moderate hop bitterness from a single addition of Czech Saaz.We opted for White Labs English Ale WLP002 (similar to Wyeast 1968), because it leaves plenty of residual body, but not too much fruitiness.

As when using most ingredients for the first time, I opted to dose the tea into the beer to taste post-fermentation. In this case it took about one ounce of Earl Grey steeped in three cups of near-boiling water for a short three minutes. An extraction avoids over-doing a new ingredient and provides a brighter "truer" flavor compared to additions earlier in the brewing process where fermentation can scrub out aromatics. For more details, see this post on my floral gruit from a few years ago.

Coincidentally I have an article in the most recent issue of BYO (July/August 2014) titled: Experimental Homebrewing: Approach Unconventional Beers with Confidence. It covers using culinary ingredients and techniques in brewing, and is a bit more fun than some things I've written recently. I'll be continuing to write articles for them, so subscribe if you haven't already (use that link and I get a cut)! After seeing them talk at NHC, I'm also excited to read Drew Beechum and Denny Conn's forthcoming book Experimental Homebrewing!

Earl Grey Mild Tasting

Appearance – A bit murkier than I expected, especially considering the high flocculation of the Fuller's yeast strain (WLP002 – English Ale). Likely the combo of oats and rye specialty malts are to blame. On the dark end of English Mild, leathery brown. Puts up a small off-white head, the carbonation is low, and the head sinks rather quickly.

A true 20 oz pint of Earl Grey infused English dark mild!Smell – Notes of citrus (not fresh juice or zest – more single tone), not potent enough to definitively say "bergamot" or "Earl Grey." Sweet caramel maltiness behind that with mild yeast fruitiness. Pleasantly citrusy-herbal-malty, not too weird.

Taste – The flavor starts out toasty malt, stops by mild black tea in the middle, then finishes almost roasty. There is a restrained sweetness and minimal hop bitterness. Nicely balanced, smooth, and rounded. I'd like the malt to be a bit more direct rather than bouncing around, didn't need the complexity with the tea already.

Mouthfeel – Medium-light body, low carbonation. Ideal for the style, and solid mouthfeel for such a low alcohol beer.

Drinkability & Notes – The Earl Grey tea ended up about where we wanted it, present, but not dominant. It layers nicely with the caramel-maltiness of the complex grain bill. It drinks well for being about 4% ABV, has enough maltiness that I don't think about it tasting watered-down.

Earl Grey Mild Recipe

Recipe Specifics
----------------
Batch Size (Gal): 6.00
Total Grain (Lbs): 8.63
Anticipated OG: 1.040
Anticipated SRM: 14.1
Anticipated IBU: 16.9
Brewhouse Efficiency: 76 %
Wort Boil Time: 60 Minutes

Grain
------
87.0% - 7.50 lbs. Maris Otter Pale Malt
5.8% - 0.50 lbs. Simpsons Golden Naked Oats
2.9% - 0.25 lbs. Crisp Dark Crystal (75L)
2.9% - 0.25 lbs. Fawcett Crystal Rye
1.4% - 0.13 lbs. Munton's Roasted Barley

Hops
------
1.75 oz. Czech Saaz (Pellet, 2.70% AA) @ 50 min.

Extras
-------
0.50 Whirlfloc @ 15 min.
0.50 tsp Yeast Nutrient @ 15 min.
1.00 oz Earl Grey Tea @ Kegging

Yeast
------
White Labs WLP002 English Ale

Water Profile
----------------
Profile: Washington, DC

Mash Schedule
-----------------
Sacch Rest - 50 min @ 155F

Notes
-------
Brewed 5/10/14 with Audrey

Collected 7 gallons of 1.036 runnings.

OG was at 1.044 at the end of the boil, so we added.5 gallon of water to get the gravity to where we wanted it.

Chilled to 68F, racked clean wort, leaving 1 gallon behind, pitched the yeast directly from the tube, shook to aerate. Left at 65F to ferment.

5/25/14 Racked to a purged keg. FG 1.012 (3.7% ABV, 70% AA).

5/30/14 Dosed with 3 cups of tea brewed with 1 oz of Russian Earl Grey tea from PA Dutch General Store. Used a French press, dosed in stages, mixing and tasting until the flavor was where we wanted it.

Monday, June 23, 2014

American Saison - Reimagining Farmhouse Brewing

Originally part of American Sour Beers: Innovative Techniques for Mixed Fermentations
Adapted and updated from The Cult of American Saison with Nathan Zeender - BYO July/August 2011

American brewers have been inspired to recreate every style and sub-style of beer brewed anywhere in the world in their own breweries and backyards. Of the hundreds of styles defined for brewing competitions saison evades classification most effectively. Ascribing a precise definition to it is impossible, but they are united by their yeast-driven, phenolic flavors and high attenuation. Practically any wort properly fermented with a saison yeast strain, could justifiably be called a saison. Saisons cover the gamut from refreshing-straw-colored-quenchers to dark-complex-vinous-sippers. The romance of saison is that it offers the creative brewer diverse seasonal and localized variation, harking back to the time when these beers were an agricultural product of farm-life tied to the harvest. While saisons do not always feature sour or funky flavor, the best ones from both America and their native Belgium often do.

No prettier sight than homebrewed saison!Saison has a storied tradition, but is now relegated to the fringes in its Belgian home. However, it has found a strong revivalist movement among today’s artisan brewers all across the United States. Yvan De Baets, brewer of Brasserie de la Senne and Belgian beer scholar par excellence, does not hold back when it comes to saison, “I feel gratitude to the U.S. brewers for the sincere interest they have in saisons and other traditional styles, from Belgium and elsewhere. This creates a movement, with serious literature, and a solid market, leading to the rescue of styles that are almost dying in their country of origin. To put it clearly: almost no one cares about saisons here in Belgium, and I am always touched to see the enthusiasm the Americans have for those monuments of the past.”

Much of the current fervor is traced directly to 2004 when Phil Markowski’s informative Farmhouse Ales: Culture and Craftsmanship in the Belgian Tradition (Brewers Publications, 2004) was published. It is hard to imagine any creative brewer reading De Baets’ inspiring 30 page chapter on the history of saison without their head spinning with ideas – the book that launched a thousand saisons.

Increasingly, breweries across the country are dedicating themselves to the production of variations on the saison theme: Upright, Funkwerks, Stillwater, and St. Somewhere, to name just a few. Jolly Pumpkin’s Ron Jeffries, was an early adopter of traditional farmhouse techniques. In this new school the term artisan has co-opted craft in stressing hands-on, small production marked by specialization, and an uncompromising approach. Dann Paquette, of Pretty Things Beer and Ale Project, declares that traditional saison is a style lost to history. His Jack D’Or anglicizes the tradition producing what he coins a “Saison Americain,” explaining, “I would support the idea of appellation contrôlée for European producers (of saison). We talk too much these days about beers as if they're flavours of ice cream. There's got to be more to it than that.”

Wort Production
An elementary recipe inspired by Saison Dupont, the archetype of the style, could be comprised of only water, Pilsner malt, and Saaz hops, but many American brewers opt for something more complicated. Saisons were originally refreshing beers brewed for summer consumption on the farm (the original lawnmower beer), but these days it is rare to see a commercial example under 6% ABV. Even if you are aiming for a strong beer, be mindful of pushing original gravity too high; with the high degree of attenuation 1.050 (12.4°P) wort can result in a 6.5% ABV beer.

Pilsner malt is the most common saison base malt because of the clean, crisp malt character it provides. The best practice with a recipe high in Pilsner malt is to boil the wort for at least 90 minutes to volatilize DMS. Many brewers choose domestic pale malt to reduce cost, and it makes a good substitute especially in darker saisons. Vienna or Munich malt is sometimes added to provide a bready flavor and golden hue.

As a nod to saison’s agricultural past, many breweries include malted or unmalted grains in addition to barley. Wheat is especially popular, but rye has also gained considerable acclaim in beers like the Bruery's Saison Rue, and McKenzie Brew House's Saison Vautour. Rye malt imparts both a telltale grainy flavor and protein, which adds body without sweetness.

Specialty malts are relatively rare in classic pale saisons, especially caramel/crystal malts which sweeten the classic dry finish. When they are included in the grist of even hearty saisons, keep them to a minimum. For dark grains, dehusked malts like Weyermann Carafa Special and debittered black malt are ideal. The dry finish of saisons accentuates aggressive malt flavors, so excessive amounts of roasted barley or black patent can result in a harsh character. If you want the coffee and chocolate flavors of these grains, try a cold extraction to minimize their acrid bite.

A single-step infusion mash is usually adequate, but undermodified base malts may benefit from a protein rest. The saccharification rest is usually performed below 150°F (66°C), sometimes as low as 142°F (61°C) as in the case of Pretty Things’ Jack D'Or, to ensure the requisite high level of attenuation. If you opt for a cool conversion temperature, you may need to extend the rest longer than the standard 60 minutes because beta amylase does not work as quickly as alpha amylase, which is more active at temperatures in the 150s°F (67-71°C). If you include a large portion of unmalted grain, conversion will take even longer. Remember that while a positive iodine test indicates the presence of starch, a negative test does not preclude the presence of excessive unfermentable dextrins. As insurance, some brewers employ two starch conversion rests, one in the low-mid 140s°F (61-63°C) followed by another in the mid-high 150s°F (68-72°C).

If you are brewing a high alcohol saison it is beneficial to get a portion of your fermentables from kettle sugars. The neutral character of table sugar is an economical choice if your only goal is to ensure a dry beer. More flavorful options like honey, unrefined sugar, candi syrup, and even dried fruit, are good choices if you want to impart additional flavors. If malt extract provides most of the gravity, then sugar should contribute at least 10% of the fermentables, even in moderate gravity versions.

Hopping
Saisons are hopped with a wide variety of strategies from subtle to assertive. Early boil hop additions are generally moderate because the lack of residual sweetness accentuates bitterness. A small addition of hops late in the boil for aroma is common. Many American brewers are foregoing the traditional European hops in favor of brighter citrusy varieties from American and New Zealand, which complement the spicy qualities of the yeast.

Dry hopping is a good choice for saison because it contributes aromatics without increasing bitterness. There are several saisons that are so hoppy that they could easily pass for West Coast IPAs, such as Willimantic Brewing Co.’s Dyvil Hopyard Double IPA and Cabinet Artisanal Brewhouse’s Freshop Saison. However, unlike a standard IPA, even after the hops fade the yeast aromatics remain giving the beers a second life.

WY3711 French Saison fermenting in a carboy.Fermentation
Saison is a style primarily defined by its yeast, so when planning a recipe, yeast selection is paramount. The common traits that all saison strains share are the production of more spicy and peppery phenols than fruity esters, a high degree of attenuation, and a preference for elevated fermentation temperatures. Despite their high attenuation many saison strains do not leave an overly thin beer thanks to high glycerol production (making them a good pairing with Brettanomyces, which does not exhibit strong glycerol production). These strains do not need to be stressed; aerate and then pitch as many cells as you would for any other beer to avoid excess ester and fusel alcohol production.

Dupont
The Saison Dupont strain is available from both Wyeast (Belgian Saison - WY3724) and White Labs (Belgian Saison I - WLP565). Dupont is the saison yeast that all other strains are measured against. At temperatures from the mid-80s°F (30°C) into the low-90s°F (32-33°C) it produces a spicy blend of pepper, yeast, and fruit without noticeable fusel alcohol production. Patience is required because the yeast can take several weeks to attenuate a beer completely even at these elevated temperatures; at lower temperatures fermentation often stalls with considerable gravity remaining.

Bob Sylvester started fermenting his beers at St. Somewhere with a pure culture of WLP565, but experienced sluggish attenuation. However, as he explains it “[The yeast] took several generations to acclimate to the brewery environment. The first few batches took a couple of weeks to fully attenuate. We now reach full attenuation, typically down to almost zero, in three days. Seventy some odd generations later, along with whatever wild yeast picked-up from the air, I am convinced, what is now our house yeast, could ferment water. I pitch at a much higher temperature than normal, 80°F (27°C), and let it rise as it will to 90°F (32°C) or so.” He swears by the character he achieves from open fermentation in flat-bottomed wine fermentors.

White Labs produces another strain, Belgian Saison II (WLP566) that is rumored to be a different isolate from Brasserie Dupont. WLP566 has a similar character to WLP565 (although it tends to be slightly fruitier), but is less finicky to work with.

Open fermentors at Upright Brewing Co.French Saison
This strain, rumored to originate from Brasserie Thiriez, is available from Wyeast as WY3711. It produces fully attenuated beer, with a mild pepper character and more tropical fruit than other saison strains. It has gained many devotees in the U.S. because it is less temperamental than the Dupont strain. While the character of the finished beer benefits from fermentation temperatures in the low 90s°F (32-33°C), the strain will attenuate completely at temperatures as cool as the mid-60s°F (18°C). Despite rarely finishing above 1.004 it leaves an impression of body. French Saison is also an ideal strain for extract brewers who do not have as much control over the fermentability of their wort.

Like many brewers, Alex Ganum the founder of Upright Brewing, liked the flavors produced by this strain. “We use the Wyeast 3711 which I love for the fact that it produces lots of different flavors in the different worts we put it in which makes it easy for our beers to be distinct among themselves. Lots of people would probably say that they love how well it attenuates although I consider it over-attenuating and we often struggle to get the yeast to just quit at some point. It makes bottle conditioning a bit of a pain as you could imagine.” Ganum has since switched yeast a couple of times. First to an isolate from a bottle from De Ranke, and then to Wyeast 3522 Belgian Ardennes a strain he finds performs well with their open tanks and the moderate Pacific Northwest climate.

Jeff Stuffings of Jester King Craft Brewery finds BSI's French Saison strain, which serves as their house strain, to be slightly different than Wyeast’s version, despite the same source. After brewing a version of Le Petit Prince (Jester King’s 2.9% ABV table saison) at Brasserie Thiriez with the brewery’s actual house culture, he found that it was a bit cleaner with more pepper and less fruit than the French saison strains available from American yeast labs.

Though not from the same source, White Labs Saison III (WLP585) produces some similar tropical fruit notes, a slight tartness, and is easy to work. While it dries out the beer adequately, not overly so like WY3711. I typically see about 90% apparent attenuation with this strain.

Bière de Garde
For homebrewers this strain from Wyeast (WY3725) is only available at certain times of the year as a seasonal release. It ferments well from the mid-60s°F (18°C) into the high-80s°F (31°C) and is highly attenuative, even in worts with specialty malts. Despite the name, it is rumored to have been isolated from Fantôme. WY3725 produces a relatively clean character compared to most other saison strains at the lower end of the temperature range. Allowed to ferment warmer the flavor becomes considerably fruitier. WY3725 is easy to work with and performs well in stronger beers with assertive flavors, complementing spices especially well.

Farmhouse Ale
This other seasonal release (WY3726) is a close cousin to the Dupont strain, with a supposed origin at Brasserie de Blaugies. Swapping the tropical fruity notes of French Saison or Saison II for heavier banana, it provides a classic dry peppery saison character, and is again easier to work with than Dupont.

Danstar Belle Saison
First released in 2012, this was the first dried version of a saison yeast onto the market. It is a highly attenuative strain, creating a dry beer in a relatively short period of time. The flavor however, lacks the earthiness and spice of the best liquid strains. Belle Saison is also a prodigious sulfur producer, so extended conditioning may be necessary.

Blending Strains
White Labs produces Saison Ale Yeast Blend (WLP568), which retains some of the character of their Belgian Saison strain while increasing the rate of attenuation. However, if you have problems getting the Dupont strain to perform I have achieved more saison-like results by blending it with a more attenuative saison strain rather than a standard Belgian ale yeast. In 2011 White Labs released American Farmhouse Blend (WLP670), which contains Brettanomyces from The Lost Abbey in addition to a saison strain. The blend is easy to work with and creates a combination of rustic Brettanomyces funk, and peppery yeast.

East Coast Yeast produces two saison blends: Saison Brasserie (ECY08), a blend of several saison strains which works quickly and gives a nice spicy character, and Farmhouse Brett (ECY03) which has the same blend of saison strains with the addition of a strain of Brettanomyces isolated from Fantôme. When I used an early version of ECY08 I found it to be banana-heavy when young, but after mentioning this to Al Buck he removed the responsible isoamyl-acetate producing strain.

Rather than buying a pre-packaged blend from a lab, you may want to take a cue from Peter Hoey who combined the Dupont strain with 5% French Saison yeast to get the classic character with added speed and attenuation in his now defunct Odonata Saison. Dann Paquette of Pretty Things, also makes a custom blend, “We basically sort out our yeast before pitching and the blend is kind of like 50%, 35%, 14%, 1% (yes, you CAN taste that last yeast in the beer).”

I've also had promising results with the first batch I fermented with The Yeast Bay's Saison Blend. It did a fine job drying the beer out, and produced enough peppery character to cut through an aggressive hop schedule without muddling it.

Some breweries blend in their neutral house ale yeast to assist with attenuation, but concerns are possible about the flavors that strain will produce when exposed to the high fermentation temperature preferred by the saison strain. If you lower the temperature you are further reducing the attenuation and flavor contribution of what should be the primary strain, reducing the most prominent character of a saison.

Fermentation Temperature
While many breweries allow their saison fermentation temperatures to rise close to body-temperature, this may not be ideal for homebrewers. The pressure created by large volume cylindro-conical fermentors at commercial breweries suppresses ester production. I have had the best results from pitching near the low end of strains’ suggested temperature ranges, allowing the fermentations to warm slowly as the yeast works.

Many homebrewers who lack fermentation temperature control brew saisons in the summer when they are unable to brew with yeasts that require lower temperatures. This approach is risky because sudden temperature drops can cause the yeast to stall before fermentation is complete, and temperature spikes can result in the production of hot fusel alcohols or even kill the yeast if the temperature rises too high. Homebrewers relying on the ambient temperature to heat the fermentation should try to find a location that has a relatively stable temperature about 5-7°F (3-4°C) degrees below your target fermentation temperature; the exothermic yeast activity will heat the fermenting beer the rest of the way. Placing the fermentor in a large bucket of water will insulate it from the daily cycle of temperature changes.

If the temperature is too cold for the yeast, heat the fermentor with a Brew Belt, or place the fermentor in a water bath with an aquarium heater or in an insulated box with a ceramic reptile heater. The easiest way to regulate the temperature with these methods is to attach a temperature controller (like the ones many homebrewers use for their kegerators) that has a heating mode.

Terry Hawbaker, while brewing at Cabinet Artisanal, turned to a saison yeast strain (Wyeast 3711) to allow him to use fermentors whose glycol cooling jackets did not function. This takes a great deal of skill because as the temperature climbs unconstrained the yeast becomes even more active and will push the temperature higher still.

Ryan Michaels in the mash tun at McKenzie Brew House.
McKenzie Brew House
The Philadelphia-area-based McKenzie Brew House has commanded gold in French- and Belgian-Style Saison an astounding three out of the previous four years at the Great American Beer Festival® for their Saison Vautour. Remarkably each of the three wins came with a different treatment of the same base recipe: first clean fermented in stainless steel in 2007, followed by “accidentally on purpose” Brettanomyces spiked by their bottling equipment in 2009, and most recently wine barrel fermented with a mixed-microbe culture in 2010. Sadly with the exit of their brewing duo, Ryan Michaels and Gerard Olson, it remains to be seen what direction the brewery will take.

Their funky saisons were fermented with White Labs WLP566 (Belgian Saison II) for two to three days in a conical tank. Once active fermentation peaked, the portion of the beer to be soured was pumped into barrels which had been colonized by a variety of strains of wild yeast and bacteria. For the most part the source of these strains was bottle dregs from their favorite sour beers, which were added directly to the barrels without additional culturing. One of the highest complements I have been paid by a brewer was having Michaels pour the dregs from the second vintage of our dark saison into one of his barrels. Pulling samples from the different barrels with the same unsanitized thief also spreads those microbes from one barrel to the next.

When Nathan Zeender and I brewed a collaboration with them, we settled on a beer that would bridge the Belgo-French farmhouse traditions we named Irma Extra, a saison-bière de garde-bière de miel mashup fermented and aged in oak. The aim was to craft a beer that would offer a broad palette of elements that could be pieced back together after the beers had ripened separately. A single wort was split to produce four distinct variants: a clean version in stainless steel (Irma), a funky version in a red wine barrel, a miel version in a red wine barrel with a blend of honeys added directly to the barrel to preserve their aromatics, and a version in an apple brandy barrel to accentuate the classic caramel apple character indicative of bière de garde.

While most of the stainless steel fermented portion was served on tap without being soured, it was also available for blending to soften the barrel-aged beer. The base beers for most of the McKenzie Brew House sour beers are also served clean, which means that neither the recipe nor primary fermentation can be tailored. It also leads to the creation of beers that they might not have set out to brew otherwise, like a sour Baltic porter (Oer Faute). Their dry-hopped Tristessa is one of the better hoppy funky beers I have tried it was created by adding several hops socks to the barrel for the last few weeks of aging. Their Grisette (a close cousin of saison) is reminiscent of historic saison, a delectable session ale with enough sourness to enhance its refreshing wheaty flavor.

Beers age until they taste ready, which is rarely fewer than three months. It is an admittedly unscientific method, but the results are often stunning. Assistant brewer Gerard Olson would occasionally collect extra wort in a carboy to inoculate with dregs. This starter served as a good source of microbes for repitching beers at bottling or kegging. All beers are naturally carbonated and hand bottled for sale at the three McKenzie Brew Houses. When you are only doing small bottling runs for direct sales you do not have to worry about achieving the same level of consistency as a brewery that distributes. Irma Extra turned out to be a wonderfully complex saison with big notes of apple and berry, and a pleasant lactic sourness. As it warms a bit of oak comes out, but it maintains a highly drinkable balance.

Olson has since gone on to open Forest & Main Brewing Company in Ambler, PA. It is a small brewpub housed in a renovated 19th century house just outside of Philadelphia where he brews a half dozen saisons including several traditional farmhouse versions close to 4% ABV, while his partner Daniel Endicott focuses on authentic English cask ales. I've been as impressed with the beers he has brewed there as I ever was with those at McKenzie. 

Wednesday, June 18, 2014

Reality Czeck Inspired - Pilsner Tasting

Jacob bought me a Blichmann HopRocket a couple years ago when I started brewing test batches for Modern Times Beer (First Anniversary Party Tickets). As he was planning on having a huge hop back on the 30 bbl system, we wanted my homebrew batches to be as similar as they could be for beers like Fortunate Islands and Blazing World. Until I brewed a Pilsner a couple months ago, I hadn’t brewed a batch run through the HopRocket that wasn’t also dry hopped. That made evaluating the true impact of it difficult. 

A glass of my second batch of Reality Czeck Inspired Pilsner.
Reality Czeck Inspired #2

Appearance – Terrific head. Dense stiff-peaks egg white protein structure. Rises up and out of the glass initially, and doesn't drop much during a few minutes of picture-taking. Body is nearly clear, but not brilliant. I can read through the beer, but it has some haze. Guess I'll call it a kellerpils.

Smell – Hoppy - grassy and herbal. Present, but not as assertive as I hoped for with the large whirlpool and hop-back additions (4.5 oz of Perle total). Pleasant sulfur from the lager yeast (SafLager W-34/70), but otherwise clean. Grainy pilsner malt. A bit of everything, but not a lot of anything.

Taste – The flavor is classic Czech Pilsner (despite the predominantly American ingredients), more rounded than German(-style) examples. Firm, but not overwhelming bitterness that doesn’t linger. The finish is crisp grainy malt, and again slightly lagery-sulfury. It is a solid, if unremarkable, Pilsner. Very fresh and vibrant compared to most imports, but not nearly as hoppy and dry as my favorite American examples like Victory Prima, Tröegs Sunshine, and Moonlight Reality Czeck (obviously).

Mouthfeel – Fuller than I expected, especially given the starting gravity. Not chewy, but it doesn’t have the snap I look for in the best Pilsners. Carbonation is solid, about all 10 feet of line can muster without pouring half foam.

Drinkability & Notes – Solid, clean, composed, pleasant, but not mind-bending. Not that there’s anything wrong with that. I wasn’t trying to brew and IPL, but I wanted the Perle to jump out of the glass a little. Nice to have a beer on tap I can serve to my neighbors without having to give a long explanation though. Next time I'll drop the mash from 153F to 150F to help dry it out (and up the hops too!).

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