Friday, August 5, 2011

The Great Souring Experiment

So many carboys of sour beer...The first Friday of every month marks “The Session” when participating beer bloggers all post their take on single topic.  Getting bloggers to write about the same thing is a great way to promote discussion and the exchange of ideas. I’ve never joined in before (I tend to be anti-blogger-social), but with August’s sour beer topic it seemed like a good time to give it a shot. This blog delves into brewing sour beers more than occasionally, so I was torn on exactly what to write about.  An overview of brewing sours didn't seem interesting or specific enough (not to mention that I've already posted one).  While homebrew bloggers participate in The Session, it is predominantly bloggers who focus on craft beer, so I wanted to do something that even people who don't brew would find interesting.

While stripping labels from a few cases of bottles, I started thinking about how much beer I have to bottle over the next few weeks and what I’ll be brewing to fill all of those emptied carboys.  While working on my book I've researched all of the different techniques that brewers have come up with to turn beers acidic, but I've had a hard time comparing the results because each brewery sticks to just one (or at most two) methods.  Comparing results between breweries has its own problems because of the large variation in microbe selection, aging temperature, grist, aging vessel etc...  So I dreamed up:

The Great Souring Experiment!

Concept: 
Produce a series of sour beers using different methods, while controlling for as many variables as possible by using the same ingredients, microbes, and equipment to isolate the character that each method imparts. 

Methods:
1. Inspired by Russian River (Temptation): single infusion mash, ferment with a Belgian ale strain, fine and crash cool to remove the yeast, pitch Brettanomyces, followed a few weeks later by Lactobacillus and Pediococcus.

2. My standard: same wort as #1, but pitching all of the yeast and bacteria into the wort at the same time.

3. Inspired by The Bruery (Marrón Acidifié): same wort as #1, but with 100% Brett/Lacto/Pedio fermentation (no brewer's yeast).

4. Inspired by Ithaca (Brute): replace ~14% of the malt with acid malt, ferment with an English ale strain, followed by secondary with Brett.

5. Inspired by Pizza Port (Mo' Betta Bretta): Sour the wort pre-boil with Lactobacillus, followed by fermentation with 100% Brett.

6. Inspired by Cambridge Brewing (Cerise Cassée): Sour mash in a carbon dioxide flushed mash tun, primary fermentation with an ale strain, and finally secondary with all of the microbes.

Almost all American breweries that publicly discuss their method use some variation on one of these six. Trying all of these methods would provide new tools for making sour beers, as well as insight into how the same microbes behave under a variety of conditions.

Variables:
I'd suggest using a pale base beer to let the microbes' character shine. The recipe could be as simple as 80% pilsner, 20% flaked wheat to 1.050 with ~15 IBUs of noble hops added near the start of the 90 minute boil.  To avoid variations due to microbe selection/viability use the same pure cultured microbes for each batch (avoiding the variability of bottle dregs).  I'm thinking of using Wyeast Lactobacillus and Pediococcus for sourness and their Brett bruxellensis and Brett lambicus for funk.  All of the batches should be aged at the same temperature and in the same type of fermenter.  At packaging they should each receive the same amount of carbonation.

Final Thoughts:
I'd be interested to hear if anyone has other methods to suggest for comparison.  I did not include spontaneous fermentation (even though it is gaining in popularity, and my first American Lambic tastes great after just four months) since it wouldn't be the same microbes.  Including a duplicate of one of the first three methods, switching the single infusion to a turbid mash to show what it actually adds to the final character.  Using one gallon jugs for fermentation would allow for splitting the wort from one mash in several ways to reduce the amount of brewing required.

Ideally, brew all of the batches in quick succession so they have similar ages for the more accurate comparison. After 12-18 months bottle some of the beer straight and use the rest to find how the characters meld and mesh. I'm not sure whether I'll have the time or effort to pull this off, and even if I do it will be a few months before I can fit them into my schedule.  Interested to hear if other people think it would be worth the effort, or if anyone has tried something similar.

28 comments:

mc said...

I'd be curious if there would be anyway to replicate what Cascade has been able to do with their beers (i.e. only using lactic cultures).

The Mad Fermentationist (Mike) said...

It should be pretty easy if you can get a starter going from their dregs. I talked to Ron and he wouldn't spill where their culture came from, not many strains of Lacto will work the way theirs does. Other than that there doesn't seem to be much special about their procedure.

Tim said...

How about the no-boil Berliner method? A couple of the methods you listed have similar ideas but are not quite the same as the no-boil. You would have to fiddle with the recipe to hit 1.050 or just accept a lower OG.

The Mad Fermentationist (Mike) said...

Hmm, that isn't a bad idea, although I actually already have a ~1.045 imperial no-boil Berliner ready to bottle that would fit right in (besides the dregs that were added.)

Matt Becker said...

Very interested to hear how this turns out! I have a sour beer experiment comparing different commercial bacteria cultures, but nothing comparing souring techniques. Do it!

Draconian Libations said...

This is a great idea. I wish I had the time and money to pull of a gig like that. You could always settle on a set of styles and try to coordinate a certain weekend and have several brewers do the same recipe on the same day so all the variable styles are exactly the same age. Of course, I'm slightly hesitant because you never know how good and clean another brewer is and therefore introduce another variable to the equation...

Oh, what about pitching your bugs with your saccro from the initial pitch as another of your style variations?

Jorge - How To Brew Beer said...

This sounds like a great experiment... will you be adding this to your book?

The Mad Fermentationist (Mike) said...

All of the techniques will be in the book, but I'm hoping to have it out long before the beers are ready. That's the issue with writing this thing, there is no way to wait until every batch is ready and I talk to every brewer I want to; I keep brewing and trying beers and I've got to draw the line somewhere.

smokingbottle said...

I've been slowly going through some of the different ways to brew sour beers too. My main concern is finding ways to brew these which are consistently repeatable. I haven't yet worked with sour mashing but that just strikes me as not being consistent enough batch to batch... but I will try it out.

I have a beer carbing up right now which used the acid malt approach and that seems to be going very well. Not a super complex lactic but when combined with 100% brett fermentation it gives it more complexity.

Another beer I have aging right now used a technique which may be interesting for you to look at. After 15 minutes in the boil and before any hop additions I pulled out 1/4 of the batch, cooled, and pitched only lactobacillus. I let that ferment at room temp (easier to control then a high temp ferment) for a few weeks while the rest of the beer fermented with Brett. I then played with different blends of the two when racking to secondary and luckily enough 75% brett beer with 25% lacto beer was the right combo. So far it is giving me what I want.

The Mad Fermentationist (Mike) said...

How much acid malt did you use? How sour is it?

The split method, seems like a good way to give both the Lacto and Brett the right conditions. I may have to add that to the list.

Eddie said...

I dont know, I think a pilsner/wheat wort is too cliche for this kind of experiment. Using a brown or pale ale might help you see more clearly how the sourness balances the sweetness of the beer. I think going a little rogue with the experiment will make it more fun and more drinkable even if the bugs in question decide to go nuts. It might be a little friendlier to the aging process as well.

ChrisF said...

i've been thinking of trying something along the lines of what smokingbottle suggested. Though I was thinking of making a 2 and a 1/2 gallon batch to 5ibu's and pitching only lacto and then later blending with a brett/sach base with higher IBU's. I'd love to make a lactic, tart Saison, ( conventional base of pils, wheat, munich 33ibu's, 3724 + some brett c ), but I just don't see the lacto working in an environment such as that. Or... maybe even make the base wort to a higher IBU and factor in the "watering down" effect it's going to have overall on the blend. Does that even make sense? Is there anything out of that scenario that sounds off or problematic?

smokingbottle said...

I used 9% acid malt. You can see the recipe here http://smokingbottle.wordpress.com/2011/02/15/a-duck-on-my-calendar/ . I just bottled it about a week ago so I can't make a full evaluation of it yet. After I brewed it and tasted the hydro sample I thought that the sourness was going to be way too mild. When I racked it to secondary it seemed clearly sour but not where I wanted it. After 5 months of aging I was surprised when I tasted it again. The sourness seemed to have developed further, or at least had been allowed to show through more. Definitely not puckering, but nice level for this beer. I had used Brett B in hopes that it too would be producing a bit of acid to aid in complexity. It sounds like Brett B can produce more acid than the other strains if the conditions are right. I'll have to get back to you once its carbed up. If you want i'll send you a bottle. Maybe also a bottle of the Stout with the seperate Lacto fermentation (but thats not bottled yet). That lacto character is definitley different. Both are clearly lactic but the acid malt lacto is crisp and "quick" while the seperate lacto fermentation produced a complexer but also more vegetal lactic character. Luckily both suit their respective beers. Recipe for the lacto stout is here http://smokingbottle.wordpress.com/2011/04/04/rebel-without-a-clue/

The Mad Fermentationist (Mike) said...

Using a complex base beer with specialty malts would certainly be an option, but my goal is to produce a clean canvas for evaluating the methods. The more malt/hop/spice character the beer has the harder it will be to taste the flavors produced by the yeast and bacteria. This isn’t about producing the best beer possible with each of these batches, it is about learning as much as I can so I can make better beers in the future. I'm not worried about aging, never had an issue with pale sour beers.

Chris, sounds like a fun beer, just be careful not to go too bitter (sourness and bitterness don’t work well together).

It is interesting that your perception of the acidity has grown with time. Glad to hear you are happy with both beers.

Ryan_PA said...

I know you are trying to limit the scope of this experiment to cover the broad souring methods, but for future iterations, it would be interesting to see how each method is impacted by mash temp and ph. I think some approaches would be more neutral, but others would throw much more varied results, but that is a theoretical assumption - a controlled experiment would be a nice proving ground for this.

McG said...

Mike, this would be a great experiment, and a great gift to the sour beer community! I am a firm believer that the only way to really learn at depth about differences in technique and flavor is by a horizontal tasting of several examples. Only this highlights the true differences between one beer and another. Cheers to you if pull off another great experiment! I think the homebrewing world has learned a lot from your experiments over the years!

The missing variable from all these different techniques, and the real bugger for homebrewers in general with these beers, is the oxygen factor. From what I understand, these microbes behave much differently depending on the amount of oxygen present, and as far as I can tell, there is no substitute for the micro-oxygenation accomplished by a barrel. I think we could learn a ton by using conventional homebrew methods to do your experiment, but I'd be really curious to see how those beers might compare to the same beers produced in a barrel.

I'm a Brewer said...

Wow! That is a lot of Beer! When can I come over to test all of them out?

The Mad Fermentationist (Mike) said...

Good call, with each of these methods there are a host of other factors that would impact the character and success of a brew. This would be the next stage of this test, selecting the method(s) that worked best and then tweaking times/temps/microbes/barrels to dial in an “ideal” method.

When and if I pull this off I’ll certainly be setting something up with local homebrewers to sample the beers and make their own call on what character they prefer. With something like this there wouldn’t be any universal discoveries, just what flavors different people enjoy. I think there is also a lot to be said for blending, one of the Bruery’s secrets for Oude Tart is that they have several methods for fermentation giving them a wider range of characters to play with.

Ivanwho said...

Great post. We'd been discussing our next experiment in our homebrew club in the ATL and this gives us a great template. I'll be @ Russian River tomorrow, planning to throw this experiment by Vinnie and seeing if he has any add'l feedback or ideas.
On the sour mash, what % of the grain bill are you thinking. I've done 20% on a Berliner before, using a hair dryer plus controller into a igloo to keep the temp up high for a couple days.

Thanks again for the great post and general awesomeness of your blog. I'll let you know if I get anything good on feedback.

The Mad Fermentationist (Mike) said...

I was thinking of souring 100% of the mash on that one since the rest of them should be very sour.

Interested to hear if he has anything to say and if you guys end up doing something similar.

Clstal said...

Looking forward to reading updates on this! I love sours (and they're near all I brew these days) but haven't tried different methods of souring (just different bases).

Kudos!

ryanb said...

Mike - how did you gather that Ithaca Brute uses an English Ale yeast?? - Don't see any evidence of that in their description on the website (http://ithacabeer.com/category/beers/excelsior/). Was hoping to "clone" that beer in the near future...Let me know if you know something I don't. Thanks!

The Mad Fermentationist (Mike) said...

Their now former brewer (Jeff O'Neil) did an interview on the Brewing Network a year or so back. It is their house strain, which is closely related to Whitbread. ~13/14 acid malt, slightly less corn/wheat, the rest is Pils. Mash ~160 F. Fermenation is allowed to free-rise, once it hits ~1.030 it is crash chilled and pitched with Brett Drie (the Brett B variant that Avery isolated). Still not sure if it is barrel aged or not, it sounded like he said it was just aged in a unitank (with cubes/chips/spirals I assume), but a friend went on a tour there are barrels of Brute were pointed out. Hoping to talk to Jeff for the book, but haven't been able to get a new email for him since he moved to Peekskill Brewing.

Good luck!

Nilium said...

To pop back in here on a old list of comments.... I did a pair of flanders red ales toward the end of last year to compare. One was a single infusion mash the other a turbid. I noticed that I got a lot better effeciency with the turbid mash (1.064 og vs 1.049). No doubt do to additional dissolved starches, but this will have an additional effect of creating a higher alcohol environment.

dank brewer said...

what's the Jolly Pumpkin way?

The Mad Fermentationist (Mike) said...

Jolly Pumpkin does a coolish saccharification, allows wild microbes into the wort using open fermentors and their HVAC, but also pitches a Belgian ale strain. After primary they get a short dip in the barrels (weeks to months) for microbes that have taken to the wood, before blending and bottling.

Curtis said...

What is the best method you would suggest for a home brewer to do a sour mash? I think Im referring to a berliner. Basically I would like to do my mash, let it cool, pitch some bugs and dregs from a small starter/monolith sour pitch coctail, and then go on to the boil. My concern is messing up my gatorade cooler mash tun. I dont want to screw anything up with it, how do I avoid that? Just put in some 175 degree water after?

Also do I need to purge the mash? And would you have a recipe to suggest?

Thanks

The Mad Fermentationist (Mike) said...

Amazingly, I’ve never done a sour mash. Mostly because I’ve never tasted a sour mashed beer that didn’t have some amount of (what I consider to be) off flavors from the process. They are in no way traditional for German Berliner weisse, although there are plenty of American versions soured that way.

To put some of your concerns to rest, there is nothing alive in a sour mash that isn’t on the grain already. At standard mash temperatures and times, there really isn’t a risk of those microbes altering the flavor.

Most of the off-flavors from sour mashes come from air contact with the mash. Purging the mash tun with CO2 before closing each time will help. With the time involved the mixed culture really isn’t necessary. Lactobacillus is really all you need. You should complete starch conversion, cool the mash to 115-120 F, and pitch a handful of crushed grain (or another source of Lactobacillus). Wait until the desired sourness is achieved, boil, and proceed as normal. Best to keep an eye on the pH as well, if you go below ~3.5 or so many ale strains will start to have problems. A big/active pitch and plenty of yeast nutrient would be a minimum precaution.

Probably something I should try eventually. I had decent luck with the more controlled sour-worting method, and that is what I’d suggest for you. It has the same limits on sourness, but I think it Is easier to keep the flavor clean.

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