Monday, April 30, 2012

Brewing Lambic: Mythbusters Style

It is almost creepy that the barrel has a pellicle like that when it is filled with water!Lambic is the beer style who production is most plagued by myth, misinformation, and archaic procedures. However, the problem is that all of those unsubstantiated methods produce some of my favorite sour beers. After submitting an article about spontaneous fermentation in America to BYO for the July/August issue that was more of a “How To,” I thought it would be fun to make some bold statements about the evidence both against and in support of four things that everyone KNOWS about lambic.

1. Belgium (and the Senne Valley specifically) is the only place on Earth where the correct wild species of yeast and bacteria needed to ferment lambic live.

Dave and Becky's four barrel, all re-coopered bourbon barrels.While it makes for nice marketing, this simply isn’t true. First there is the sensory analysis of the similar flavors produced in various spontaneously fermented American beers (Russian River Beatification, Jolly Pumpkin Lambicus Dexterius, and Cambridge Imperial Lambics). While I haven’t had one yet that is a dead ringer for a lambic, this is a type of beer that even in Belgium demands decades of practice brewing and blending to get right.

There was a study published earlier this month (Brewhouse-Resident Microbiota Are Responsible for Multi-Stage Fermentation of American Coolship Ale) that indicated that one brewery's American spontaneously fermented beer (specifically one brewed in New England using a coolship...) shares many of its fermentation characteristics with Belgian lambic. The authors used DNA analysis to show that many of the same key families, and even many of the same species (including Brettanomyces bruxellensis), are found in both. They also showed that the progressions of the two fermentations share strong similarities. There were subtle differences, but these may alternatively be a result of differences in process, or the length of time these microbes have had to ingrain themselves into the breweries.

2. A turbid mash of a grist including 30-40% raw wheat is the only wort production option for spontaneous fermentation.

Dave's 20 gallon More Beer brew house.While a turbid mash does extract starches into the wort, it is no more necessary for brewing a lambic than a decoction is for a Bohemian Pilsner. In Belgium, 30-40% unmalted wheat is part of the legal definition of the lambic/gueuze style, so that is a large part of why there is so little variation. Luckily, there is a beer like Cantillon Iris that proves a 100% malted barley wort can work equally well. While turbid mashes are employed at most of the best lambic wort producers, this may be a result of the fact that brewers who value traditional wort production are also the ones who value adequate aging time, and appreciate classic dry flavors.

This past Saturday I helped brew lambic at Dave and Becky Pyle’s house. If you don’t remember, I attended a blending session they hosted a couple years ago, and their lambic earned them NHC Brewer of the Year honors in 2005. Their wort production method doesn’t deviate far from a standard ale. This batch was half Pilsner malt and half malted wheat, mashed for 75 minutes in the low 150s F. There was no intensive near boiling sparge, and it was followed by a standard 60 minute boil.

3. A large quantity of aged hops is a requirement of the style.

The problem with aging hops to debitter them is that while their alpha acids are oxidizing into insoluble compounds, beta acids oxidize to become potent bittering compounds. The main role of hops in a spontaneous fermentation is to inhibit heat tolerant Lactobacillus that would lower the wort pH before the Saccharomyces can complete its initial fermentation. Most of the compounds that are anti-microbial are also bitter. Russian River uses around 25 IBUs of fresh hops in most of their standard sour beers with good results, this should be more than enough to inhibit even wild strains of Lacto.

Seven ounces of well aged Magnum hops added to the boil.While sour and bitter do clash, just a year of aging cuts the IBUs in half. By the time most spontaneously fermented beers are ready to be consumed, about two years after brewing, the IBUs in the wort will be below the flavor threshold even if you start around 30. However, the large quantity of aged hops may provide other compounds, glycosides, which can be stripped of their glucose molecule by certain strains of Brett and contribute unique aromatics.

4. You can’t start a spontaneous fermentation without a coolship.

Back to the Pyles. After the standard boil, with aged hops added at the start and mid-point, they run the wort through a plate chiller to drop the wort temperature to 68 F. From there it is pumped directly into the barrel (the water which had been hydrating the wood until a few minutes prior, remarkably had a pellicle). They started their house culture a decade ago with commercial pitches of the key microbes, but since then they have relied on the yeast and bacteria resident in the barrels, and from 750 ml of beer from one of their established barrels, to induce fermentation. The result is finished gueuze and kriek with an amazing, almost savory mushroom/loam aroma, along a sharply acidic lemon funk.

The plate chiller that the Pyles won as part of their NHC Brewer of the Year honors.While Belgian lambic brewers do get some activity from the wild microbes that land on the wort as it slowly cools, so too does their house character develop from the reuse of barrels. In particular the air invites enteric bacteria, which produce a wide variety of funky fatty acids (along with alcohol and acid) that form the basis for some of the fruity esters formed by Brett over the months and years to come.

Big Boom?
The problem with experimenting with lambic production, and sour beers in general, is that the waiting time is so long. Most brewers, myself included, are hesitant to take a risk that saves a few hours on brew day if there is any chance it could detract from a finished beer that takes years to ferment and age. It is also hard to say how much the subtle effect of these shortcuts may cause because controlled research is basically impossible with spontaneous fermentation (even using identical processes and microbes the variation fermentor to fermentor can be gigantic).

My first spontaneously-fermented-turbid-mashed-aged-hop-infused-lambic should be ready to bottle in a month or two. I'm just waiting for the mulberries on the tree in my backyard to ripen, so that I can harvest them and rack half of the batch onto about two pounds per gallon. I just gave a small sample of the base beer to Claudio, who is going to see what microbes he can isolate from it. Look for a post about it on his blog, DC Yeast Lab (Plating DCambic).


-- said...

Here in Virginia my garage can be sweltering during Summer and just above freezing during winter. Do the Pyles climate condition the garage where the barrels of lambic ferment and mature? If not, have they found this to be an issue?

The Mad Fermentationist (Mike) said...

Their garage is not temperature controlled, and as a result does get very hot and cold throughout the year. They avoid brewing a new batch in the heat of summer so that primary fermentation (if you can call it that) is completed at relatively normal temperatures. Their beers certainly get sharp as they age, but blending is the only thing they do to counteract this.

Amanda said...

I do all my lambics using the Steve Piatz method. Half Golden Light DME, half Wheat DME, maltodextrin, aged hops, Lambic Blend and bottle dregs.

They've won nothing less than gold in comps and I have one of them going to the second round of the NHC this year.

I don't think it takes much to craft an amazing straight lambic.

The Mad Fermentationist (Mike) said...

Congrats! I think most of it is having the right microbes and giving them adequate time to do their thing.

My beer will see yours there, the Cabernet grape aged sour Nathan and I brewed won first at the Pittsburgh region as a fruit lambic.

Anonymous said...

Any chance we can get a post on a walk through on their brew day. Might be boring if they don't do anything differently then any other ale, but it might be interesting.

Ben said...

Also, I hope we'll get to hear all about the feedback you get from all of your awards/comps. Congrats again.

The Mad Fermentationist (Mike) said...

My original plan was to make this post a brew-day recipe thing… but there wasn’t much complexity to the process. 50/50 Pils and malted wheat, 150 F is their target, but this one ran a few degrees higher. Sparge was around 175 F. For half the barrel they usually add one pound of well aged hops at 60 minutes, and another half pound at 30 minutes (although Dave grabbed some aged Magnums, so lowered that amount for this batch). OG ~1.048. Then through the plate chiller and directly into the recently rinsed barrel. Sunday he was going to brew the second batch to fill the barrel. He said after that he would ignore it for at least six months.

Next Monday I’ll be posting judging notes about my beers from the first round of the NHC. Of course the three beers to advance had to be the ones I’m almost out of!

Amanda said...

Congrats Mike!

But hey, having three beers move on is not a bad problem to have...

I'm looking forward to seeing my score sheets as well. When did you get yours?

The Mad Fermentationist (Mike) said...

Thanks, my scoresheets showed up Monday, about a week after judging in Pittsburgh wrapped up.

Matt said...


Can you please elaborate on how the Pyles created their house culture. Which "key microbes" were selected, what was there selection criteria, and how did they isolate the specifically desired microbes? Great post, thanks in advance.

The Mad Fermentationist (Mike) said...

The microbes were just commercial one liter pitches from Wyeast. I believe they used the big three: Lacto, Pedio, and Brett (plus ale yeast). Sort of like a sourdough starter though, you can begin with whatever you want, but eventually the local microbes will take over. If I was starting I would probably get a big pitch of Wyeast Lambic Blend, and then add whatever dregs and other microbes you can get. Start out with lots of bugs and let them decide the winners.

I just saw Dave earlier today and he mentioned that he would swing by the blog to answer any questions (and correct anything I got wrong). So feel free to post any questions you have.

gamb0056 said...

Hi Mike -
I'm planning my first lambic brew day and I'm torn between doing the turbid mash schedule as layed out by Jim Liddil on his site (and used by you in your lambic 3.0) and using what you've specified as the Pyle's method. Obviously the Pyle's method is a much easier brew day, but I wonder about whether there is enough wort complexity without the turbid mash or raw wheat to achieve a good, complex lambic profile - especially considering I'll be starting with a much simpler culture than the Pyle's (likely the Wyeast Lambic blend + some JP dregs). I wonder if adding some maltodextrin would be helpful if using a single infusion mash and malted wheat? Thoughts?

The Mad Fermentationist (Mike) said...

If you want more dextrins you could also up the saccharification rest temperature. Since you have a healthier brewer's yeast from the start than the Pyles that would save more fermentables for the other microbes. You can always add some maltodextrin down the road if it dries out before you get adequate sourness. Honestly Brett will do its funky thing with or without much gravity drop.

Anonymous said...

A few questions about the Pyles.

Do they have run off problems with so much wheat?

What size system are thye running if they can fill a 50G barrel in 2 brews?

From what I can gather all of the sour and lambic producers clean their barrels very well to reduce the numbers of sour bugs from batch to batch. It seems like the Pyles do just the opposite and let the bugs ride from batch to batch.

I really like the way their beer sounds with a lemony edge to it. Personally I like a hit of funk, but not straight barnyard; especially if we are talking about bottling up 50G!



The Mad Fermentationist (Mike) said...

No problems with run-off, although they use a false-bottom. Although 50% wheat isn't too bad on my system either if I am gentle on the crush. Some rice hulls never hurt if you are concerned though.

It is a 20 gallon More Beer system, but they boil the final runnings in the HLT for the barrel brews to get enough volume.

As they aren't using a coolship they need to maintain more microbes in the barrel from batch to batch. Sours are all about figuring out what works for your setup and palate. No easier way to make a bad beer than blindly follow most of what a brewery does.

Agreed, that is the tough thing with barrels as a homebrewer, all your eggs in one basket.

B-Dub said...

As a follow up to your reply; thanks as always.

I am trying to get a more balanced sour through yeast selection and timing. I posted on BBB the other day about my plan. I want to move a 10G barrel in a more balanced direction with brett Trois and brett C before adding some brett L from WLP. During the winter I hope to get a hold of some East Coast Yeast like I had in the past with the trades. For now I have to use what is available from the LHBS.

I love the fact that their barrels produce what sounds like a balanced beer without adding any more yeast(s). I am just thinking from my experience the barrels I was using would be more sour than bretty (is bretty a word?). Mike thanks again for such a great blog and attention to detail that makes yours a pleasure to read.

Yes, I have been drinking your least favorite beer: a Triple. Or at least a beer made in the Triple idea. But rest assured I plan on a soured Irish Red from a Red Wine barrel with ECY added for about a year before bottling.

Sour on my friends.


The Mad Fermentationist (Mike) said...

I've always been hesitant to do staggered pitching, but it seems to work well for a variety of breweries (Russian River etc.). Our solera have certainly gone more acidic than funky, so I've been trying to pitch extra Brett when I have it around.

Soured Irish Red? Sign me up!

karl said...

I have been working with small oak barrels (10 and 15 gallon capacity) to brew Lambic and Flanders Style beers for the last several years. I have brewed fruit lambics in as short as two years, and completed a straight lambic over the course of three. Flanders ales have been brewed in periods less than a year (although there are some pedio related off flavors when young) and had others that fermented for 3 years. I have produced fruit styles of lambics such as Kriek and Framboise, using frozen fruit, fruit juice concentrates, fruit syrups (not recommended), and fresh fruit.

In addition to these, I have fermented other styles of beer (Belgian Strong ales) in barrels to develop some wild character, fermented my own American Style wild ales, and even wood fermented a barrel of Wit beer wort from my local microbrewery to great success (it currently tastes like a straight lambic.

I believe that using a 10 gallon barrel, a decent lambic can be brewed in a period as short as a year, and that a distinct house character develops after the first few years. The hardest part has been the patience involved in the waiting. I try to cycle my brewing so that extra wort might be available to make up for the angels share and tasting, but my beers have been extremely well received, and I usually win multiple awards for them in my regional homebrew competitions.

Unknown said...

Hi there,

really keen to try a lambic. I have a tutor that has a 55l wooden barrel he is willing to lend me. Problem is, it is old and state inside is unkown. It looks like it shouldn't leak after an initial soaking for a couple days.

I work for a big brewery here in Germany and have all sorts of industrial chemicals at my disposal, but everything i read leans toward no using them.

I think the barrel hasn't been used in 10 years and was wondering if it would be kosher or weather you would go for a glass carboy?

Would love some advice

The Mad Fermentationist (Mike) said...

I would start brewing sours in carboys. Barrels are really exciting, but they aren't necessary, and a bad one could ruin the beer! Start a few carboys with different microbes, amounts of oak, mashes etc. then you can blend to create a balance you enjoy.

If you end up wanting to use a barrel, I'd be wary of the one you describe. What was in it previously? Give it a smell and an inspection inside with a flashlight. Don't use it if it smells moldy/vinegary or looks to have anything growing it it!

Good luck!

Unknown said...

Cheers for the extremely quick answer.

Yep, think you are right so will start a few carboys going soon.

Had a few more questions and hoped you would help......

I have about 2kg of old Strisselspalter pellets with an original alpha of 3.4%. I was given them from a brewery as they had been stored terribly and are about 2 years old. the have been stored warm and in the sun. They are still green , haven't turned brown yet but are smelling quite cheesy.

Is there anyway to age them quickly? I had thought about a brown paper bag in our warm celler or just putting em out in the sun. I am really struggling to get any really old hops and think these will be my best bet.

I was also just going to use a packet of Lambic liquid yeast from one of the major yeast suppliers but am interested by your comment about different microbes in different carboys. I have 3 20l carboys and was keen to try a few. But what would yoou suggest. All of the liquid packs are either Lambic mix or just one kind, Brett or lacto etc. What would you suggest?

Cheers for your help, the germans don't consider Lambic a beer so hard to get any info from any of the master brewers i know.

Roman said...

Hey, great post. I've had a pLambic in an oak barrel for around 4 months at around 21C, with White Labs Belgian Sour mix pitched into it. It's a 30l barrel filled with 20l. Pellicle is well developed but I get a lot of acetic acid when I smell and taste it. Will this subside with time or should I just pour it out? Thanks