Monday, June 17, 2013

Sour Times at Modern Times: The Plan

Thursday will be my last day at my "real" job until September. After nearly seven years working for the Bureau of Labor Statistics, I decided to treat myself with a summer “living the dream.” Friday I'll be flying to San Diego, where for the next two months I’ll be brewing at Modern Times! Luckily my boss and wife are supportive. While I’m sure I’ll get to pull some levers and learn the basics on the 30 bbl production brew house, most of my summer with be devoted to brewing pilot batches on the 20 gallon system, and getting the sour/barrel program up and running.

Despite the temperate local climate, I pushed hard and got Jacob to install a dedicated temperature controlled space for the aging sour beers. This has two benefits: first a stable temperature in the mid-low 60s F lowers the risk of Acetobacter producing offensively vinegary beer in any of the barrels; second it helps to physically (and mentally) separate the souring microbes from the rest of the brewery. If we have blow-off from primary fermentation in barrels, or pull samples, they’ll be less of a risk of those microbes finding their way into the beers that pay the bills. The room has space for about 120 ~60 gallon oak barrels (on racks stacked five high), hopefully by the time I leave in August we’ll be around 50% capacity.

It seems like just about every new craft brewery is opening with plans for a souring program, so what will make Modern Times’ sours different? How can we hope to catch up to the quality of American breweries that have a decade (or longer) head start on us?

Microbes: We’ll start a very organic sensory-driven microbe selection process. During my first month I’ll be getting a lot of carboys and growlers filled with moderate gravity/IBU wort. Each fermentor will be inoculated with microbes obtained from a unique source: yeast labs, hobby-microbiologists, bottle dregs, spontaneous inoculations etc. That way, when the local wineries start having freshly dumped barrels available in August we’ll be ready to inoculate with a wide range of cultures. As this first generation of beers ferment and age, we’ll evaluate, propagating the best barrels forward. I want to encourage barrel-to-barrel variation, and develop a variety of cultures ideally suited for different beers.

Base Beers: We plan on brewing four 30 bbl batches of wort for sour beers this summer alone. Each will be a different recipe. Eventually some barrels will be aged on fruit, dry hops, spices, blended, while others are left plain. This will be driven by the flavors produced by the microbes in each barrel. The plan for those four initial batches is: Belgian single, lambic-ish, malty and red, and a wild card brown or bière de garde most likely.

Fruit: Being in southern California we’ll have access to a huge variety of amazing produce pretty much year round. You’ll be seeing lots of sour beers that take advantage of this. We’ll be small enough that farmers markets and eventually direct farm-to-brewer relationships for interesting varieties will be possible. As much as I enjoy sour beers made with sour cherries or raspberries (I’m sure we’ll do some) I’m more excited to add as many different fruits as I can. As with the other aspects, sensory will be the key, I don’t want to match fruits to beers before I taste either.

Me: Hopefully the skills I’ve developed brewing sour beers at home over the last seven years (and researching a book the last two plus) will give us a jump start on every aspect of the process. The other brewers (Matt, Alex, and Derek) are no slouches either, and as a team effort I have a huge amount of confidence in the sour beers we’ll be able to produce. I won't guarantee those first batches will be perfect, but I'll do my best to get them as close as I can.

A sample of Modern Times Neverwhere, pre-dry hopping.All of this doesn’t even touch on the other side of the Modern Times funky/sour program, stainless steel fermented Brett beers. The guys already have a batch of Neverwhere, my 100% Brett IPA recipe, on dry hops (Citra, Centennial, and Chinook). While most of the batch will be served on tap, we are planning to bottle a limited amount. My original batch held up surprisingly well when I bottled some of it from a party tap with a bottling wand jammed into it, but if you are lucky enough to get one it certainly won’t be a beer to sit on for long! The yeast harvested from Neverwhere will be pitched into be a slightly darker, lower gravity, and maltier beer, that is no less hoppy (heavy on the Motueka). Then we may try a pre-souring followed by 100% Brett beer after that to get something sour released before the first of the barrel-aged beers are ready in a year or so.

I’ll continue to update this blog all summer, but the format and timing of those posts probably won’t be what you’ve come to expect. If there are any aspects of the process you’d like to hear more about, please let me know. If you find yourself in San Diego, swing by the brewery and say hello!


Stefan Wiswedel said...

Sounds amazing and I'm sure you'll have a fantastic time! There will be many of us watching this space with baited breath.

What do you mean by pre-souring for the brett beers? I'm intrigued :)

Brian said...

"My original batch held up surprisingly well when I bottled some of it from a party tap with a bottling wand jammed into it..."

To me that's not terribly surprising. I bottled a Best of Show beer (out of 505 entries) by that method.

The Mad Fermentationist (Mike) said...

Pre-souring could be a sour mash, but more likely we'd just pitch Lacto, keep the fermentor warm, and monitor the pH until it hit whatever targt in the low-mid 3s we were going for. I did something similar for this Sour Old Ale.

Brian, nothing against that bottling method for short term storage/competitions, but I'm talking about a hoppy beer six months later. If you bottled a normal IPA like that, I doubt it would be drinkable after a month.

Mike said...

Man... being in San Diego the next two months is going to be rough for you (coming from a Santa Barbara expatriate now living in New Jersey and missing the mild summers). Seriously, you are going to make some awesome brew in some of the best weather on the continent--you know more about this process than anyone. Enjoy yourself and remember to have fun!

Jeffrey Crane said...

Can't wait Mike for you to come out and get your program started. I think you have a nice, well thought out plan. It seems like all of your sour beer will be barrel aged then. I know a couple sour beer producers (even one in San Diego) that keeps a portion of the batch in stainless to use for blending and give even more variation. Any plans to do that?

Unknown said...

Have fun Mike! Love this blog.

John Hill said...

Thanks for the beer brewing tips!
Great Blog!