Fall Update: Sours

Ah, beer, beer, beer… I spend most of my day thinking about recipes, listening to the BN, planning the next brewday; but not nearly enough time writing about it.  I do apologize, dear readers.  It is not for lack of brewing, but indeed because of brewing! So I would like to do a few catch-all posts to hit the high points of what we have been up to in the garage.  The first will look to our sour beers.

ECY Oud Bruin

By now, my love of Belgian ales should be readily apparent.  And so when I had the opportunity to acquire some East Coast Yeast, you had better believe I jumped at the opportunity. [An aside: If you ever find yourself with the opportunity, I suggest you do the same!  Fill up your Internet-shopping-cart and run for the paypal line.  The mistake I made was hemming-and-hawwing over which strains would fit into my brew schedule; meanwhile, yeasts were selling out and being subtracted from my cart.  Don’t overthink it! Select and pay, and figure it out later — these yeasts don’t come around often enough. And word on the street is, they will be a bit further delayed after the heat of the summer and all this Sandy/Nor’easter business.] These yeasts come highly recommended and I was quite excited to try my hand at a sour ale. After consulting the wise interwebs, I dove in and have been gently coaxing my bugs along for several months now. The thing about sour ales is you had better have patience — we are talking months and years, where we normally talk about days and weeks.  I pulled a hydrometer sample yesterday and I think we are in the home stretch on this one.  The FG is down to about 1.019 and it tastes wonderfully complex: A lot of Lactobacillus up front — assertive, but not overpowering or vinegar-y —  followed by a soft, dark fruity malt finish.  I got a bit of an oak character too, which is a nice surprise since there has so far been no oak introduced to this beer. What was it Lisa Simpson said about Jazz — You have to listen to the notes that she is not playing, or something to that effect.

Initially, I thought that I would have to wait quite a while for this beer to finish up. However, after listening to Jamil’s episode on the style, it seems that perhaps that is not necessary?  My takeaway was that it is done whenever it tastes like it is done. Long story short, this may be the best beer I’ve made yet. We will give it another couple months and then bottle and cork it.

Sueur de Cheval: All-Brett Belgian Rye

The second sour ale that I decided to take on was an original recipe, using only Brettanomyces Bruxellensis (WLP650) for fermentation, which I am calling Sueur de Cheval — a wink-and-nudge to Michael Jackson’s all too oft-quoted descriptor of Brett character as “horse blanket”. [Another aside: Do you see many cicerones around stables? riding out on the ranch? What does a horse blanket smell like, pray tell? Furthermore, how does it taste? Can we move on from this meaningless phrase?]  I was inspired to take on this project after reading a wonderful article on Brett in a recent issue of Zymurgy. I decided on Brett B., as it seems to be the most middle-of-the-road.

Here’s the recipe:

8 lbs  Belgian Pilsner
2.5 lbs  Rye
8 oz  Carapils
1 oz  Crystal (5.2%AA) (60)
0.5 oz Crystal (15)
0.5 oz Crystal (5)
WLP650

I mashed around 152, which is probably a bit high.  However, according to the article, the Brett will eat through just about anything you give it and produce an exceedingly dry beer. So I figured, why not mash a little higher and balance this out a bit. If I had to do it over again, I would also add a bit of acidulated malt, which helps to drop the pH of the mash and provide an ideal environment for the yeast. I was more restrained with the hops than I normally might be, since I am seeking to showcase the Brett character. This was my first time using Crystal hops, which I chose due to their being described as “mild and spicy” — hopefully a good complement to the rye.  As for fermentation, I pitched at ambient temperature (around 74F) and let it free rise.  It has been sitting in the high 70s for about six weeks now.  I pulled a hydrometer sample the other day and found that (although it is far from finished) it already had a mild funk to it and was quite pleasant. I took a look a week or so later and found a beautiful pellicle had formed.

Very excited to see how this one turns out!

Brett Pellicle

The Solera Method

Doing sour beers can be dangerous territory for a number of reasons.  For one thing, you have to be extra careful in your sanitation.  Most folks recommend purchasing a new set of plastic (your glass carboys will clean up just fine), and that is what I did. The second reason is that it ties up your fermenters for months at a time.  Every now and again, the big online stores will have a sale on carboys — I suggest stocking up ahead of time.  But lastly, and most importantly, it is seriously addictive.  I totally get why folks who start brewing wild ales stick with it: It unleashes a certain creativity that demands patience, improvisation, and hopeless optimism.

And then there is the art of blending.  I just don’t think I have it in me to wait several years to drink a beer (yet).  However, I would relish the opportunity to try the Solera method.  In a sense, this is sort of a lazy-man’s way to try blending: First, you fill a barrel with your beer and inoculate it with bugs. After it has soured up and you are satisfied with how it is tasting, you rack off a portion of that beer and then fill the barrel back up with fresh beer.  Then you let that sour up, and repeat ad infinitum. I imagine after a while you develop a feel for what beer will pair well with what is in the barrel and can plan accordingly.  There are a few advantages to this method: One being that you never have to worry about your barrel drying out or going bad.  You also will always have a new, (hopefully) delicious sour ale at your finger tips.  And if you are one of those homebrewers who (like me) is trying to hone in your technique and striving for consistency, it is a refreshing opportunity for inconsistency: You are continually meeting a beer you’ve never met before. And how cool is that?