Ah lambics…what can be said that hasn’t already been said? With sours becoming the new trend in beer there has been an explosion of interest in lambics, oud bruins, Flanders reds, etc. I think with lambics most people get their first impression from a Lindeman’s (or similar) fruit lambic. Although these are very tasty products and they are lambics, they are also backsweetened to produce something very different from the traditional lambic. I think it’s unfair to say their products are not lambics, because they are fermented spontaneously and aged like any other lambic. Although heavily backsweetened, many Belgian brewers have looked to increase the marketability of their products by backsweetening or lowering the sour portion of mixed beers. So I don’t think it’s fair to discount them as what they are. However, for homebrewers, unless you plan on using campden to kill everything in the lambic, backsweeten and force carbonate in a keg, you’re going to have a really hard time getting anything as sweet as Lindeman’s fruit lambics. You can make really great lambics. (I also discuss lambics and this point in greater detail in the fake kriek recipe.)
Traditionally lambics are brewed from 60% pilners malt and 40% unmalted wheat. They undergo a very long mash process known as a “turbid mash” which makes for a very starchy wort. The wort is then boiled for a very long time (minimum two hours) with additions of aged hops and then cooled in large vats known as coolships that all the beer to come in contact with the native bacteria and yeast in the areas of Belgian lambics are typically brewed. They are then aged for anywhere from six months to several years. They can be aged secondarily on fruit, served with some sugar as faro, sold as straight unblended lambic, or blended to form gueuze.
A lambic is not an infected beer. Nor is an infected batch of beer going to become a lambic. A lambic is a specific type of beer fermented with a specific set of critters (those found in the breweries of Belgium). While I suppose you could spontaneously ferment beer and let it age and call it a lambic because you followed the same process, you are highly unlikely to develop something that tastes like a Belgian lambic. You’re going to get different bacteria and yeasts floating around in your neighborhood than what floats around in Brussels. I think of lambic as a type of wild ale, not the other way around. Ok, ok, enough beer snobbery. Let’s get back to brewing.
So some time ago I really started giving serious thought to brewing lambics. I don’t have a ton of space available for fermenting so it’s hard to give up a lot of the space I have to something that will take years to develop, which means at least one fermenter is going to get occupied and the space for that fermenter to go will be occupied. If I want to add fruit or anything to part of it, that’s more space I’ll lose for another six months. Earlier in the year I came across some discussions of people who brew lambics through a solera process. Basically for this purpose, the solera is a fermenter that is allowed to fully ferment and age, then part of the beer is removed and fresh beer is put back in and the fermentation process starts all over. (For more information on how solera really works, google “sherry solera”.) One benefit is that you get some lambic each harvest but you can keep having new batches brewed. The harvested lambic can be bottled, put in secondary and aged on fruit, or just kept separate to blend in the future. The other benefit is that over time the average age of lambic in the fermenter will rise (to an extent) and your harvest will be more mature lambic. This is important because maturation develops a lot of the lambic flavor.
In my case, I have bought a six gallon Better Bottle to use as my solera. I will ferment six gallons and remove 3-4 gallons annually. I will have a fresh batch each year but after a couple of years the average age of the beer each year will be about 1.5 years. I plan on taking the harvested beer each year and doing different things with it. The first year I’ll probable split up the harvest and put some aside for blending and bottle some as straight lambic or faro. Then I’ll probably do some fruit lambics the next year. I have a long time to decide! At four gallons you’re not getting much beer so the lambic will be reserved mostly for special occasions, rather than put into rotation.
Brewing six gallons is a real strain on my brewing system. I brew on a stovetop with a SS 5 gallon and an aluminum 8 gallon pot. Because pilsner is used, I will have to do a 90 minute boil at minimum, which will require 7.5 gallons into the boil (6 gallons plus 1.5 gallons of boil off). I have a tough time getting 6 gallons to boil. I’ll probably have to boil small amounts and add it together until the whole thing is boiling and hope it stays that way. I may need to straddle a couple burners to get more heat on it, too.
I made some changes to the traditional process to reflect my set up and experience. I am not using aged hops. Although I could “age” hops in the oven, I chose not to do that this time (although I probably will in the future). I also chose not to use unmalted wheat. I think I will suffer some loss on flavor complexity that way, but it also means the turbid mash is not necessary (it helps break down the starches in unmalted wheat) so I can cut down a lot of brewing time to make up for how long it will take to reach boil. I used malted wheat. Instead of the turbid mash, I am doing a triple decoction mash, as I have become adept at that process. I am also not spontaneously fermenting. I am using the Wyeast Lambic Blend 3278 with the dregs of Lindeman’s Cuvee Rene, which is their ownly unpasteurized product. The dregs will add some additional bugs that will help bring complexity to my beer. I will also add 0.75oz of oak chips to the beer. I’m not looking for much oak flavor, although I am sure some will be imparted and survive the long aging, but because I am not barrel aging or adding an oak dowel I want to provide the oak as a source of cellulose. Brett can chew up and convert it so it provides a food source for those fellers. Plus, I can use the oak chips as a starter for a future lambic whenever I decide the time is over for this solera.
The oak chips I have were boiled for several hours, left in wine for a day and left in water for about a week with daily changes of the water. They are still imparting a lot of flavor and color into the water. I don’t really want much oak flavor in the beer and I wouldn’t add them except I know that oak flavor will dissipate over a long period of time.
The recipe is straight forward:
4.75 lb wheat
7.25 lb pilsner
Mash water: 3.75 gal
Sparge water: 5.55 gal
Triple decoction mash with rests at 89 (45 min), 122 (1 hour), 150 (30 min), 158 (30 min) and mash out at 168.
Boil time: 90 minutes
0.75oz at 90 min
The mash went off fairly well. I hit my temperatures except for the acid rest, which was too warm. I traded off the sparge water with the decoctions on the same burner during the entire mash process (about 3 hours) to make sure it was at the right temperature when I did the mash out. The rise time on that much water on a stove is insanely long. As I came to the end of the mash I had to work separate burners for the decoction and the sparge water because it wasn’t getting very hot very quickly. During the sacc. rests I started taking cups of water out, boiling them in the microwave and adding them back in to the sparge water to increase the temperature.
It took an hour and a half to sparge the mash because it stuck almost immediately. The saving grace is that it allowed me to start boiling part of the total volume so by the time I finished sparging I was close to having the entire volume boiling. I was afraid the repeated boils wouldn’t take care of the hot break because if it didn’t and the pot started to foam over I’d have a real mess.
I boiled everything up, cooled it down to the upper 70s and pitched the Rene Cuvee dregs and the lambic blend after giving it some shaking for aeration. Pitching occurred around six that evening and I checked on it at nine the next morning and there was already a thick krausen. The following morning I woke up to some blow off and a quickly clogging airlock. I cleaned out the airlock and attached a blow off tube. Here’s some pictures from the first day. You can see it is thicker on the last picture which was taken early in the evening.
Primary fermentation ended within a couple of weeks in the same way any other beer would. It is slowly offgassing in the usual fashion. It has a delicious smell but so far no pellicle, which is to be expected. I don't expect to see a pellicle form for several months. We'll see.