January 14, 2013

Thinking about a massive realignment of my brew house

This bar exam preparation is whipping my ass. It's an enormous amount of information to slurp down in ten weeks to regurgitate in a three day exam that determines whether the six figures of debt I accrued to get my Juris Doctor can be shaped into a career or just the most expensive piece of paper I'll ever own. So unfortunately I'm a little behind on my brewing to post a new recipe or do some research to write about something innovative. However, I have some sparse ideas percolating and I'm trying to squeak out a few sentences here and there as a mental break although most of my break time is sleep or staring zombie-like at the wall. Even my workouts have become an opportunity to try to memorize the rule against perpetuities or the M'Naghten rule for insanity defenses. After the bar, however, I'll spend the two months waiting for exam results (two of the three days are written exams that must be hand graded) learning the practical elements of the legal practice and business before [hopefully] opening my own firm. I plan on trying to get caught up on my brewing during that time as well. Anyway, here's something I've been turning over in my mind the past few months.

Like a lot of homebrewers, I brew on a loose schedule of what I want to drink for the next several months or even, as I do, for the next year. If you brew sour/funky beers you have beers quietly aging for a year or more. In addition to beers I think will be neat to consume I have a few long term projects going, such as my lambic solera, wild ale, and Petrus clone. Since I booked up my 2013 brewing schedule I'm pretty well locked in to my schedule this year with grains and hops purchased. However, I have a couple of bigger picture projects I've been toying with for a while that I'm considering for 2014.

One of those projects is to brew a lot of saison. I love saison, it's probably my favorite non-sour style (lambic wins overall). It's a diverse style and it lends incredibly well to experimentation, especially if you can manipulate the yeast into giving you a complementary flavor profile. So I have a lengthy list of saisons in mind to brew ranging from the pedestrian to hoppy to using some really crazy ingredients. I'm still working on the list and shaping those recipes, albeit very slowly. I might brew some of these saisons this year should I find myself chugging down my other 2013-scheduled homebrews quicker than I planned. However, I'll table this idea for the time being because it's not really what I wanted to write about today.

The other project I'm contemplating is developing a New Belgium-like system of creating sour-blend beers. New Belgium brews two lagers, a brown and blond, that they use in different proportions to make all their sour and sour-blended beers. Similarly, I could brew a Flanders red or amber ale and a blond ale (maybe a saison or Belgian blond?) and use those beers individually, blended together and blended with clean beers to create a wide array of unique beers. By blending with clean beers I can both stabilize the sour portion to create bottle-stable beers or blend the sour beers with very dry clean beers that can go in the bottle completely alive but without too much residual sugar have minimal risk of bottle bombs. It sounds like a really fun idea but there's several issues I have yet to work out.

The source of all the problems is that it seems like I would have to plan everything really well and dedicate pretty much all of my fermentors (other than the lambic solera) to this project. The problem is that if I brew, say five gallons of each sour beer, that's two large fermentors that get dedicated for at least a year and probably in perpetuity to keep the two sour base beers in supply. I have a couple corny kegs I use for fermentation that could take that role. However, the problem is what to do with the unblended beer after using only part of it for blending? If I blend two of five gallons of the amber sour that leaves three gallons in the fermentor. While I'm not too panicked about headspace, I am slightly concerned with it on a sour beer, especially when it requires moving the fermentor around the house to bottle.

Additionally, if I leave beer behind I can't replenish it with fresh wort because that means I can't take any more beer out until the new wort ferments out and sours. The only solution available to me would be to break down the remaining beer into gallon jugs and then refill the corny with new wort to start over souring for the next year. Well that's a lot of gallon jugs hanging out and I only have so many jugs and so much space. If I exhaust everything I have then there's not much room to ferment clean beers for blending.

Another related issue is unless I want the blended beers to continue to develop in the bottle -- a dangerous idea risking bottle bombs at worst and gushers at least -- I will need still further fermentors available to stabilize the sour portion prior to blending and bottling. All in all, I'm not sure I have the house space and fermentor space available for this idea.

Developing the recipes for the blend will also be a tricky task. Not knowing what the sour beers will taste like and what proportions will make the best beer I am stuck designing recipes and blends blindly and hoping they all turn out ok. Then I will have to adjust the recipe and try again the next year. It could be a long (years) process of tweaking both the clean and sour recipes and tweaking the blend.

I recognize that I could get a CO2 tank, since I don't keg beer, and flush the corny keg out with CO2 to eliminate the headspace issues but with my student loan payments starting up this summer I don't want to be in a position of buying more equipment and even if I had the cash on hand I'm quickly running out of room for homebrew equipment. So it's probably the easiest idea -- and not completely off the table -- but for now not an option. Even if I used the CO2 to flush the headspace, eventually the beer would still have to come out of the fermentor to make room for new beer so the soured portion left over would have to go into another vessel anyway. 

I suppose I could commit the beginning stages of this process to brewing very few beers and blending in large quantities and that would also reduce the need for as many fermentors. For example, I could just blend 1-2 beers with each sour beer and bottle some of the sour base beer straight and do all the bottling at once. That would seem like an easy solution although it takes the fun out of making it a year long process and being able to produce many beers. Still, it is a good starting point.

What do you think? How would you approach these issues?


  1. I brewed a saison this fall and it turned out pretty well. However, it was supposed to be a pumpkin saison, and the pumpkin flavor really didn't come through at all. Still, it turned out nice and spicy so I've been pretty happy with it, and I got to use more hops than I've ever used.

    I started putting together my own homebrew blog and I'm way behind, but I'm working on getting some recipes posted.

    Good luck with the bar exam!

    1. Thanks!

      I haven't had great luck with getting pumpkin flavor out of pumpkin. I think the pumpkin pie spices really drive the pumpkin flavor in the beer.