April 12, 2013

Can I use lactose to backsweeten my sour beers?

So I took a look at the stats on my blog this week and among the other data I don't pay much attention to is the search terms that brought people to my website. Sometimes I look at these terms just to see what people want to read more about and maybe what I'm rambling about that nobody cares to read. One thing that comes up a lot in the search terms is something about using lactose to backsweeten sour beers. While I don't want to start going SEO crazy here if people are looking for the information I should provide a concise answer.

The answer to your question is no, you cannot use lactose to backsweeten sour beer. 

Lactose is milk sugar and as a sugar it is subject to fermentation as long as you give it to an organism that has the enzymatic capability to ferment it. Good friend saccharomyces cerevisiae, responsible for fermenting clean beers, cannot produce the enzymes that break down lactose into smaller sugars it can metabolize. That's why your milk stouts are milk stouts: the lactose doesn't ferment. However, brettanomyces and souring bacteria do produce the enzymes that break lactose down into sugars they can metabolize. If you're not so sure I'm right, just smell some old milk. It's sour because lactobacillus and other common bacteria get in the milk and ferment out the lactose into lactic acid (among other things). If you're still not sure, just smell some sour milk alongside a sour beer. You'll notice the same lactic acid aroma in both. In milk the lactose is fermented into lactic acid. In sour beer the starches and sugars are fermented into lactic acid.

Steps you can take to backsweeten your sour beer

In this post I discuss three methods to blend clean and sour beer but you can adopt for backsweetening sour beer instead of blending:

  • use heat to pasteurize the beer, then backsweeten to your preference and add fresh yeast to bottle;
  • filter your beer and then backsweeten and re-yeast to bottle;
  • use a combination of gelatin, cold crashing and campden to stabilize the beer, then backsweeten and re-yeast to bottle.
In the comment on the post somebody pointed out that you can also avoid messing with the beer in the above methods by kegging. You can certainly keg the beer and add sugar at kegging to backsweeten so long as you can keep the keg cold so no further fermentation occurs. Of course, that only works if you have a kegging set up at home (which I don't).

The simplest method of backsweetening is to just add some sugar to your glass and pour the beer in with it. It isn't as glamorous as the other methods since you can't just crack open a bottle and pour but at least you don't have to worry about using any funky process or screwing up your beer. If you backsweeten too much in the bottle you can't take the sweetness back out but you can always dose your glass to taste and get it right every time. It's also a good option if you want to be able to see how your sour beer evolves and share it with people who may not like their sours backsweetened.

1 comment:

  1. You would be able to backsweeten with lactose if you were doing a kettle sour and added it towards the end of your boil after you sour the wort. at this point you have no worries of milk sugars fermenting out.