December 27, 2010

Day One of My Lambic Solera

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

Hop additions:
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. 
December 20, 2010

2010 Review

2010 has been a pretty good year to me. For brewing, it has been a really great year. I advanced from doing an occasional extract kit to brewing all grain with some serious frequency. Here are all my neat accomplishments (big and small) for the year:

*Brewed with liquid yeast
*Yeast washed
*Started a frozen yeast bank
*Captured wild yeast
*Built an MLT
*Bought a mill and started crushing grain
*Went all grain
*Made several recipes
*Roasted own grain
*Smoked own grain
*Brewed some Belgian stuff
*Made cider and graff
*Figured out an awesome recipe for gratzer
*Brewed with fruit
*Brewed with peppers
*Got an infection (in the beer =p)
*Had four batches fermenting at once for a total of 12 gallons
*Figured out how to make water adjustments
*Started blogging about homebrewing
*Started a lambic solera

I’m probably forgetting some stuff. I think that’s a pretty good list of accomplishments, especially as busy as I have been with work and school this year. My goals for next year are much more limited. I have a few batches waiting to be made but I actually intend on brewing less next year. Next year will be a very busy year so I don’t know that I will have the time to brew a lot. Additionally, I have A LOT of homebrew ready to drink.

2011 will be more focused, homebrewing-wise, on my longer term projects such as the lambic and the oud bruin as well as really focusing on my processes and locking those in. I feel like I play it a little fast and loose with temperatures (during mash, cooling and fermenting) that adds off flavors where they don’t need to be. I will likely brew a lot more gratzer and another round of chili beer. Both are delicious and among my favorite beers. Otherwise I guess I will figure out what other beers I want to make as I go. I will probably also retool several of my current recipes (I have several yet to be posted) to get them really solid as well. I may consider entering a competition or two. I may look into making another agave mead as well.  I will continue to update this blog with my progress on all the long term projects as well as sharing any good info I find.

Happy Holidays!
December 11, 2010

Wild Ale: Put Your Wild Thing In It

A few months ago I brewed a saison (recipe to follow later) with some bottle cultured yeast from Fouret, which is an organic saison by Dupont. I over sparged and ended up with some extra runnings. I boiled them down to a nice 1.030 to use for future starters, as I often do. I find it makes sense to run off a little extra wort after reaching boil volume and then boiling it down to 1.030 and freezing it to make the starter for my next batch. It’s very little work and it basically means I don’t need to buy DME. Although DME isn’t incredibly expensive, it’s a lot more expensive than a little water and about ten minutes of boiling. As I’ve said before, I look for those opportunities to reasonably reduce costs.

This time I set out to culture wild yeast. I had tried this in the past but I didn’t seem to capture any yeast; just some bacteria that ultimately became part of an interesting, but tasty, beer. In the past I tried to capture yeast off of wild vegetation with wort with nothing added. I did some more research and discovered that adding hops would help deter the growth of a lot of bacteria. So this time I added a little hops, to get to about 8 IBUs, boiled it up, cooled it and added it to a jar. I dipped a peach in and then added the peach skin a few hours later.

For the first few days it stunk like peach-fecal-wort. I suspect this was the arrival of enteric bacteria. A few days later it started to bubble and krausen formed. Sure enough, a few days after this started a thin coat of a white, solid substance begin to form on the bottom and the wort now smelled like, well beer. When fermentation seemed to end, I decanted, added more wort and fermentation started back up. I repeated this process a few more times until I had a solid amount of yeast. While fermenting, the wild yeast had a pineapple smell, something that seems very common among people who catch wild yeast all over the country. I then decanted the liquid, added the yeast to a mason jar and topped it off with water.

I’m sure there is a variety of yeasts in the culture; I’m not a scientist so I’m not equipped to try to separate different species to reduce it down to individual strains. I’m ok with that. I named my wild yeast “Hot Carl”. Hot Carl is a sex reference that I find really entertaining. I’m not into it, it’s just funny! It seemed to fit in my head and that’s all that counts.

I decided to brew a one gallon batch to see what kind of beer Hot Carl makes. In order to figure out what flavor Hot Carl produces I needed to use a clean, neutral recipe that would accentuate the yeast contributions. So here is my generic recipe. (I accidentally bought too much grain and milled it before I realized my mistake, so it ended up being a higher alcohol recipe than expected.)

Estimated OG: 1.069
Estimated FG: 1.016
Estimated ABV: 6.92%
IBU: 19.3
SRM: 4.9

1.5 lb Pale Malt
1 lb Wheat Malt
8 oz Vienna Malt

Boil Volume 2 gallons

Boil Additions:
.25 oz Fuggles @ 60 min.
.13 oz Fuggles @ 20 min.

I did this brew BIAB-style because of the small volume. I aerated the cooled wort and pitched Hot Carl. Here’s the mash:

And sparging:

The upside of BIAB brewing is it is really, really easy. The downside is that you can’t vorluf so you end up getting a lot of crap from the grain in the fermenter. As you can see here, the wort is very thick. That’s because I just aerated and all the stuff is floating around. It will eventually settle to the bottom. On larger batches I strain before it goes into the fermenter. The larger hop particles get caught and creates a filter to keep the smaller grain pieces out. I don’t have a strainer that works well with the funnel so I don’t really have a choice at this point. The good news is that I hit OG dead on at 1.070 but we’ll see how dry this beer gets.
I pitched Hot Carl after a little more aeration. You can see my very simple swamp cooler system and blow off tube.

About nine hours after pitching you can see bubbles forming on the top in what looks to be the start of krausen.

I left for a while and came back to find fermentation in full swing. This is about fourteen hours after pitching. You can see there is a very thick white layer above the beer. It’s not the thick krausen one normally sees with yeast. It is foamy, kind of like when you aerate beer or you add beer or wort to a container with a lot of starsan. It actually reminds me of how the saison yeasts I cultured from Fournet ferments. Very foamy at first and then settles into a thicker krausen towards the end of fermentation. I don’t know that the pictures well represent what I’m describing but I promise that’s what it looks like. You can kinda tell…

This is about twenty hours after pitching. It is bubbling at a rate of around one bubble every couple of seconds. You can see a little better in these pictures that the krausen is very foamy. You can also see some brown stuff forming at the top of the krausen. (Look where my crappy MS Paint arrow is pointing.) That’s a good sign fermentation is chugging along. That brown stuff is the start of what normally clings to the sides of the fermenter. It sometimes has hops particles but it is mostly very bitter byproducts of fermentation. You WANT that stuff to stick to the side and stay out of the final product.

About 30 hours after pitching you can see a darker layer sitting at the bottom of the foam. That is undoubtedly the usual krausen starting to form.

Just four hours later (34 hours in) fermentation is really taking off. It is about noon and it’s approaching 80 outside and this beer sits in my utility closet, which gets warmer than anywhere else in my apartment because there’s no air flow from the air conditioning, it has vents to the outside for the dryer and it sits up against my neighbor’s utility closet and sometimes he runs his washer and dryer, which makes it much warmer. Needless to say, the fermenter got a little warmer than I wanted it to be. As a result, you can see fermentation is pretty violent. You can see the foam is getting much darker and thicker as it is turning more krausen-like. Looking at the pictures of the airlock where I have the blow off tube connected you can see blow off coming out. So far I’ve lost just a little beer to blow off but with this being wild yeast it’s hard to know how long fermentation will run. Blow off tubes are really important when you’re fermenting in a container with so little headspace. It’s good insurance against having a ceiling full of beer. And yes, it has happened to me. Twice. Lesson learned.

This is about 45 hours after pitching, so about two days later. You can see the top part of the fermenter, where there is headspace, is opaque. The fermentation pushed a very thick layer of gunk on the walls of the carboy. Behind that layer is an inch thick layer of white foam on top of the beer. I removed the bung for a brief smell. It has a saison-like smell to it. It smells a little barnyard-y. That’s a lot of what the culture smelled like when I was capturing Hot Carl its first few days so maybe there will be some changes and more citrus notes will come out as fermentation proceeds. It took about a week to two weeks for that smell to appear, so we will see how this beer proceeds. There is likely some bacteria at play in the fermenter but between the acidity from the hops and the couple of days of fermentation they shouldn’t last for long.

This is 56 hours after pitching, which is about 2.5 days into fermentation. I’ve harassed the fermenter to show what the beer looks like underneath the layer of crap on the sides of the fermenter. Most of the foam has retracted back into the beer although there is still plenty of bubbling through the airlock. Although it is not a great picture, the awesome MS Paint arrows do point you to several pea sized clumps floating on the beer. This is yeast. I’ve been told by other people who have used peaches as a source for wild yeast that it has a tendency to be very clumpy yeast. That should result in a very clear beer if the yeast all clump up because it can be cold conditioned and those clumps should drop very fast. So far a thick yeasty krausen hasn’t formed, but as I remember from the culture it didn’t appear until several days in. There may not be a different krausen forming in coming days. We shall see.

I just noticed by scanning through the pictures you can see, even at this point, at the beer is getting lighter and lighter at each interval. That probably has a lot to do with the crap caking the walls of the fermenter, but regardless it is a good sign.

It’s been about three and a half days and fermentation seems to have stopped. It’s still about the same color but all the chunks and foam have disappeared from the top of the beer. I don’t want to disturb it too much so I didn’t want to tilt it to get a picture. I want to let it sit for at least a couple of weeks to see if it clears up some. At this point I am contemplating bottling it after a couple of weeks, but I may want to let it ride for a while. A big component of that decision will be whether any changes occur. If it gets ropy (indicating Pedio has arrived) or develops another krausen then I’ll pretty much have to leave it in place.

A few hours later I flipped out the blow off tube for an airlock. Although I thought it had stopped bubbling, it appears to be slowly bubbling again in the airlock. It could just be off-gasing, rather than ongoing fermentation.

Here it is 12.5 days after pitching. As you can see from the pictures, there is a thick layer of yeast at the bottom that I will wash and save for future Hot Carl batches. As you can also see, it has cleared up a bit (sorry for the bad reflection off the glass). What you probably can’t see if that there are still some floating balls from the yeast. I’ll need to cold crash this beer before bottling to try to avoid getting any of those things in the bottle. I doubt they are harmful, I just doubt they are aesthetically pleasing to somebody popping open a bottle. There’s no sign of any other pellicle forming, so it doesn’t look like I’ll have any other playmates. I’m sure there is brett in the bottle and it will be interesting to see if any refermentation occurs over time in the bottle. I’ll try to drink these slowly in order to try to see how it changes over time. Honestly, I’ll probably drink a few and then open them to “show off” to other people all the crazy things we do as brewers. Unless it tastes bad, then I’ll let them sit around for a while and see if the flavor changes for the better over time.

I finally bottled this batch after letting it ferment for two weeks, on 11/7. Usually I am more patient with my beers, letting them rest in the fermenter for as much as two months (depending on ABV) before bottling. However, I was really impatient with this one!! I cold crashed in the fridge for a couple of days, which really seemed to help clear out the yeasts. I let the beer warm back up before bottling, which maybe was a mistake because I ended up with a lot of trub in the bottling bucket. Normally I like to take a little taste from the small amount of beer left in the bottling bucket, but there was so much trub I didn’t want to ruin my first impression by tasting trub. I did get some good smells out of it. It smells…wild. I’m not really sure what to equate it to, other than to say it had a lot of funky smell to it.

As I was bottling I started to worry about bottle bombs. Wild cultures will almost undoubtedly contain brett and other slow moving critters that will continue to ferment the beer over time, so if those bottles superattenuate, they will definitely blow. For that reason, I have them stored in a Rubbermaid containers and in sixpack containers, so if they blow up they should just collapse in the sixpack container, or at worst be contained by the plastic container. If that starts to happen, I’ll permanently keep them in the fridge to prevent additional fermentation.

Nine days into bottle conditioning (11/16) the bottles seem to have cleared pretty quickly. There is a lot of sediment in the bottom of the bottles. Far, far more than I have ever seen in any other beers. The average bottle has about half an inch of sediment, with some having almost an inch. I know a lot of grain particles and hop pellet pieces made their way into the fermenter but that still seems like a lot. I suspect a lot more of that is yeast. So far no bottle explosions.

12/10 Update

With the beer bottled for a month I gave it a taste. It pours slightly cloudy like a saison. It's a slightly darker beer. Very bubbly but absolutely no head. Even with a vigorous pour it foams up but quickly dissipates. Considering the grain bill is a third wheat malt, that's pretty surprising. It's an interesting blend of flavors. Some citrus flavors with maltiness, a hint of tartness, a hint of funk and a lot of a butterscotchy flavor that might be diacetyl or something different.

Honestly it's very different and I'm torn on whether that butterscotchy flavor is too much. I definitely want to try brewing it again but next time I want to age it with brett. I can see how brett could blend really well into it, especially if it cleans up the butterscotch flavor a little. That will definitely be a future project!