December 15, 2013

Spontaneous Fermentation Project Part 2 -- Getting things organized for the brew day

I not-so-briefly explained my new sour beer project in Part 1 of this now ongoing series and today I'm going to walk through how I am going to get through the brew day and into fermentation. My goal here is to get as authentic to Belgian lambic production techniques as I can within reason. In putting this process together I relied on a combination of resources, including several homebrewing blogs, Wild Brews, Lecambre's 1851 brewing treatise, my own brewing experiences and a host of other sources too numerous to count.

Traditional Lambic Brewing, Briefly

Typical lambic brewing in Belgium employs pilsner malt plus unmalted wheat in a lengthy, historical mash process known as a turbid mash. Turbid mashes are long mashes that use a mixture of infusions and decoctions to produce a very starchy wort. The wort is then boiled with aged hops, which provide very little bitterness. They are instead used for their antimicrobial properties, although I suspect the flavors of the aged hops contribute something to the flavor of the beer. The boiled beer is then cooled on coolships, which are wide, shallow tubs that expose a high surface area of beer to the cool air, allowing the beer to cool to ambient temperatures overnight. While the beer is cooling, the exposure to the air allows native bacteria and yeast to descend into the beer and begin fermentation.

The cooled beer is then pumped into fermentors. It may go directly into barrels, where it will stay until packaging, or it may go into a primary fermentor (frequently referred to as a horny tank) and once krausen dies down it may be transferred to a secondary vessel, usually barrels, for additional aging. Within the barrels, bacteria and yeast (including brett) may continue to thrive and help add to the populations present in the beer during cooling. Over six months to several years the beer will develop sourness and funk, until it is packaged as either an unblended lambic, faro (a lambic sweetened with sugar and/or mixed with a non-sour beer), a fruited lambic, or gueuze.

And my process

I'll set up the specific details of the recipe in the next post, for now I'll leave you with the explanation of the process. The grain bill will be pilsner and unmalted wheat, using basically the same recipe as the lambic solera. I'm using RO water adjusted with brewing salts and I'll undergo a turbid mash. I don't have enough aged hops on hand for this particular batch (I am aging some Belma and EKG) so just as I have done with the lambic solera I will use just enough hops as a bittering addition to get to 8-10 IBUs, which is the least amount of IBUs you need in a beer to repress unwanted bacteria.

To cool the beer I am going to use vessels I have on hand, as unimpressive as that might be. It would be fun to build a functional coolship that I could pump beer into and out of but I have neither the technical expertise to build a metal coolship nor do I have the space to store it. You do not need a fancy copper coolship to make it "authentic". Although copper coolships have been considered the preferred vessel since the mid-nineteenth century, they certainly were not the only vessels used. Well into the nineteenth century, coolships were built out of steel, iron, copper, aluminum and even wood. In my case, the vessels I have on hand best suited for this purpose are baking sheets and pans. Like I said, not impressive. However, they are wide, shallow and have handles, which makes them functional and easy to use. I'm not entirely sure I have enough to hold five gallons of wort so I may not be able to coolship the entire volume.

I plan on leaving the beer in the baking pans and sheets as long as it takes to cool, plus some additional time. The wort will have to come down to around 130F before bacteria will start being able to survive in the wort and perhaps closer to 100F before yeast will take up residence in the beer. I want to make sure enough bacteria and yeast take residence in the beer to ferment it, so I'll need to leave the beer outside for some additional hours after it cools. Ideally I will start this beer very early in the morning so it can go into my backyard in the mid to late afternoon and I can move it inside before I go to sleep. I'd like to leave it outside overnight but I don't have a good way to protect the wort from bugs and animals that might wander by. We get a lot of stray cats in our backyard and I'd rather they not slurp up my beer or worse, decide to bathe in it.

The cooled beer will be moved into its one and only home, which will be a six gallon better bottle. I know, barrels are awesome and commonly used in lambic brewing. I chose not to go with a barrel for easy of use with the better bottle and most importantly, the ability to observe the transformation of the beer through the clear plastic and take pictures. Like the better bottle that houses my lambic solera, I plan on dropping some oak into this fermentor. I buy into the idea that the oak tannins and flavor compounds get manipulated by brett. However, since I don't have a well-used barrel to employ I'll have to make due with a small amount of unused oak. I have some left over oak chips soaking in Canadian whiskey (the same I added to the lambic solera last year) that I'll add.

The fermentor will go upstairs in the guest bedroom that I use for fermentation and brewing equipment storage. I'm going to let the beer ferment completely at ambient within my house, just as I do with the lambic solera. That room normally swings between the upper 60s to the mid 70s during the winter, depending on how much we run the heater. In the summer it can get as hot as 80F in the room, even with the AC running. It faces the late afternoon sun so it takes a brutal amount of heat during the mid-summer.

Most of my sensory review of the beer as it ages will be visual and olfactory rather than by taste or gravity readings. I don't like to expose my sour beers to the air more than necessary. The occasional removal of the stopper to get a whiff has a lot less impact than shoving a thief in and drawing out some liquid. Since I'm going completely spontaneous I have to assume there will be some acetobacter and that means preventing unnecessary aeration will be even more important than usual.

So that's it. Not a very different process from the usual brew day, except for the excessively long turbid mash. The beer itself isn't very exotic. It's an extremely basic recipe. However, the organisms within the beer will turn it into something exotic. Hopefully in a good way.

In the next part I will give the recipe and brewday. My goal is to get this batch brewed sometime this week or next week, depending on my work schedule.

December 12, 2013

Lambic Solera Update #17 Part 2 -- Three Years (Finally!)

In Part 1 I discussed the recipe and brewday for what will become Year Four of the lambic solera. This post will discuss the bottling of Year Three and most importantly, the blending process for making gueuze out of a blend of the first three years of the solera.

In the below picture you can see the solera itself on your left, Year Two in the middle and Year One on the right. Year One is much darker and murky. Both the sediment and pellicle were very loose so in moving the jug downstairs the beer got a lot of stuff floating around in the beer. It settled down before I bottled.

Bottling Year Three

Out of the three gallons I am pulling out this year, I am going to bottle one gallon straight, as I have done each year. Initially I was going to blend all of Year Three into the gueuze but I decided to keep some of it straight to compare against the gueuze and to keep a complete vertical. I am running low on bottles of the other years and the fruited versions of the years so right now I only have two complete verticals. I'll get 4-5 750ml bottles out of a gallon, which will give me bottles to complete the verticals and a couple bottles to compare against the gueuze.

Bottling the straight lambic is simple. I'll bottle it the same as I did last year, with priming sugar in the bucket like any other beer and then sprinkle a few cells of dried champagne yeast into each bottle. Then wait three to four weeks for carbonation. Since I also need to blend the remaining Year Three, I racked the three gallons I was removing from the solera into the bucket with priming sugar for the full three gallons and bottled a gallon. Then I drained the bottling wand and tubing back into the bottling bucket before continuing with the blending.

Year Three has a sharp acidity and strong hit of funk. It's got some of the cherry notes that Year Two lacked. It tastes kind of like a mix of Year One and Two. It will be a good beer in the gueuze. Below is the partially emptied solera. You can see the thick pellicle broke in the middle where I pierced it with the autosiphon and the pellicle clung to the sides of the fermentor as the beer drained out.

Blending Gueuze

Gueuze has sort of a magical allure to both homebrewers and beer drinkers for many reasons. Among them is the mystique that surrounds blending. It's a very different skill from other brewing skills, more akin to the blending done in the process of making wine and liquor. However, in many ways it is similar to creating recipes: you start out with a concept of what the final beer should taste like and combine ingredients to reach your goal. The difference, of course, is that the ingredients in a gueuze is finished beer, not grains and hops.

Normally when blending beers you want to start off with samples of each beer and blend them in your glass to find the ideal blend that matches your concept or at least comes as close as possible. What you do not want to do is assume blending everything you have in whatever amounts you have is the correct approach. You want to look for the blend to reach the right flavor profile as well as the right balance of acidity. With sour beers there is a lot to consider in the blend because there are so many subtle flavors going on. It's easy to lose important flavors or end up with a muddled mess of funk and acid.

In this particular case, I am blending the full volumes of what I have on hand. It's not because I am being lazy about creating the blend. Instead, I have been thinking about the blend for the past three years and after tasting the first two years over and over I have thought a lot about how Year One and Year Two will blend and I think the even blend of the two creates the correct flavor profile. I tasted Year Three while bottling it straight and I was initially torn on what to do. I could see both a 25-25-50 blend and a 33-33-33 blend working well. The issue was whether I wanted more of the aged flavor coming through or some of the brighter, young acidity of the newest year enhancing Year One and Year Two's smoother, aged flavors. I decided the 25-25-50 blend was the right path, which ultimately meant I could just blend the two gallons of Year Three with the gallon each of Year One and Year Two.

The easiest way to blend is right in the bottling bucket. I racked Year Three into the bucket to bottle the straight portion and it already has priming sugar. I added priming sugar for the additional two gallons coming in. I then racked both Year One and Two into the bucket with the tube in the bottom of the bucket so the incoming beer would mix into the beer already in the bucket. Then I bottled as usual.

I'm most interested in tasting how the gueuze compares to the Year Three, since the solera process creates a blend by itself. Obviously the mix of the gueuze will be different from Year Three's mix of each year but I need to see how far off Year Three is from the complexity of gueuze. If Year Three is sufficiently complex on its own then I may not worry about blending this beer as gueuze in the future.

At bottling the gueuze was already tasting incredible. It has clear notes of all three beers. The big cherry pie flavor of Year One. The barnyard funk of Year Two. The bold acidity of Year Three. It's far more complex than any of the previous years on their own, for obvious reasons. I am so excited to try it after the flavors have had some time to meld and carbonation spruces up the flavors.

I have to say, the aroma off the Year One portion was so fantastic that I almost bottled it straight just to keep that fantastic quality to itself. It was like scotch and cherry pie served on leather. I know that sounds weird but for a lambic that's a really nice flavor description. I decided to go ahead and let the gueuze be gueuze and added it to the bottling bucket.

By the end of the day's bottling I ended up with:

1 375ml bottle of year three
4 750ml bottles of year three

2 12oz bottles of gueuze
12 500ml (16oz) bottles of gueuze
11 750ml bottles of gueuze

Almost exactly five gallons of lambic.

Not the worst way to spend an afternoon. 
December 9, 2013

Lambic Solera Update #17 Part 1 -- Three Years (Finally!)

Today's post has the privilege of discussing the third anniversary of the lambic solera. It's a pretty big accomplishment to have the patience to let beer sit for so long but today's brew day will include an avalanche of activity. I am draining three gallons from the solera, brewing another four gallons of replacement wort, bottling one gallon straight and creating gueuze out of a combination of each year's lambic. Busy, busy day. There's so much going on and so much to talk about that I'm going to break up the processes into two posts. One to discuss the brew and one to discuss the bottling/blending. This post will be about the brewing part of the day.

Each year I have slightly changed the recipe towards the more traditional. This year will be no exception. I decided to take the plunge this year and go for a full scale turbid mash. I'm not scared of the process as much as I am just concerned about the length of time it will take. It's a long, complicated process that makes the triple decoction mash I have been doing seem simple. Otherwise, this year's brew will follow last year's recipe.

If you look back at Update Twelve, one year ago, you'll see that last year I added some Belgian sacc yeast with the fresh wort. In the post I mentioned that I added the yeast for fermentation security but what I didn't write was that I also wanted to see how much the addition of new yeast esters would change the flavor profile. There is a clear difference in the flavor profile between Year One and Year Two and one theory I wanted to test was whether the yeast esters from the primary sacc fermentation played a substantial role in that difference. Year One had a strong cherry flavor while Year Two was much more of a hay/barnyard funk. Year Three will determine whether my theory is correct. I'll share that secret in the next post. I decided this year I would leave out adding fresh yeast because I want to see if the difference between Year One and Two is replicated in Three and Four. This whole issue is part of a larger theory I have that I plan on testing with my second lambic project this month. I'm being a little secretive about the larger issue because I'm an ass and because I want to be able to speak about it, whether I turn out to be right or not, from a credible position.

Lambic Solera Year Four Recipe Construction

For now let's just focus on the recipe and how I put all the pieces together. The recipe itself is very simple. It's just a mix of pilsner malt and unmalted wheat with a small bittering charge of hops. And water, obviously. As usual I am going to use a very small bittering charge of hops to clear the generally agreed 8 IBU threshhold to keep the beer clear of unpleasant bacteria. I have some old EKG hops and some of the Belma hops I bought last year that I'm aging at room temperature but I'm going to hold on to those for later years. For now I want to see how the turbid mash changes the beer. That will probably be the new thing I do for year five.

It's basically the same recipe I used last year but rather than performing a decoction mash I am going to give a turbid mash a shot. I'm also going to tweak the water profile to try to accentuate the acidity. In the past I have just used straight RO water from the store with no salt additions. While I've been happy with the results with no water chemistry I am concerned about the temperatures in the turbid mash plus too high of mash and sparge ph pulling an excess of tannins. Since I'm adjusting the water for ph I might as well also make the adjustments for flavor at the same time. I used the turbid mash schedule in Wild Brews. There isn't a turbid mash option in BeerSmith, so I had to take the percentages listed in Wild Brews and play around with the mash functions in BeerSmith to figure out infusion temperatures and volumes. A real pain in the ass.

Turbid mash is a weird and complicated mash schedule. The modern adaptations are primarily from Belgian sources, which come from 19th century (and earlier) mash procedures that made the best out of the sometimes inferior equipment. Most breweries have abandoned the complex mash process in favor of either decoction mashes or step mashes but some lambic brewers continue to use turbid mashes. To perform a turbid mash you need both an available kettle and a hot liquor tank, because it uses a combination of hot water infusions and very long decoctions, often at the same time. You can't just use your kettle as a hot liquor tank, as most of us normally do. You also need a separate mash tun. I suppose you could do a BIAB turbid mash as long as you have enough vessels available. Unlike a decoction mash, where you pull from the thickest part of the mash for the decoction, in a turbid mash you pull just the liquid. It's very unusual compared to modern techniques.

And Now the Recipe...

Batch size: 4 gallons
ABV: 4.5%
SRM: 3.4
IBU: 10
Est. OG: 1.046
Est. FG: 1.012
Est. Efficiency: 72%

The Grain

4 lbs. German Pilsner (2 SRM) 57%
3 lbs. Unmalted wheat (1 SRM) 42%

The Water

RO Water adjusted in Bru'n Water to Yellow Balanced profile
Added 0.5 gallons to sparge water to account for boil off during long turbid mash
3.5 gallons mash water
2.71 gallons sparge water

Mash Water

Gypsum 1.1g
Epsom salt 1.1g
Canning salt 0.2g
Calcium chloride 1.4g

Sparge Water

Gypsum 0.8g
Epsom salt 0.8g
Canning salt 0.1g
Calcium chloride 1.1g
Lactic acid 1.4ml

The Mash

Turbid Mash schedule

1. Add 2.8qt at 134F to reach 113F rest for 15 minutes
2. Add 2.8qt at 212F to reach 126F rest for 15 minutes
3. Remove 1.25qt liquid from mash, raise to 190F and hold
4. Add 4.2qt at 212F to reach 149F rest for 45 minutes
5. Remove 3.875qt liquid from mash, raise to 190F and hold
6. Add 4.2qt at 212F to reach 162F rest for 30 minutes
7. Remove 5.5qt liquid from mash to kettle, raise to 190F and hold
8. Add all kettle contents to mash to raise temperature to 172F and rest for 20 minutes
9. Vorlouf
10. Batch sparge with sparge water at 190F

The Boil

90 minute boil
0.15oz Belma [12.10% AAU] at 90

The Fermentation

Add cooled wort to fermentor with remaining solera contents. Allow fermentation at ambient temperature until next December.


The brewday was a long, long process. The majority of time went into preparing for and executing the mash. because the decoctions must be held at 190F it requires a lot of oversight on the mash, which limited how much work I could do at the same time. I tried to get some of the bottling done during the mash but it was slow work. Anyway, let's get to it.

The Turbid Mash

Started heating water at 10:30am. First step was barely enough liquid to make half-moist lumps of grain. Second step finally broke up the mash but it was still thick. Overshot temperature, at second infusion, around 140F.

Decoction was a mess to pull. Not enough liquid in the mash to get a siphon going to pull out liquid
so had to hand strain the decoction. Milky texture, like clam chowder but without the clams (see picture to the right). Second decoction was easier since the mash was looser. Less milky. Third decoction was even clearer, almost a chicken broth color and clarity.

First runnings are clear (see the second picture...sort of). I expected a more starchy, murky wort. 1.0628 gravity. Second runnings more cloudy. 1.022 gravity. Pre-boil gravity: 1.036. Pre-boil volume 5.5 gallons. Efficiency: 76%

Boil & Fermentation

Sparge ended at 2:15pm. Boil began at 2:45pm. Post-boil gravity: 1.051. 3.5 gallons recovered. 68% efficiency.

Positive pressure in the airlock appeared Monday morning, roughly three days later.

December 2, 2013

New lambic project - 100% spontaneous fermentation

Coolship at Jester King in Austin (picture from
It's that time of year for the lambic solera to go through this year's bottling and rebrew but this year I have decided to add a second lambic project to my homebrewing. This project will be independent from the lambic solera except the actual brew day will be similar to the solera's brew day. Instead of using lab-created blends or bottle dregs (or a combination of the two) I am going to give Mother Nature complete control over the fermentation. This sort of spontaneous fermentation is the traditional process for modern lambic although it was the way beer was made for thousands of years before brewers came to understand the role of yeast and bacteria in fermentation.

I know this project is not a novel idea, even among homebrewers, although few have attempted it and written about it in great detail. (Michael Tonsmiere's DCambic comes to mind, although he didn't just throw wort out into the wind and let nature make all of the decisions. This guy was on an episode of Basic Brewing Radio a couple years ago and actually did a full spontaneous fermentation.) There are whisperings around the intertubes of spontaneous fermentations by homebrewers but few have suggested their results were drinkable (which may be the result of not giving the beer enough time). Also, plenty of homebrewers have tried to capture wild yeast and isolate a fairly clean beer (which I tried with my own wild ale) with mixed results. For this project I plan on trying to capture all of the changes, good and bad, in a truly spontaneously fermented beer.

The obvious danger in any spontaneous fermented beer is that it tastes like shit. When you let nature dictate what ferments your beer you're getting whatever is out there and the beer will be a result of whatever gets into the beer and how the matrix of lifeforms work together to transform the wort into beer. If you've ever had infected beer you know that wild yeast and bacteria don't always create pleasant beers. Some wild yeast infections can be downright disgusting. There is always a risk that a spontaneously fermented beer won't turn into something magical and delicious, even after years. However, the risk is not extremely high. It can't be, otherwise lambic brewers would have a hard time making money. But the risk must be acknowledged.

As of right now I am very open-minded about this project. I am open to the idea of working this project into a solera, although I am leery of getting that one bad batch that spoils the whole solera and requires me to start over. I am also open to using multiple vessels to create gueuze out of multiple separate batches, similar to what I am doing with the lambic solera this month. I am also very open to letting this beer mature for as long as it needs to mature. If it takes three years for the beer to mature, I am open to waiting that long, although if it isn't at least going in a positive direction after a couple years I may change my mind. I've stayed fairly open minded about the lambic solera and that's worked out really well so I don't see any reason to react differently here, especially when I will have even less control over the spontaneous beer than I will the lambic solera, which used a mix of Wyeast's Lambic Blend and bottle dregs.

So there's the intro for this project. My expectation is to brew this beer later in the month since I want to get the solera beer bottled and rebrewed this week or next. That will give me time to put out some posts about that beer and go into some more discussion about my technique with this project.