January 23, 2016

Zig Zag Belgian Quad with Cocoa Nibs, Vanilla Beans and Noyaux

This beer has been in the works for a long time. It's a combination of several ideas paired together into a single homebrew recipe. There are a lot of pieces to the end product(s) of this recipe to get together so this post will be a little long. Shortly I'll explain the reason this Belgian quad (or Belgian Dark Strong Ale or Belgian Strong Dark Ale or whatever we are calling these things) earned it's name as a counterpoint to the one very serious and potentially morbid discussion that must be had. This beer is almost two years in the making and you will probably feel that way by the time you reach the end of this post if you don't give up half way through and cough it up to a TL;DR. Part of the reason for the length of this post is to give myself enough notes to future me why I did the things I did. Or, if this beer turns out to be a deadly venture then it may help explain my untimely demise.

It all began in a little place called Buellton...

This beer was conceived, as many of my beers do, through inspiration of another beer I fell in love with that was brewed by somebody with superior brewing skills. In this case it was a sparsely described beer called Saucerful of Secrets served up at Firestone Walker's Barrelworks residence in Buellton, California. It was a smooth and wondrous beer identified as a Belgian quad but unlike any other I could recall. Upon looking at the sparse definition I learned it was brewed seven years prior and had aged in a brandy barrel. As I sat at the small taproom I was inspired to revisit the idea of brewing a big Belgian ale. I sought out to learn more about this elusive beer only to find it was a recipe concocted by Homebrew Chef Sean Paxton and readily available on his blog. The beer I had loved came with a complete recipe and a documented brewday. Perfect.

So I set out to understand what is a complicated and involved recipe for a style that usually relies on a simple recipe design. Paxton's recipe captures almost every type of alternate sugar widely available wrapped around an otherwise not terribly complex recipe. I decided I wanted to simplify the recipe and moderate the ABV slightly to bring it down to 8.6% from 9.7%. I don't think I'm smarter than Paxton but I wanted to make sure I was brewing something manageable. Plus I had other ideas how to invite complexity to the beer.

Taking a good idea somewhere it might not need to go

I've had the idea for a few years now that the next time I got in the mood to brew another big Belgian beer that I would play around with a few different ideas. I'm interested by the idea of barrel aging these trappist/abbey styles and the brandy barrel aspect of Saucerful of Secrets was highly appealing. I've had a few bourbon barrel quads that have been done well (along with a few where the bourbon was oppressive) and wanted to play with that idea as well. I have both liquors aging on oak cubes for what is probably close to two years that gets pretty close to that barrel aging taste. This became a good opportunity to satisfy those ideas. I've also wanted to hit this style with some souring so that is another item on my homebrewing to-do list I can check off.

As I sat at Barrelworks tasting all of those caramel, toffee and fruit flavors I thought they would play incredibly well in combination with other flavors one might find in a box of chocolates and started piecing together ingredients. Cocoa nibs and vanilla were obvious choices. Initially I thought cherries needed to go into this beer but I thought that might be one too many ingredients for this first attempt. I also thought about playing in an almond flavor and my mind went to Cascade Noyaux made with noyaux, the toasted nuts of stonefruit. This almond-chocolate-vanilla-caramel-toffee-fruit beer sounds like a great winter beer edging on being too sweet.

After some research I decided upon a six gallon recipe with three gallons getting the cocoa/vanilla/noyaux treatment, one gallon soured and one gallon each dosed at bottling with oak saturated brandy and bourbon.

Speaking of taking something to a level it need not be, let me share why this beer is named Zig Zag. The trip through Buellton was part of a alcoholiday with my wife that took us from San Diego all the way north to Russian River in Santa Rosa, California. We spent a little time in San Francisco and I requested a trip down Lombard Street. Lombard Street is that zig zag street you see in almost any movie shot in San Francisco. It's actually a series of driveways into apartment buildings on either side which makes a little more sense why it's a zig zag in a city full of roads on steep hills. As we got to the top I looked at my wife and told her there was something I had to do. I rolled down the window and screamed "Hey San Francisco! I am the Zig Zag!" Then I rolled up the window like nothing had happened. I hadn't been drinking (yet) and it was 10am. It was really confusing to all the tourists taking pictures of the street. I just felt like San Francisco needed to know that they might have a zig zag street but I am the Zig Zag. So is this beer.

Selecting and preparing the ingredients

There's nothing too fanciful about most of this recipe beyond the cocoa nibs, vanilla, noyaux and all the fun sugars unloaded into the boil, so I'll just focus on these recipes. The rest of the recipe is fairly standard quad ingredients through the use of WY1214 as the fermentation workhorse. I've carried forward Paxton's use of the unreasonably expensive grains of paradise which I've never used and uncertain about its value in the beer.

Paxton's recipe uses a series of alternative sugars from the mash forward including date sugar, blond candy sugar, clear candy sugar, dark candy sugar, dark candi syrup and turbinado. For my version I decided to reduce the number of sugars down to three. I'm not buying that the clear and blond rock sugar adds anything special so those got the boot. I think the use of candi syrup is important for the style and the unrefined sugars add to the complexity in Paxton's beer. So I opted to retain the dark candi syrup with a pound of D2 syrup along with a pound each of jaggery and zuckerrübensirup.

Zuckerrübensirup is a German unrefined beet sugar syrup I picked up at a local German deli down the street from my office. It's $5.39/lb. so just a little cheaper than the CSI or Dark Candi products. It's actually spreadable so calling it a syrup may not be completely accurate. Zuckerrübensirup is made from the first unrefined pressing of sugar beets as opposed to treacle or molasses which are made from the remaining unrefined material after sucrose has been extracted from the base material. I remain convinced that zuckerrübensirup or a similar product is used as candi syrup in Belgian breweries at least those producing quads on the lighter side of the color spectrum (e.g. Chimay Gran Reserve) while the darker candi syrups like D2 contribute to the darker end. It's flavor is intense sweetness almost in a malty way. It has a touch of that molasses/unrefined sugar flavor but not overwhelming. It's not as dark or intense of a flavor as the D2 but it definitely tastes strongly of flavors I've tasted in Belgian trappist/abbey beers.

The cocoa nibs and vanilla beans

For cocoa nibs I opted for raw over roasted. Raw cocoa nibs have a less bitter flavor that makes more sense in this beer where roasted nibs have a bitterness more suited for a stout or similar beer. I think most homebrewers use raw nibs in general. (I acknowledge that raw nibs are typically roasted to an extent but often nibs defined as roasted have gone to a hotter temperature not for kilning purposes but for particular flavor development.) I picked up these nibs from Amazon at a reasonable price. The nibs will get a soak in vodka for sanitation before diving into the beer.

The vanilla is added to the recipe mostly to round out the chocolate flavor rather than shine through as an independent flavor. For that reason I am opting for half the often suggested ratio of two beans per five gallons. I settled upon grade B Madagascar beans for this beer. Often homebrewers pick up grade A vanilla beans but I could not find any source that identified a flavor difference between the two grades. Grade A have culinary use because they have more moisture and mix into food easier while Grade B are drier and often are used for extract. I am only interested in extracting the flavor from the vanilla bean so it makes no difference to me how much moisture it has. It will visit more than enough moisture in the beer. I picked up a very reasonably priced variety pack of grade B vanilla beans from Amazon and look forward to experimenting with the Tahitian beans. Preparation of the beans will entail chopping into half inch pieces and soaking in vodka before adding to the beer.

And then there was the noyaux

Noyaux (pronounced like NWHY-oh) is the almond-like nut inside stone fruit like apricots, peaches, plums and cherries. You have to get past the outer shell to get to the nut inside which has a flavor and aroma like an almond but slightly floral and more complex. Some fruit varieties have bitter noyaux and apricots, perhaps the most common source of noyaux have both bitter and sweet depending upon the species of apricot. Generally fruit available in the U.S. are the sweet variety. Bitter is more common to wild species.

The outer shell isn't the only problem you have to get past and here is your really important notice about noyaux. Noyaux are known to carry various levels of the precursor amygdalin that converts into cyanide in the presence of water (like in your body). Although small volumes of cyanide are alleged to be under the threshold of safe consumption, you may not know exactly what content will come from any noyaux you decide to eat. You could die. Bitter noyaux tend to have more amygdalin and possess a greater risk.

Noyaux is used quite a bit in various almond-flavored foods and it appears heat treatment is often employed as a way to break down amygdalin so it cannot convert into cyanide in the presence of water. I do not have any medical or scientific expertise here. I am not a doctor. I have no idea how safe or accurate that is. If you decide to give this a try you must weigh the consequences for yourself and you should talk to a health professional first.

Cascade uses noyaux for it's unsurprisingly named Noyaux sour beer with raspberries and apricot noyaux. It is a wonderful beer with almond and floral notes that integrate well with the beer but do not overwhelm either the raspberry or the underlying beer. As far as I know this is the only beer on the market with noyaux although that will probably change in time. The problem is that since it is such a sparsely used ingredient there is little useful information readily available. The internet is predictably full of information ranging from threats that you will die just by looking at noyaux to sources insisting you not only can eat them in unlimited quantity but that you should eat them as a magic cancer cure (which has been thoroughly debunked by science). I wasn't able to find any specific information about their process but everything I have seen from Cascade or discussing the beer makes a point that the noyaux are toasted which at least gave me one clue how the noyuax is probably prepared that matched some of the information I found elsewhere.

Information gleaned from a cookbook suggests the appropriate process is a double roast. First roast the pits at 350F for 10-15 minutes. Then use a hammer to bust open the shells and then roast the freed noyaux for another 5-10 minutes to ensure full penetration of the noyaux. Then to create an extract add the noyaux to vodka or brandy as desired. There are other culinary uses but we'll just talk about brewing here. I wish I could say I had a precise recipe that calls for X amount of vodka to Y amount of noyaux but I couldn't find any consistency among recipes and just took a guess on it. I have maybe half an ounce (by weight) of noyaux to about six ounces of vodka.

For my preparation I saved the pits from many consumed apricots and then a few pounds of cherries. I followed the instructions above to quickly figure out two important lessons. First, it takes some pounding to bust up the pits and free the good stuff. Second, the noyaux in cherries is so small it's hardly worth the effort of smashing the pits to pick out the noyaux from the pieces of shell. However, I got a small collection and topped it up with vodka and let it sit in my brew storage for about a year.

The aroma is fantastic. It's like a slightly floral almond. The flavor is assertively almond and less floral than the aroma. It's a little buttery and woody. The aftertaste developed a rose character after several minutes. The flavor is potent for sure. I drank approximately half a milliliter of the extract and the flavor hung around in my mouth evolving for a good ten minutes. It has an oily texture that explains why the flavor hung around in my mouth. At this point I do not know the exact volume I need for three gallons of beer (I will update the post with my precise addition later) but given this experience I do not expect to use a large volume. I will use the noyaux extract to soak some of the cocoa nibs and vanilla bean so I am not adding excessive vodka to the beer.

Alright, that's probably enough pre-game show. Let's get to the recipe.

Zig Zag Belgian Quad with Cocoa Nibs, Vanilla Beans and Noyaux

Batch size: 6 gallons
Est. ABV: 8.6%
Est. SRM: 37.4
Est. IBU: 30
Est. OG: 1.070
Est. FG: 1.005

Grain Bill

6 lb German pilsner (2 SRM)
2 lb 12 oz U.S. pale malt (2 SRM)
12 oz unmalted white wheat (1 SRM)
12 oz caramunich III (56 SRM)
12 oz caravienne (22 SRM)
6 oz aromatic malt (26 SRM)
4 oz special B (180 SRM)

Mash Profile

Water profile based on Bru'n Water amber malty
Double decoction mash with batch sparge

Mash in 24.26 qt at 129F for 15 minute rest at 122F
Decoct 8.4 qt and raise to boil
Return decoction to raise mash for 40 minute rest at 148F
Decoct 3.65 qt and raise to boil
Return decoction to raise mash for 30 minute rest at 156F

Batch sparge with 3.25 gallons at 180F

Water Profile

Ca: 54 ppm
Mg: 5 ppm
Na: 11 ppm
SO4: 57 ppm
Cl: 65 ppm
Bicarb: 36 ppm
PH: 5.5

Mash Water Additions

Gypsum 1.5g
Epsom salt 1.2g
Baking soda 0.9g
Calcium chloride 3.1g
Chalk 0.1g

Sparge Water Additions

Gypsum 0.8g
Epsom salt 0.7g
Calcium chloride 1.7g

Boil Schedule

60 minute boil

0.75 oz Belma [12.10%] at 60 minutes
Add 1 lb each of jaggery, D2 syrup and zuckerrübensirup at 15 minutes (see note below)
0.40 oz Belma [12.10%] at 10 minutes
2g Seeds of paradise at 5 minutes

Note: To get all of the sugars to dissolve without risk of scorching I transferred approximately half a gallon of wort to a saucepan at twenty minutes and brought back to boil. I first added the jaggery and stirred until it was dissolved. Then added the zuckerrübensirup and stirred it in. Then the D2 was added and stirred in. The contents of this side boil were returned to the main boil at 15 minutes.

Fermentation Schedule

Add 30 seconds of pure oxygen to wort after racking into fermentation vessel. 

Ferment with 1214 slurry from prior batch. Pitch at 64F and let free rise to 72F. Hold through 80% attenuation and allow to free rise no higher than 78F after. Cold crash after four weeks for three days.

In week three combine 1 oz of noyuax extract with 3 oz cocoa nibs and 1/2 Madagascar vanilla bean chopped into 1/2 inch pieces. Top up with vodka if needed to ensure all ingredients are soaked.

Transfer three gallons to bottling bucket on bottling day. Rack one gallon to a one gallon jug and add sour dregs. Prepare bottles for brandy and bourbon portions by adding oak-soaked brandy and bourbon to respective bottles before capping. Carbonate to 3 volumes.

Add contents of noyaux/cocoa/vanilla mixture to fermentor. Let sit for one week. Taste and add more noyaux extract if necessary. Bottle when ready to 3 volumes.

Brewday Notes

Brewed 10/31/15.

Ended up with way, way too much preboil volume. Boiled down approximately 1.5 gallons.

Postboil OG: 1.065
Postboil volume: 6 gal
FG:  1.008
ABV: 8.1%

12/6/15: Bottled three gallons broke up one gallon each with 8ml/12oz bourbon, brandy and pinot noir. Added cocoa nibs/vanilla/nouyaux to remaining three gallons.