Saturday 7 October 2017

Tasting Notes: Lambic Blends

Back in 2016 I made three blends using boxed lambic from Timmermans and Oud Beersel, along with a variety of homebrewed pale sours and saisons.  Those blends have been in the bottle for about a year, and I've been sampling each one every few months.  At first they were all a little rough around the edges, but last time I checked in I thought they were all starting to come together quite nicely, so I've written up so quick tasting notes for each batch below.   I'm hoping that these beers (along with some of the other blends I've made recently) will continue to develop for quite a while in the bottle.

Oud Beersel

The homebrewed component in this blend was a fairly strong saison (O.G. 1.060) made from 100% floor-malted pilsner.  I did an extended boil to add some colour, and fermented it with a blend of Wyeast 3724 and 3726.  The boxed lambic from Our Beersel bright and fruity, with a slight solvent or plasticy note and some soft underlying funk.  The final beer consisted of around 82% saison to 18% boxed lambic.

At first I was worried that this blend wasn't going to come together at all.  The flavour profile of the first few bottles I opened seemed very angular and disjointed, with a pronounced plastic (ethyl acetate?) note that threatened to completely dominate the softer fruit and funk.  I was also concerned that it would develop a strong acetic acid note over time, which (without enough balancing perceived sweetness) would just add to its roughness. 

Over time its settled down a bit, and I go back and forth on the bottles I've opened recently.  As the funkier side of the Oud Beersel lambic becomes more obvious, the plastic has generally died down a bit into a bright fruitiness.  The nose on the beer is very complex, and the acidity isn't too sharp.  Sometimes I find the plastic or solvent note to still be too strong, but other times I found it to be a complex beer that I want to spend a while with.

If I did this again, I would avoid 3724, which (to my tastes) occasionally goes too far in that fruity/solvent/nail polish direction, especially when it is used in a mixed fermentation (here I think it accentuated those aspects of the Oud Beersel lambic).


The saison for this blend was a variation on my basic spelt saison recipe, with some Vienna malt added for colour and character.  It had a lower O.G. than the other beer, coming in at around 1.044.  The Timmermans boxed lambic was sour and lemony, with a slightly nutty, marzipan aroma.  The blend was again 82% saison to 18% boxed lambic.

This beer has consistently been much less complex than the Oud Beersel blend, but also much more drinkable.  It has a bright lemony aroma, with some slightly leathery funk.  The flavour profile is tart and refreshing, but a bit thin in the middle of the palate.  Although I was hoping for more complexity from the lambic blend, I really enjoy this beer, especially when the weather gets hotter in the summer.  If I wasn't hoping to see some further development in the flavour, I would probably have got through the whole batch very quickly this summer.

Solera Blend

The homebrews in this blend were a pull of about 11.4 litres from my 'Roeselare' solera, 2 litres of the first saison described above, and 2.5 litres of adjunct sour that was about two years old at the time I made the blend.  The Roeselare solera has been a consistently strong blending component for me, with a strong stone fruit note and a soft but recognizable 'pencil-eraser' funk. The adjunct sour was slightly oxidized, with some slight barnyard funk and a fruitiness that reminded me of apples. The final blend consisted of about 54% pale sour, 24% lambic (half from each brewery), 12% adjunct sour, and 10% saison.

In terms of its aroma, this is probably my favourite blend.  Its the most strikingly lambic-like, with a nice combination of pencil-eraser funk and overripe fruit.  The carbonation is too low, which I think deadens the flavour profile a bit, and leaves it weak in the mid-palate.  But there's a nice, tannic finish that rounds things out well at the end.  Of all the blends, this is the one I'm most excited about, especially as if it continues to develop over the next few years.

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Tuesday 27 June 2017

Orval and Friends

Combining a casual interest in brewing history with the resources of a home-brewer provides an endless supply of recipe ideas.  The two bitter pales ales in this post were both inspired by comments from Yvan de Baets about earlier iterations of familiar beers: Orval, and De Ranke's XX bitter.

Bitter Pale Ale

Grist: Pilsner (50%) Golden Promise (25%), US 2-row (25%)
Hops: EKG, First Gold, Aramis
Yeast: Wyeast 3789-PC
O.G.: 1.052
IBUs: 39
ABV: ~5.8%

There's a fair amount of information out there on the history behind Orval and the current version of the beer (see e.g. Stan Hieronymus' Brew Like a Monk).  A common claim in most versions I've read is that Orval used to have a more pronounced bitterness that has been dialed back over the years:
When I asked about a rumor I'd heard from my friend Yvan DeBaets, a brewing enthusiast and unofficial brewery watchdog from Leuven, Belgium, my guide became more than just a tiny bit embarrassed. It seems that in 1993, Orval deliberately lowered the pH in the boiling stage of its beer, subtly but noticably diminishing Orval's trademark hop bite. The abbey's brewing water, drawn from its own well, is high in calcium carbonate, an alkaline mineral that has doubtless contributed to Orval's flavor by bringing out hop bitterness. The pH adjustment now moderates that effect. Coincidentally, the hopback was also cast into disuse as faster-acting hop pellets and extracts took over the bittering duties.
There's lots more in this article, including a great story about Yvan de Baets leading a protest against the changing character of the beer.  

All of this got me thinking about brewing a bitter pale ale with some of the characteristics of Orval.  In a way, I'm already doing this every time I brew a bitter saison with brettanomyces, or and C19th-style IPA.  But when Wyeast released their Trappist Blend (3789) last year, I decided to make something more deliberate.

As it turns out, the recipe for this beer bears very little resemblance to Orval, besides the yeast strain, but I had what I like about Orval in mind while formulating it.  I wanted something dry and drinkable, with considerable aromatic complexity, some nice colour, and hopefully a bit more of a bitter bite than Orval in its current incarnation.

The grist was a straight-forward mix of the three base grains I keep on hand : Golden Promise, Pilsner, and US 2-row.  I didn't use any sugar in this beer, but if I made it again, I think I might.  Perhaps even some invert sugar to give it a bit more colour and character.  For this batch I relied on an extended 3-hour boil for that.

I used a mix of EKG, First Gold, and Aramis hops in the kettle, and gave the finished beer an additional dry-hop with Aramis and First Gold before packaging it.  Its about five months old right now [at the time I wrote this--I think its more like six or seven months at the time of posting], and in a real sweet spot in its flavour profile.  The brettanomyces was apparent early on, but its stayed fairly subdued and blends quite nicely with the hops.  I think that combination of fruity, earthy English or noble hops, along with a hint of brettanomyces, is one of my favourite aspects of the beers I've been making recently.  I was hoping the brettanomyces would take the beer down a few more points and give it some extra carbonation, but there was no sign of that in the last bottle I opened.

The beer is certainly more bitter than Orval, but not by much.  I kept the sulfate to around 125 ppm, and I think if I made it again I'd probably go higher, and perhaps up the IBUs to 45 or 50.  It may also come to seem more bitter as it dries out in bottle.

Pale Bitter Ale (XX Bitter - Roeselare)

I've already written about XX Bitter, and the clean beer I brewed in homage to it.  When I brewed that, I also made a second version of the same recipe that was fermented with Wyeast's Roeselare blend.  Comments by Yvan de Baets were once again the immediate source of inspiration here:
It is often said that sourness and bitterness do not go well together in beer but, because [saison] was a beer that had matured for a long time, the bitterness decreased, permitting the equilibrated development of the sour and vinous flavours of the beer. We had evidence of this until several years ago when the excellent XX Bitter, a heavily hopped beer from the De Ranke brewery in Wevelgem, was still fermented with yeast from the Rodenbach brewery in Roeselare. This yeast is in fact a mix of diverse yeasts, some of which are of the Brettanomyces strain, and of lactic bacteria. When the beer was young, bitterness dominated, balanced by a light tartness. As is aged, the bitterness diminished, giving way to a more pronounced and slightly vinous tartness. The balance of this beer was always perfect. It certainly came close to old saison beers.
You can hear Nino talk a bit more about the flavour profile of that version of the beer in this excellent episode of the Belgian Smaak podcast.

My version of the beer had a few faults, but overall I'm glad I made this second version.  It dried out more than the T-58 batch, even in the first month, and that already brought it closer to the original beer.  The bitterness still wasn't right, which I blame on the low AA Bramling Cross and the conservative sulfate levels I used on brew day.  But the main flaw was what I was also too conservative with the priming sugar at packaging.  Writing this in the UK, I don't have my original notes to hand, but I believe the beer got down to about 1.006-8 after a few months in the carboy.  I was worried that the brettanomyces and pediococcus would take it down to at least 1.004, so I dialed back the priming addition accordingly.  However, after at least six months in the bottle, the carbonation is still too low, and that detracts from the overall impression of the beer.

However, the most interesting thing (the reason I made this) has been watching the change in flavour profile.  The beer is still bitter, with only a slight acidity (on the palate at least).  As the hops have begun to fade, the brettanomyces has slowly emerged from behind them.  There was a sweet spot at about six to eight months where the brettanomyces was just beginning to complement the fading hops, giving the beer a tremendous aromatic complexity like the Orval clone above.  Some of the bottles I've opened more recently have had an assertive barnyard/Wyeast Brett. Brux. character, something I've never been particularly keen on.

I still have plenty of bottles left, and it will be interesting to see how it continues to develop.  I just wish the carbonation had been higher when the hops and brettanomyces were perfectly balanced!

Sunday 30 April 2017

Kegs and Hops

Since there are so many excellent IPAs and pale ales available on the shelves in Chicago, I don't find myself brewing those styles very often.  I will say, though, that the batches I've made after purchasing a basic kegging system are considerably better than anything I made before.  Its not just that the kegs allow me to avoid introducing oxygen during bottling.  I can also ferment in a keg, transfer using CO2, and dry-hop under pressure, so that the beers never really sees any oxygen exposure after brew day.

I can't take any credit for the process, which is a variant on the one described at Bear-Flavored and Ales of the Riverwards.  The only difference is that my small batch size (3 gallons) means that I can also do the initial fermentation in a keg with an open spunding valve (I haven't tried fermenting under pressure yet), and then transfer to a new keg for dry-hopping and serving.  So far I've been suspending the dry-hops in a couple of weighted mesh bags, but if I brewed these beers more frequently, I'd probably give Scott Janish's loose dry-hop method a try.

The beers below were all brewed at least seven or eight months ago, so the tasting notes are based partly on things I noted at the time, and partly on memory.  I haven't re-brewed any of these beers since these initial batches, but I'll probably make a variant on the IPA recipe for guests once the American football season starts again in Autumn.


Grist: US 2-row (45.2%), Pilsner (45.2%), Munich (6.8%), Torrified Wheat (2.3%), Black Patent (0.5%)
Hops: Magnum, Simcoe, Ahtanum, Citra, Centennial
Yeast: Safale US-05
O.G.: 1.060
IBUs: 79.5
ABV: 6.3%

This was brewed for a small competition at my homebrew club.  I wanted to make something fairly pale, with no crystal malt, so I added some Munich for character and a touch of black patent to give it a bit of a hue.  I added a small bittering addition at 60 minutes, late additions at 20 and 10 minutes, a whirlpool addition steeped for 20 minutes after flameout, and dry-hopped after fermentation for four days before transferring to another keg. The calculated IBUs in BeerSmith seemed way off to me, so I suspect it miscalculated the big whirlpool additions I made in this beer, which wasn't as bitter as I'd hoped. But other than that, it was pretty close to what I wanted: aromatic and easy to drink.  The notes below are from Zigmas, the competition organiser:

So much juice! Sweet orange, lime, touch of lemon and a little mango. This is super fun to indulge in, I want to wrap the glass around my nose and smell it all day. A super faint hint of grassiness, but this is more herbal than anything.

Bottle is clean but has a deep cap impression. Extra clear and blond, little cloudiness but still some gas character to make it interesting. Moderate lacing, excellent head retention throughout. 
Those citrus and tropical aromatics carry through, helped by a lively carbonation. A sweeter, dry finish accentuates but dominates the body. There is a faint berry here, but little to none malt presence. Neutral yeast character that carries well, or is masked by the hop profiles. 
Let's just say this is a delightfully alcoholic citrus fruit smoothie. Love the aromatic complexity. Wish there were more maltiness, or rather a drier, less sugary smack. I think it could use a touch more bitterness; I could see mellow bitterness working well here. Reminds me a lot of late hopped beers. 
If I had to put an industry slogan to this one,
"Drink early and drink often."

APA / Hopwards

Grist: US 2-row (77.8%), Wheat Malt (16.7%), Oats (2.8%), Victory Malt (2.8%)
Hops: Columbus, Amarillo, Centennial, Simcoe
Yeast: Wyeast 1318
O.G.: 1.053
IBUs: 49.6
ABV: 5.6%

This beer was a variant on Ed Coffey's HopsHands recipe.  Back when I made this beer, there weren't many versions of this new kind of pale ale available in Chicago, so I thought I'd make one myself to see what all the fuss was about.

The first batch didn't turn out so great.  I forgot to restock flaked oats (which make up a large portion of Ed's recipe), and ended up subbing wheat malt for most of them.  I also added a fairly large dose of calcium chloride to the brewing liquor, pushing it up to around 140 ppm.  I don't know if either of those things were the cause, but the first batch had an astringent bitterness that I found pretty unpleasant, and that didn't seem to fit at all well with the way people described the style.

Since I felt like I hadn't done justice to Ed's recipe, I decided to make another batch with the proper grist, and slightly lower chloride additions.  This one turned out much better: dry, juicy, murky, and aromatic, as these beers are described.  It was a fun recipe to try out---I've been using Wyeast 1318 for a few years, and it always drops bright, so I couldn't believe people were using it to make such murky beers until I saw it with my own eyes.  However, based on this batch and some other local interpretations I've tried since, I'd say these beers aren't really my thing.  A single glass made a strong impression, but I just don't find them very drinkable in the long run (I would never drink three pints of juice in a sitting!).  I guess I just want some moreish bitterness in my beers.

Bitter Pale Ale

Grist: Pilsner (90.9%), Torrified Wheat (9.1%)
Hops: Mt. Hood, Saphir
Yeast: Wyeast 2565
O.G.: 1.045
IBUs: 33.8
ABV: 4.4%

This was a fun little experiment with some Kolsch yeast.  I basically just wanted to make a dry, bitter Kolsch, and in hindsight I think I should have pushed the bitterness up higher to around 40 IBUs.  Fermenting in the low 60s gave it a fairly subtle ester profile, and as I recall, the keg was finished quickly by me and some guests.  If I had cause to use a Kolsch yeast regularly, I'd certainly make this again.

Saturday 15 April 2017

Tasting Notes: Bitters and Dry Stouts

This will be the first of a series of posts catching up on notes from some batches from the past twelve months or so.  The beers in this post are all ones I've brewed multiple times.  For the past couple of years I've been using Wyeast 1318 in every English-style beer I've made, but being a bit of a contrarian, the recent popularity of that strain in 'juicy' pale ales sent me back to another of my old favourites, Wyeast 1469, which I've used in every English-style beer I've made this year.  Sometimes this strain can get a bit too estery for me, especially if you use brewing sugars and don't keep an eye on the fermentation temperatures, but when it ferments well I think it gives an elegant and balanced flavour profile that is quite distinctive.  In fact, though I haven't tested this out, I suspect that that flavour profile, along with some of the stone fruit esters it spits out, would make it work quite well in a hazy and hoppy pale ale.

Ordinary Bitter

Grist: Golden Promise (93%), Torrified Wheat (7%)
Hops: EKG
Yeast: Wyeast 1469
O.G.: 1.040
IBUs: 42
ABV: 3.9%

This was another beer loosely inspired by descriptions of the beer Boddingtons Bitter used to be.  That meant focusing more on bitterness than hop aroma, with two additions of EKG at 60 and 30 minutes left in the boil.  The grist was very simple. I think Golden Promise works really well in pale bitters, and its been a long time since I've used anything else as a base malt for them.  The torrified wheat is mainly there to help with head retention and give a little extra body.

Nothing 'juicy' about this beer.  It was dry, bitter, and incredibly drinkable.  You still get some hop character even with no additions late in the boil, but obviously the main point is the moreish bitterness.  I was fairly conservative with my sulfate addition for this batch, keeping it at around 120 ppm (I forget why), and I think that detracted slightly from the quality of bitterness I was looking for.  When I make this again I'll probably go to at least 200 ppm, perhaps higher, and keep the chloride at around 60-80 ppm.

The Wyeast 1469 worked nicely here.  I think it brings out the malt a little more than 1318, and the slight apricot-like esters sat well with the base beer.  I'd certainly use it again.

Pale Ale

Grist: Golden Promise (90%), Invert Sugar #2 (10%)
Hops: EKG, Fuggles, Styrian Goldings
Yeast: Wyeast 1469
O.G.: 1.042
IBUs: 45
ABV: 4.4%

I don't know why I'm calling this beer a pale ale, except that its a pretty direct copy of Timothy Taylor's Landlord and that's what they call their beer.  Landlord is one of the beers I always seek out when I'm back in the UK (to me the bottled version is a sorry substitute, and I never buy it over here).

My recipe is based on the Northern Brewer 'Innkeeper' kit, which I found in the Northern Brewer recipe collection on BeerSmith.  They use pale sugar and a bit of crystal for colour, but I made some invert sugar using the dilution method described here.  Its super easy (I just make up enough for the recipe during the mash) and a great way to get colour and character without using too much crystal malt.  The EKG and Fuggle additions are at 60 and 45 minutes respectively, with a final dose of Styrian Goldings at the end of the boil.

I've made this beer quite a few times now.  Due to a loose temperature probe the batch pictured above fermented a little warmer than I would have liked, which meant it had a very prominent ester profile for the first few weeks in the keg.  Its settled down now though, and is drinking nicely.  I think the hop character is a bit lacking compared to the original beer, perhaps due to the quality of the Styrian Goldings I have available.  I'll also mention that the head retention isn't particularly good---usually I use some torrified wheat or a bit of crystal malt to help with that.

There's another batch conditioning in a keg, which will probably go on in a few weeks time, ready for the warmer weather.

Dry Stout

Grist: Golden Promise (66%), Torrified Wheat (18%), Chocolate (7%), Roasted Barley (7%), Dark Crystal (2%)
Hops: EKG
Yeast: Wyeast 1469
O.G.: 1.035
IBUs: 35
ABV: 3.2%

Looking over my brew log for the past 12 months, I've made more versions of this dry stout than any other recipe (besides my spelt saisons).  Dry, bitter, and low in alcohol, dry stouts are my kind of beer, and I'm always a little disappointed that the style isn't more popular with craft breweries in the US (especially given the historical popularity of a beer like Guinness).  I can usually find a few on the shelves around St. Patrick's day, and there was occasionally one on at the Clybourn Goose Island pub (once my favourite place to get cask beer in Chicago), but the few I find here are usually too sweet or full-bodied for my tastes.

When I came up with this recipe I was trying to make a stout with a bit of fruitiness reminiscent of a bitter dark chocolate, rather than the more acrid bitterness of a dark-roasted coffee.  I've stuck to this recipe with minor variations for quite a while now, but going forward a bit I'll probably vary some of the character grains.  I used some amber malt in a more recent batch that's currently conditioning in a keg, and I'd also like to try something along the lines of some historical stout recipe, with a large proportion of brown malt.

Sunday 24 July 2016

Brew Day: Old World Saisons w/ Whole-Leaf Hops

Once I'd made the De Ranke-inspired beers and the C19th-inspired IPA, I found myself left with a lot of whole-leaf hops.  What to do with them?  Make some saisons, of course!  (Some bitters too, but that's another post.)

I've blogged before about Yvan de Baets' description of old saisons as "either sour or very bitter ... with bitterness obtained by the use of a massive amount of hops low in alpha acid".  The hops I had left over fit the bill nicely: some East Kent Goldings (3.6% AA), some Bramling Cross (3.3% AA), and some Hallertau Mittelfruh (2.9% AA).

Bière de garde

For the first beer, I wanted to make a sort of bière de garde, in the literal sense of a beer intended for ageing.  To this end, I planned a recipe with a slightly higher gravity than I'd usually aim for in a saison, 1.054.  (I bet there was a time when that O.G. would have been lower than 90% of the saisons brewed in the U.S!)  I went with a simple grist of 90% pilsner malt and 10% wheat, since the main focus was going to be the hops and the fermentation character, though I also did an extended three-hour boil to add a bit of colour and complexity.

In his essay, Yvan mentions hopping rates of between 5 and 8 grams per litre, with a third of this added at the end of the boil.  Assuming this was based on the volume of wort in the kettle after the boil, that gave me a range of 110g to 176g on my system, and I decided to go for the upper end of that scale with 180g.  That meant I needed a bittering addition of 120g and a late boil addition of 60g.  I decided to split the bittering into roughly 2/3 Bramling Cross and 1/3 Hallertau Mittelfruh, with reverse proportions for the late addition.  That gave me 57.8 predicted IBUs, or just about a 1:1 BU:GU ratio.  Higher than a lot of saisons, but not all that different from beers I've brewed before!

Primary fermentation was carried out by a blend of saison yeasts: Wyeast 3726 and The Yeast Bay's Saison Blend II.  After this was completed, I transferred the beer to a three-gallon carboy and added some random brett strains I had been storing in the fridge (the C1 and C3 strains isolated from a bottle of Cantillon Iris by Dmitri at BKYeast) , along with the dregs of a beer brewed by someone at Omega Yeast Labs, which was dosed with the brettanomyces strain from their C2C blend.  I'll let it sit for at least a few months before bottling at the end of the summer: its likely that packaging this and other beers will be contingent on finding enough heavy bottles, as I am starting to run short again.

Spelt Saisons

For the rest, I planned to make three variations on my basic spelt saison recipe, one for each hop variety.  As I mentioned in that earlier post, I think the fuller mouthfeel from the spelt helps prevent the bitterness from overwhelming the beer.  Although I was making an extra gallon to accommodate for wort lost to the whole hops, I did not vary the amount of spelt in the recipe, which meant that with a predicted O.G. of 1.046 the base was 82.6% pilsner and 17.4% unmalted spelt.  I varied the base malt slightly for some of the batches.  Details on that below.

Once again, I wanted to really push the bitterness while also getting a good hop character and mouthfeel, so I went with three roughly equal additions at 60, 30, and 2 minutes left in the boil, aiming for a BU:GU ratio of about 1:1.  Even by the standards of the beers I've been brewing lately with these whole hops, that was a lot of vegetable matter relative to the O.G. of the wort!

Here is a sketch of each beer.  For more details, I suggest you look at the post on the basic recipe linked above.

Mittelfruh Saison: This was the simplest of the three, with no modifications to the grist.  It was fermented with a blend of Wyeast 3724 and Wyeast 3726.  This one has been a little disappointing so far.  It has a slightly odd soapy taste that I can't get over.  Unless I forgot to rinse out a fermentor or bottling bucket, it must have something to do with using such a large volume of Hallertau Mittelftuh in the beer.  I've used those same hops in other beers too, but usually as an aroma hop later in the boil, and I haven't seen this same soapiness.  I'm hoping it will age out as the hops fade a bit.

EKG Saison: For this I substituted approximately 30% Golden Promise for some of the pilsner.  It was fermented with a mix of The Yeast Bay's Saison Blend II and Wyeast 3726.  This has turned out to be one of my favourite homebrews to date.  It has a striking bitterness, without being at all harsh or astringent, and an earthy and citrusy hop-character that I find very appealing.  J said it reminded her of Taras Boulba, and I can see what she means.  Its not that they taste the same, but the overall character is very similar: dry, bitter, hoppy, and very drinkable.

Bramling Cross Saison:   I didn't get round to brewing this before I left for England.  Blame the summer heat, and a sense of fatigue from brewing over the past few months.  I'll probably do this batch when I get back, substituting about 15% Vienna for some of the pilsner.  Fermentation will go one of two ways: I'll either keep it clean and keg it (only because I want to use whatever heavy bottles I can amass for other batches), or add brettanomyces and let it sit for a while.

Sunday 10 July 2016

Brew Day: Nineteenth Century IPA v.2

The recipes inspired by De Ranke XX Bitter described in the last post weren't the only reason I had my eye out for some fresh whole-leaf hops this year.  The IPA in the photo opposite, based on a nineteenth century, is one of my favourite home-brews from the last few years, and I've been thinking about a re-brew since I opened my first bottle at the end of the summer.  Of course, in keeping with the tradition, I had to wait for the new season's hops, which seem to arrive in the US almost six months after they were picked!

I decided to use whole leaf hops this time, both because I presume that was what the Burton brewers used, and because I hoped they might have a freshness that would have been lost in the pelletizing process.  This is certainly what the brewers at De Ranke think: in the article I linked to in my last post, Nino says "By using only hop flowers, we ensure the hop oils are never oxidised so we never get any harsh bitterness in our beers".  I used pellets in the first version of the beer, which had a distinctive mouthfeel that I associate with large volumes of kettle hops, so I'm hoping I'll only improve things by switching to leaf rather than pellet hops.

Of course, using whole hops in the brewery presents a number of challenges, which are conveniently listed on the De Ranke website:
  • When the quality of this expensive material drops, it can lead to off-flavours in the beer, which is why we work closely with a local hop farmer to ensure we always get hops that meet our high standards.
  • The annual price fluctuates and depends on the harvest.
  • The hops must be refrigerated to maintain quality all year long (which makes them even more expensive)
  • Hops can only be bought once a year, just after harvest. It requires good planning for the entire brewing season to avoid hop shortage or surplus.
  • Whole-leaf hops require lots of cleaning at the brewery. Hop cones tend to stick to everything during the boiling of the wort, which results in more work for the brewers because the hops must be manually removed, as opposed to breweries that use hop pellets or extracts, which requires far less work to remove.
This fits my experience: whole hops are messy, they take up a lot of space in the freezer, soak up a lot of beer, and make siphoning an absolute nightmare if you don't have some kind of filter or false bottom in place.  And as you can see below, these old IPA recipes use a lot of hops...

I brewed a series of beers with these hops (including the De Ranke-inspired beers from the last post, and some others that post about later), and I gradually learnt how to adjust my brew day to accommodate them.  The biggest problem is the sheer volume of hop matter in the kettle, especially when (as with these recipes) you're using an exorbitant amount of hops to begin with.  I deliberately brewed a whole gallon of extra beer, in anticipation of leaving a lot behind with the hops in the kettle.  (Even when I used pellet hops last year, I lost some volume in the IPA batch because I didn't make adjustments.)

The other problem is racking from the kettle.  If you have a fancy kettle, with a ball-valve, screen, or even false-bottom, it might not be an issue.  I rack with an auto-siphon, which quickly gets clogged by the whole hops, even if I cover the end with some kind of filter.  This meant that I had to pour the wort manually from the kettle, which is neither safe nor particularly sanitary (since I inevitably end up making a mess).  Frankly, its the kind of dumb s#@t I used to do when I first started brewing, and which I swore off entirely after having surgery to fix an inguinal hernia a few years ago.  Still, here I was again, precariously balanced with a heavy kettle as wort splashed off the whole hops over the kitchen floor.  No fun at all.

Since I get a lot of trub from my BIAB process, I generally like to whirlpool and leave a good amount of wort in the kettle.  Obviously, pouring the whole thing makes this impossible, so instead of doing a whirlpool I poured the wort into a keg as soon as it had cooled, then let this sit for a while until the trub and hop matter had dropped out of suspension.  At this point, I racked the much cleaner wort into the final fermentation vessel, oxygenated, and pitched the yeast.

Anyway, back to the beer itself.  Besides changing to whole hops, I didn't make any real modifications from the recipe I linked to above: 100% pilsner malt, elevated levels of sulphate (though not quite to the levels reported for historic Burton waters).  This time I pitched Wyeast 1318 for the primary fermentation, and the dregs from a beer fermented with Wyeast Brettanomyces Clausenii for the secondary. 

Last time the beer was all but undrinkable for the better part of eight months, so I'm not expecting to be drinking it any time soon.  I'm hoping the whole hops will soften the bitterness slightly, which might mean I'm drinking this one earlier than the previous version.  For now, its sitting in a carboy in my brew closet.

Sunday 26 June 2016

Brew Day: XX Bitter

I think that De Ranke's XX Bitter is for me what Saison Dupont is for many American saison drinkers: one of the beers that made me fall in love with the style and start brewing it seriously at home.  That partly reflects the indirect route I took to these beers, first becoming excited about them after reading the descriptions of old saisons in Yvan de Baets' essay in Farmhouse Ales.  That essay helped me to see a pattern in the kind of Belgian beers I enjoyed and the kinds I wasn't so keen on.  And XX Bitter (along with beers from Brasserie de la Senne) came closest to how I imagined the bitter versions of those beers.

Because of that, I've been meaning to brew a batch directly inspired by XX Bitter for quite a while.  Luckily, Nino and Guido are very open about how they brew their beers, making it a principle to "offer our customers insight in our brewery, the brewing process and the materials used, with nothing to hide".  This article contains almost everything you need to know in order to brew a beer along these lines, and there is also plenty of information on the De Ranke website.  Nino was kind enough to answer a few extra questions for me as well.

Here are the main takeaways I got from all of this:

  1. The recipe is 100% pilsner malt.
  2. Whole hops are essential.  The brewers are very serious about this part of their process, stating that they "use exorbitant amounts of hop flowers, which results in unmatched complexity and mouthfeel".  This certainly fits my own experience of their beers.
  3. There are only two additions of hops in the boil.  The first is of Brewer's Gold, added with 75 minutes left in the boil, aiming for 60 IBUs.  The second is with Hallertau Mittelfruh, at two minutes left in the boil.  Nino recommended that I add a minimum of 1.5g/l, and I ended up using closer to 2g/l.
  4. The brewery uses a dried Fermentis yeast.  Discussion with other homebrewers online left me fairly certain that this was Safbrew T-58.  Nino simply suggested that I "select a yeast strain that is quite neutral so the hops will shine through better". They also "use very little cooling during the brewing process", which suggests to me that the yeast is allowed to free-rise after a certain point.
  5. The beer finishes very dry, and is given a relatively long conditioning period at fairly high temperatures.  From the article: "We condition at higher temperatures than a lot of breweries, mostly at 15°C. We also allow for 4 weeks of conditioning after primary fermentation which is longer than a lot of other breweries. This gives us a really dry beer.”
That is more than enough information to base a homebrew recipe on, though I had to make a few changes to what I brewed.

I wanted to use the freshest whole hops possible, so I waited until Hops Direct announced that their new European crop had arrived, and picked my hops from there.  Unfortunately they did not have any Brewers Gold this year.  I ordered some Bramling Cross instead, since they have a similar oil profile and flavour description to Brewers Gold (plus I knew I could use them in some other recipes).  The only problem was that the AA% was surprisingly low, at only 3.3%.  This meant I had to use A LOT of hops to get to 60 IBUs.  I thought about supplementing with pellets instead, but decided that went against the spirit of the thing: if I had enough whole hops, why not use them and see how things turned out.  I adapted my water profile to emphasise this bitterness, going for around 150ppm calcium sulfate to around 50ppm calcium chloride.

My other main concern was about the yeast.  Nino states that the beer gets very dry, but from what I could learn from other homebrewers, it seems that T-58 is not a particularly attenuative strain.  With that in mind, I did everything I could to make a fermentable wort, including a long low mash rest at around 146°F (followed by a shorter one at 154°F).  Also, though I was using dried yeast, I gave the wort plenty of oxygen before pitching.

My predicted O.G. was 1.054, but both batches ended up higher than intended, between 1.058 and 1.060, perhaps due to the longer than usual mash rests.  This probably won't help with attenuation, but I decided to just let things be rather than adding water to get closer to my intended O.G.  After pitching the yeast, I kept the beer in the mid 60s for the first 24 hours or so, and allowed it to free-rise after that.

The batch brewed with T-58 was still at 1.020 after two weeks of fermentation.  I transferred it to a second keg and let it sit at room temperature with a spunding valve, and after four weeks it was down to 1.012.  I'd hoped to get it down to at least 1.008, so I was a little disappointed with where it ended up, but I decided to just got ahead and package it rather trying to start another fermentation with a different strain.

It's been in the bottle for about three weeks at this point, and while its a nice beer, it doesn't come close to XX Bitter.  First, the bitterness just isn't as pronounced as it is in the original.   Its definitely there, but doesn't have the lingering quality that I love in De Ranke's beer.  I don't know if this is because the beer didn't dry out enough, because I used lower AA hops, or something else entirely.  The fuller body also makes it less drinkable than XX bitter.  That aside, its a nice beer: aromatically complex, with both the yeast and the hops making their presence known.  But its just not what I was going for, and disappointing for that reason.

I think if I brew this again, I'll give up on the idea of making a 'clone' and use a yeast strain that I'm more familiar with.  I actually made some other beers along these lines using these same whole hops, but they're a subject for another post.  In the meantime, I plan to set the rest of this batch cold-condition in the fridge while I'm away in England, and I'm sure we'll have no problem finishing it off once we get back.

But wait, there's more...

As Nino mentions in that article, there was a period between 1994 and 1998 when the beers at De Ranke were brewed with yeast from the Rodenbach brewery.  Yvan de Baets has a very evocative description of that beer, and the flavour profile associated with old saisons, in his essay:
It is often said that sourness and bitterness do not go well together in beer but, because [saison] was a beer that had matured for a long time, the bitterness decreased, permitting the equilibrated development of the sour and vinous flavours of the beer. We had evidence of this until several years ago when the excellent XX Bitter, a heavily hopped beer from the De Ranke brewery in Wevelgem, was still fermented with yeast from the Rodenbach brewery in Roeselare. This yeast is in fact a mix of diverse yeasts, some of which are of the Brettanomyces strain, and of lactic bacteria. When the beer was young, bitterness dominated, balanced by a light tartness. As is aged, the bitterness diminished, giving way to a more pronounced and slightly vinous tartness. The balance of this beer was always perfect. It certainly came close to old saison beers.
With plenty of whole hops left over after I formulated the recipe for the clean batch, of course I had to give this one a try as well.  The recipe was exactly the same, but instead of using T-58 I pitched a packet of Wyeast's Roeselare blend, which is intended to imitate the yeast at Rodenbach.  As with the beer described above, I tried to make sure this one finished pretty dry, giving it a long, low mash rest and plenty of oxygen. I'm hoping this will help the beer attenuate fairly low after a month or two, so that I can package it while its still quite fresh, and see it develop in the bottle.  If that isn't possible (and as of posting this, its looking unlikely), I'll leave it to develop in a carboy over the summer.