Monday, February 20, 2017

Houblonette and brewing in WWI-era France

Much of my beer history research is driven to learn more about a couple specific beers with an ever-present eye on how I could use that info in modern brewing. However, through that I end up looking much further in a couple ways. I'll hunt for contextual information (general brewing, ingredients, etc.) to make better sense of historic brewing info and recipes. But I will also, mostly by chance, happen across something that is intellectually interesting, if not so valuable for practical brewing. This post falls into the latter category and I wanted to share it as it provides some interesting insight into the state of beer, brewing, and public consumption in the north of France during WWI and the lasting implications of the war on brewing.

On October 13th (1914) the Germans entered Lille.
The dark days were about to begin.
I've mentioned this a bit before in other posts - WWI had a significant impact on brewing in Belgium and northern France. This was in addition to the already staggering loss of local populations, either from casualties during the war or from people fleeing their homes and not returning afterward. Raw ingredients were in short supply and were needed more directly for people and animals. So brewing grains, when they could be had, were very expensive. In Lille, for example, 100 kg of malt which would have cost 34 francs in August 1914 before the Germans reached the city (13-October-1914) was selling for 180 francs in 1915. That's almost 6 times as expensive and only in the course of a year! And finally equipment was hard hit. Between incidental damage and looting of equipment, either for scrap or re-purposing (e.g. taking brewing pumps to the trenches to clear water), many brewers were left without the capacity to produce beer even if they had the labor and ingredients necessary to do so.

Brewing in Lille

The information in this post comes mostly from an article in Le Petit Journal du Brasseur in 1919 written by Henry Codvelle which focuses on brewing in Lille during WWI. Lille, as discussed in this post on a paper by Evans  in 1905, was home to bière de garde. While these beers were popular throughout much of the 19th century, their popularity was falling rapidly in the 1900s such that any bière de garde production that survived until the war would have been in the minority of production. In 1909 there were still aged beers (likely the same as bières de garde) being made in northern France along with young beers, blonds and browns, stronger 'luxury' beers, and a small set of wheat beers (see this FB post and this FB post). So the brewing scene is fairly diverse in the region and production of bière de garde probably makes it until WWI, though not as a main product of breweries.

Beer production in N France, 1909 (from Petit Journal du Brasseur, 1910). Volume estimates made by assuming an 
average beer strength of 3.8 degrees, estimated from the same article, and in two different units (see note below).

Crate from an old N France brewery.
From the collection of D. Thiriez.
The table above, from Le Petit Journal du Brasseur 1910, shows the number of breweries and production levels for municipal regions (so city proper and surrounding area) in northern France in 1909. As you can see the city of Lille was a major production center. It accounts for almost more production within the city limits than in any other municipal area, and Lille contributes 5% of the total French beer production. Note that the gravity estimates in the above table were made assuming that the journal article is internally consistent - that the gravities in degrees Belgian (well, of the possible options degrees Belgian is my best guess) as reported are the same units as would be used for production volumes in degrees*hl. This could very well be flawed, in which case the production volumes are probably based on Plato or Baumé, for which the estimate is repeated with the equivalent Plato gravity (9.8 P is about 3.8 Belgian).

In 1914, before the Germans reached Lille, there were 26 breweries (not a large number, the author notes, but some were quite large and had attached malthouses). This means the brewing scene in Lille was either quite a bit smaller than the 1909 numbers, or the breweries in Lille are potentially quite large probably a bit of both. 26 breweries brewing about 770,000 hl per year means each brewer brewing a bit over 80 hl per day every day of the year (or about 32 hl per day every day, so somewhat less massive but still a fair average for every day of the year, depending on which of the above gravity estimates is right). In May 1915 the occupying Germans prohibited brewing in the city under penalty of imprisonment. But it didn't take long until they made a slight reversal and designated 4 brewers who could continue production to supply the German army. Of these 4, 2 closed nearly immediately, leaving 2 operating breweries in the city about a year after the occupation began. Those two breweries, which operating for the benefit of the occupying Germans, didn't make it to the end of the war as they closed in 1917. So Lille went from 5% of total French production in the city proper, and the biggest brewing region in the north of France by a large margin, to having only 2 breweries in (legal) operation in the city in about 5 years. And none remaining by 8 years' time.


But the Lilloise, being crafty and with un-sated thirst, devised ways around this. One such product was Houblonette, which in large part prompted this post. Houblonette seems to fall somewhere between a naturally carbonated soda and some sort of fermented sugar water. It was produced by both the "unauthorized" breweries (later its commercial production was restricted and there were specific "authorized" Houblonette breweries) and the public. When the English arrived in Lille, Houblonette was the only product from the three remaining Lille breweries (out of the pre-war 26) who were still able to do anything. Houblonette was a fermented product, though I'm unclear on the degree to which it was fermented. And with a bit of searching I haven't been able to find any specifics about it other than what is in this article. So the very, very limited amount of info about it that I have comes from this article, and much of the following is guesswork based on that and general info about beer/brewing at the time.

Houblonette: "a true beer without malt". Hmm, I'm suspicious...

Houbonette is described as consisting of boiled water, sugar, a bit of alcohol, and hops. The taste carries some of the bitterness from the hops and it was carbonated and served from bottles or kegs. Based on beer strengths of the region of the time, I'm going to guess that it was likely not much more than 2% ABV, and it easily could have been less. I suspect it was meant to be consumed quite young such that there was still some sugar around. Both the addition of alcohol the development of carbonation when put in sealed containers for serving suggests that producers were not relying on this sugar as a primary driver of alcohol as opposed to taste and carbonation. I imagine that if it was allowed to ferment to dryness it would be pretty unpleasant. Note however, that according to Johnson 1918 the sugars used in Belgium of this era were not fully fermentable and left much more residual material than the sorts of sugars used in English brewing at the time. So it is possible that the sugar was rather unrefined. This is supported by the use of molasses in place of sugar at times when molasses could be smuggled through.

Crate from an old Lille brewery.
From the collection of D. Thiriez.
Houblonette was produced by the commercial breweries as well as at home. And, according to Mr. Codvelle, the people of Lille were able to access it quite easily (and apparently did so eagerly) from one of those two sources. Though prices weren't always great due to the high cost of sugar. In October 1917 the price of Houblonette was roughly twice that of pre-war beer (26 Francs for 160 L of beer pre-war, 50 France for 160 L Houblonette in Oct-1917). As such, it would be reasonable to guess that the amount of sugar used in Houblonette could be quite low. The Lilloise apparently gained a taste for it as home production of Houblonette continued and hops could be bought in grocery stores for private production for at least a couple years after the war.

Lasting consequences of WWI on brewing and beer in Lille

As mentioned above, none of the 26 pre-war Lille brewers were still brewing at the end of the war. And between damage to buildings, near complete loss of equipment from looting by the Germans or destruction, and short supplies/high costs of labor, brewers weren't in a good position to restart their activities. However by 1919, 18 breweries were able to re-open. This required a bit of non-ideal and re-purposed equipment but Mr. Codvelle asserts that the beer was good. But the consequences of the war were wider-reaching for brewers. Prices had to go up significantly (in 1919 160 L of beer cost 115 Francs compared to 26 in 1914, note that I don't know anything about inflation/other products like bread to normalize this increase and all other price comparisons above).

And, more worrying for the brewer, the people were increasingly no longer turning to beer as their drink of choice. French soldiers were now accustomed to wine (thanks to JC and Guillaume for translation help with the related idiomatic expression there!) and, even though wine was much more expensive post-war as well, its consumption was much higher than when it was inexpensive before the war. Finally, as mentioned above, people were also used to producing Houblonette at home.

While the author leaves this article with a bit of optimism looking toward how the future might go for the Lille brewers now that they were starting back up, what we know about brewing in northern France would say otherwise. The north, pre-WWI, was a region choosing beer as its preferred drink. As this article makes clear, this is no longer the case in 1919 and there is a growing influence of wine. It appears this held strong and WWI had a much more significant and lasting impact on brewing than was clear in the immediate post-war era.

Thankfully some brewers did continue. And, perhaps more importantly there is a growing wave of newer brewers in the north of France who, over the last 20+ years, are rebuilding the reputation of northern France as a region with beers of great character.

20-Feb-17 note - an earlier version of this post used only degrees Belgian for volume estimates. The post has been updated to include both Belgian and Plato to minimize the potential for error.

Tuesday, December 27, 2016

2016 reflections and 2017 goals

As the year draws to a close, it's time for another round of reflection and setting goals for the following year. As I look back on the year, I'm generally happy with what I accomplished but I was unable to make progress on many goals. Out of the year I had about 4 months of so where I could reasonably brew, and this was quite limiting.

Without getting too personal and off the topic of beer, 2016 led me to a lot of instability which was
Carboys and bottles aging at a friend's house
reflected in brewing. I spent about 1/4 of the year living and working in Germany and additionally about 1/3 of the year on couches and spare bedrooms on either side of international moves (5 out of the last 13 months if you count December 2015). So the European work seriously cut into brewing time and my overall sense of stability and feeling like I had a home. I'm very thankful for the friends that housed me (Jess & Neil, Andrea, Marcus & Dana, Jay & Tracy) and my beer (Mark, Jess & Neil) for giving me the stability that I had and the opportunity to tuck some (well, lots and lots) of beer away for aging to come back to. My generally sanity and ability to do pretty much anything beer-related in the past year is thanks in large part to these friends.

On the whole the past year has made me feel at times like a "theoretical brewer" rather than a brewer. I took about 1 year off of brewing and spent much of this time looking through historic recipes. By the end of this I noticed that I was having a harder time contextualizing what specifics meant. This is coming back quickly, so it was illustrative of how easy it is to pick back up when you think about beer way too much. But it also illustrated to me how quickly I lost parts of practical brewing intuition that I had worked hard to earn. I’m happy to be getting these back and am looking forward to continued brewing within a select range of styles and process, while being mindful to not let beer take over too much as it has before. So with that preface to 2016, I’m going to look back on the year in beer for me.

Brasserie Au Baron in northern France.
2016 in review

Europe travels: Being based in Germany for work opened the door to many great travel opportunities (beer, wine, food, etc.). Most of these were focused on Belgium and Northern France and the continued ability to make repeat visits helped to continue building relationships with European brewers and beer enthusiasts, and some of the Americans that share a similar passion and travel frequently. This has by far been the highlight of the last few years of beer to me – the connections I’ve made and what I’ve learned from others about Belgian beer and Belgian culture due to making those connections.

Historic Research: 2016 was a great year for the historic Belgian & French beer research I’ve been doing. Being based in Europe helped a lot for having discussions with people who really know this stuff and for tracking down resource material. Thanks to the many people who have helped with this research (especially Thierry, Niels, and Yvan). The research has led to some interviews and presentations, and it looks like there may be more on that in the coming year.

Lambic fermenting at Oud Beersel There is more on this below in the 2017 goals, but one of the highlights of the year in beer for me was being invited to join toward the end of the year. This site is a great resource and a massive amount of time and work went into building the site into what it is today. I’ve so far under-performed in my contributions (based on the same schedule-related constraints that limited brewing in the few months that I was able to). But I’ve got some plans to make up for that in 2017.

2016 goals: Looking back at the goals I made for 2016, I generally didn’t make a lot of progress. As outlined above, I’m neither surprised nor disappointed by this. There were only about 5 months out of the year that I could brew, based on travel for work, so not making much brewing progress was to be expected and perhaps my goals were a bit ambitious. But anyway, I should address whether these are still goals to me know and if I should prioritize them for 2017

House Mixed Culture: I've made essentially no progress here. I’ve been brewing basically two types of beers (low-OG saison & saison-like beers and lambic-inspired mixed-fermentation beers) and I am keeping the microbes for those two categories mutually exclusive for now. But I’ve been happy with my results on either end, and I could start working toward a mixed culture that I’ll use for saison-oriented beers. For now I think I’ve found the base yeast for building that culture. If I continue to work on the culture, it will have to be something I could package fairly young and be happy with to allow for the quicker turnaround beers I’ve been brewing without overcarbing too much in the bottle, which may be a concern with the work I’ve been doing (in mashing and yeast strain) to raise my FGs. So we’ll see how this goes.

Spontaneous beer: Progress has been minimal here, and this is something I’d like to try to prioritize going forward. I did include a spontaneous component in some --recent blending--, but so far no fully spontaneous blends and it is unlikely that there will be any soon. So I guess I need to get some more base beers in and keep practicing my blending in general. This is definitely not the sort of thing that I will make regular steady progress at and it is more likely going to come in major steps when I have beers that work out well and are aged enough to use in blends.

Hops: The past year has brought me even further from new and non-European hops. At this point I am firmly rooted in landrace hops form continental Europe and the UK. Every so often I'll venture out of this for newer European hops of more noble-oriented US hops (something like Sterling, Willamette, etc.). But my taste preferences have been further solidified by my extended time in Europe. This is unlikely to change and I’m happy to focus on noble-type hops. But I would like to find hops that are grown closer to me that I like as much as the classic European varieties, especially given my focus on using local malt.

2017 Goals

Hoppy Belgian-inspired beers: My trend toward hoppier Belgian-inspired beers has continued through 2016. I've had multiple friends comment on this when I give them my homebrews, and I think my use of European hops is improving. I’d like to continue brewing in this direction with inspiration from breweries like Thiriez, De La Senne, De Ranke and Seizoensbrouwerij Vandewalle.

Volume of Le Petit Journal du Brasseur
Historic research: I plan to prioritize the historic beer research again this year. Hopefully I’ll be able to make progress organizing thoughts for other beers like lambic, bière de garde and saison. I’m planning to return to Europe in the coming year, at least for leisure and possibly for another temporary move, so I plan to take advantage of that opportunity to work on more sources. There are some talks already scheduled for the coming year and hopefully I can work in some more as well. In the latter half of 2016 I was invited to join This is an amazing resource and I’m really excited to be involved. But unfortunately between finishing my thesis and multiple trans-ocean work trips, I haven’t been able to contribute much yet. I hope to change this in first few months of next year.

Blending and spontaneous beers: I’ve got a lot of aging beer sitting around that I need to be putting to use. Just before heading off for a research cruise in December and January I made about 80 liters of blends of mixed-culture beer that was between 47 and 15 months old (see this post and this post from the facebook page), but there are a lot of aging carboys left to use. So hopefully in the coming year I can continue learning about blending and tasting my blends to see what worked better or worse as they age. The first big blending I did in spring 2015 has already helped me out there, but of course there is more to be done. Part of this will include continuing to brew spontaneous beers to hopefully create a fully spontaneous product in the next year or two. We’ll see about that.

Hopefully you all have some good goals for the New Year as well!

Tuesday, December 6, 2016

Recipes and Brewdays: Turbid Mashed Petite Saisons

After many months focused on historic beer research and beer travels, I'm stably back home (BC, Canada) and am back to brewing. The blog's facebook page has been actively reflecting this with photos, partial recipes and process info, but it's time to put some of the new brews up on the blog itself. My latest brew excluded, my activity so far has focused on brewing and re-brewing two basic recipes - a grisette and a 1.030 OG saison. Through posts, interviews and presentations I've put forward a lot of my recent thoughts on grisette (see these posts, an AHA presentation if you are an AHA member, this interview with Basic Brewing Radio, and this interview with Fuhmentaboudit!) so this post will focus on low-strength saisons. These are some of my favorite beers to drink and with the warm weather of summer when I returned to brewing they are what I've wanted.

The finished wort.
When I think about commercial low-strength saisons, one primary example comes to mind as my clear favorite - La Petite Princesse from Brasserie Thiriez. Regular followers of this blog and friends of mine will known I am a vocal proponent of this beer. This brew started as a collaborative brew with Jester King (following their Le Petit Prince closely) and Daniel continues to brew it. I love how refreshing this beer is and how it carries way more flavor than you would expect from a ~1.020-1.025 beer. Of course there are other great examples out there (including the Jester King beer, which is great but unfortunately I am much less familiar with it, and Brasserie Dupont's Biolégère/Avril). Unfortunately none of these examples are especially widely available, at least fresh examples. So if you're curious about this sort of beer but you can't find a commercial example, either local or imported, then you may just have to try brewing your own.

I broke down my thinking in building a low-OG saison recipe in this recent post discussion my recipe formulation process. All of the goals and general plans for the brew are outlined there so here I'll jump into the recipe.

Malt #46 - Concerto barley.
Grains and mashing: Before getting into recipes/brewdays I want to spend a bit of time focusing on grain and mashing, both because I made very deliberate and potentially unique choices in this beer and because I am using malts that are not available to a wide audience. I am now almost exclusively using locally grown and malted barley for my base malt in all my brewing. This malt comes from my friend Mike who runs a small floor maltery (Doehnel Floor Malting) and who is involved with Skagit Valley Malting. While this may mean some of my malt specifics might be less useful to an audience that can't get these malts, I'll try to provide a bit more detail about the malts. Hopefully the end result of this is more thinking about/knowledge about malt that couldn't be gained by simply listing a style or internationally available commercial producer.

I've been using Doehnel batch #46 as the base malt for my recent low-OG saisons. This malt is made from Concerto barley (a spring 2 row variety). It has a very thin husk and a lightly colored blue aleurone (which you can sort of see in the photo). Although it is kilned to around a pilsner level in terms of color, it is richer and tastes somewhere between pils and vienna. The FAN is fairly low, which makes it suitable for more intensive mashing procedures. The friability is in between pilsner and North American malts and the difference in extract between coarse and fine grind is low, suggesting a fairly well-modified malt (a good amount more modified than what I've been using for grisettes). So to sum that up, very light color but rich flavor, low FAN so I'll want to address that in mashing, and pretty good modification. Without analyzing spec sheets, if you were to try to come up with a similar base malt from commercial varieties maybe consider a more characterful pils like some of the special pils malts Weyermann has (Barke and/or floor malted), or blending in continental European pale malts and/or Vienna with your base pils.

Based on discussions with Mike and the malt I've been able to get form him, I've had the opportunity to work with more intensive mashing procedures. I feel like I am getting a good graininess out of this (turbid wort tastes unlike any wort I've tasted from a normal mash), and I think it is helping me to brew very light beers which don't seem to be lacking malt character and complexity. But I can't approach the tastings in an unbiased way and I haven't done any comparisons with the same recipe made from normally mashed wort. Anyway, the opportunity to get a bit more involved in mashing leads me to the inspiration on that side - historic texts.

Pulling some turbid wort.
My recent low-OG saisons take inspiration from a text written by George Johnson in 1918 (see this post for a discussion of that text) as well as other historic texts such as Evans, 1905 (as discussed in this post) discussing turbid mashing for a wider range than considered by most in the modern world (the original historic texts are also linked in both of those posts). Johnson's text promotes turbid mashing as a technique that is desirable for producing low-gravity beers of fairly rapid turnaround. This is different from turbid mashing in lambic, where a major goal of turbid mashing is to provide carbohydrate and nutrient sources for a diverse range of microbes with diverse metabolic capacities and needs over a long time. But there is reasoning for Johnsons's advice - lower attenuation and the additional extraction from turbid mashing would work well, at least in theory, in low-OG beers. So I wanted to try it out.


Target OG: 1.030
Actual OG: 1.032
FG: 1.008
ABV: 3.1 %
Batch Size: ~7 gal / 26.5 L in carboys

The first mash step.
70.6% Doehnel #46
17.6% Flaked Wheat
11.8% Flaked Oats

I won't discuss mashing in length here as that is covered in this post focused on Johnson's text (this was also linked to above). In brief, this is a turbid mash with one pull of turbid wort (more are optional). There is a beta glucan rest around 108 F / 42 C which is rather dry, a protein rest around 125 F / 51.7 C, and a saccharification rest around 156 F / 69 C. The turbid pull comes between the second and third rests and optionally spends some time at a saccharificaiton rest while it is heated to boiling. After the main mash is drained the turbid portion is added back and allowed to rest at a high saccharification temp for a fair amount of time. This is then drained and the grain is sparged more or less as normal.

Just after turning the flame off and adding whirlpool hops.
I'm used to a 'Cantillon-style' turbid mash and am comfortable with that, but this was my first time I've used a turbid mash modeled after Johnson, 1918. Things went generally smoothly, but as with any somewhat complicated process that you try for the first time, it didn't all go exactly as planned. My turbid pull didn't get as much time at a saccharification temp before boiling as I would have liked, and in general I didn't hit my target temps as closely as desired. This probably influences the lower than expected attenuation, but the beer doesn't taste sweet or heavy and I'm pretty happy with how it came out. I suspect more experience with this mash and a bit more focus on brew day will help for next time.

Hopping: ~1 g/l Sterling pellets to bitter with 30 min left in the boil (calculates out to a contribution of 21 IBU, but from brewing with this same sterling before I think it is closer to 10-15), and ~5 g/l Hallertau Tradition whole hops at flame out for a 25 minute hop stand/whirlpool. The end result is a calculated 40 IBU but I think it is more likely on the 30 side. And the hopping, as is clear from this recipe, is balanced toward the flavor side rather than bitterness.

Racking onto dry hops.
Fermentation: I used yeast cultured from a bottle of Thiriez beer. This is what I've been using in most of my beers lately and I quite like it. I've talked a fair bit about this yeast but, in brief, it is different from Wyeast 3711 in fermentation behavior/appearance, attenuation, and flavor/aroma profile. If I am going to use a single yeast strain then this is the one I want to use.

The carboys fermented in the low 70s F / ~22-23 C. The beers were given on the order of a week for primary and then one carboy was racked onto ~1 g/l Styrian Golding pellets. This beer was given 6 days of contact time at room temp. The non-dry hopped version was bottled 12 days after brew and the dry hopped was bottled 14 days after brew. This is a bit longer than I've been giving other similar beers recently based on my schedule/availability. I've generally been shooting for around 10 days brew to bottle, with both dry hopped and non-dry hopped beers.

The beers were given a couple weeks conditioning at room temps (so for me that is around 64 F / 18 C, I'd like to condition a bit warmer) with corked 750s conditioned horizontally. After the conditioning time the beer was moved to a cooler room and the horizontal bottles were put upright or left horizontal, depending on what storage space I had open for them.

I'm quite happy with how the final beers came out, especially the dry hopped version. Perhaps I'll put up some tasting notes in the coming week(s).

Monday, October 3, 2016

What is Grisette part II - updated and abridged

Grisette has become a defining element of this blog since writing my first post on the topic (What is Grisette) about a year ago. This post marked the start of seriously focusing on digging up historic sources to understand what grisette was. At that time I had been watching pro brewers around me and elsewhere in North America applying the name to wide range of beers without any real understanding of that it meant. This is because basically nobody knew what it meant with any detail. People had ideas, myself included, but at best they were all based on a couple pages of information in modern English-language sources. I don't mean to downplay the value of those sources, which focus on other beers, as they present great info. And they played a prominent role in keeping grisette alive/in the minds of brewers. Many of us wouldn't have heard of grisette without those books and  I've even talked to a European professional brewer who learned of the style through Farmhouse Ales by Markowski. But for a more full understanding, excepting the information from those who drank historic grisettes such as Leon Voisin of Brasserie Voisin as quoted in Farmhouse Ales, the information in these texts all came from historic Belgian sources that are out there somewhere. So I wanted to dig those up for more details.

What it looks like when I try to organize thoughts on grisette.
This research on grisette also took me to 1800s and 1900s Belgian primary and secondary sources on other historic beers, which has now become a main focus of this blog. I expect to move more focus in those directions and let my mental organization of thoughts on grisette slip a bit. With grisette, for blog posts and especially for presentations/interviews, I would spend a lot of time working to build the information I had into an organized structure. With a recent presentation in Vancouver and one more grisette event coming up - a podcast/radio recording - I am going through this again. And I decided I should use the opportunity to transfer the same organization to the blog.

My first post on the topic was mostly an organization of what info there already was available in English, including the conflicting pieces of info, and a beginning analysis of labels. This post has by far been the blog's most successful and I think it did a good job of setting me up for what was to come with the historic sources. But the real substance of my research came in later posts and presentations. Unfortunately those posts have seen many fewer reads and not all the presentations are available to everyone, so I think some of the later work I've done to update and expand upon what grisette was may be lost to many. Similarly, the recipe I posted previously was brewed before I all of the more serious research (as was mentioned in that recipe post with some caveats). I still feel that recipe fairly accurately could produce a grisette, but I think you could also make a more "grisette-y" recipe. I gave a more grisette-focused recipe in my talks here and there including my NHC presentation, but again, this is not available to everyone. So I'd like to update that first post and recipe with the subsequent research I've done, in a more clear, concise and universally accessible way.

A lost grisette - label form Jacques Triffin.
I expect there could be more posts on grisette to come for this blog, and I'll certainly keep looking for info on the style, but with less focus than before. This summary will serve as a brief overview of what I know now before I shift focus to other topics. Much like the previous posts, this info is built on what I have seen and extrapolating from there, so parts of this understanding may be refined/changed as I learn more. So here it is: What is Grisette, part II. This might read a little choppy as I'm trying to keep it pretty short and quick. If you are interested in more information, these other posts from the blog and recordings of interviews/presentations (below) go into the information in more detail. These will also be linked again in the rapid fire-style list of grisette characteristics below where they are relevant.
Grisette Fundamentals

What: A fairly clear pale wheat beer that was a refreshing drink in the summertime. The beer was generally but not always lower strength. There were multiple classes of grisette. Ordinary grisettes were fundamentally designed to not be aged. There were aged versions of girsette that changed some of the fundamental structure to benefit aging, but in general it is not a beer for aging, both in recipe formulation and practice.

Based on the hopping rates and lack of aging as well as the historical descriptions, I don't think grisette would have been an acidic beer. Some examples of certain classes from some producers may have had some, but on the whole it seems from the record, including descriptions of the beer, that grisette was not an acidic beer. Multiple texts make a point of noting that the brewers who know how to make grisette were few and didn't like to talk about how they make it, so there isn't a lot of info.

Where: Grisette comes from the Hainaut province of Belgium, and specifically the earlier info I've seen comes form Scheldt and Dender river areas. Bigger cities in the Hainaut province like Charleroi and Tournai had grisette brewers at one point, as well as many smaller towns in the province.

When: I believe grisette started in the 1700s. The earliest source I have seen is from 1812, which mentions a brewery that has established itself via it's grisettes. This brewery was distributing the beer, at least somewhat locally if not also exporting, suggesting: a) they weren't small, b) they had been making grisette for a while, and c) people liked to drink it.


Hops: This post goes into more detail on this. Belgian (likely Belgian landrace hops, which are no longer in much production) were probably generally used. Likely coming from the Hainaut province, though possibly from Aalst or Poperinge for the bigger breweries/those who could afford these hops. Some brewers, especially those making higher classes of grisette, would also have used imported hops at times such as German (Hallertau) Czech hops (Saaz) and English hops (East Kent Goldings). Some general historic sources of the time suggest that German hops were not always thought to be the preferred choice for imported hops. On the order of 3-4 g/l for an ordinary grisette is the right sort of level. Hopping was generally balanced toward bitterness rather than flavor.

With Blegian landrace hops no longer around much, I used Czech Saaz.
English hops would also have been a historically accurate choice.
The beer may also have been dry hopped by some producers. If so, this was probably with a fairly
low dose (<1 g/l) and with better quality hops. So a producer, at least one who could do so, would have favored Czech or English hops for this. Dry hopping would have been done at storage/serving temps after fermentation, probably with a reasonable contact time.

Malt: Grisette was a wheat beer and the wheat was malted. I have seen no mention of grains other than wheat and barley in the historic grisette literature. I think one could possibly add some other grains to their beer, though the more those other components express themselves in the finished beer, the less closely it would follow historic grisette. The breakdown given in Pelset's 1874 text, the one source that goes into detail on the beer, is to use roughly 88% malted barley (spring 6 row) and 12% malted wheat. The wheat was more of a chitted wheat with very little germination time and the kilning temperatures were very low. Not far away from wind dried malt. Other sources mention that the barley would have been a winter 6 row. Given the nature of the beer, a spring 6 row is probably better.

Yeast: In short, I have no clear answer. I think one of the terms used to describe yeast character for this beer, both by me and other sources, can be confusing - 'clean'. A clean yeast profile can refer to a more flavor-neutral yeast in Saccharomyces comparisons (something toward a lager or American ale strain compared to a more expressive yeast like many Belgian strains, especially saison yeasts). Alternatively, clean can be used to describe pure Saccharomyces beers from brett beers.

Grisette wort ready for fermentation.
There are a couple things about grisette yeast/fermentation that I am sure of. 1) They were ales. 2) Based on this, for most of their history they would have been mixed-culture beers. 3) The average grisette was not an aged beer. Therefore this mixed culture wouldn't get a chance to express itself much.

I find no clear meaning to 'clean' as it refers to grisette. They certainly would have been 'cleaner' than saisons for most of their shared history because grisette wasn't generally aged enough for the mixed culture to express itself while saison was an aged beer. So a grisette that comes across as a Saccharomyces only beer, or perhaps with just a hint of additional yeast or bacteria, is definitely cleaner than historic saison, which was a beer that often could have had a final flavor profile with quite a bit in common with lambic.

So based on what I have, I think one could make a grisette with a saison yeast that is 'clean' in the sense of not having any or much expression of brett or bacteria as well as one with a yeast that is 'clean' in the sense of less Saccharomyces expression than a saison yeast. I think there is a case for both to have some accuracy/validity and I don't feel I can recommend one over the other.

For my personal tastes, I'll lean toward the former generally. I'll also add these two bits that support a saison or saison-like yeast. Firstly, in Farmhouse Ales, Markowski states that oral accounts from those who drank grisette describe the beers as saison-like. And secondly, the modern Belgian (and French) brewers who know beer history use saison yeast when when they make grisettes. They make these beers rather irregularly, but De La Senne has been known to make some (including one with Thiriez).

A recipe:

This recipe reflects historic research but it is shifted towards modern ingredients (no landrace Belgian hops, and also some grain/malt substitutions that I think are reasonable) and also slightly by my personal tastes (mostly when it comes to hopping). So it is a 'modernized' grisette recipe. I am adding more finishing hops than I think would have been used in historic grisette. I am also not using enough bittering hops, but that is probably partly balanced out by hop quality. I could post here what is listed in historic texts for recipes but they are incomplete and I haven't brewed exactly what is listed. And based on how much ingredients have changed between then and now, I'm not sure that such a recipe would have much value. Another caveat that I bring up regularly when talking about historic beers is that they are heterogeneous entities within time across different producers as well as through time. There is not one absolute answer for what a given beer was. And finally, I'm not comfortable putting a recipe up here that I haven't brewed in case it is way off when using modern ingredients. But if you really want that and enough people hassle me for it then perhaps I could be convinced to do that.

So here is a recipe I think accurately reflects much of historic grisette with some small exchanges to bring it into the modern world. If one were to 'modernize' grisette, I think it would modernize in this direction. If you wanted to make this recipe more like historic grisette, you could drop the late hopping rate (or eliminate late hops altogether) and increase the bittering hops. The wheat is also higher than the ~12% listed in Pelset.

Malt #47 during testing and selection at Doehnel Floor Malting.
Target OG: Around 1.034
FG: Around 1.006, depending on yeast, grist, and mashing
ABV: 3.5-4%
Calculated IBU: ~30
SRM: Around 3

Grist: For a base I am using a locally sourced and somewhat unique malt. I'm sorry this isn't especially helpful for those looking to use the same, but here is some reasoning for why I choose it and some ideas for substitutions. I am choosing it for three main reasons: 1) it is a good malt/I like the way it tastes, 2) it is local, and 3) I think that while it is a 2 row rather than a 6 row, in certain respects it is more similar to historic malts than many modern malts. It is a feed variety, so not malting specific. It has a high amount of husk material per kernel. This is clear when chewing on the grains, but can also be noticed from holding and breaking kernels. The protein is above typical British malt levels and in the range of/on the higher end of Continental European malts. This specific malt is also a bit undermodified and has a low friability and high B-glucans. It is the same color range as a continental European pils malt.

If you are looking for something unique/with these sorts of specifications, check to see if you have a local/somewhat local craft maltster. These maltsters are more likely to be using less typical grains and/or make more unique products. If you wanted to use a more major commercial malt, you could source a commercial 6 row pils from some suppliers. Otherwise a continental European 2 row pils would still be fine and make a good beer. Generally speaking we won't be getting exactly up to historic grisette on the raw ingredient end so my philosophy here is to not stress much about it and choose ingredients with intention to either make the best beer, or approach historic beer (possibly both) depending on your tastes and goals.

Racking the beer onto dry hops.
79% Doehnel Floor Malting #47 - An undermodified spring 2 Row feed barley malt (variety - Austenson).
14% Malted wheat (I used N American white wheat malt, but European wheat malt might be a better choice if you have access to it).
7% Flaked wheat - these two are used to try to emulate a chitted wheat. If you have chitted wheat you can replace both wheats here with that.

Hops: Using Saaz would probably not have been common at many standard historic grisette breweries, though they may have been used in higher-class grisettes. As mentioned, to make this more historically accurate you can shift the hops earlier in the boil. Additionally with Czech hops, depending on the brewing season (see the hopping grisette post) and the category of grisette, the amount may be a bit lower. If you want to follow Pelset's info more closely, perhaps you could do ~3 g/l Saaz to bitter and no finishing hops. But I'm not sure that would make the sort of beer I want and I haven't tried it yet. So here's what I do:

2 g/l Czech Saaz boiled for 60 minutes (targeting ~18 IBU)
2 g/l Czech Saaz boiled for 15 minutes (targeting ~9 IBU)
Dry hop (optional): 0.5 g/l Styrian Golding for ~5 days. This is quite noticeable in the finished beer and you could experiment with going lower.

Mash: This is informed by the grains I am using, historic Belgian mashing in general, specific grisette mashing, and modern Belgian mashing. I don't have a specific and complete mashing profile for historic grisette at the moment.

My B-glucan rest.
This is very thick to account for additional infusions to come.
-Dough in in the B-glucan range (something like 108-113 F / 42.2-45 C), 10 min rest
-Raise to a protein rest by infusion (something like 125-131 F / 52-55 C), 15 min rest
-Raise to saccharification by infusion (something like 149 F / 65 C), 50 min rest
-A Belgian brewer would probably then do a high saccharification step around 162 F / 72 C or so (possibly in conjunction with a first sacch step being shorter than I did) and/or a mash out close to denaturing enzymes but probably at a low enough temp where you would still get some conversion for a bit. I leave it here and don't do a mash out.

90 minutes. Historically this could have been even longer. Probably not much shorter, and more likely longer than shorter.

Yeast and Fermentation:
The fermentation potential (to use a saison yeast or not) is discussed above and I have discussed aspects of it in my interview with Basic Brewing Radio, my AHA HomebrewCon talk, and this quick interview with Basic Brewing Radio at HomebrewCon (see this FB post).

Recently I have been using the Thiriez yeast, cultured from a bottle, and I like it quite a bit. Otherwise I am partial to a blend of 3711/3724 (favoring the 3724) if you want to go in  more saison yeast-driven route. If you don't want to go this way, I like Wyeast 3787 fermented cool for beers of this nature. Those are just some ideas, and you should use either your favorite saison yeast or blend, or your favorite more neutral Belgian ale yeast.

A head-to-head tasting of 3 different grisette homebrews.
With Thiriez yeast I pitch around 68 F / 20 C and raise to 72-74 F / 22.2-23.3 C over the first 3-4 days. I let a warm primary go for 5-7 days and then I let it return to room temp (for me this is about 64-66 F / 17.8-18.9 C) for 5-6 days. If I am dry hopping I rack on to the dry hops around day 5-6 and I give about 5-6 days of contact time on the hops at room temperature. I am generally bottling at 10-14 days. I'll let bottles condition for a couple weeks before drinking them.

You might find a different timeline and temperature range is best based on your yeast choice, but overall grisette is generally not a beer designed for age and something like 3-4 weeks grain to glass (at least when you start drinking it) is probably not far off what would have been done. Some grisettes were aged longer and some may have been consumed even sooner, so you can play around with this timeline a bit. But for a young/ordinary grisette I would try keep the grain to glass time pretty quick.

So there's a rundown for now, balancing being quick with being thorough. I suppose now all that's left is for you to take this info and brew your own version, following more or less closely depending on your taste preferences and goals. And then drink it. Cheers!

My latest batch of grisette following this recipe.
De La Senne / Thiriez Birthday Session grisette.

Tuesday, September 20, 2016

Thoughts on recipe formulation

Grab yourself a beer. Philosophical ramblings on beer are probably best served with a beer as accompaniment. And preferably a beer you like and want to re-brew or brew something similar to. That will help for the following discussion.

I'd like to present a rundown of how I go about formulating recipes, focusing on the thought process I go through for ingredient and process selection. On the logistics/calculations side I use BeerSmith, so I won't do any discussion of calculations/etc. I also won't spend time on ingredient selection in the sense of not using old/bad malt or hops. You should taste and smell your ingredients so you get familiar with what good hops of a given variety smell like compared to bad hops, and what fresh malt tastes/feels like compared to stale malt. In full disclosure, I'm a person that spends an unreasonable amount of time thinking about beer and I try to take pretty detailed notes. In-depth thinking about beer is part of how I approach it and I enjoy it but it might not work for everyone. Not everyone is in a beer or brewing-related hobby/business to spend lots of time thinking about beer (though those people probably don't spend much time reading blogs either). So no worries if this isn't for you. But this is how I do it.

I don't mean to suggest that this is all easy and this is probably geared to the intermediate to more advanced brewer. But I think the considerations I discuss below can be helpful to some degree no matter what level of brewing you are at. If you are just beginning and are making your first recipes, taking initial steps toward thinking in this way will help you ask questions to be more likely to get the answers you are looking for more clearly. When a brewer says something like 'I want to brew a -blank-' and asks for advice, I regularly follow that up with questions about the different directions within that idea/style/etc. which one could go to try to best be able to offer guidance toward their end goal. And if you are very experienced with making recipes, thinking in this sort of way will make active ingredient and process decisions easy (rather than just doing something a certain way because you've always done it that way or because someone else did it that way).

Reading and critically analyzing your beer and commercial beer give you a great tool set for creating recipes. I take lots
of notes to help this: brew logs at bottom left, commercial beer notes at bot. right and travel/brewery visit notes at top left.

Motivation and intention: To me recipe formulation starts with and spends the bulk of the time focusing on motivation and intention. I think one should always go into a brew thinking about their motivation behind the brew and their intention with the finished beer. This may seem fairly rudimentary, but I think that it doesn't happen a surprising amount of the time. For most of my brewing years I didn't really stop to think in detail about what I really wanted in the final beer beyond the base style and following a more or less random recipe. So I mean going deeper than something like I want a saison, or I want a hoppy sour beer, etc.

Perhaps you are brewing to try out a given ingredient or process. What setting do you want to test that in? Something that makes the difference easiest to see, or a setting where you are most likely to actually want to use that ingredient or process? Both have their merits and limitations.

Or perhaps your goals are more finished beer-driven. If you want a saison, what strength? What sort of hop presence? What color? Do you want it to be balanced more toward fruit/esters or spice/phenols? Or an even mix of both? What sort of body are you looking for? Maybe picture a commercial example you know and like. In an ideal world, how might you want the final characteristics changed to make it your ideal beer? Spending more time nailing down your motivation for the beer in question and your desired result in the finished beer are the first big step - you know exactly what you want.

La Petite Princesse from Thiriez. Drinking & discussing
this beer has inspired me considerably in making recipes.
So I start with basics and step forward from that to target details and what ingredients and/or process will get me there (or ask questions/research/set trials to learn what will get me there). This can make recipe formulation an easier step-by-step process and/or help you choose between different already published recipes. Note that building the skills to do this may require similar critical thinking about beers you drink to come up with a good sort of context for the direction you want your soon-to-be-brewed beer to head. Talking to brewers is a good way to augment this critical tasting of commercial or homebrewed beer.

Setting fundamental goals: Okay, so you've thought about the motivation and intention. I break that into a few fundamental goals to work from. To illustrate my process, I'll work through the following recipe formulation with a low-OG saison. I think this sort of thinking is much more valuable than simply giving a recipe, as hopefully it helps others to think in more detail about their brews and improve their brewing. I am planning a recipe/brewday post on the same beer in the near future, so don't worry - an actual recipe is coming.

The basic essential elements that I am looking for in my homebrews of low-strength saisons or my favorite commercial examples are: A) a refreshing/thirst quenching quality, B) sufficiently low strength that I can drink multiple, possibly during the daytime, without feeling the effect of the alcohol, C) something that doesn't taste/feel especially watery or thin and D) good yeast expression, balanced toward floral/fruity but without anything toward bubblegum. These basic motivations will drive all my recipe/process decisions behind making this beer. Keep in mind that all of the following are based on my personal tastes.

Turning those goals into process: Those were pretty basic goals. I don't mean to suggest that the following is easy and obvious. Knowing the results of recipe and process changes can come from trials, research, and discussions with other brewers but they aren't inherent knowledge. The following breakdown of my goals comes from years of experience in my own brewing, discussions with fellow homebrewers as well as Belgian and French commercial brewers, and reading about saison and Belgian brewing. That experience was built slowly, piece by piece, and thinking in this way helped me to build it and connect those pieces.

Taste testing two different base malts.
Goal A means that I want a fairly firm bitterness (keeping in mind the context of the OG). By my experience (commercial beers I like and homebrews) this means a BU:GU ratio of about 1.25 [Edit 21-Sept-16: 1.0 is more representative of a larger number of recent beers. I have done low-OG saisons with 1.3-1.4 that came out with the bitterness I was looking for, but I think the bitterness calculation was a fair amount higher than what I actually got for those, probably due to the hops I was using. By re-brewing the same recipe with the same hops but increasing the hopping, I was able to get the bitterness I wanted by going up to 1.3+]. It also means that, to my taste, I want the bitter/flavor qualities of noble-type hops rather than something like typical Pacific NW IPA hops. I find IPA hops to bring a perception of sweetness with their fruity flavors as well as a resinous quality, both of which detract from a refreshing quality to me. I find a more resinous or pithy bitterness can clash with the dryness of saisons and the yeast to me, such that the finish can be a bit harsh in a way that doesn't leave me wanting another sip. So I want a more delicate fruity/floral and a firmer spice/herbal character and I don't want something resinous.

It also means that I want a pretty forward hop flavor, therefore I'll be loading up on finishing hops and dry hopping. But through my experience I have found that if I go too far in the finishing hop direction, while I may get great hop flavor, something is missing in the perception of a drying bitter finish. The exact breakdown here will depend on aa of my hops and such, but I've been happy recently with a roughly even split in theoretical IBUs from "bittering" and finishing when using low alpha hops to finish. I quote bittering because to me this could mean 30 minutes left in the boil.

Finally it means that I will want to keep the grain bill rather pale to let that crispness come through. That means a base of pils malt is good. Some Vienna, or a move in that direction, would also be fine as the OG is so low. That basically settles the hops in terms of variety, usage rates, and schedules of additions. And it gives me a pretty good constraint of my malt bill. I am looking at grains no darker than Vienna.

Goal B means that I am shooting for something at or below ~3.5% ABV. The corresponding original gravity for this will depend on mashing and yeast choice. I have been working on raising my FGs a bit so that my OG can be up to 1.030. Getting the ABV down to about 3.5% with a 1.030 OG came from changing my yeasts and changing my mash profile.

Goal C means that I want to maximize character from my grain and mashing process, as grain level will obviously be the one factor most restricted by my ABV target. Mashing in a bit more of an intensive way to maximize extraction and development of flavors will also help and, depending on yeast choice, mashing for less fermentability could help. I generally try not to do this with 3711 as the yeast seems to attenuate quite a bit of stuff that others won't so it can just end up extending the fermentation timescale. For the same reasoning I would not mash for low attenuation when making a beer with brett that I also wanted to be a quick turnaround beer. Building body with certain grains like oats or rye and selecting yeast for more glycerin production can also help to build more body if you are looking for it. Finally, dry hopping can add a nice structure in addition to the flavor/aroma that it brings.

Pulling starchy wort during a turbid mash.
So to sum this up, for my tastes I will probably choose a more intensive mashing profile (more on this to come in later posts) and flaked grains and then dry hop with noble or noble-type hops for both the flavor and structure components I am looking for.

Goal D is fairly straightforward - it means that I'll choose a yeast blend or single strain and fermentation temperature profile that I am pretty happy with. Or if I want to try something out or don't know what strain/blend/temperature to use then I'll test some out, likely by splitting a batch to help constrain variables in the test.

A mixed yeast and bacteria blend can be a great way to add fermentation complexity. Think about something like Le Petite Prince with a bit more age or Jolly Pumpkin's Bam Bière (which, at 4.5% might be a bit stronger than the rest of this example focuses on, but that can be scaled back if needed for your goals). Mixed culture expression will of course come as a trade off with hop impression, which again comes back to careful consideration of what you are looking for.

For my recent beers, since it was already summer by the time I was brewing, I focused on quick turnaround. From travel experience visiting the brewery and talking with Daniel, I knew that the Thiriez yeast was a great choice (see this somewhat dated post from my visits there as well as this post from Farmhouse Beer Blog). Note that the fermentation appearance of this yeast, the flavor profile, and the behavior (especially attenuation) are different from Wyeast 3711, of which Brasserie Thiriez is reportedly the origin.

So from these 4 goals, I have set my OG and IBUs, the hops I am going to use and rough hopping schedule, most of the grist, and my yeast choice. I've also got a good direction to go for mashing. And since I've chosen my yeast I have a good idea what sort of fermentation profile to use (or what ranges to test in a split batch). In the coming week(s) I'll wrap this exercise up with the actual recipes this thinking led to in a post to come on the brewdays for some recent low-OG saisons.

Closing thoughts: Following this through exercise is best as a cyclic process. Design the beer, brew it, and then taste. While tasting it, think about your recipe and process, which will help you learn how specific ingredients and process led to your beer. Also think about what direction you would like it to go with the beer for next time. Having a good starting point for directions to grow helps narrow down the goals quite a bit, which gives you a great head start for repeating this exercise.

Ok, that's if for now. As said above, none of this is an easy process. Any level of brewer will learn as they go through this to better understand the results of ingredients and process changes/choices. So don't feel overwhelmed by this and if you don't know the answers you are looking for, read/ask around for advice and/or design trials to figure them out for yourself.

Saturday, August 20, 2016

Tasting Aged Mixed Culture Beers - Summer 2016

It's been a while since I talked about my own beers on here, so I thought I'd give a bit of an update on the beers I have aging. For context, and as an excuse on why my brewing hasn't made more of an appearance, I spent Sept 2015-May 2016 living in Europe (my second ~8 month stretch working in Europe in the last 3 years). I wanted a bunch of beers for long term aging and blending, and these trips gave me a good excuse to stash some beers to come back to at a later date. For both of these trips, I stored these beers (along with a bunch of bottled beer) in the basement of my very kind friend Mark.

As I've noted on the facebook page, I recently grabbed these beers back from storage and have been able to take inventory of the bottles (including blends from my blending session following my first move to Europe) and taste the beers in carboys. The tastings at this point were just to get a preliminary idea of where things are before doing more detailed/thorough tastings of the beers that might be ready to blend. Expanding on the FB post linked above, I'll summarize the beers, these quick tastings, my plans with the current beers, plans to brew for use with the current beers and the future in general, and some preliminary blending plans. This is a long post, but there are a lot of beers...

A mostly up to date map of most of the beers,
when they got oak, and quick tasting notes.
The Beers: To start this off I should note the beers that I have. Most of the beers are lambic-inspired (turbid mashed, brewed with ~30-40% unmalted wheat and ~60-70% malted barley, using aged hops, open cooled). Some of these are fermented only with local ambient microbes (from either starters of local ambient microbes or only from what the wort got during open cooling) but most have dregs and/or commercial cultures on top of the inoculation from open cooling and ambient starters.

There are a couple other beers that aren't lambic-inspired so I'll start with those:

-Barrel Aged Old Ale: This beer (brewed 5-Oct-2014) is discussed in detail in this blog post. I still have ~5.5 gallons remaining in carboys from my 10 gallon share of a 30 gallon oak barrel. It seems this beer was put on a very small amount of raspberries, though unfortunately I don't have any details on how much/when/anything else (at the time this would have happened, I was scrambling to get ready to move and my notes were's up to my standard). The raspberry level is very low and not necessarily identifiable if you weren't looking for them.

Brief tasting notes (Tasting): This is tasting pretty good (nice dark malt, good mellow barrel, light alcohol, mild acidity, good Brett C, some fruityness) but possibly not as good as the portions that I bottled in summer 2015 shortly after it came out of a barrel instead of bulk aging further in a carboy.

Barrel old ale (L) and Raspberry Dark Session (R).
Blending Plans: I expect most of this beer will be blended with the low strength dark beer below. I'm not sure what I'll do with the rest. Probably either bottle plain or brew a lower strength younger beer to blend toward an oud bruin-oriented end (though of course this aged component is fairly strong). I will also have a Flanders red-inspired beer coming out of a barrel soon so some of this could find its way into that beer.

-Dark Session on Raspberries: This was extra wort from a dark mild (brewed 8-Feb-2015) and was a subsequent batch of a recipe similar to this beer. I had about 3 gallons that I added a mixed culture to and then, after a few months, racked onto the leftover raspberries and blend from Blend 4.
Quick trial blends of Raspberry Session and Old
(L to R: 33/67, 47/53, 67/33 Session/Old).

Tasting: The acidity is forward (makes sense with the lower hopping) and there is a mellow touch of acetic but not to an obtrusive degree. It is a bit too thin overall - not surprising given the OG of 1.038 - but I think it could make a good blending component. The raspberry level is good and there is a cool chocolate raspberry thing going on.

Blending plans: I figure almost all of this beer will be blended with the barrel aged old ale to come out with an end beer of a more reasonable gravity between the two components while preserving the dark malt and fruit combination. Some extra, if any is left over, may make it's way into other beers to increase the fruityness. But only if those beers also could benefit from an increased acidity. I did some quick blending trials with this beer and the old ale. The winning ratio was about 45/55 to 40/60 session/old.

-Dark Strong Mixed Culture: This beer (brewed 5-Aug-2013) was inspired by Oerbier Reserva. The goal was something red wine-like with a mild-medium acidity and that I could have around for a while. The OG was around 1.080, with a sugar feeding during fermentation of dark candi syrup.

Tasting: The beer is pleasant and the acidity is there (maybe even slightly on the high side for my target of a more mild acidity, but ok) but it isn't quite there. I think much of the problem is that, unlike Oerbier Reserva, this was not aged in a red wine barrel. So I am not getting the wine-like character that I was looking for and I am not getting the oak. I added a bit of oak after tasting (not first use oak, and after soaking in boiling water).

Blending Plans: I think it could be likely that I'll end up blending at least some of this with a red wine to approach the character I am looking for. If so I'll probably choose something a bit lower in tannins and ABV and higher n fruityness. This beer is ready for those test blends with wine whenever I get around to it.

Having Rodenbach's Vin de Céréale in 2011.
-Strong Flemish-Inspired mixed culture: This beer (brewed 26-Oct-14) was inspired by Rodenbach's Vin de Céréale. I've had the pleasure of having this beer a couple times and it is amazing to me. Flanders red-like in character but strong and pale for the strength, age, and the general Rodenbach lineup.

Tasting: I didn't expect to actually hit my target on the first try, but I am a bit bummed about how far off I was. The beer is not bad, but it was not the goal. I think what the beer is lacking is a combination of fruity flavor and oak, and possibly a bit of oxidation. It is more malty and dry/toasty instead of fruity. Part of this may have been my choice of malt (100% Vienna, rather than pils and some darker malts for the same color).

Blending plans: This is another beers that may see some blending with wine. It may also see some blending with the 1/3 share of a Flanders red-inspired beer I have had in a 30 gallon oak barrel for about 13 months now. I could also try to encourage more fruityness by the actual addition of fruit, but if so that will only be a small portion as I want this beer to be around for a while and I don't want to heavily fruit something only to let the fruit fall away before I have even half of the beer.

Turbid mashed beers:

The Dec 2014 Spontaneous Starters carboy.
-December 2014 brew: This beer was brewed with 30% unmalted wheat and 570 g/HL (0.76 oz/gal) aged hops. The batch was split into 3* 6 gal / 23 L carboys. One was pitched with ambient microbe starters, one with various bottle dregs of multiple spontaneous beers, and another with ECY-20.

Tasting: The spontaneous starters carboy is quite bitter and phenolic. This needs some time to mellow out. I think it has a good chance of doing that as younger lambic/spontaneous beer can have similar characteristics. The ECY-20 carboy is sweeter with more fruit but also quite bitter. It is possible that some of this is coming from the hopping rate, which might be a bit high. But I think a fair amount of it is also brett-derived. I added some more cultures (from the yeast cakes from previous good turbid mashed homebrews) to this batch. The dregs carboy more acidic, has more citric fruit, and less bitterness/phenol. This is closer to being ready for blending but I still find it a bit more bitter than ideal.

-May 2015 brew: This was brewed with 41% unmalted wheat and hopped at about 600 g/HL (0.80 oz/gal). The batch (60 L) was split into 4 carboys which were pitched with either lambic dregs, spontaneous starters, ECY-20 or left to ferment with only what it got from open cooling.

The May 2015 Fully Spontaneous carboy.
Tasting and Blending Plans: The ECY-20 batch us nicely fruity (citric mostly) and has a more balanced level of phenols. This I think could be ready to blend soon, or I may wait on it if I am not coming up with a blend that I'm happy with.

The dregs carboy is more fruit balanced and with lower phenols than the ECY-20 batch. It has a bit more acidity (possibly slightly on the high side of what I want, or at least I don't want much more) but the acidity is clean/not acetic. This is another carboy that could be incorporated into a blend soon if I come up with something I like.

The spontaneous starters batch has more bitterness than others of this brew, but lower than the Dec 2014 and Sept 2015 brews. Overall this is pretty mellow yet, with a low level of sulfur and some lower fruityness and acidity. Perhaps not surprisingly, my ambient microbes may need a bit more time to develop the same sort of character intensity as lambic dregs or lab blends.

The fully spontaneous batch had more astringency/phenolic bitterness and a pleasant soft tropical fruit. I'm not too worried about the phenols at this point as spontaneous beer producers have anecdotally noted that their younger beers can be pretty rough in this regard and it mellows with time. So I'll wait this out for a bit.

-June 2015 brew: (this is even more true for the following brew) I know brewing in warmer months breaks from tradition for lambic. The reasoning given here being that unwanted microbes are more populous in warmer weather and the beer will head in a non-ideal direction. Another factor, which isn't discussed as much but which I think is quite important, is that warmer temperatures are insufficient to properly cool a commercial sized batch in a coolship to pitching temp (in the ballpark of the high teens C / mid 60s F).

So I wanted to try warmer month open cooling out for a couple reasons. First, the weather wasn't too warm (nights near 10 C / low 50s F). This was sufficient to cool my volume of wort to the same sort of temperatures that a commercial batch of lambic is cooled to in winter. Second, most of these beers were pitched with something, which means I am less reliant and inoculation from cooling. And finally, a batch are two aren't much to dump if it turns out that the warm weather microbes are a problem. So I will see if the summer microbes and microbe balance are problematic, at least in this small sample set (spoiler alert - so far this isn't the case).
The 30 gal barrel with a red beer (L) and
60 gal headed in a lambic-inspired direction (R). 

This batch was brewed with 39% unmalted wheat and hopped at a rate of about 225 g/HL (0.30 oz/gal). It was split into 4 carboys, with 2 of them going into a 60 gallon barrel that I share with some other great homebrewing friends. This barrel started with a saison with brett and lacto and we taking a solera-type approach and encouraging it to move in a lambic-inspired direction. The barrel is tasting quite nice so far and I am excited to incorporate the next pull (planned for early October) into blending as it will provide some of what I am generally short on so far - oak and fruit. The 2 carboys I kept were pitched with some combination of ECY 20, the yeast cake from previous beers, and bottle dregs.

Tasting: At this point there is nothing drastically unpleasant about these but at the same time they are not my favorites from the aged beers. They are pretty mellow and overall understated, which makes them currently better than the highly phenolic beers, but there is a bit of a character I am not too keen on. It is something I have noted in certain commercial lambics before, and that a friend describes as a bit 'pool water-y', which I think is quite apt (though it makes it sound worse than it actually is). This could be related to chloramines/chlorines (I carbon filter my water and did the same process with the same filter cartridge for other aged and non-aged beers that aren't showing that character) or it could be something picked up in cooling, or something else. Anyway, my beers are not anywhere near this intensity, but they have hints of something that remind me of this.

Otherwise they are pretty mellow and muted compared to both older and younger batches. I don't really know why this is. The bitterness and phenolic levels are lower and there is a mellow and pleasant sweet fruityness. Overall I think these beers are on a good track, especially as most of my other beers are higher in the phenolics and lower in the fruit, but they need more time to develop a more full character of their own.

The Sept 2015 Spontaneous Starters carboy.
September 2015 brew: If warm weather was going to be a problem, this would definitely show it. This beer (~50 L) was brewed with 27 % unmalted wheat and hopped at a rate of about 370 g/HL (0.49 oz/gal). The temperature of the wort in the morning was 19 C / 66 F so the cooling was certainly sufficient. I didn't note nighttime lows, but I suspect it was in the 10-15 C range given that final temperature of the wort the morning after cooling. The beer was split into three carboys with one receiving spontaneous starters, microbes from a bit of the trub of my favorite batches from my previous blending, and the third one receiving dregs from various mixed-culture saisons.

Tasting and Blending Plans: The spontaneous starters batch is fairly high on the bitterness so this will get at least another winter before it is used. The batch with previous blend microbes has a good fruityness and is on a really nice track but is a bit more bitter than I'd like so this will probably get more time. Though it is possible that I'd pull it as a phenolic component in a blend with a more fruit forward base. Overall though I am happy to let these beers sit a bit more as they are fairly young yet (just under 12 months).

The saison dregs carboy has a high lactic acidity and not much phenolic character. This beer may head toward blending with cleaner saisons to create something in line with blending an acidic old beer with fresh young beer.

Older Turbid Mashed beers: These are left over from previous blending of aged mixed-culture beers (the same blending post was linked earlier in this article too).

Muse #1: I have three gallons of this beer left over from my previous blending (there are some more details on it in that post, linked above). The beer was brewed in January 2013 and at the time of the previous blending it wasn't one of the best. It was a bit more acetic but had a pleasant fruityness. I prefer very low to no acetic acid, so this wasn't my ideal. But it certainly wasn't out of line with what you would find in many well regarded commercial beers so we're definitely not talking extreme levels. Just more than I wanted. This is generally still the case. In the new company of beers that are generally more bitter and less fruity than I want in a final blend (and with a clean acidity), this beer could be very useful for blending.

Most of the carboys safely transported back and in their new home
Wild Rye: I also have 3 gallons of this beer left from the previous blending session. This was brewed in July 2013. During the previous blending it also wasn't one of my favorites as I thought it was too phenolic. Since then my taste preferences have shifted a bit (toward more phenolic) and the beer has developed/mellowed more. At this point I find the phenolic level is low-moderate and pleasant. As a bit of an aside, I need to do a side by side tasting of my previous blending, but my feeling from individual tastings over the past few months is that Blend 2 (the only non-fruited blend with this beer as a component) is my favorite. And I think part of that is due to this beer. With the more balanced and developed character I think this beer will also be a good candidate for blending.

Sour Saison: the term sour saison is not one I am super fond of but for internal consistency I'll continue using this name for this beer while it is around. It is not saison-like and I wouldn't present it as one, but this was brewed mostly as a saison (not turbid mashed, not aged hops, pitched with saison yeast) while knowing it was going to head in another direction (it was open cooled and also pitched with lambic dregs). I liked this beer in the previous blending but it worked out that I had a gallon left over so I saved that.

I was probably going to blend it with something younger and clean, but now that I have the 'saison dregs' carboy this may go into the other mixed culture beers. And that's fine with me as that is more closely what it tastes like. The beer has a higher acidity with a citric and light apricot-like stonefruit character. There is a bit of acetic which has developed since transferring and in storage so it is good that this will only be a small component of a blend, where that acetic will be at an appropriately low level.

Common themes with my beers: One of the common themes in my beers is that I am missing the contribution of oak (at least the beers that didn't come from wine barrels). Some beers have been on a very small amount of oak cubes - usually soaked in boiling water to soften the more aggressive tannin character - but not high enough levels. I should note that while I am only saying oak, I don't necessarily mean an obvious oak flavor. And I certainly don't mean a bright tannic/more 'raw' oakyness (obviously they are toasted so not actual raw oak). But an older/more used oak can add softness and a bit of a smooth/mellowing/almost sweet contribution. And also some structure to aid the body of the beers. So that is more what I am looking for - the influence of a well used oak in mellowing flavor and structure. Low levels of oak (soaked multiple times in boiling water, and sometimes not first use) have now been added to all the carboys.

The other main common theme is a bitterness across most of the beers brewed between 2014 and 2015 (where I had been living in the same place, and which was a different place from the beers brewed in 2013). This shows up regardless of hopping rate, which microbes were (or weren't) pitched, and across different seasons. The one common thread is that they were all opened cooled at the same place.

After tasting the first couple beers I associated it with hopping rate but I am inclined to think that this isn't the case as I finished tasting through all the beers and noted that the bitterness can vary significantly in different carboys from the same batch. So I think this is microbe derived, and may have to do with microbe balance (note that brett pitching rate may not have much influence on brett flavor development) and/or other microbes promoting or reducing the phenolic bitterness produced by one/some. As I mentioned above, commercial brewers of spontaneous beers note that they can have rather phenolc younger beers and they can be almost undrinkable before aging into the end product that they are looking for. So for now I'm not too worried about this and I'll let them age for a bit to see if it ages out.

Edit: Thanks to Dan at MTF for reminding me about a great old MTF thread regarding the same sort of (presumed) phenolic brett-derived bitterness that I am noticing in my beers.

Some quick plans to brew for future blending:

Carboys in storage while I was away.
Fruit forward - Many of my beers weren't as fruit-forward as I'd like. I find that North American sours can be too fruit-forward for my taste and lacking some of the complexity that I love in lambic so I'm glad they weren't all super fruity, but I would like a fruit forward component or two to blend in with my beers that are, at least at this point, more phenolic. So I may try to come up with a blend of dregs/cultures for a future brew that I think will promote more fruityness in one or two carboys for use in blending.

New ambient microbes - I'm now living in a new location with different conditions so I'm interested to see what the microbes around here are like. My new place is a bit drier and more exposed rather than the more wooded valley conditions of my previous place. There are also fruit trees in the back yard compared to old oaks where I was living before. Given how variable different lambic microbes are in the relatively small region of traditional lambic production, I expect to see some fair differences in my current location compared to my previous. So I'll probably put out some more spontaneous starters to see what is around here and I am also looking forward to trying some fully spontaneous beers as the weather cools.

Fruit - I have some fruit from this year's fruit season frozen and waiting for aging on some beers. So when I do a more detailed tasting of the beers that I think may be ready for blending and try some blends I will pay attention to how the fruits I have may compliment them. I've got sour cherries, apricots and rhubarb (I know it's not a fruit but it is fruit-like in flavor contribution). I am already thinking that the apricots could be a nice addition to a blend with the sour saison in it given the light apricot/stonefruit character of that beer.

Finally I plan to re-try at the Rodenbach Vin de Céréale-inspired brew. I'll probably change the malt bill to a paler base with some higher color malt and may try to get it on used oak earlier in the process.

Otherwise I expect I'll carry on as normal with these mixed-culture beers. For hopping I think I'll stick with around 500 g/HL (~0.67 oz/gal) for now. The lower hopped beers were ones that I didn't like as much and I didn't notice any clear problems from higher hopping. I'll probably re-brew the rye base that I still have a bit of around and maybe something darker like a duivelsbier but otherwise keep it pretty close to the classic lambic tradition. Though I'm not calling my brews lambics (and mostly so far they are not spontaneous), that is the sort of final end product I am looking for in terms of balance, complexity, and general flavor/aroma characteristics.

This write up and tasting has somewhat critical but that is because I want to keep a high standard for my target end result and I don't want to settle for something that is only good. The beers are all in the direction I am looking for, so with more time, some minor tweaking, and a greater diversity of components I think I am on track to create what I want.

Ok, that's plenty for one post. If you want more details on recipes of certain components and/or how some are tasting feel free to ask! There was already so much in this post that I didn't want to expand it further but I'm happy to share it.