Sunday, December 13, 2015

Brasserie a Vapeur Visits

If you are spending any reasonable amount of time in Belgium and you have an interest in saison or old brewing methods, a visit to Brasserie a Vapeur should be high on your list. They hold a public brewing day (there's a bit more info here) on the last Saturday of every month. They only brew once per month for now, so the public brew day is also the only time they brew and that is when you should go.

Arriving at the first mash rest, an especially thick and low temperature rest.

I don't really feel that by visiting saison breweries I've learned any big secrets about saison making. Its not like each brewery has some super secret process/technique/ingredient/etc. Rather, what I've observed are some generally common practices and mentalities that aren't as common in breweries of other types of beers. To me the same sort of thing is generally true about lambic production. There is some great practical info to take away, but you're unlikely to learn one big easily employable secret process/ingredient that makes these beers different because I don't think such an singular entity exists. I've written a bit more about saison brewery visits in previous posts such as this one.

So perhaps a visit to a Vapeur is not the most informative experience in terms of direct secrets to take away about saison brewing, but I think the same could be said for many breweries. The experience is hard to beat if you have even a mild interest in historic saison and there is definitely insight to be gained from how they brew. And if saisons or Belgian beer history are something you're passionate about, this is a rare view into a working historical artifact.

I've talked to people who have had mixed experiences with their beers, and I can agree with this. I've had some bottles that are really phenomenal (generally with expression of mixed yeast and bacteria), some that are good, and some that I might not have been so excited about (again, at times with expression of mixed yeast and bacteria). This mixed-microbe expression may not always be desired and there are other notable producers out there whose beer can fall into a similar category. Anyway, regardless of how you feel about their beers a visit to the brewery is a great experience all around and there is still plenty one can learn from their process and recipes.

A sign for the old Biset-Cuvelier brewery
The steam engine.

The Brewery:
Jean-Louis Dits took over Brasserie Biset-Cuvelier and changed the name to Brasserie a Vapeur in 1984. If you speak to other saison brewers (and even certain other European brewers), many will speak highly of Jean-Louis. Starting in 1984, Jean-Louis was one of the first new brewers in the area and so for many following along the same sort of path he did in Belgium, France or elsewhere in Europe, Jean-Louis was a great resource. There weren't the sort of resources then as there are now for new brewers and many will credit Jean-Louis for the help/advice he's provided for them. So even though he's kept his own brewery rather small, his influence has spread pretty wide.

The mash tun and steam engine
A brewery has been at the a Vapeur/Biset-Cuvelier site in Pipaix since as early as 1785. Under different names, the brewery here has been in operation, though it seems not always continuously. They have quite a bit of old equipment around which is (mostly) still in use, though the brewery is not without some more modern stuff. Brasserie a Vapeur is best known for its steam engine, which dates from 1895. The steam engine is used to power a central belt-driven system that operates the mash rakes, the auger for mashing in, and a wort pump.

They have an open-topped iron mash tun (capacity - ~58 HL) which is imperfectly round and the mash screens, showing signs of their use for many years of brewing, fit in a specific orientation. The tun is insulated on the sides by wood and, in some places, this wood is also showing its age. Large internal rakes are controlled by a central belt-driven system which is powered by the steam engine. Due to the open top, the mash tun can lose a lot of heat (~2° C / 3.6° F per 30 min). I haven't seen the mash tun used anywhere close to its capacity when I've been there, and I suspect in modern times it rarely if ever is. A belt-driven pump is used for the vorlauf and an electrical pump in used to transfer wort to the boil kettle.

The two boil kettles.
Boil kettles are iron as well, and are composed of sections bolted together. They are heated by steam, though not in the typical modern steam jacketed sense. The primary boil kettle has a capacity of about 130 HL and currently this is the only kettle used (perhaps except for some rare occasions, though I'm not aware of any recent use of the second kettle). The second kettle is smaller, with a capacity of about 40 HL. This was used historically for making an additional low strength beer from the mash. As with the mash tun, I haven't seen the boil kettles used close to their capacity for modern brews.

There is a large iron coolship at the brewery which is formed from panels welded together. It is not in use anymore, and hasn't been for quite some time. But Jean-Louis said he used it for his first 10 years there. Now a more modern plate heat exchange is used. For fermentation, there are two cyclindroconicals available for primary, though I've been told that generally one of them is used. And there are two horizontal tanks for cold storage. Bottling occurs about 2 months after the brewday and bottles are stored warm for about 3 weeks for bottle conditioning before they are released. That gives a total time on the order of 3 months grain to glass.

The old coolship.
I should note that there a number of people are involved in the brewing. Jean-Louis is often pulled away during the mash to make sure everything is in order for the excellent meal (with unlimited beer) that is served on brewdays. Another brewer Bernard helps Jean-Louis and takes charge for much of the brewing throughout the day. Jean-Louis's daughter also brews there (though when I was last there she was not around) and his wife helps out as well. And a pair of other local brewers looking to open up their own brewery are often around to enjoy the day, lend a hand, and learn.

The Brew Day:
There are a couple breweries I've been to where simply stepping inside on a brew day is something I'll never forget. One of those is Cantillon when they are cleaning barrels, and the smell of steamy lambic dregs permeates the building. The second is Brasserie a Vapeur. Walking inside the large brick building into the almost completely windowless brewhouse room on a crisp Belgian morning, you are met with an unexpected sticky heat of steam (even before the brewing begins). And the smell of grease is everywhere. It gets even better once the steam engine starts up. From then until the mash runnings are headed to the boil kettles the brewhouse room will also be filled with the many sounds of the steam engine - varying from a prolonged dooooooo-wheeeeep of slow mash mixing (you can hear it in this video of the first mash step) to faster and sharper whistles, to running so fast that the whistling is gone, leaving clicking triplets from the engine. And whenever the rakes are moving the dull clunking of heavy iron gears is added on top of the whistling or clicking steam engine.

The brewday starts at 9. Be sure you get there on time - mashing in is possibly my favorite part of the whole brew day (see this video). As is typical of Belgian saison brewers they carry out a multiple step infusion mash. They start with a super thick mash and Jean-Louis adjusts the ratio of rater to grain by feel, balancing water flow and grain flow for temperature and consistency by sight and the back of his hand. The thickness of this initial step may be rather surprising for people who normally carry out/see simpler mashes, but it will be familiar to anyone who has observed or conducted a turbid mash. The first step is more like a pile of wet grain than grain sitting in water.

A series of infusions are conducted using hot water at first, and then by steam infusion as the mash volume/water:grist ratio reaches the level they want. Temperatures are checked manually with an analog thermometer by scooping up a bit of the mash (and frequently this occurs while dodging the spinning rakes). The typical pattern for each new rest is to turn off the rakes when the temperature is reached and to rest for ~5-10 minutes (this might only be done to provide enough quiet for Jean-Louis to explain what is happening). Then the rakes are used at a slow speed for the duration of the rest.

Boil lasts about 90 minutes, with sugar added to many if not all of the beers partway through the boil. The 'late' addition for hops comes with around 30 minutes left in the boil. And I've been told that spices are added with about 20 minutes left in the boil. This is different from many other places, who reserve late hops and spices until the whirlpool or very near the end of the boil. I don't feel that the a Vapeur beers are especially hoppy so this makes sense with addition timings. And generally the spices, while present and at times identifiable, are usually in balance with the beer and not overpowering.

Lasting impressions:
Probably the biggest thing that I am left with from visiting Brasserie a Vapeur is their more flexible mentality when it comes to the process. There is plenty of room for variation around a theme or a general set of guidelines. Both mash temperatures and times are targets rather than absolutes. These times can be changed based on convenience/whatever other tasks the brewer is doing/the day's circumstances. The brewing was loose and in general scope-driven rather than absolute and technically driven. And, following with this, the feel/intuition of the brewer played an important role.

In many ways this mirrors saison beers as a whole, which are not a discrete entity and are more a collection of beers in the same spirit/family. Of course not all saison brewers take a looser approach to their brewing. A more precise approach can and does result in excellent saisons. And it is not necessarily an inferior approach to the feel/loose guidelines of Brasserie a Vapeur (and vice-versa). But as I've mentioned in previous posts, I feel that thinking of these beers as different from a specific set of ingredients and processes is beneficial. And if there is a secret to saison, it is probably the brewing attitudes shared by many producers of classic examples such as: simplicity, patience, flexibility and knowledge of their process/ingredients which allows for successful brewing modifications based on feel.

With that said, here is a generalized rundown of their recipe and process:

Sample Generalized Recipe:
The are using Castle malts and sugar at levels on the order of 10-15% of the fermentables. I think going with a fully pils or nearly fully pils grist can work well for making paler beers inspired by a Vapeur. For darker beers (including their saison, which is more in the amber range than many other common saisons), I think malts like Vienna, Munich and/or a bit of Melanoiden could probably be good additions. And maybe a touch of roasted malts like amber, biscuit or brown. I perceive their beers to be more from sweeter malts, or at least without the drying toasty qualities that higher levels of roasted malts can give, so I'd go light on these roasted malts if you include them.

  • Mash in at 45° C / 113° F (~10 minute mash in, 5 min. rest)
  • Raise to 55° C / 131° F by infusion (15 min. rise, 15 min. rest)
  • Raise to 63° C / 145.4° F by infusion and steam (10-15 min. rise, 15 min. rest)
  • Raise to 68° C /  154.4° F (15 min. rise, 15 min. rest)
  • Raise to 74° C / 165° F (10 min. rise, 10 min. rest)
  • Vorlauf 10 min. then collect runnings
For homebrewers trying to pursue a mashing schedule like this, I think the rise times could be significantly different. To try to get around this you could slowly add near-boiling water (similar to the relative rate that infusion water would be added at commercial scales), do it in smaller steps, or increase rest times after the temperature raising is done. Also, the later infusions are accomplished by steam rather than water, so the volume doesn't change much. A homebrewer could do this by recirculating with heat (if they have that option), something like a decoction, or just continuing to infuse hot water.

They do a 90 minute boil, with late hops coming with 30 minutes left in the boil (not a huge dose) and spices coming with 20 minutes left. I wasn't watching to see what is done for a hop addition at the start of boil, but I presume that there is one and I also presume, given the beers, that the IBU contribution is relatively low (I'd guess on the order of 10 IBU).

If this was the part you were waiting for, I'm afraid you are in for a disappointment. I'm not sure what they use for their saison. There is a liquid yeast which is seasonally available that may work well for making beers similar to the Vapeur beers (see this post by fellow blog Browne and Bitter). For non-saison beers at Brasserie A Vapeur I've seen another yeast around. This other yeast was more in line with what you might think of with Belgian Wits or something similar to that. When considering their yeast, keep in mind that they only brew once per month which makes keeping a yeast around to repitch tricky. And on top of that they only brew saison once per year. So along with these considerations, Phil Markowski reports in Farmhouse Ales that the saison yeast may be variable year to year. If you're out to clone a Brasserie a Vapeur beer, I'd choose a more mellow strain associated with either saisons, ale-fermentation bieres de garde, or witbiers. I'd lean away from something that is strongly spicy/phenolic given the large spice additions. And often I find that a lot of yeast-derived phenols can disagree with darker malts, but this is just my personal taste.

Possibly as important as the specific yeast chosen would be allowing the time that Brasserie a Vapeur does in their beers. 3 months grain to glass (including 4 weeks warm and 4 weeks cold storage before packaging) is much more than typical for other beers styles of comparable original gravity/composition.

As a caveat, this is all accurate to the best of my knowledge but things may change after I write it and/or there may be a misunderstanding/miscommunication or two. I'll update anything that comes to my attention and, again, I believe it to all be correct at this point.

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