Monday, July 24, 2017

White Beers of Northern France

About a year ago I posted a brief bit of information about bières blanche from northern France on the blog's facebook page (here and here). Thanks to a friend in Brussels with a good library of historic texts, I was able to locate a bit more information about these beers. This post expands on those initial FB posts with the additional info that I've tracked down. But there is still a long way to go to understand these beers, and I'll continue to look for more sources.

The Nord region of Northern France was an active brewing center around 1900. At this time, breweries in the region were still producing traditional beers of top fermentation. The influence of imported lagers was shifting brewing elsewhere in the country toward lager production. Unfortunately, while traditional beers could still be found in the Lille and Dunkirk areas, they were also in a period of decline here. With WWI coming and the state of brewing in the region already in a tricky spot, the region saw large changes for brewing in a rather short amount of time. I've written about biere of the region in these two posts here (mainly on mashing) and here (mainly on WWI).

Perhaps not a brewery making a blanche, but I wanted a photo generally related
to historic French brewing. From the breweriana collection of D. Thiriez.
So back to the beers of the Nord. Most of us have probably heard of one of these traditional beers - bière de garde (note that bière de garde in 1900 was different from the modern versions) - but other beers were made in the region as well. And I haven't seen much mention of these other beers. While looking for information about French bière de garde about a year ago, I found mention of a bière blanche. I hadn't heard of this beer before and it interested me, but there was very little info to go on in that brief mention. With this new source I'm starting to get a bit of a better picture about this beer and wanted to put up what I know at this point.

Of course, as with other posts on historic brewing, the same caveats apply - namely that this is a small snapshot of the beer (as the beer likely changed over time as well as among different producers) and this understanding is limited to the info given in a few sources.

Blanche de Cambrai
This discussion draws from two main sources - Petit Journal du Brasseur (1910) and Moreau and Levy (1905). The both refer to blanche in general and the latter specifies a beer called Blanche de Cambrai. In the modern world, this latter name applies to a distinct beer made from one brewery. But historically it was a style of beer brewed by many brewers in the region. The same thing - where a style turns into the product of only one brewery - can be seen elsewhere in Europe (e.g. Grisette and Hoegaarden). I'm not sure if the brewery making Blanche de Cambrai holds a trademark on the name, as is the case with the other two examples. When discussing Blanche de Cambrai for the rest of this post, I am referring to the historic style rather than the modern brand name.

Historic Blanche de Cambrai mostly matches the general description of blanche in PJB, but there is a notable difference in attenuation. On the whole, these white beers don't seem very common but they were produced at multiple breweries in the early 1900s. They are noted as having a short boil or possibly none at all (though in the latter case beer would be held at boiling temps, so maybe more of a simmer than no boil in the modern sense). For the time this is quite unusual as beers could easily have a multi-hour boil, possibly approaching 8-12 hours or more.

The blanche beers seem to be of moderate gravity (~1.035-1.040) and were lightly acidic. Some of the parameters of the beers are shown below, along with comparison to other blanche beers and acidic beers, both modern and from ~1900. These northern French white beers are described as having a good hop aroma. The attenuation was either moderate or high. It seems the beers were consumed around 3-4 weeks from brew day (or possibly a week or two older).

Parameters of northern French Blanche and historic and modern Belgian and German acidic beers.
The grain used is described as being as pale as possible. Moreau and Levy note that an ordinary brown beer was brewed at the same time and from the same grist as this white beer (this brown beer is not completely straightforward, but that is a topic for a later post). Unlike bière de garde, which would use a form of turbid mashing, it seems that the white beer is produced by infusion mashing. About 25-30 kg of grain is used for 100 L. I interpret this to mean 100 L of each blanche and brown beer (it isn't explicitly clear, but given context and expected extract this seems necessary). There is no discussion of grain breakdown (and actually no mention of wheat by name in either source). The barley used in this region was mostly a winter 6 row. There is also general mention of brewers in the region using a bit of straw to help with the lautering, which agrees with other beers brewed with wheat at the time in Belgium such as lambic and grisette (as discussed here). Moreau and Levy note that some brewers use rice.

Initially a cool infusion is made and the mash is quickly drained. This is effectively a rinsing, and is done to remove some of the color of the grain. This rinse is held to the side and will be added the the brown beer. Then the mash is raised to a low saccharification temp, where a long rest is performed (~1 hour of stirring followed by 75 min of rest). After this the mash is drained and first runnings become the white beer. Note however that the white beer is not especially strong. The remaining runnings (and the cool rinse) going to the brown beer.

The white beer portion is boiled for up to about an hour (though Moreau and Levy note that some brewers only hold the wort near a boiling point, in agreement with PJB). Hops are only added in the cooling tuns or at the end of boiling (preferably in the cooling tun), but the hopping rate is fairly high at ~9-10 g/L (compare with grisette and saison/Belgian bières de garde here and with lambic here). Moreau and Levy note that some brewers spiced their beers with coriander, star anise or iris.

The beers are fermented with ale yeast (which, given the time means a mixed culture of bacteria and/or other yeasts such as Brettanomyces). Although the hopping was high, the hops were not boiled and some acidity is able to develop. The beer was bottled (with priming sugar) after a couple weeks and was carbonated a couple days later.

Final Thoughts
All this seems like an interesting beer - light acidity, low gravity (in the modern sense) and hop flavor but not so much bitterness. It sounds like it would be pretty refreshing. The brewing process described in Moreau and Levy seems pretty unique and I wonder if other brewers in the region followed a different process for their beers. And/or if similar process shows up for other beers elsewhere. Overall I think this is a cool, if uncommon, component of northern French beers from ~1900. And hopefully I can find some more info elsewhere about these beers.

Sources for the text:
Petit Journal du Brasseur, 1910
Traité Complet de la Fabrication des Bières (1905), Moreau & Levy.

Tuesday, July 11, 2017

Lambic attenuation and carbohydrate composition

Here are some data on the carbohydrate composition of lambic and how this composition is modified throughout lambic attenuation. The data come from the PhD thesis of H.M. Chandana Shantha Kumara (KU Leuven, Verachtert Group), which focuses on lambic attenuation and identifying the key players responsible for causing the high attenuation of lambic relative to most normal beer. There is some great work in the thesis, especially in showing the microbes and microbe combinations responsible for the attenuation and characterizing the enzymes driving this. Parts of this thesis have been published as scientific papers (here, on identifying super-attenuating microbes, as well as these two papers on characterizing and localizing glucosidases in brett and in Lactobacillus) but I have only seen this specific carbohydrate data in the thesis itself.

The thesis.
Many people likely heard something to the effect of "lambic uses a turbid mash, which produces longer chain carbohydrates that help to provide food for organisms like brett over the long fermentation". While I believe this to be true and it makes logical sense, there aren't a lot of studies (other than this one) that provide clear evidence to how that happens. And this is a fairly basic statement. I'm interested in more specifics about turbid mashing so I've been thinking about questions to look into and have been looking for info that might provide a bit more detail. For example, different lambic producers are using different turbid mash schedules. And there were many other schedules used historically (and not always to provide a food source for microbes over a long time period as is the case with lambic). I've written about a couple other schedules in these posts on French bière de garde and low-gravity Belgian beers. So how much do the variations in specific schedules change the final beer? And how much do the variations in turbid mashing change the fermentability of the wort to more normal brewing yeasts? And then what classes of 'unfermentable' material that is carried into the wort from turbid mashing is accessible to the yeasts and bacteria active at 1-2 years in fermenting lambic? This PhD thesis provides some info on that last point.

Sampling and the Data

Samples were collected at one brewery from barrels of different ages. My interpretation from the text is that all the samples were collected at one time point and therefore that they are from different brew days and brewing seasons. But this could be a misinterpretation as it isn’t completely clear from the text. If my interpretation is correct, then some of the variability over fermentation could be due to differences in the starting points. However, since the samples are all coming from the same brewery using (presumably) one consistent process, the batch-to-batch variability is likely to be smaller than many of the general trends.

This post shows a couple figures I produced with data presented in chapter 3 of the thesis on carbohydrate composition from lambic of different gravities. The carbohydrates are broken into groups depending on how many individual sugar units the carbohydrate is composed of. So this ranges from a simple 1 unit sugar like glucose, 2 unit sugars like maltose, up to carbohydrates made up of more than 100 glucose units. This size class breakdown will be the focus of the following discussion.

Composition of wort

To begin with, I want to say something about the wort before fermentation. The specifics of the turbid mash schedule aren't supplied in the thesis and the brewery is not named. One could infer the brewery based on the data and other info in the thesis but I don't think that is much of a priority given the small amount of information out there about turbid mashing.

The composition of carbohydrates as a percentage of the total (by mass) is shown in the figure at right. As with other mashing procedures, the composition is dominated by simpler carbohydrates (1-3 sugar units). And the two smallest groups account for ~80%. But I think it is interesting to note that with this turbid mashed wort, the next largest component is the longest sugar chain grouping. These results are by mass rather than by number of molecules, so it is fewer but larger molecules in this class compared to other classes. But still, in terms of the total number of sugar units present in lambic wort, the third largest fraction is the biggest molecules.

I should also note here that the OG of the wort isn’t specified, but I am assuming it is around 13° P as this is where all the standard lambic OG data I’ve seen falls (± ~1° P).

Carbohydrates during attenuation

The initial half of fermentation (by gravity, not time) is accomplished by fermentation of the smaller chain sugars (<3 and 3-6 units), with no appreciable decrease in the longer chain carbohydrates. This makes sense given the microbial start of lambic fermentation – enterobacteria (in breweries not acidifying wort) and select yeasts (e.g. Kloeckera/Hanseniaspora) that utilize only very simple sugars (frequently only glucose) followed by Saccharomyces. These organisms can’t access the longer chain molecules that remain generally unchanged in the first 50% of attenuation.

Carbohydrate composition of fermenting lambic with a full y-axis scale at left and a reduced scale at right.

By the time attenuation reaches ~75-80%, the >185 and the 30-61 unit size classes decrease, showing that the microbes responsible for the high attenuation of lambic have started to work on these. Interestingly, at this point, the 6-30 unit class concentration increases and the carbohydrate concentration of this class does not drop below its initial level for the remainder of fermentation. The persistence of this intermediate class is a pretty novel finding. Dr. Shantha Kumara interprets this as the larger size classes being first cleaved by endo-glucosidases (enzymes acting in the middle of the molecules) to smaller sized molecules including the 6-30 unit range. These smaller ranges are then processed by the cells (either extracellularly and then fermented or internalized directly). So the large carbohydrates are made available by first being broken down extracellularly, leading to a net 6-30 unit carbohydrate production in the lambic, followed by a consistently elevated (though decreasing) 6-30 unit class throughout fermentation.

If this all sounds too complicated, you can picture the different carbohydrate pools as buckets of water with holes in the bottom. Water is draining from the buckets through these holes (carbohydrates are broken down into smaller molecules and/or fermented). For the 6-30 unit size class, you are also adding water (the larger molecules are broken down into 6-30 unit-sized carbohydrates) such that the total level of water in this bucket is rising even though some is still draining out. Eventually you reach a point where you are adding the water more slowly because there is not much left to add (the large size classes have fewer molecules to be broken down to the 6-30 size class) such that the water level in the 6-30 unit bucket can fall again.

Percentage of different carbohydrate size classes in fermenting lambic.
As the lambic reaches final gravity (in this case testing stopped at 1° P, though note that many lambics don’t finish this low), the two largest remaining fractions are the 6-30 unit and the 3-6 unit carbohydrates. I found this quite surprising as I would have expected the more simple molecules to be processed more easily. So perhaps there is still a bit of fermentation going on at this point. Either way, the 6-30 unit class is maintained in appreciable concentration throughout the fermentation while larger molecules are more completely used up. The result, in final or near final gravity lambic, is that the residual carbohydrates are dominated by 3-30 unit carbohydrates while the shorter and longer chain molecules are more completely removed.

The same trend can be seen in the data when looking at the relative carbohydrate composition, where the percentage of the 6-30 unit class increases from ~1/2 attenuation onward and the percentage of the 3-6 unit group remains roughly constant or rises slightly. So at the final gravity point measured here (1° P) these two size classes are the most prominent. In contrast to this, there are basically no carbohydrates left in the 30-185 size classes. The >185 size class counts for a similar percentage in wort as in the final lambic, so there is still something left in this class at the end of these measurements. But the non-normalized data show that there was clear removal of this size fraction during fermentation.

 Thoughts for the future

This study did a great job of showing how lambic wort from one producer using one turbid mash schedule was attenuated over the course of fermentation. But I would be interested to know how this might differ with other producers. What if a different turbid mash schedules produced more long chain carbohydrates? Would this influence the FG? We know that a good number of lambics do not attenuate as far as 1° P, and this is driven by microbes and/or hot side process. The degree to which the microbes in this study were able to access the longest chain carbohydrates suggests that mashing to produce even more of this size class would not result in much of a change in the FG. And therefore that the differences in FGs among different lambics might be due in large part to the capabilities of the different microbes. This interpretation fits with other lambic attenuation data that I’ve seen (though expanding on that is a topic for another post). Additionally, if this were the case, it would highlight the inter-producer diversity of lambic microbes.

None of the above discussion of how different turbid mash procedures may influence beer addresses flavor production. Of course there is the flavor of the wort, which one might assume could vary by different mashing process given that turbid mashed wort tastes different from infusion mashed wort. But there might also be differences in microbial flavor development if the composition of more complex molecules was altered. So there are still plenty of questions to address here.

Finally, I’m interested in more info on turbid mashes compared to conventional mashing. There is unfortunately not quantitative data in this thesis comparing the carbohydrate composition of lambic wort to normal beer wort. But qualitatively, there is a figure showing that lambic has higher levels of carbohydrates with 4 and more sugar units than lager beer. This is especially the case for longer chain compounds that likely have tens to hundreds of sugar units. That is unsurprising, but it would be interesting to have a more quantitative measure to compare. I suspect info like this is out there somewhere and maybe I'll track some down and work it into an update of this.

Monday, June 12, 2017

100 year old Czech beer

This is a post about a recent paper by Olšovská and co-authors looking into the characteristics of ~100 year old bottles of Czech lagers. These beers had been discovered at the site of an old brewery during construction and based on the nature of the found beers, they had (presumably) been stored under fairly ideal conditions. The researchers took advantage of this fortuitous discovery to note the characteristics of the aged beers, as such an opportunity to test 100 year old beer does not come by very often, and to try to learn about what the beers may have been like originally. Here is a quick summary of some of the findings with a focus and further thoughts on one of the three samples which the researchers described as "resembling lambic". They make this comparison, which is what brought the paper to my attention, due to the properties of the finished beer and the presence of Brettanomyces. As with trying to understand such old beers with minimal data, there is a fair amount of conjecture involved in this discussion.

Acetic acid and lambic-like lagers?
A comparison of a ~100 year old Czech beer and various lambics.
While I found this paper rather interesting, I think the authors were mistaken to say the beer resembled lambic. Since it was brewed as a lager, we can be sure that it did not follow lambic-like brewing process in some pretty fundamental ways. Putting that aside and only looking at the parameters of the beer, it is also rather unlike lambic. A comparison between the 100 year old Czech sample and various lambics is shown at right. A necessary caveat here is that I am not comparing to 100 year old lambic. I have data from lambic from ~100 years ago (see the notes regarding these data in this blog post about Duivelsbier), a sample of 1970s atypical lambic (to try to approach the acetic acid and acetic:lactic acid levels in the Czech beer) and data from the oldest bottled lambic I could find - ~17 years old. These are all a far cry from ~100 years in the bottle, but, as reasoned below, I think they are sufficient to say that the comparison is not accurate.

The first part that jumped out at me was the very high acetic acid in the beer and comparatively low lactic acid. Assuming there is no typo here, this acetic acid level is at least 4 times higher than I have seen for normal lambic or gueuze. The lactic acid values of the lager are in line with some lambics, but not with data available for aged lambic. And it is surprising to me that the acetic levels are three times higher than the lactic levels in the Czech beer. Meanwhile, with lambic, I haven't seen a beer where that ratio of acetic:lactic is much over 1:1, and generally it is much lower (closer to 0.1). The values of ethyl acetate and the comparison of ethyl acetate to ethyl lactate shows the same trend.

An add for vinegar to add to beer or wort from PJB 1922.
So it seems that the aged Czech beer went though some sort of assertive acetic production, through either acetic acid bacteria or Brettanomyces in the presence of O2, that isn't found to a comparable degree in lambic. And therefore the beer neither resembles lambic brewing process nor the final characteristics of lambic.

While this doesn't reflect lambic, I think it is interesting to note the acetic presence in this one sample of the Czech beer. It is possible that this developed in the bottle, but that is a lot of acetic acid! Modern distilled vinegar has only about 5x more acetic acid than this beer, compared to about 50-100x more acetic in vinegar than in modern lambic and Flanders red beers. If the acetic developed in the bottle, that would likely require a dramatic failure of the seal sufficiently early on such that the brett and/or bacteria present were still viable. This should then also result in some major changes to the beer (like it evaporating away over 100 years) and therefore I don't think this is likely the source of the acetic. So I think it is reasonable to assume that at least a good chunk of this was present in the beer before bottling. And, therefore, that the brewers knew about it and bottled the beer anyway. The intentional bottling and (presumed) selling of acetic beer (that may or may not have much lactic acidity), occurred at this time in regions of Belgium as well and I think this is an interesting piece of beer history (though, again, I don't think it would have been common for the acetic levels to be quite so high).

An ad for vinegar for blending from Petit Journal du Brasseur, 1924.

Acidic lagers?
Moving on to a focus on lactic acid, all three ~100 year old Czech beers tested had lactic acid levels which are comparable to modern acidic beers (2500-3500 mg/L). This is a good deal above what you might get from malt and I found it to be a pretty cool part of this paper. It made me wonder about how much lactic acidity was in the beers when they were bottled compared to how much developed in the bottle over time. Spitaels et al., 2015 (discussed in this blog post) showed aged bottles of Cantillon gueuze have considerably more acidity than fresh bottles.

As discussed in that post, it is hard to tell how much of this difference may be due to aging compared to changes in brewing/aging/blending process which might yield less acidic beer. But, if even half of the difference is due to development in the bottle, the level of lactic acid noted in the Czech beers could develop within a 5-10 year time frame from bottling. So, with this assumption, the levels of lactic acid in the Czech beer are consistent with a perceptibly clean beer being bottled. Therefore, perhaps the beers seemed lactic-free when they were consumed and it only showed up in these aged examples. But I don't think it can totally be ruled out that there was some present at the time of bottling and that fresh examples of the beer may have shown this.

The presence of brett, by detection of Brettanomyces bruxellensis DNA, was noted in the sample which was compared to lambic. I found this interesting given the transition to 'clean' lagers around 1900, while ales were still mixed culture beers (even if brewers wanted them to be clean). I don't think much about historic lagers with brett but I think it would not be unreasonable that it was likely present in some and, depending on temperature, could have made a flavor impact. Brett can grow at 15 C (see the MTF wiki here) and likely cooler. I know that lambic cellars can spend a good part of the year cooler than this and lambic seems to still show biological developments over this time.

So I think it would be interesting to learn about historic lagers with a brett presence. There are certainly examples of brett in lagered beer added for a secondary fermentation. Some of the early tests with Brettanomyces resulted in the development of 'English' flavor in lager beer. These were used to help identify brett as the organism responsible for this flavor. And there are plenty of modern beers which start their lives as lagers and after further purposeful pitching become mixed culture beers.

I'm more interested in the natural development of brett characteristics in lager beer as it is aging, such that the final beer would be lager-like except with brett rather than initially a lagered and then warmed and pitched with brett. I know that Clausen, in his patent for brett, noted that it would not impact the flavor of lager even after multiple months at lager temps, so it could be that only warmer lagers or packaged lagers that were stored warmer for some time before consumption would start to show this character. Given the range of lager production I think it would not be surprising to find that some regions, possibly where lagering was conducted a bit warmer in pre-refrigeration days, may have had lagers showing brett character. I don't think this would have been common by any means. But perhaps a rare regional phenomenon much like Orval surviving as a brett beer (albeit an ale) to the modern day.

There's definitely other interesting stuff in the Olšovská et al. (2017) paper but I think this is enough for one post. To sum up, most of my lingering thoughts about this are fairly unanswerable (mostly to the effect of: what did the beer taste like when it was young?) but I think some of these questions would be interesting to approach with modern brewing. Brett was able to get into one of these three bottles. At the latest, this would have come at bottling/in the bottle. From the acetic discussion above, I think there was at least some acetic-producing organism before bottling (but, of course, that assumption couple be completely wrong and this could have developed only in the bottle). Any earlier, and brett would have been present in the trub and possibly in the repitched yeast at the brewery. If it is present in the repitched yeast at the brewery to an appreciable degree, than maybe it is active in the fermenting and aging beer, and maybe it is making an impact.

So as homebrewers this can be tested. How low can you go and still have brett impact the beer to a noticeable degree on a timescale of months. I suspect it would at 50 F / 10 C. What if you brewed a lager beer with brett and kept it at 45 F / 7.2 C for the lagering phase? Can you go even lower? Of course this would be strain dependent. Given the invention of ale/lager hybrids (e.g. steam beer), it is clear that lager-like processes were not restricted to beers fermented and/or aged especially cold. Perhaps in addition to these, beers thought of as more classical lagers were not aged as cool as elsewhere/as they are in the modern era of refrigeration. And I think an Orval-analog of lagers would be an interesting beer. And then there is the question about the lactic acid in the beers...

So plenty of questions for the future. But overall I think it is possible that lagers, at least during a certain time frame and in certain areas, were not always as 'clean' as we consider them to be.

Edit 12-June-2017: I've been thinking this over throughout the day and I am not thinking there may be a better chance that the acetic could be all or primarily generated after bottling. I'm still pretty unsure about it and the above discussion (that I think it would take a significant failure in the cork to general that much acetic) holds. And, if that happened, then I would expect this to be reflected in fill heights, which would then be apparent in the un-opened beer. The authors don't note fill heights in their paper so we can't really tell here.

My thinking that is swinging me more toward a bottle issue is that this is a lot of acetic acid. To a degree it may be more like vinegar than typical acidic beer. And I am having a bit of trouble thinking of why such a beer would be bottled (at least if it were intended to be a clean lager, which is the premise that the authors seem to be operating under). Anyway, I am content to settle with we'll never know. And I am still pretty split on where I think the acetic was generated. But the root question this prompted still holds - were there beers of lager fermentation which displayed brett characteristics with any sort of regularity? And, if so, where were these beers found and how long did they last?

Monday, April 24, 2017

Questions on the role of hulls, hay and hops in the mash

I'm interested the role that non-grain additions to the mash may have on the resulting wort and beer - primarily mixed-culture beer, but some of the same considerations would apply to Saccharomyces only beers as well. So in this post I'd like to lay out some quick thoughts on three such additions: hulls, hay or straw, and hops. Sorry this post is poor on the image side. Based on the nature of the post (ramblings on ideas with historic context) I don't have images of my own to share from employing these processes.

A couple factors came together over the last week or two that convinced me to put this quick post together. The first, as addressed in the Hulls section, is the latest malting runs from my friend Mike. And the second were some facebook posts (here and here) from my friend Ed over at Ales of the Riverwards detailing some aspects of a collaboration brew, with among others, another friend James at The Referend Bier Blendery. In this brew they used hay in the mash.

This post is more of an open question about the role that alternative mash additions could have. I haven't tried any of these myself, and it seems that I'm unlikely to get the chance to try much in the near future (more info on that in the coming weeks to months) but there is historic precedent to some. As with many cases, this seems mostly to have been done from a practicality standpoint, though it certainly could have had an impact beyond this practicality on the beer. And in at least one case this is noted by the author writing about it. So anyway, I'd like to more from others results from using some of these ingredients in mixed culture beers. If you've got some experience/thoughts on this, feel free to add them in the comments. The two main points I'm curious about, if you have used hulls/hay/hops in the mash, are: do you think this contributed something to the wort? How far did this characteristic make it through the process?

1) Hulls - The use of grain hulls in the mash is probably the most approachable of the three to modern brewers. Similarly, the use of wheat hulls shows up in multiple different Belgian texts from the 1800s. Perhaps most prominent from what I've seen, is the discussion of mashing presented in Lacambre's 1851 treatise on brewing. Lacambre notes the use of wheat hulls in fairly high levels in lambic mashing to help act as a filter aid. These hulls were added at the beginning and more are throughout the mashing. I've discussed the presence of wheat hulls in lambic previously in this post in a two part series on Lacambre's text (part 2 focuses on bière de mars).

What I think is most interesting to me about this discussion are the closing couple paragraphs of the Brussels section (which focuses on lambic/faro/bière de mars). In these, Lacambre stops to note that he finds this high rate of wheat hull use interesting and, in his mind, wheat hulls are a necessary component of the flavor of lambic. In this, he disagrees with the lambic brewers, who note that they are only used for their practical purpose. Though in defense of the brewers they may be speaking to why they use them and not the complete spectrum of the results (brewers were not be adding wheat hulls for the aroma they contribute, whether or not that is an outcome of their use).

It is also possibly worth noting that this isn't the only place where Lacambre disagreed with lambic brewers. Less trivially, Lacambre wasn't sold on the idea of spontaneous fermentation and thought that lambic brewers should control the fermentation more. I wouldn't be surprised if that opinion was as unpopular then as it would be now. Anyway, whatever the case is with wheat hulls, Lacambre's final words on the section dealing with lambic are that he feels wheat hulls have become an indispensable component which is, in part, responsible for the final aroma of the beer.

The author believes that wheat hulls contribute something important to the character of lambic
and that their use in brewing is necessary for that character. From Lacambre, 1851 (p.394).

Lacambre bases his assertion on the extractions he has made from wheat hulls. Unfortunately I don't have any wheat hulls (or for that matter rice hulls) around to try this out, but assessing the impact in water or wort would be pretty easy task. You could make a tea out of the hulls and taste that. And next time you brew you could pull off a couple mugs of wort and do the same in one while keeping the other as is for a comparison. That would at least inform the initial difference (pre-boil and fermentation), It is likely that impacts may decrease from this point, but perhaps there are compounds that would be altered during fermentation and/or components that would come forward more after sugars are removed and the wort has cooled (think of hot sweetened tea/coffee compared to cold sweetened tea/coffee and cold unsweetened).

On the opposing side, the sorts of processes used by some homebrewers allow some (hull-less or nearly so) beer to be made. If you are using brew in a bag (BIAB) you don't have the same need for husks as a lauter aid as when not using BIAB. My malting friend Mike (of Doehnel Floor Malting and Skagit Valley Malting) just sent me the list of the malts he made this year and one of them was a hull-less barley malt. This might be an interesting malt to brew with and make a beer without hulls or with very little hull material compared to conventional beer while still using a base of primarily or completely barley.

Hay in the mash. Photo: E Coffey, Ales of the Riverwards
2) Hay and Straw - Moving a step further from the realm or standard brewing ingredients, hay and straw could also be added to mashes. From a practical point of view, this would fill the same role as hulls as discussed above - to aid in the formation of a filter bed. But, as noted by Lacambre, there would likely be a flavor component to it as well. This is the motivation behind some of the modern brewers employing hay in their beer. As I mentioned in the top of this post, seeing a recent collab brew with hay in the mash was one of the prompting factors for this post. Other brewers have also used something similar in the mash, for example hay in Jester King's beer Repose (this is also a repeat connection from the lambic in 1851 post linked above).

And, like wheat hulls, straw has historic precedent in Belgian brewing. In his 1874 book on Grisette, Peslet mentions that when the grisette mash begins, the first thing to happen is to lay down a bed of hulls or short pieces of wheat straw. And I'm sure if I looked around more I would find further mention of the use of straw in historic Belgian brewing. The presence of hulls or straw in the two thorough books that I've spent more time focusing on suggests that record of its use likely shows up elsewhere as well.

Because the motivations for using straw, both on the practical side and the organileptically-active side are basically the same as for hulls, the same considerations apply as noted above - namely that straw contributes a flavor to water and this flavor may be an important component in final beer. Whether the imparted characteristics survive boiling, fermentation and aging is a valid question. But also a question that we can address by brewing and tasting. And some folks out there may have some experience to weigh in on this question. Meanwhile, the rest of us can put it to a test ourselves.

3) Hops - I know the idea and/or practice of mash hopping has been around for hoppy North American beers (IPAs, etc.) for the preservation of some aroma/flavor compounds in a form where they reach the final beer and contribute to the already strong hop character. My personal interests are a bit different. The addition of hops in a mash are mentioned in Pelset's book on Grisette. The author writes that in the warmest months (in the brewing of ordinary/young grisette, as this was the only grisette which would have been brewed at this time of year) that hops would sometimes be added to the mash.

The mention of hops in this setting is rather matter of fact so I don't read it as if it were any sort of radical/especially unique process. When hops were used in the mash they were used in place of the wheat straw/hulls as the first component added to the mash to help provide a filter bed. The substitution is made in hottest months to protect the mash under the influence of bad temperatures, or to prevent bacterial activity during the mash. In the typical modern warmer and faster mashes this is not really an issue, but if there were prolonged rests around 40 C or so then this might be more of a concern.

So hops, like hulls or straw, are performing the function of a filter aid, which seems less necessary (or at least less popular) in modern brewing. But it is quite possible that they had an influence outside of their primary practicality-driven role. In the case of hops in comparison the hulls or straw, perhaps this is lessened by the additions of hops at other points in the process. But the potential additional influences still intrigue me in a beer like young/ordinary grisette which would have been somewhat hoppy but not IPA-style hoppy.

Conclusion/call for input: So there are some quick thoughts on the use of mash filter aids which may also have flavor and aroma contributions to at leas the wort, and possibly the final beer. Hopefully some people out there with experience using these can weigh in and hopefully some of you try this out, possibly in paired brews without hulls/straw/mash hops to see the influence of these ingredients. As I noted above, it is unlikely that I'll get to much of this in the short term, but if/when I do I'll weight in with my thoughts.

Monday, April 3, 2017

Blending 2016-17 #1

As the weather warms up around Victoria I'm starting to think about a bit of end of season brewing and blending. And with these thoughts fresh in mind, plus blending #2 which was a week ago (FB post here), I realize I never wrote anything up from my major blending back in December (here is the quick FB post I made when doing the blending with photos, some of which are duplicated here). This blending had been postponed somewhat significantly by my not having enough free carboys to do anything. It was a self-propagating problem. I didn't have enough carboys free to blend so I'd brew into the couple empties that I had. Sometimes this would be a quick turnaround beer and in a couple weeks I'd be back to where I started. But sometimes it would be a beer for aging and then I was even worse off - I had more full carboys of beer destined for blending and fewer that were empty to blend into.

But after a couple months of restraint, fulfilling barrel re-fill responsibilities on my barrels and borrowing a carboy from my friend Kyle, I finally had enough free in December to do some blending. There was a bit of a time crunch (flying to South Africa for work 3 days after the blending, though that's another story) so I didn't quite get through what I was planning. But I was able to make and bottle 5 turbid-mashed, open-cooled blends, including two with components that had only ambient microbes. In total I bottled just under 80 L (~21 gal), so large for a home scale but not a ton. Though corking & caging ~140 bottles by hand definitely made it feel like a ton. I feel for the commercial guys who do this all by hand!

Almost ready to start the blending.

The Beers

I had put in a lot of work leading up to this blending session and, as such, I had a lot of beers to work with. I think this is the single biggest factor in success here. In the short term, I had multiple beers of a pretty good age range so come up with blends. And, in the long run, the repeated brewing should also help me to fine tune recipe and process. So I'd say if you can make the space and if blending aged mixed culture or spontaneous beer is something that you're serious about, then make a point of building a reserve such that you have plenty of blending choices (not just one or two carboys of a couple different years).

I did an initial tasting back in August and out of 15 or so beers from that tasting plus one more from a recent barrel pull I ended up selecting 8 plus the barrel pull as sufficiently ready to make some trial blends. These beers were between 15 and 47 months old when the blending time came around. The remaining beers weren't awful but they weren't ready for a variety of reasons (generally uninteresting, still some fermentation to go, too bitter, etc.) and I'll continue aging them until either they are ready, I need to trim down my brewing space/gear, or I give up on them/they go off. Whichever comes first.

Glasses and notes ready for individual beers and trial blends.
The beers I ended up using are below. Except for one component and part of another, they were all turbid mashed with at least 30% unmalted grain, brewed with aged hops and open cooled overnight. All except for one had pitches of bottles dregs and/or lab cultures added. Here are very brief thoughts on their profiles as well as their brew dates.

M#1 (brewed Jan 2013): This beer factored into my 2015 blending session as well. It was lightly acetic (a bit more than I'd like on it's own, but not that high), had nice oxidation, and a good fruit character.

WR (brewed July 2013): This is also a remainder from the previous blending. It was brewed with unmalted rye rather than unmalted wheat. The spice character is bit more mellow than it was before, but still a more forward. It worked well as a component for that reason, as well as on its own.

SB (brewed Feb 2013): This is the last holdover form previous blending. It was brewed as a saison base with unmalted spelt and a step mash and boiled with non-aged hops before open cooling overnight. I then added saison yeast as well as lambic and mixed culture saison bottle dregs. It was fruit forward with a pleasant degree of oxidation and a light edge of acetic. This component worked well with more phenolic beers.

Setting up to make test blends.
Dec 2014: This batch was more hop forward and phenolic in the taste. A bit too hoppy/bitter on its own but will work nicely for certain other beers in this blending session. There was good citrus and funk to the beer as well.

May 2015 spontaneous starters: This is the closest thing to fully spontaneous in here. I did some wild capture starters to trial local microbes and added the good starters to this batch. Nothing else was pitched. It had a nice brightness and tropical fruit.

May 2015 ECY: This beer had some stonefruit and candy-like sweetness and was on the mellow side.

May 2015 G(u)euze dregs: There was some good funk and citrus in this batch, though the intensity was a bit muted compared to others.

September 2015: This batch tasted older than many of the others, which was a bit puzzling. It was grapefruit forward with some nice oxidation and funk. 

Barrel Pull 2: This is from a 60 gallon barrel that I co-own that we are treating as a solera-type barrel (not in the true proper solera sense, but more in the sense as homebrewers use the term). This is the second pull from the barrel and was composed of 67% saison brewed Nov 2014 and 33% turbid mashed beer brewed June 2015. This beer had light acidity and a forward wine barrel character that was pleasant and will add nicely to the rest of the beers, which were all carboy only. It also had a bit of oxidation that was creeping up since pulling it from the barrel (Oct 2016). I wasn't excited about that and was a bit hesitant to use it, but the blends worked out so I went ahead with it. It wasn't awful, but it was not as good as before the oxidation started creeping in. So lesson for next time - be prepared to use a barrel pull shortly after it is pulled. Or make sure some extra yeast is in there to protect the beer.

My notebook with trial blends & percentages,
and component volumes used & remaining.
The logistics and choosing the blends

I did a separate tasting from the selected set of blend-worthy beers shortly before blending and again noted their individual characteristics. From this I was able to think about which beers might go well together (more acidic with less, more fruit-forward with more funky/phenolic/hoppy, working a bit of oxidized beer in with fresher beer, etc.), and I made trial blends with those. I did this by weight so that I knew the proportions well without having to use large volumes. I ended up making 8 trial blends, with blends later in the trial blending benefiting from the room to improve on the earlier blends. From this subset I decided upon 5 blends: C, D, E, G and H (from trials A-H).

The final choice of which blends to do and which sizes to blend was based primarily on what was best, but to a secondary degree it was influenced by what carboys I had around and the volumes of the beers I was using as components. I wanted to either use something up completely or leave an appropriate volume to fill another carboy. So at least as much energy was put into what tasted the best as making it work in terms of carboys to blend into, leaving full carboy increments of partially used beers, optimizing order to make workflow go well, etc. I started with maximizing the volume of the best blends with the carboys I had on hand and then fitting in the others based on beer remaining. After a bit of spreadsheet work to optimize that I was ready to go.

I also spent a bit of time thinking about the blend order. I was going to need some carboys that I was emptying to end up holding the remaining portions of some beers later on, so those had to be blended first. I was also starting siphons with the remainder of the previous beer, so it was helpful if I only had to move one end of the racking cane (if ending carboy 1 on blend a, I would then start a new carboy that was also going in to blend a so I could leave the tubing in blend a).

Setting up an easy to follow order while blending was key.
The Blending

That setup was really all the hard work. From this point I put priming sugar into each of the blends so that it was well mixed and I could fill up to the top without worrying about leaving space for that. I didn't re-yeast but I did make a point of taking a bit of yeast over in the racking rather than keeping things as clear as possible. It doesn't take much so don't go overboard on this. My blends all carbonated fine going with this route and the sediment levels in the bottles is reasonable (not excessive/obviously more than taking clear beer and re-yeasting). Nevertheless, I'd like to move toward less intervention so maybe next time I'll skip this yeast carrying step. We'll see...

From there it was a bit of kitchen acrobatics, but it all went smoothly. I had a CO2 tank on hand to purge carboys before and after filling. And bottles before filling as well. I bottled 2 blends that same day and bottled the remaining 3 blends 2 days later. Then I could leave the bottles conditioning (I left them on their side) for 6 weeks while at sea in the Southern Ocean and come back at the end of January to somewhat conditioned beer. I've tested each blend by now and am happy with how they were progressing. But, as of late Jan/early Feb, each blend needed a bit more time to finish out. The carbonation was there but the flavor was a bit muddled at times compared to the trial blends. And some bottles had a touch of THP that I expect will age out.

It's about time to start checking back in on these. And this post makes me want to get to that. So perhaps this week and next I'll start revising the blends and maybe getting some tasting notes up.

Two bottled blends.

Monday, March 20, 2017

Lambic characteristics - FG and IBUs in Geuze

I wanted to put this post to address a couple misconceptions of lambic - bitterness and final gravity (FG). Because modern lambic is generally brewed with aged hops, and the bitter alpha acids in hops oxidize with aging, I think there is the idea that lambic receives no or very little bitterness contribution from hops. And with FG I think there is the idea that, due to the long fermentation and diverse range of microbes with a capacity to attenuate a given wort further than normal brewing yeast, lambic is super-attenuated beyond where other beers might be. While there can be some truth to both of these - lambic can be highly attenuated and aged hops used in lambic probably contribute less bitterness than fresh hops would - this line of thinking over-simplifies lambic and potentially makes a caricature of sorts out of its actual characteristics since lambic can and does have bitterness and it may not be more highly attenuated than saisons or certain Trappist beers.

This post came together from the overlap of a couple different topics that I'm currently looking into. For independent reasons, I've been spending a fair amount of time over the last month or so thinking about the following: hops in lambic (I owe a section on this and should simultaneously update/expand what's on Milk the Funk), final gravities and 'dryness' in beer, and the general brewing process and characteristics of lambic (through a series of interesting discussions with a good friend). I think these topics could see expansion in the future, but for now I'll leave it here.

Girardin Gueuze, which I find has a more
pronounced bitterness than other geuzes.
I should note that the following is the range of information I was able to find, but lambic has considerable diversity among the different producers (as well as with atypical batches within a given producer). I've had conversations with blenders and brewers about 'stuck' barrels that wouldn't attenuate further as well as batches that came out more hoppy than intended and, as such, were still forwardly hoppy after 3-4 years. As shown by the ranges presented in Guinard's book Lambic, there are certainly examples of lambic which are more and less highly attenuated and more and less bitter than the following individual data points. So this is not meant to be exhaustive and all-encompassing, but it is what I was able to find in the published literature, from individuals, and from values reported by breweries.

One last quick note - I'll somewhat indiscriminately compare lambic and geuze in this post. And when I say lambic I may mean both old lambic and gueuze. I realize that in strict definitions one could argue that I ought to treat them more independently, but with the paucity of data I've combined them here.

Lambic and Geuze FG

The reported FGs that I've seen for individual lambic and geuze samples range from ~1.005 to around 1.010 and none of the specific examples are below 1.0045. Note that the scientific literature on lambic is based to a fair degree on one producer. And a case could be made that this producer is not completely representative of other lambic in terms of FG (as well as other characteristics). Anyway, given a FG around 1.005 - 1.010 and a starting gravity in the mid 1.050s, this is an apparent attenuation of about 80-90%. That attenuation is in the range that certain pale ales could fall, and definitely below where some pure culture Belgian beers can be found. See, for example, the saisons presented in the table as well as apparent attenuation of Trappist beers as presented in Brew Like a Monk (where apparent attenuation is generally around 85-90%).

Original gravity, final gravity and apparent attenuation for different lambics, geuzes and saisons.
So lambic FGs aren't necessarily very low, and the attenuation is not abnormally high compared to other Belgian beers of comparable OG. Since we know that lambic microbes can ferment carbohydrates than normal brewing yeast can't, this higher FG likely reflects lambic production methods. The mashing process used in lambic is designed to yield a wort with high extraction from the grains but a fair amount of unfermentable material (for more on turbid mashing, see these two blog posts (first and second) on its use outside of lambic, this section on and this page on Milk the Funk). Some of the starches and proteins survive lambic fermentation. And in the end they don't contribute much in the way of a perception of sweetness, but there is definitively something left when lambic fermentation is complete. So, in practice, the attenuation of lambic is a balance between production methods resulting in a more dextrinous wort and the super-attenuation capacity of the microbes found in lambic, which may differ brewery to brewery.

For some more data on lambic FGs check out this post from Kevin (Belgian Beer Geek). Note that the age of the lambic is variable and some are fairly young as the data are from a geuze blending session. But the data are generally in agreement (Cantillon is higher, many around 1.005 or so). The outlier here is Boon, which has a very highly attenuated lambic. I had heard from blenders that Boon finishes quite low so I'm happy to see some FG measurements on it.

Bitterness in Lambic and Geuze

Modern lambic typically uses aged hops (I've written a bit about historic lambic hopping, where non-aged hops were used, and some modern brews with a bit of non-aged hops here). And in these modern lambics, I get the feeling that popular thought (at least in North America) is that they don't contribute bitterness to the beer. This can be seen, for example, in the IBU range for lambic and geuze in the 2015 BJCP guidelines (note that the GABF guidelines present a more reasonable range). I don't generally take these guidelines to be wonderfully accurate, especially with Belgian beers, but they do show the mentality, accurate or less so, of the people who are involved enough in beer and brewing to make the guidelines. And this thinking is transferred to many who read the guidelines.

Measured IBUs in lambics and geuzes (and Iris).
As hops are aging, acids and oils in the hops will oxidize. In this way, the alpha acids that generally are thought of as contributing the bitterness to a beer are degraded and therefore aged hops used in lambic will likely not have much in the way of alpha acids to contribute. However, oxidation products of both alpha acids and beta acids can also contribute bitterness to a beer. Dr. Tom Shellhammer (a professor at Oregon State) and his research group do quite a bit of hop research, including about the bitterness of oxidized hop acids. I talked about a bit of this research in this post following CBC 2015, and there is more info in this 2016 paper by Algazzali and Shellhammer. Humulinones (oxidized alpha acids) and hulupones (oxidized beta acids) are about 66% and 84% as bitter as isomerized alpha acids. These oxidized acids absorb light at the wavelength used for spectrophotometric IBU measurements. and therefore they contribute to IBU measurements. It is also relevant here that hulupones absorb much less strongly the primary wavelength used to measure IBUs, and therefore a given concentration of beta acids will yield fewer IBUs than the same concentration of alpha acids when measured spectrophotometrically. Given the relative similarities of the bitterness intensities of hulupones and iso-alpha acids, this may be important in the relative bitterness of beers deriving bitterness more from oxidized acids compared to iso-alpha acids.

If you look at measured IBUs in lambic, the values can be fairly high. Especially considering that these are measured IBUs in beers that are multiple years old. I think it is important to remind ourselves that spectrophotometers aren't tongues and they measure the absorption of light at a given wavelength, which is converted to IBUs, rather than measuring the perception of bitterness in beer. So measured IBUs do not necessarily equate to a certain perceived bitterness. Nevertheless humulinones and hulupones are formed by oxidation of acids, are detected by IBU measurements, and give a perceivable bitterness. And this can definitely be detected in certain gueuzes. For example I find Girardin to be fairly hop-forward (at least among lambics).

So I think the potential impact of hops in lambic from a bitterness standpoint tends to be overlooked. I don't mean to suggest that bitterness in lambic is high and a prominent character of the beer in all cases, but it is definitely non-zero and in the range of perception. And this, along with countless other compounds from the ingredients/brewing process, fermentation and aging, contributes to the final character of lambic. Furthermore, in the case of some lambics, it might be more forward such that is can be a prominent differentiating character between different producers.

Summary and Closing Thoughts

To wrap this up, I think both FG and bitterness are overlooked in lambic due to assumptions (very high attenuation and no bitterness) that don't always match the actual characteristics of the beers. Clearly traditional geuze isn't heavy/sweet (I may have a post in the works about FG, so hopefully more on this to come). And it generally isn't bitter in the same way a pale ale might be even though IBU ranges can overlap. So bitterness is generally not a dominant player in lambic, but it is definitely there and it serves a purpose. And, depending on the producer, it may even be fairly apparent.

Looking back over these data, there is a fair range of variability across different producers and/or vintages in terms of geuze attenuation and bitterness. Attenuation in traditional bottled geuze can range from near to 100% (choosing the top end of the range presented by Guinard) down to about 80% (looking at Cantillon). This variability in FG among producers will reflect the specific aspects of their turbid mash schedule as well as potentially their regional microbes. And this can make things complicated for lambic blenders, as I've noted previously in this post about Tilquin. If higher FGs are due in part to specific microbe populations, then blending a higher stable FG lambic with a more attenuated lambic may lead to the high FG no longer being stable. This can be quite problematic for carbonation. On the more positive side, blenders can use variability in bitterness to their advantage, blending down bitterness in certain batches and/or from certain producers and using a more bitter lambic to add its character to a blend.

I think it is interesting to note that Cantillon tends to fall on the high end of IBU measurements here and it is also a bit higher in FG than others. This could be purely coincidental, but there could also be a couple relationships here. There is the potential for causality. I'm not inclined to put too much stock in this as the lambic doesn't seem to have any problems reaching an appropriate acidity. But it is theoretically possible that certain bacteria with higher hop tolerances and lower ability to break down oligosaccharides are favored over more hop-sensitive and attenuative bacteria. Again, I wouldn't put too much stock in this. Also, the higher bitterness and FG may work to support each other. With more residual material in the beer the bitterness may not jump out as much as it would in an especially low FG beer. And therefore, for the same perception, higher hopping rates/a higher concentration of bitter compounds would be needed. Though it could be simply a coincidence. Finally, and possibly most interesting, perhaps the raw ingredients and mashing process used by Cantillon (which, since they are the most known, are also the most followed by turbid mashing brewers in North America) may be sufficiently different from processes and ingredients used by other brewers to cause these higher FGs.

Thanks for reading. That definitely leads to more to look into (especially the final gravities and their reasons). This was mostly a collection of recent thoughts and I expect there will be more thinking about this sort of thing to come. Feel free to add any thoughts of your own here.

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.