A Home Brewer’s Personal Journey through His Craft – Part 30
Brewing Sour Ale
Here we are fellow brewers, beer geeks, and aficionados, the final phase of our epic journey. I hope you have enjoyed the ride. Over the past two or three years or so we have discussed my beginnings in home brewing and my growth along the way. I have shared 99 home brew recipes; plus a couple bonuses along the way; and some related stories, anecdotes, and disasters. This edition culminates our journey with beer #100, which is actually two beers made from the same wort. Let me introduce an epic brew, one which a fellow beer geek and beer blogger has proclaimed, “the best beer he has ever tasted.” Let’s have a round of applause for: Jolly Roger Red!
Ok, Ok, that was a bit over the top, but so is this beer. This was my first attempt at making a lambic or sour beer. You may recall back in part five of our journey I accidentally made a very bad sour with the sanitation issues I had on the Cherry Fever Stout recipe. I also promised we would get to doing this correctly and on purpose, so here we are.
This beer is inspired by the Bristol Brewing Skull & Bones series, specifically the Flanders Red. The name, Jolly Roger Red, in a way pays homage to that brew. The base recipe for this is an adaptation of several Belgian/Trappist/Chimay/Corsendonk recipes found in various internet sites. The souring is completed using the Bristol wild yeast culture and oak chips obtained from Russian River Brewing containing the yeast culture used in their award winning beers.
I got the Russian River oak chips from Brewmaster Vinnie Cilurzo when I attended his symposium on sour beers he was presenting at the American Homebrewers Association convention in Denver in 2007.
Skull & Bones
The story on the Bristol culture, as I understand it, is it was obtained from the natural wild yeast found on the surface of wild raspberries from Cheyenne Canyon. Nearly all fruits have natural yeast on the surface. This is why they rot or ferment so easily when the skin gets broken. This yeast was grown up into a culture which was then inoculated into oak barrels in which the beers were aged. It is my understanding there was 40 some individual strains of wild yeast and bacteria in this culture.
What is a Lambic/Sour Beer
Before I get into the recipe; really, what is a sour beer or a lambic? For a beer to truly and legally be called a lambic, it must be brewed in the Pajottenland region of Belgium near Brussels. Unlike ales or lagers, which use specifically cultivated strains of yeast, the lambic style is produced by spontaneous fermentation.
This is achieved by using open fermenters, called Coelschips, which expose the wort to the naturally occurring wild yeasts and bacteria in the air in the Senne valley around Brussels. Over 80 different micro-organisms have been identified in lambic beers. The most significant are Brettanomyces bruxellensis and Brettanomyces lambicus. They are typically hopped with aged dry hops which have lost most of their bitterness.
This beer is then aged for up to three years in wooden barrels which also contain a myriad of delightful little critters. These beers typically have a cheesy, old hop aroma and a dry, wine like, very tart, sour flavor. It is very refreshing, like a tart lemonade. They may also develop a musty character often described as horse blanket, barnyard, or funk. Many lambic styles also have fruit added like cherries in a Kriek or raspberries in Framboise. There are many other fruit varieties as well. Check out “lambic” on Wikipedia for a good explanation of the lambic style.
Modern sour beers are quite similar although do not typically use open fermentation. Brewers today are somewhat more concerned about the undesirable critters which may fall into the wort. Typically, they are fermented with known ale yeasts and then soured in wooden barrels inoculated with the hungry little bugs. It is much easier to make a consistent product when you know exactly which critters are doing the work, most commonly Brettanomyces, Pediococcus, and Lactobacillus.
Jolly Roger Red
- 9 lb Belgian Pale Malt
- 1 lb British Mild malt
- ½ lb Belgian CaraMunich malt
- 10 oz Maris Otter malt
- 1.5 oz British black patent malt
- 1.5 oz British roasted barley
- 1 lb Belgian Dark Candy sugar
- 1 lb 14 oz honey
- ½ tsp Burton Water Salts
- 1 tsp Irish Moss (15 min)
- 2 oz Hallertau Mittelfruh hop pellets (60 min)
- 1 oz Kent Golding whole cone hops (60 min)
- 1 oz Kent Golding whole cone hops (15 min)
- UCCS Belgian Strong Ale 1388 yeast
- 2 tbsp Anise seed (dry hop secondary)
- 1 oz Home Grown “Aged” Hops (dry hop tertiary)
- 1 oz Russian River Oak chips (tertiary)
- Bristol Flanders Red yeast slurry (tertiary)
- Priming: 1/3 cup honey x 2
Lets Get Started
Begin with three gallons water treated with water salts and heated to 168°F. Mash in all the milled malts. The temperature dropped to 150°F. My target temperature was 158°F so added more near boiling water and continued heating until temperature was stabilized at 158°. Cover the kettle and let mash for 60 minutes.
Lauter and sparge with 170°F water and collect seven gallons of wort. Bring to boil and add honey and Belgian Candy sugar. Belgian Candy sugar is hard rock sugar crystals that typically come in white, amber, or dark depending on the molasses content. Return to boil and boil for 30 minutes before beginning hop additions. Total boil time is 90 minutes. Remove hop bags and cool wort before pouring into fermenter with the 1388 yeast. Original gravity was 1.074.
After 15 days in the primary fermenter, rack to a secondary and add anise seeds in a hop bag. The intermediate gravity was 1.016 for about 8% ABV.
Split The Brew
After just over a month in the secondary the yeast activity has nearly ceased and the beer has cleared very well. We are ready to begin our souring. But I was curious as to what the beer would taste like un-soured. So I decided to split into two beers, one soured and one not.
Rack off three gallons to tertiary fermenter and add Russian River oak chips and the sediment/yeast slurry from two bottles of Flanders Red. You should be able to get similar results with the slurry from any bottle of commercially available unfiltered sour ale. Or, lambic cultures are available at your home brew shop from both Wyeast and White Labs. Also add the aged hops at this time. These are hops which I left on the vine to dry and picked after the leaves had dried and fell off in the fall. They were very dry, brown and papery. I am amazed that they do not fall off along with the leaves. They contained mostly Santiam, Perle, Brewers Gold, and traces of a few others.
Rack the remaining beer, about two gallons, to a bottling bucket and prime with 1/3 cup honey. The FG was 1.012 for about 8.4% ABV.
The First Bottling
This first bottling turned out much darker than anticipated, more brown than red. It had a moderate level of chill haze and the carbonation level was perfect. It had a thin but persistent head, nice bubbly mouth feel and was slightly sweet with a hint of anise and a dry finish. Overall it was very good and an excellent base for the final soured product. Oh, and the 8.4% ABV was very apparent as well.
Patience, My Friend, Patience
Here is where a brewer learns true patience. How long is this going to take to sour? Is it going to just “go bad” or is it going to be worth the time and effort? Well, there is really very little effort at this point, just patience. I let this age in the tertiary carboy for a full year. Yes, you heard right, one year, 12 months, 52 weeks, 365 days, 8760 hours. You get the idea, a freaking long time.
During this time the fermentation activity was very slow but never did stop. It cleared very well and developed a build-up of sediment clinging to the carboy walls. I was eagerly watching for the formation of a pellicle or for the beer to get “sick.”
Pellicle and Sick Beer
Pellicle is a white yeast film which can form on the top of the beer in the presence of oxygen. It is formed by the Brettanomyces and protects the beer from oxidation and acetobacter, a spoiling bacterium which creates vinegar. Sick or Ropy is a slimy thread like substance formed by Pediococcus. It is harmless and consists of carbohydrates, acids, and proteins. It will break down and settle out in three to four months. I did not see either of these substances form in this beer.
I bottled this using 1/3 cup honey for priming. It had a very refreshing sourness and just a hint of the barnyard funk. The FG was 1.003 for about 9.6% ABV.
Definitely Worth the Wait
I let it age another 3 months before trying a bottle. WOW! This was freaking heavenly! Dark red amber with no chill haze and the carbonation level was perfect; a thin tight head which persists to the bottom of the glass. This classic Belgian had a mellow balance of sweet, tart, sour, and a hint of funk. It even still had just this slightest hint of anise in the finish.
Making It Last
I sampled this sparingly over the next nearly two years and it just kept getting better and better. It was never kept refrigerated. It never became over carbonated. The funkiness increased slightly but that only made it better.
Patience; that would be fourteen months from brew to bottle and then aging another three months; but the true test is in making 30 bottles of this heavenly brew last two years. I still miss the rare occasion I would dig one out of the back of the closet. I really need to make another one of these.
The End of Our Journey…?
Brewer’s Log – Star Date 03212012*: “We have reached the end of our mission, 100 bottles of beer and I am still standing. I hope I was able to enlighten and inspire some beings of this planet to begin their own journey; and gave them a few chuckles along the way as well. Beam me up Scotty, my work is done here”
“Scotty…hello…Scotty…Spock…Damn, they left me behind. I guess all I can do now is… Keep on Brewin”
You didn’t really think I was done, did you? That I really only brewed 100 beers and quit? No, we have much more to talk about. So, let me light up this campfire with my phaser and get some wort boilin’. Gather round while we talk about things like growin’ hops, makin’ wine, mead, cider, and of course, more beers.
Keep on Brewin…
To be continued…
*Date this was first written: March 21, 2012