Showing posts with label American Sour Beer Book. Show all posts
Showing posts with label American Sour Beer Book. Show all posts

Tuesday, August 5, 2014

American Sour Beers Book Tour!

Keeping checking back to this post for the latest on where I'll speaking and signing copies of American Sour Beers!


February 24-25 in Santa Rosa, CA - BYO Boot Camps

March 25-26 in Nelson, NZ - New Zealand Home-brewers' Conference

April 11 in Washington, DC - Craft Brewers Conference (Book Signing at 11 AM)

November 4-5 in Santa Rosa, CA - BYO Boot Camps

Photo (c) Brewers Association


August 10 in San Diego, CA - Sour tasting and presentation at Modern Times (Sold Out)

August 14 in San Diego, CA - Book Signing at Modern Times

September 4 in Boston, MA - Book Signing at Trillium Brewing

September 13 in Elmsford, NY - Book Signing during Sour'd in September at Captain Lawrence Brewing

October 2-4 in Denver, CO - Book Signing at Great American Beer Festival
October 18 in Houston, TX - Presentation at Dixie Cup

November 8 in Ashburn, VA - Presentation during MBAA meeting at Lost Rhino

November 22 in Washington, DC - DC Craft Beer Festival


March 28 in New York, NY - Bitters and Esters @ 4 PM

March 29 in Massapequa Park, NY - Long Island Beer and Malt Enthusiasts @ 9 AM

May 1-2 in Florianopolis, Brazil - I Congresso Técnico para Cervejeiros Caseiros

June 11-13 in San Diego, CA - 2015 National Homebrewers Conference

August 10 in Washington, DC - 3 Stars Brewing Co. from 6-8 PM

October 31 in Fargo, ND - Hoppy Halloween

March 5 in San Diego, CA - Festival of Funk

April 23 in Drammen, Norway - Hjemmebryggerhelgen 2016

June 11 in Baltimore, MD - HomebrewCon

June 25 in Lansdowne, VA - Brew LoCo

August 13 in Asheville, NC - Asheville Homebrewers Conference

September 3 in Virginia Beach, VA - Commonwealth Brewing Co's First Anniversary Party and Collaborative Oud Bruin Release

November 4-5 in Burlington, VT - BYO Boot Camps

Tuesday, July 15, 2014

Priming Barrel-Aged and Blended Sour Beers

In the Packaging chapter of American Sour Beers I included formulas designed to estimate the amount of carbonation that will be produced by the microbes when blending similar sour beers of different gravities. While I believe it is important to understand the logic behind the math, it is certainly much easier to simply plug in the numbers rather than solve equations by hand. A few weeks ago someone emailed a question about the formulas, which sparked me to put together an easier method. I finally found time to refine it, so here I present my Blending Priming Calculator spreadsheet! Unlike the formulas in the book, it can determine carbonation for a blend of up to five beers.

These formulas are only exact if the wort for each component is identical. Having the same carbohydrate profile ensures that the remaining dextrins in one batch would be fermentable by the bacteria and Brettanomyces present in another. You’d expect the final gravity of the blend to approach the final gravity of the driest component, which is why this component must be entered in a specific position in the spreadsheet. Even then there is no way to guarantee the accuracy of the calculation because more attenuative microbes could be "hiding" in a younger/sweeter component.

To use the spreadsheet, start by selecting the number of component beers you will be blending from the drop-down list. This selection controls which formulas are used from the hidden Calculations tab.

Input the peak temperature the beer reached after the gravity stabilized (this is the same as all other priming calculators). If you ferment a beer through a warm summer and it continues to ferment into the fall, but stops before winter, you’d note the temperature it was when you stopped seeing the gravity drop (assuming it didn't get warmer after that). If the beer fermented all winter, but aged into the hot summer, you'd note the hottest temperature it reached during the summer.

I’ve noticed anecdotally that long-term aging in a barrel knocks about half of the assumed residual carbonation out of the beer. The "Residual CO2 Volumes" in red will calculate automatically. If you happen to own a capable CO2 meter (aren't you lucky!), you could override these calculation and simply enter the measured volumes of CO2 in row 5.

At this point enter the current gravity reading for each component and the volumes of beer that you plan to include in the blend. With those pieces of information entered you can see how much residual carbonation the blend will contain at bottling, and after it completes bottle-fermentation (assuming no priming sugar).

Input the target volumes of CO2 desired, and the formulas will display how much table or corn sugar would be required to carbonate the beer to that level. As we are assuming the fermentation of dextrins from the blended beers, it may take 6-12 months of cellaring to achieve full carbonation (as is carried out by traditional Belgian gueuze blenders).

I’ll certainly update this spreadsheet as I think of improvements (and hear your suggestions). At a minimum I'll add a metric tab as the metric formulas are already presented in the book.

Check out the updated/enhanced version of this spreadsheet from Jeffrey Crane of Council Brewing:

Monday, June 23, 2014

American Saison - Reimagining Farmhouse Brewing

Originally part of American Sour Beers: Innovative Techniques for Mixed Fermentations
Adapted and updated from The Cult of American Saison with Nathan Zeender - BYO July/August 2011

American brewers have been inspired to recreate every style and sub-style of beer brewed anywhere in the world in their own breweries and backyards. Of the hundreds of styles defined for brewing competitions saison evades classification most effectively. Ascribing a precise definition to it is impossible, but they are united by their yeast-driven, phenolic flavors and high attenuation. Practically any wort properly fermented with a saison yeast strain, could justifiably be called a saison. Saisons cover the gamut from refreshing-straw-colored-quenchers to dark-complex-vinous-sippers. The romance of saison is that it offers the creative brewer diverse seasonal and localized variation, harking back to the time when these beers were an agricultural product of farm-life tied to the harvest. While saisons do not always feature sour or funky flavor, the best ones from both America and their native Belgium often do.

No prettier sight than homebrewed saison!Saison has a storied tradition, but is now relegated to the fringes in its Belgian home. However, it has found a strong revivalist movement among today’s artisan brewers all across the United States. Yvan De Baets, brewer of Brasserie de la Senne and Belgian beer scholar par excellence, does not hold back when it comes to saison, “I feel gratitude to the U.S. brewers for the sincere interest they have in saisons and other traditional styles, from Belgium and elsewhere. This creates a movement, with serious literature, and a solid market, leading to the rescue of styles that are almost dying in their country of origin. To put it clearly: almost no one cares about saisons here in Belgium, and I am always touched to see the enthusiasm the Americans have for those monuments of the past.”

Much of the current fervor is traced directly to 2004 when Phil Markowski’s informative Farmhouse Ales: Culture and Craftsmanship in the Belgian Tradition (Brewers Publications, 2004) was published. It is hard to imagine any creative brewer reading De Baets’ inspiring 30 page chapter on the history of saison without their head spinning with ideas – the book that launched a thousand saisons.

Increasingly, breweries across the country are dedicating themselves to the production of variations on the saison theme: Upright, Funkwerks, Stillwater, and St. Somewhere, to name just a few. Jolly Pumpkin’s Ron Jeffries, was an early adopter of traditional farmhouse techniques. In this new school the term artisan has co-opted craft in stressing hands-on, small production marked by specialization, and an uncompromising approach. Dann Paquette, of Pretty Things Beer and Ale Project, declares that traditional saison is a style lost to history. His Jack D’Or anglicizes the tradition producing what he coins a “Saison Americain,” explaining, “I would support the idea of appellation contrôlée for European producers (of saison). We talk too much these days about beers as if they're flavours of ice cream. There's got to be more to it than that.”

Wort Production
An elementary recipe inspired by Saison Dupont, the archetype of the style, could be comprised of only water, Pilsner malt, and Saaz hops, but many American brewers opt for something more complicated. Saisons were originally refreshing beers brewed for summer consumption on the farm (the original lawnmower beer), but these days it is rare to see a commercial example under 6% ABV. Even if you are aiming for a strong beer, be mindful of pushing original gravity too high; with the high degree of attenuation 1.050 (12.4°P) wort can result in a 6.5% ABV beer.

Pilsner malt is the most common saison base malt because of the clean, crisp malt character it provides. The best practice with a recipe high in Pilsner malt is to boil the wort for at least 90 minutes to volatilize DMS. Many brewers choose domestic pale malt to reduce cost, and it makes a good substitute especially in darker saisons. Vienna or Munich malt is sometimes added to provide a bready flavor and golden hue.

As a nod to saison’s agricultural past, many breweries include malted or unmalted grains in addition to barley. Wheat is especially popular, but rye has also gained considerable acclaim in beers like the Bruery's Saison Rue, and McKenzie Brew House's Saison Vautour. Rye malt imparts both a telltale grainy flavor and protein, which adds body without sweetness.

Specialty malts are relatively rare in classic pale saisons, especially caramel/crystal malts which sweeten the classic dry finish. When they are included in the grist of even hearty saisons, keep them to a minimum. For dark grains, dehusked malts like Weyermann Carafa Special and debittered black malt are ideal. The dry finish of saisons accentuates aggressive malt flavors, so excessive amounts of roasted barley or black patent can result in a harsh character. If you want the coffee and chocolate flavors of these grains, try a cold extraction to minimize their acrid bite.

A single-step infusion mash is usually adequate, but undermodified base malts may benefit from a protein rest. The saccharification rest is usually performed below 150°F (66°C), sometimes as low as 142°F (61°C) as in the case of Pretty Things’ Jack D'Or, to ensure the requisite high level of attenuation. If you opt for a cool conversion temperature, you may need to extend the rest longer than the standard 60 minutes because beta amylase does not work as quickly as alpha amylase, which is more active at temperatures in the 150s°F (67-71°C). If you include a large portion of unmalted grain, conversion will take even longer. Remember that while a positive iodine test indicates the presence of starch, a negative test does not preclude the presence of excessive unfermentable dextrins. As insurance, some brewers employ two starch conversion rests, one in the low-mid 140s°F (61-63°C) followed by another in the mid-high 150s°F (68-72°C).

If you are brewing a high alcohol saison it is beneficial to get a portion of your fermentables from kettle sugars. The neutral character of table sugar is an economical choice if your only goal is to ensure a dry beer. More flavorful options like honey, unrefined sugar, candi syrup, and even dried fruit, are good choices if you want to impart additional flavors. If malt extract provides most of the gravity, then sugar should contribute at least 10% of the fermentables, even in moderate gravity versions.

Saisons are hopped with a wide variety of strategies from subtle to assertive. Early boil hop additions are generally moderate because the lack of residual sweetness accentuates bitterness. A small addition of hops late in the boil for aroma is common. Many American brewers are foregoing the traditional European hops in favor of brighter citrusy varieties from American and New Zealand, which complement the spicy qualities of the yeast.

Dry hopping is a good choice for saison because it contributes aromatics without increasing bitterness. There are several saisons that are so hoppy that they could easily pass for West Coast IPAs, such as Willimantic Brewing Co.’s Dyvil Hopyard Double IPA and Cabinet Artisanal Brewhouse’s Freshop Saison. However, unlike a standard IPA, even after the hops fade the yeast aromatics remain giving the beers a second life.

WY3711 French Saison fermenting in a carboy.Fermentation
Saison is a style primarily defined by its yeast, so when planning a recipe, yeast selection is paramount. The common traits that all saison strains share are the production of more spicy and peppery phenols than fruity esters, a high degree of attenuation, and a preference for elevated fermentation temperatures. Despite their high attenuation many saison strains do not leave an overly thin beer thanks to high glycerol production (making them a good pairing with Brettanomyces, which does not exhibit strong glycerol production). These strains do not need to be stressed; aerate and then pitch as many cells as you would for any other beer to avoid excess ester and fusel alcohol production.

The Saison Dupont strain is available from both Wyeast (Belgian Saison - WY3724) and White Labs (Belgian Saison I - WLP565). Dupont is the saison yeast that all other strains are measured against. At temperatures from the mid-80s°F (30°C) into the low-90s°F (32-33°C) it produces a spicy blend of pepper, yeast, and fruit without noticeable fusel alcohol production. Patience is required because the yeast can take several weeks to attenuate a beer completely even at these elevated temperatures; at lower temperatures fermentation often stalls with considerable gravity remaining.

Bob Sylvester started fermenting his beers at St. Somewhere with a pure culture of WLP565, but experienced sluggish attenuation. However, as he explains it “[The yeast] took several generations to acclimate to the brewery environment. The first few batches took a couple of weeks to fully attenuate. We now reach full attenuation, typically down to almost zero, in three days. Seventy some odd generations later, along with whatever wild yeast picked-up from the air, I am convinced, what is now our house yeast, could ferment water. I pitch at a much higher temperature than normal, 80°F (27°C), and let it rise as it will to 90°F (32°C) or so.” He swears by the character he achieves from open fermentation in flat-bottomed wine fermentors.

White Labs produces another strain, Belgian Saison II (WLP566) that is rumored to be a different isolate from Brasserie Dupont. WLP566 has a similar character to WLP565 (although it tends to be slightly fruitier), but is less finicky to work with.

Open fermentors at Upright Brewing Co.French Saison
This strain, rumored to originate from Brasserie Thiriez, is available from Wyeast as WY3711. It produces fully attenuated beer, with a mild pepper character and more tropical fruit than other saison strains. It has gained many devotees in the U.S. because it is less temperamental than the Dupont strain. While the character of the finished beer benefits from fermentation temperatures in the low 90s°F (32-33°C), the strain will attenuate completely at temperatures as cool as the mid-60s°F (18°C). Despite rarely finishing above 1.004 it leaves an impression of body. French Saison is also an ideal strain for extract brewers who do not have as much control over the fermentability of their wort.

Like many brewers, Alex Ganum the founder of Upright Brewing, liked the flavors produced by this strain. “We use the Wyeast 3711 which I love for the fact that it produces lots of different flavors in the different worts we put it in which makes it easy for our beers to be distinct among themselves. Lots of people would probably say that they love how well it attenuates although I consider it over-attenuating and we often struggle to get the yeast to just quit at some point. It makes bottle conditioning a bit of a pain as you could imagine.” Ganum has since switched yeast a couple of times. First to an isolate from a bottle from De Ranke, and then to Wyeast 3522 Belgian Ardennes a strain he finds performs well with their open tanks and the moderate Pacific Northwest climate.

Jeff Stuffings of Jester King Craft Brewery finds BSI's French Saison strain, which serves as their house strain, to be slightly different than Wyeast’s version, despite the same source. After brewing a version of Le Petit Prince (Jester King’s 2.9% ABV table saison) at Brasserie Thiriez with the brewery’s actual house culture, he found that it was a bit cleaner with more pepper and less fruit than the French saison strains available from American yeast labs.

Though not from the same source, White Labs Saison III (WLP585) produces some similar tropical fruit notes, a slight tartness, and is easy to work. While it dries out the beer adequately, not overly so like WY3711. I typically see about 90% apparent attenuation with this strain.

Bière de Garde
For homebrewers this strain from Wyeast (WY3725) is only available at certain times of the year as a seasonal release. It ferments well from the mid-60s°F (18°C) into the high-80s°F (31°C) and is highly attenuative, even in worts with specialty malts. Despite the name, it is rumored to have been isolated from Fantôme. WY3725 produces a relatively clean character compared to most other saison strains at the lower end of the temperature range. Allowed to ferment warmer the flavor becomes considerably fruitier. WY3725 is easy to work with and performs well in stronger beers with assertive flavors, complementing spices especially well.

Farmhouse Ale
This other seasonal release (WY3726) is a close cousin to the Dupont strain, with a supposed origin at Brasserie de Blaugies. Swapping the tropical fruity notes of French Saison or Saison II for heavier banana, it provides a classic dry peppery saison character, and is again easier to work with than Dupont.

Danstar Belle Saison
First released in 2012, this was the first dried version of a saison yeast onto the market. It is a highly attenuative strain, creating a dry beer in a relatively short period of time. The flavor however, lacks the earthiness and spice of the best liquid strains. Belle Saison is also a prodigious sulfur producer, so extended conditioning may be necessary.

Blending Strains
White Labs produces Saison Ale Yeast Blend (WLP568), which retains some of the character of their Belgian Saison strain while increasing the rate of attenuation. However, if you have problems getting the Dupont strain to perform I have achieved more saison-like results by blending it with a more attenuative saison strain rather than a standard Belgian ale yeast. In 2011 White Labs released American Farmhouse Blend (WLP670), which contains Brettanomyces from The Lost Abbey in addition to a saison strain. The blend is easy to work with and creates a combination of rustic Brettanomyces funk, and peppery yeast.

East Coast Yeast produces two saison blends: Saison Brasserie (ECY08), a blend of several saison strains which works quickly and gives a nice spicy character, and Farmhouse Brett (ECY03) which has the same blend of saison strains with the addition of a strain of Brettanomyces isolated from Fantôme. When I used an early version of ECY08 I found it to be banana-heavy when young, but after mentioning this to Al Buck he removed the responsible isoamyl-acetate producing strain.

Rather than buying a pre-packaged blend from a lab, you may want to take a cue from Peter Hoey who combined the Dupont strain with 5% French Saison yeast to get the classic character with added speed and attenuation in his now defunct Odonata Saison. Dann Paquette of Pretty Things, also makes a custom blend, “We basically sort out our yeast before pitching and the blend is kind of like 50%, 35%, 14%, 1% (yes, you CAN taste that last yeast in the beer).”

I've also had promising results with the first batch I fermented with The Yeast Bay's Saison Blend. It did a fine job drying the beer out, and produced enough peppery character to cut through an aggressive hop schedule without muddling it.

Some breweries blend in their neutral house ale yeast to assist with attenuation, but concerns are possible about the flavors that strain will produce when exposed to the high fermentation temperature preferred by the saison strain. If you lower the temperature you are further reducing the attenuation and flavor contribution of what should be the primary strain, reducing the most prominent character of a saison.

Fermentation Temperature
While many breweries allow their saison fermentation temperatures to rise close to body-temperature, this may not be ideal for homebrewers. The pressure created by large volume cylindro-conical fermentors at commercial breweries suppresses ester production. I have had the best results from pitching near the low end of strains’ suggested temperature ranges, allowing the fermentations to warm slowly as the yeast works.

Many homebrewers who lack fermentation temperature control brew saisons in the summer when they are unable to brew with yeasts that require lower temperatures. This approach is risky because sudden temperature drops can cause the yeast to stall before fermentation is complete, and temperature spikes can result in the production of hot fusel alcohols or even kill the yeast if the temperature rises too high. Homebrewers relying on the ambient temperature to heat the fermentation should try to find a location that has a relatively stable temperature about 5-7°F (3-4°C) degrees below your target fermentation temperature; the exothermic yeast activity will heat the fermenting beer the rest of the way. Placing the fermentor in a large bucket of water will insulate it from the daily cycle of temperature changes.

If the temperature is too cold for the yeast, heat the fermentor with a Brew Belt, or place the fermentor in a water bath with an aquarium heater or in an insulated box with a ceramic reptile heater. The easiest way to regulate the temperature with these methods is to attach a temperature controller (like the ones many homebrewers use for their kegerators) that has a heating mode.

Terry Hawbaker, while brewing at Cabinet Artisanal, turned to a saison yeast strain (Wyeast 3711) to allow him to use fermentors whose glycol cooling jackets did not function. This takes a great deal of skill because as the temperature climbs unconstrained the yeast becomes even more active and will push the temperature higher still.

Ryan Michaels in the mash tun at McKenzie Brew House.McKenzie Brew House
The Philadelphia-area-based McKenzie Brew House has commanded gold in French- and Belgian-Style Saison an astounding three out of the previous four years at the Great American Beer Festival® for their Saison Vautour. Remarkably each of the three wins came with a different treatment of the same base recipe: first clean fermented in stainless steel in 2007, followed by “accidentally on purpose” Brettanomyces spiked by their bottling equipment in 2009, and most recently wine barrel fermented with a mixed-microbe culture in 2010. Sadly with the exit of their brewing duo, Ryan Michaels and Gerard Olson, it remains to be seen what direction the brewery will take.

Their funky saisons were fermented with White Labs WLP566 (Belgian Saison II) for two to three days in a conical tank. Once active fermentation peaked, the portion of the beer to be soured was pumped into barrels which had been colonized by a variety of strains of wild yeast and bacteria. For the most part the source of these strains was bottle dregs from their favorite sour beers, which were added directly to the barrels without additional culturing. One of the highest complements I have been paid by a brewer was having Michaels pour the dregs from the second vintage of our dark saison into one of his barrels. Pulling samples from the different barrels with the same unsanitized thief also spreads those microbes from one barrel to the next.

When Nathan Zeender and I brewed a collaboration with them, we settled on a beer that would bridge the Belgo-French farmhouse traditions we named Irma Extra, a saison-bière de garde-bière de miel mashup fermented and aged in oak. The aim was to craft a beer that would offer a broad palette of elements that could be pieced back together after the beers had ripened separately. A single wort was split to produce four distinct variants: a clean version in stainless steel (Irma), a funky version in a red wine barrel, a miel version in a red wine barrel with a blend of honeys added directly to the barrel to preserve their aromatics, and a version in an apple brandy barrel to accentuate the classic caramel apple character indicative of bière de garde.

While most of the stainless steel fermented portion was served on tap without being soured, it was also available for blending to soften the barrel-aged beer. The base beers for most of the McKenzie Brew House sour beers are also served clean, which means that neither the recipe nor primary fermentation can be tailored. It also leads to the creation of beers that they might not have set out to brew otherwise, like a sour Baltic porter (Oer Faute). Their dry-hopped Tristessa is one of the better hoppy funky beers I have tried it was created by adding several hops socks to the barrel for the last few weeks of aging. Their Grisette (a close cousin of saison) is reminiscent of historic saison, a delectable session ale with enough sourness to enhance its refreshing wheaty flavor.

Beers age until they taste ready, which is rarely fewer than three months. It is an admittedly unscientific method, but the results are often stunning. Assistant brewer Gerard Olson would occasionally collect extra wort in a carboy to inoculate with dregs. This starter served as a good source of microbes for repitching beers at bottling or kegging. All beers are naturally carbonated and hand bottled for sale at the three McKenzie Brew Houses. When you are only doing small bottling runs for direct sales you do not have to worry about achieving the same level of consistency as a brewery that distributes. Irma Extra turned out to be a wonderfully complex saison with big notes of apple and berry, and a pleasant lactic sourness. As it warms a bit of oak comes out, but it maintains a highly drinkable balance.

Olson has since gone on to open Forest & Main Brewing Company in Ambler, PA. It is a small brewpub housed in a renovated 19th century house just outside of Philadelphia where he brews a half dozen saisons including several traditional farmhouse versions close to 4% ABV, while his partner Daniel Endicott focuses on authentic English cask ales. I've been as impressed with the beers he has brewed there as I ever was with those at McKenzie. 

Tuesday, June 3, 2014

Two New Pages: Microbes from Dregs and Labs

Two of the most valuable and time consuming sections I wrote for American Sour Beers didn’t make the final cut, and I couldn’t be happier!

I updated and greatly expanded my list of commercial sour/funky beers that contain viable bottle dregs. To do this I talked to staff at dozens of breweries to get the information on what categories of microbes (Brett+Bacteria, Brett, or Bacteria) are in their bottles. While this information is valuable for harvesting microbes for isolating or repitching, it will also give you a hint of how these beers are produced.

Some brewers prefer a bit more control and repeatability in their souring process, so I also compiled a list of the microbes and blends available from labs (and collected by hobbyists). I tried to include every blend and isolate of wild yeast and bacteria on the market today, but it is tough with so many small yeast labs popping up. I tried to include notes on the strains I have experience with. It is relatively easy to isolate new strains, the real work will be in determining which strains are valuable, for what, and under what conditions!

Why am I so happy that so much of my hard work was cut? Because, in both cases the information is likely to change and expand over the coming years. As pages on the blog, I can keep them current, rather than leaving them as static sections of the book. There are so many new sour beers and microbes coming onto the market though that neither will ever be comprehensive, but I’ll try! If you’d like to dispute anything, or offer additions, please leave comments on the respective pages.

Next week I’ll be at the National Homebrewers Conference in Grand Rapids, presenting on “The Influence of Mashing on Sour Beer Production” (look for a video on a future episode of Chop & Brew). While I'm there I'll also be talking to James Spencer (for Basic Brewing Radio), and signing copies of American Sour Beers (the AHA pre-sale is on soon, and the book will be available at the conference)! Also listen for the premier of my spot on The Brewing Network during their live show this Sunday.

Monday, May 19, 2014

American Sour Beers - Foreword and Cover

I emailed my first sour beer question to Vinnie Cilurzo of Russian River Brewing Co. in June 2008. He answered that one (about the pluots added to Compunction), and probably 100 more questions since about barrels, bugs, and bungs. I doubt either of us would've believe that during those six years he'd go from answering my newbie questions to writing the foreword for my book! His agreeing to contribute to American Sour Beers was at least as big an honor as Brewers Publications agreeing to release the book in the first place. I was also happy to have him read the manuscript and provide several invaluable comments.

After a couple of placeholder covers online and in print ads, here is the real deal. The glassware and fill-level were both topics of great debate (I only had a minor say). Luckily I'm really pleased with the result! It looks a bit more slick and modern than the Belgian trilogy (Brew Like a Monk, Farmhouse Ales, and Wild Brews), which is in keeping with the topic. If anyone is wondering, that's New Belgium La Folie in the glass.

I'm sure you're all tired of reading about the book after three years, so you'll be glad to hear that American Sour Beers will be released in less than a month. Your first chance to have a copy in your hands will be at the 2014 National Homebrewers Conference in Grand Rapids, MI. Coincidentally... I'll also be presenting (twice) about The Influence of Mashing on Sour Beer Production. There will be an online pre-sale for AHA members soon, and everyone who pre-orders on Amazon will be getting it around the same time. There will also be a Kindle version released in a few months if you prefer reading electrons instead of ink.

Thursday, May 8, 2014

Kvass - Liquid Sourdough Beer

Adapted and expanded for American Sour Beers from Kvass Revival - BYO December 2010 written with Nathan Zeender. Originally it was its own chapter, then a part of Adding Spices and Herbs, and finally removed.

Kvass - Liquid Sourdough

In the summer of 2010, Scott Smith invited my friend Nathan Zeender (now head brewer at Right Proper Brewing Company) and me to join him at East End Brewing Co. to brew a batch of kvass. Smith was a longtime homebrewer before opening East End Brewing in 2004 and that spirit still pervades his operation. In addition to year-round beers, he is constantly brewing innovative and experimental beers with abandon, a sense of humor, and not a trace of pretension (which is a perfect match for Pittsburgh). The recipe for the batch we brewed, dubbed Wood St. Kvass, included 60 loaves of stale rye bread, supplemented with a mash of Pilsner malt, brown malt for toasty bread crust flavor, and rye malt to boost the flavor from the bread.

Kvass, from the Russian word meaning to leaven, is a millennium old, low alcohol (generally between .5% and 2.5% ABV) folk beer brewed from stale bread. Whether you bake your own bread or buy it from a bakery, it should not contain added oil or fat, as lipids can disrupt the head retention of the finished beer. Whole grain rye and wheat do add small amounts of oil, but not enough to disrupt head stability or mouthfeel. Avoid bread that tastes especially salty, while a slight salinity can enhance the malt flavor you never want a briny beer.

Our work started the night before brew day, driving to Wood Street Bread Co. to pick up the five dozens loaves of stale rye bread. That night we sliced the bread into large chunks and mixed it with roughly 1 gallon (3.8 l) of 190°F (88°C) water per loaf in a large modified hop-back. Stale bread is not necessary, but it is certainly a way to use food that would otherwise go to waste. After stirring to ensure all of the bread was saturated, it was left undisturbed overnight to give time for the bread to hydrate. An insulated cooler is useful for mimicking this process at home. It is not a major issue if the water cools off overnight because the high initial temperature will kill any lactic acid bacteria present.

The next morning we returned to the brewery for mash-in. After the starches in the mash were converted, we turned our attention back to the bread, which had absorbed the water and disintegrated into a thick doughy mass. We took turns using the mash paddle to encourage the liquefied bread to pass through the metal grate at the bottom of the hop-back where it could be pumped into the boil kettle. Starch is something brewers usually try to avoid getting into their boil, unless they are performing a turbid mash; it was hard not to laugh as we watched as chunks of bread goo shoot through the sight glass. Smith pumped the runnings from the mash into the kettle, mixing with the bread to create a milky-opaque wort.

Kvass wort attempting to leave the kettle.At home it is much easier to transfer the liquefied bread into the kettle, simply pour it in. If the bread does not breakdown on its own, a mash paddle or immersion blender will finish the job. Getting the bread into the boil kettle is not the end of the challenges. The bits of bread tend to settle as the wort comes to a boil and can scorch if stirring is neglected for even a few minutes. The starch from the bread also makes boil-overs an ever-present danger, from the time the wort comes to a boil until flame-out. Standing next to the kettle was a hose, Smith frequently sprayed back the rising foam.

If the bread was not enough of a clue that we were brewing out of the ordinary, the hop schedule was another hint – 7 ounces (200 g) of low alpha-acid Styrian Goldings in 11 barrels (12.9 hL) – enough for a single IBU in the 341 gallons (1,291 l) of wort. Along with this meager hop addition, we added 1 pound (.45 kg) of caraway seeds, pulverized in a coffee grinder. Caraway is the dominant flavor in so many rye breads that its warm flavor is inextricable from the flavor of the grain in many people’s minds. As with adding any spice to beer, it is a balancing act to get a recognizable flavor to come through without trampling the drinkability of the base beer. After a short 30 minute boil, followed by whirlpool and heat exchange, the wort was ready for fermentation.

Bread yeast is the same species as ale yeast (Saccharomyces cerevisiae) and was historically procured from the town brewery in the days before active dried bread yeast became available at the supermarket. The yeast strains marketed for bread making have been selected for their ability to start fermenting quickly. When pitched into wort, active fermentation occurs as rapidly with a small amount of bread yeast as it would with a standard pitch of ale yeast. Bread yeast, however, is not selected for its flocculation properties, so do not expect to have a crystal clear beer soon after fermentation is complete.

At East End, the majority of wort was transferred into a cylindro-conical tank for fermentation. A modest 2 tablespoons (30 mL) of Red Star active bread yeast was rehydrated in warm water and pitched for the entire batch – about the same number of ale yeast cells suggested for 5 gallons (18.9 l) of barleywine. Despite this minimal pitching rate, Smith typically sees active fermentation begin fewer than 24 hours after pitching.

Dried bread yeast is not produced under the same tightly controlled conditions as dried ale or lager yeast, and as a result often has resident populations of both Lactobacillus and wild yeasts. The additional microflora are not a concern when quickly rising a loaf of bread, but pitched into wort the odds that sour or funky flavors will develop after weeks or months of storage are high. If you want to discourage the formation of lactic acid, aim for at least 10 IBUs and drink the kvass young.

Smith had discovered when he aged a previous batch of kvass the brew took on a complementary lactic sourness. To replicate that character he pumped the remaining 140 gallons (530 l) of the thick wort into two long-used oak barrels located in the brewery’s attic. A warm primary fermentation in porous oak encouraged a mixed fermentation with wild yeast and acid-producing bacteria. One of the barrels eventually tasted off, but last I heard the other barrel was still aging.

With all the valuable knowledge gleaned from our time at East End, along with historical inspiration, Zeender and I returned home with ideas of what kvass could be in our hands.

For our first kvass we scaled the recipe directly from East End's brew sheet and included a loaf of home-baked rye bread. Active fermentation was swift and completed in a few days at a warm enough temperature to encourage lactic acid production, 75°F (24°C). The result was a spritzy, lactic, and thirst quenching beer with a hint of caraway. This combination is reminiscent of a traditional way of enjoying Berliner weisse, with a shot of kümmel (caraway liqueur).

For our second iteration we took inspiration from the folk beers of Scandinavia to create a winter kvass that included smoked malt, fresh spruce clippings, and dried elderberries. Whereas the East End’s kvass is an ideal summer beer, we sought to brew a kvass for the cooler months with referenced images of evergreens and the hearth, more brooding, unhopped, and slightly stronger. As a baseline for this more robust brew we added a loaf of homemade dark pumpernickel bread, and again fermented warm with bread yeast.

We decided on a clean version for our third variation, a hybrid brown porter-kvass. English porters historically got their bread crust character from brown malt. By adding a loaf of pumpernickel bread as well we aimed to enhance this character. We also increased the hopping rate and fermented with ale yeast to prevent souring. I infused half of the batch with a caraway tea at bottling to boost the bready impression.

These three beers are only the beginning of the flavors you can play with in kvass. Let it be an arena of the imagination – think black bread, honey, juniper berries, ferment with a sourdough starter, etc.

Beaver Brewing Kvass

While East End’s beer and our variations were inspired by kvass, they are considerably stronger than any of the traditional versions. Despite being located in the same state as East End, Dan Woodske, who runs the Beaver Falls nano-brewery Beaver Brewing Company and wrote Kvass: History, Health Benefits, & Recipes for the Russian Bread Drink (Volume 1), had not tasted Smith’s kvass before deciding to brew his own. Woodske’s version is more reverent of traditional homebrewed versions, complete with an ever changing recipe.

Beaver Brewing Kvass, and a few of the ingredients.Even though Woodske brews on a 1.5 bbl (1.75 hL) brewing system, he brews his kvass in 15.5 gallon (59 l) batches. Rather than spicing with caraway, he flavors his version with lemon juice and raisins. For each batch he adds four or five loaves of bread, which he slices and then stales for several days, to the boil. Woodske adds the legal minimum amount of barley malt for the brew to be beer under American law. Along with the pale malt he usually adds either wheat or rye malt. Four or fewer IBUs from Hersbrucker, or another low alpha acid variety, are added to the boil.

The juice, about one lemon per gallon (3.8 l), and whole raisins are added to the fermentors along with a small pitch of dried bread yeast. Woodske has tried spontaneous fermentation before, and noted that adding yeast shortens the fermentation considerably. The beer is open fermented in homebrew-sized plastic buckets left near a window to keep them warm. Developing light-struck (skunked) flavors is not a major concern because of the low hopping level.

Woodske’s monthly batches are intentionally variable, including different types of bread (e.g., rye, pumpernickel, and sourdough), and gaining a variable amount of sourness from the open fermentation. He also alters the lemon character by sometimes adding the juiced halves for the last few minutes of the boil, but no more than five minutes because he has found that longer times impart a pithy bitterness.

Beaver Brewing Kvass is only available on draft or in growlers at the brewery because Woodske feels such a low alcohol beer (typically 1.5-2% ABV) requires a level of explanation that a bar would not provide. His proudest moment for the beer was serving it to a man who had lived in Soviet Russia. This man had stopped drinking kvass in the 1990s when the only ones he could find were the overly sweet versions made by soda companies, like Coca-Cola, who have dominated the market since the fall of communism. Beaver Brewing’s version had the taste he remembered.


Just like anything in brewing sour beers, there are many ways that brewers have discovered to get a job done. Even if brewing traditional kvass does not appeal to you, consider a bread yeast fermentation as a good way to produce a low gravity sour ale or adding bread to the boil as an alternative method to introduce starch without a turbid mash (or to an extract beer). When it is baked, bread develops many of the same melanoidins that malt does when toasted, providing more flavor than adding refined flour or starch directly to the boil. These are just some of the tools you can use to brew something inspired by the kvass tradition, or create a beverage of your own design.

Monday, April 21, 2014

Adding Spices and Herbs to Sour Beers

Originally (most of) American Sour Beers Chapter 11 - Adding Spices and Herbs


Hops are included in pretty much every beer recipe these days, but just like pure cultures of brewer's yeast, their dominance is a relatively recent phenomenon. Five hundred years ago, the addition of hops was considered controversial because gruit, secret blends of herbs and spices controlled by church and king, served as both seasoning and taxation for European brewers. Since then, hops have become the near universal herbal counterpoint to malt’s sweetness, but brewers avoid imparting significant hop character to sour beers because of their clashing bitterness (aside from a few dry-hopped examples). Despite the minimal hop flavor contribution nearly all sour beer recipes include hops, either aged (which degrades their bitterness) or in low quantities.

Many of the best sour beers have complex herbal, spice, or floral notes that result from the magical interaction of microbes, oak, and oxygen, that occurs during extended aging. To produce a specific flavor, you are at the mercy of chance, unless you add herbs (flavorful leaves), spices (other part of a plant, usually bark or seed), or flowers that impart the desired flavor. While a few brewers are trying to revive the gruit tradition, most add a combination of botanicals and hops. Examples of the most common brewing herbs and spices are: orange peel, grains of paradise, heather, coriander, cinnamon, and nutmeg, but there are scores of others available from specialty spice retailers, and herbalists. Many botanicals do not impart bitterness so their flavors are more harmonious with sourness.

Well executed spicing of a sour beer demands subtlety. Try to stay around the flavor threshold, leave some mystery. Let people argue over whether the beer is spiced and about what was added. Getting the balance right often demands the art of blending.

Ideas for Spiced and Herbal Beers

Spices can enhance a character that already exists in a batch while other spices can return balance to a beer. Earthy spices, like black cardamom and white pepper, temper a beer that is overly bright. To test if the addition improves the beer, either make a tea with the spice or sprinkle a pinch of the ground spice into a sample of the beer, swirl, and smell. Beers often lose brightness as they age, so time is also a good option if you are looking to mellow a certain aromatic.

There are a few spices that have the ability to conceal less desirable flavors. Vanilla is the archetypal addition to obscure unpleasant or rough flavors. It is a good option for a beer that has an objectionable funky character that refuses to go away. Consider combining spicing with a fruit addition. According to  Jean Guinard in Lambic (Classic Beer Style), at one time Brasserie Cantillon added a touch of vanilla to Rosé de Gambrinus, their raspberry lambic. At the right level this would enhance the oak derived vanillin, without disrupting the delicate balance of fruit and funk. This is the sort of subtle spicing that enhances sour beers.

Avoid pre-mixed spice blends, and instead create your own. The more control you retain, the better your ability to adjust future batches. De Struise Brouwers employs a custom spice blend in several beers, including their sour brown Aardmonnik/Earthmonk, to produce a house flavor in the same way that other brewers have a signature house yeast strain. In their case the blend is cinnamon, coriander, orange peel, and thyme.

If you like the flavors of your beer, but think they need a boost, there is no better flavor enhancer than ordinary sodium chloride (table salt). Salt reduces the perceived bitterness, making it a valuable addition for an over-hopped sour beer, and makes beers taste fuller and richer. I prefer non-iodized varieties, such as those sold as kosher, pickling, and unrefined sea salt. Measure by weight because the salt crystal size has a huge impact on the density. Salt is a traditional addition in the production of the tart gose of Leipzig, Germany. I use.1-.2 oz/gal (.75-1.5 g/L) of salt is the right range to be able to sense the sodium, but not so much that the beer tastes briny.

Cold-side additions are much easier to incorporate if you dissolve the salt in boiling water first. Salts impregnated with other flavors are an interesting option; The Bruery adds truffle salt to their gose, Salt of the Earth, to contribute a delicate loamy flavor. The drawback of adding flavored salts is that they do not allow you to control the salinity and flavor intensity independently. You want to avoid situations where you are forced to compromise by adding more salt than desired.

Patrick Rue, the founder of The Bruery, often takes influences from the food world for his beers. In addition to Salt of the Earth, he includes Thai basil in Trade Winds Tripel, and ginger’s cousin galangal in a 100% Brettanomyces black beer, Gunga Galunga. Even if these particular ideas do not appeal to you it is worth looking to the culinary world for inspiration. The Flavor Bible: The Essential Guide to Culinary Creativity, Based on the Wisdom of America's Most Imaginative Chefs (Little, Brown and Company, 2008) is an especially good resource; for each of the hundreds of ingredients, the book lists dozens of suggested flavor combinations identified by a group of respected chefs. To take advantage of it, taste a beer and search for the flavors you detect (e.g., lemons, vinegar, red wine, cherries etc.) and see if any of the suggested combinations spark your imagination.

For a floral addition, flowers like lavender, elderflowers, chamomile, hibiscus, and heather can be added. Flowers are especially well suited for giving a freshness to a beer that tastes old or stodgy. It is possible to add flowers either alone or in combination, but smell them first because there are certain ones, lavender especially, that remind many people of soap. Cantillon’s Zwanze 2009 (since released as Mamouche) is two-year-old lambic flavored with freshly handpicked elderflowers—the floral character was potent, reminiscent of fresh green jalapeño peppers. I did not achieve the same flavor from using commercially dried elderflowers. However, the flavors that are extracted by alcohol in a low pH environment are sometimes surprising, so testing extractions in a bottle of beer before committing to an entire batch is advisable.

There are several botanical additions that work well in clean beers that are much more challenging in sour beer. For example the bold coffee and chocolate additions that work so well in big sweet stouts do not succeed when combined with a dry and sour base. Success depends on subtlety and subterfuge, as Jolly Pumpkin Artisinal Ales achieves with cacao, cinnamon, and sweet orange peel in Maracaibo Especial.

Consider flavoring a beer to make it evocative of a certain time and place. For example adding smoked malt, spruce, and elderberry evokes a Scandinavian winter, while roasted squash, cinnamon, and nutmeg recall Thanksgiving at grandma’s house. Remember to consider the base beer in tandem with your concept; a bright pale sour is not a good choice for the base of a Christmas beer (unless you go with something like citrus and spruce tips). But adding .2 oz/gal (1.5 g/L) of dried elderflowers to a pale sour ale for two weeks prior to bottling added the aroma of a summer meadow. Select the proper grist and techniques to create a base beer that marries rather than clashes with the added flavors.

Spicing Saison

In some brewers’ minds spicing is synonymous with saison, but this is not the case. For the most part the spicy flavors you taste are produced by the fermentation. When actual spices are included in a recipe, they should be subtle and build character without trampling on the flavors of the yeast. Spices that complement the peppery yeast character especially well are peppercorns (black, white, or pink), grains of paradise, and long pepper (commonly used in Indian cuisine). Gabe Fletcher of Anchorage Brewing Company adds black pepper (along with coriander and lemon peel) to his Brettanomyces finished Chardonnay-barrel-aged Whiteout Wit. Ginger can add a bit of heat, but be careful when adding dried ginger because it can easily overpower the yeast character.

Spices for St. Somewhere's Saison Athene.Bob Sylvester, the founder of St. Somewhere Brewing Company, says “I like to use mostly local, indigenous ingredients. Cane sugar, saw palmetto, hibiscus, wild local yeast from open fermentation, locally grown rosemary, lemon leaves, elder flowers and so on.” Rather than copy what another brewery is doing, find local ingredients to incorporate into your recipe. Brewing seasonally allows you to incorporate summer flowers such as chamomile, honeysuckle, jasmine, chrysanthemum, lavender, marigolds, and dandelions that can add delicate flavors.

A low finishing gravity can cause spices to taste harsh. Brian Strumke, founder of Stillwater Artisanal Ales, had this to say “Spicing has loads of variables, not all spices or herbs, flowers, etc. are equal. They are unique ingredients and you must know what you are working with in order to get them to do what you want. I have done both hot and cold infusions on various herbs and spices, it comes down to what and when.” Always experiment with hot and cold extraction teas to gauge the intensity of a new ingredient before adding it to the beer. Alternatively added to taste at packaging, a tea provides control to determine the flavor contribution that works best for the beer.


As important as which botanicals you select, is where you source them. To get the highest quality dried herbs and spices, buy them as whole as possible from a specialty spice supplier. Whole spices retain their flavor longer than ground or powdered versions because of their lower surface area, which slows the loss of volatile compounds. Ethnic markets are full of inexpensive and interesting botanicals (as well as sugars, fruits, and other exotic ingredients). Tea shops are another source; herbal and flavored teas have intense flavors and are designed for extraction in water. The subtle flavors of black/oolong/green/white teas can work as well, for example the Lost Abbey Veritas 008 and Vanberg & DeWulf Lambrucha.

Try to support stores that allow you to smell the product before you buy it; this is mandatory if you are buying pre-ground spices whose aromatics will mute within weeks of grinding. Specialist online retailers have huge selections, and are invaluable if you are looking for obscure ingredients that you cannot find locally. The disadvantage of shopping online is that you cannot inspect before buying.

Unlike hop suppliers, who list the alpha acid content to convey the pungency of the hop’s bitterness, spices and herbs come with no such potency rating. To determine their strength you will have to do a sensory evaluation by smelling them, or steeping in hot water and tasting. This is especially important when adding the botanicals to the boil; if you are unsure, err on the low side, as you can always make another addition later in the process.

Many spices benefit tremendously from toasting before grinding. The heat alters the aromatics, often making them more potent and complex. You can research how your chosen spice is usually treated in cooking, but there is no harm in toasting the spice in a dry pan to smell for yourself how the aroma changes. Again taste tests are crucial, what works for a spice in a barbecue dry rub may not work for a sour beer.

Timing Additions

There are numerous opportunities to add spices and herbs, although unlike clean beers you must take into account the long aging period sour beers require before consumption. Age tends to mellow the character of aromatic ingredients, but there are those that are surprisingly long lived (especially the more pungent spices like black cardamom and clove). In addition, certain strains of Brettanomyces can ferment the glycosides (an aromatic aglycone bound to a sugar molecule) contributed by spices like coriander and herbs including hops, changing or enhancing their flavors.

Your first opportunities for these additions come on the hot side of the process, with additions during the last five minutes of the boil being the most common. Boiling spices or herbs, even for a few minutes, tends to mute their aromatic character, but also better integrate their flavor into the beer. Late-boil additions are an ideal time to impart subtle aromatic complexity. The earlier in the boil most spices are added, the less of their flavor will remain after fermentation. However, longer boil times tend to increase the longevity of the flavors that do remain. The major disadvantage with this method is that you have to decide what and how much you will add before tasting the fermented beer. As a result, I do not use this method the first time I brew with an ingredient. Boil or whirlpool additions are a good technique when you have a recipe that you know works with later additions, which you want to be subtler.

The next opportunity to add botanicals is directly to the aging beer. The combination of alcohol and water in beer are able to extract a wider range of compounds than a hot side extraction in wort. It is best to let the beer age until it is ready for packaging before making an addition. Waiting to see where the character lands will give you an idea of how much of a given flavor you want to impart. To ease separating the ingredient from the beer, enclose them in a large mesh bag (packing ingredients tightly into a small bag prevents good contact with the beer). Fermentor additions have the advantage of allowing you to taste the beer as it infuses; when the right balance is reached, remove the botanicals or package the beer.

Adding botanicals directly to the beer requires minimal effort and equipment, and is effective. However, until you gain the experience to judge their quality and impact on the beer it is easy to over- or undershoot the desired character. This is especially true of working with herbs and spices that are not among the handful commonly added to beer.


If you are not confident about the amount of herbal or spice personality you want in a beer, especially when using a new ingredient, the best method is to extract its flavor into another substrate. This flavorful extract should then be dosed into the beer to taste at packaging. This extraction can either be accomplished quickly by a hot water “tea” or slowly in alcohol to produce a tincture. With either method you want the extraction to be highly concentrated so that you do not have to add a large volume to attain the desired profile.

For a tea, soak the ground botanical in chlorine-free water that is barely off the boil; after five minutes, filter the tea through cheesecloth or a coffee filter to remove the solids. If this produces a harsh flavor, try a lower temperature, shorter steep, or coarser grind. The more finely ground the ingredients the faster the extraction, and thus the smaller window you will have before over-extraction. It is best to perform this process separately for each ingredient initially, to allow you to optimize the extraction and dosing for each.

One of my most successful uses of this method was a tea of hibiscus (also known as jamaica), providing a vibrant tart-cranberry flavor in addition to a bright red color paired with jasmine that offers a floral character sometimes added to teas. I added the teas directly to a pale unhopped base beer, fermented with a combination of the Scottish Heavy strain from East Coast Yeast and Lactobacillus, at the same time as the priming sugar.

Many aromatic molecules are soluble in alcohol, but not in water; you may want to try both tea and tincture to see which extraction produces the best results for a particular ingredient. To create a tincture, soak the ingredient in neutral vodka, or a more flavorful spirit if you want to add an additional dimension. After a few day or weeks, when the aromatics have been extracted, but before any harsh compounds have, filter the infused spirit to remove the remaining solids. Once you have your concentrated flavoring, add it to a measured sample of beer and taste. You may want to force carbonate the sample blend to gauge how much carbonation will heighten the aroma profile. When you determine the ideal ratio, scale it to the target volume of beer. Hold back 10% of the calculated volume of extract, taste the well-mixed beer, and add the remainder if needed. Remember that the character will gradually mellow with age, so you may wish to aim slightly more assertive than your desired level.

Extractions are a simple and controlled way to split a batch into several variations. Take a six-pack from a batch at bottling and add a different extraction to each one of the bottles before capping to learn what works with the finished beer. Experimentation is invaluable with hundreds of culinary plants available, each with its own unique character to contribute.

Final Thoughts

Even though hops do not usually have much direct impact on the flavor of sour beers, leaving them out entirely may allow excessive Lactobacillus activity. Added with hops rather than to replace them, spices and herbs can add depth, or conceal off-flavors. They can even impart substances that Brettanomyces can combine or break-apart to create new flavor compounds. As gruits age, certain aromatics will peak and fade, allowing for more dramatic changes than those seen in a beer flavored with only a single herb (hops).

Think about flavor combinations that work well in other beers and foods, focusing on finding complementary as opposed to contrasting flavors. Classic combinations can be adapted to brewing, but experiment to determine what does and does not work in your beer

Monday, April 14, 2014

Gruits and Other Hopless Beers

A section removed from American Sour Beers:

Commercial Gruits

This was originally a portion of Chapter 11, which covered adding spice/herb flavors to stock sour beers that already contain hops, but there are also beers that contain no hops at all. For centuries European brewers added a blend of bitter and aromatic herbs called gruit to balance the sweetness of the malt. Beers brewed with a similar blend of herbs and spices are now known as gruits. Most of the historic spiced beers would have quickly developed a sour character because they lacked both the anti-microbial power of hops and pure strain fermentations.

While the exact gruit formulations were kept secret, the combination of yarrow (bitter, sage-like), marsh rosemary (spice, sour-ish), and sweet gale (spicy-eucalyptus) is generally regarded as the standard base. This is the combination many brewers add to their first batch of gruit, and it can work well (although generally not in equal parts).

For more historical accuracy you can add a small amount of smoked malt as HaandBryggeriet and Brouwerij de Molen did on their collaborative Menno & Jens (a gruit that had a unique flavor that was smoky, tart, and herbal). It included 80% wheat and rye, and was spiced with a combination of yarrow, Myrica gale, and mugwort. The result was complex, with all of those wild flavors playing with each other differently on each sip.

Rather than trying to recreate the flavor of historic gruits, some brewers make the concept their own. For example, Upright Brewing added lemongrass, hyssop, bitter orange peel, and Sichuan peppercorns to their Reggae Junkie Gruit. The herbs and spices were selected on a trip to a spice store. The resulting beer had a potent, though not overpowering fruity-herbal aroma. The brewers soured a portion of the batch in a gin barrel to create Special Herbs, part of their Sole Composition series.

As with hoppy sour beer it is best to go easy on bittering herbs (e.g., wormwood, sweet gale, yarrow, marsh rosemary, and Labrador tea) and instead concentrate on later additions for a more aromatic character; this is similar to the standard hopping strategy, as sour and bitter do not mesh together well. The bitterness from small amounts of herbs tends to be quick, not lingering like hop bitterness, which makes herbal bitterness somewhat more compatible with acidity. However, while hops need a long boil to isomerize their alpha acids to create bitterness, many other herbs contribute bitterness without undergoing a long boil (especially wormwood and mugwort).

Cambridge Brewing Company (CBC) is one of the most innovative American breweries when it comes to gruits and related hopless beers. Brewmaster Will Meyers was initially inspired by European beers like Williams Brothers Fraoch Heather Ale and the dubbel-ish Jopen Bier’s Koyt, but felt that they were too restrained in their spicing. When developing recipes, his first step was to evaluate the classic herbs, starting with smelling and tasting samples of each. Meyers steeped 2 tablespoons (30 mL) of each in a cup (237 mL) of 180°F (82°C) of water, tasting each after one, thirty, and sixty minutes. This gave him an idea of how much time each herb required for optimal extraction. Meyers raised the option of brewing single-herb experimental batches, but also said that he had not learned much more from them than he did from the teas. His biggest discovery from these trials was that he did not care for the strange sour flavor of marsh rosemary (Ledum palustre); substituting Labrador tea gave a flavor that was less aggressive and preferable to his palate. When Meyers uses marsh rosemary it is in small quantities, and only for the sake of tradition.

Meyers and his brewers harvest 1 pound of wild heather per barrel (.4 kg/hl) in Westport, Massachusetts (overlooking Buzzard's Bay) for their Heather Ale. The beer also receives a few ounces of lavender and sweet gale. Aged in Chardonnay barrels with Lactobacillus, and served at The BeerAdvocate Extreme Beer Fest Night of the Barrels festival in 2007, it tasted brightly acidic and remarkably fresh for a five-year-old 4% ABV beer. In this case, the sourness balanced the malt because none of the herbal additions provided much bitterness.

Gruit is one of the most interesting and least explored areas of commercial brewing today. They take the spicing of beer back to the same time that sour brewing brings the fermentation. A word of warning however, in addition to the well-known risks posed by alcohol, some of the herbs (most notably mugwort) that are added to gruits are extremely dangerous for pregnant women to consume. Hygieia: A Woman’s Herbal by Jeannine Parvati and Stephen Harrod Buhner’s encyclopedic Sacred and Herbal Healing Beers have more detailed information on herbs that are of concern.

Fire Pit Gruit

Craft brewers are not the only ones to feel the lure of gruit. In the summer of 2011 I drove out of DC to the border between Virginia and West Virginia to brew a gruit over an open fire with two gruit-nerds, Marty Fair and Martin Gross. When they started brewing gruits a couple years earlier they bought most of their herbs in bulk from online specialty shops, but have since started either growing and foraging many of the key ingredients for themselves. The only one of the mainstay herbs that is problematic to acquire is marsh rosemary, which they buy for 10 USD a jar from a Canadian who forages it. Like Will Meyers, they too feel that Labrador tea is the best easily accessible alternative.

They brew 30 gallons (114 l) at a time, boiling in three converted kegs that sit on a metal rack above an open fire pit. Fair builds guitars for a living, and as a result has plenty of scrap hardwood to burn. While certainly closer to the way beer was brewed for millennia before the discovery of natural gas and propane, the open fire did not add a noticeable character to the finished beers. However, their method certainly gave the brewing process a more primal feeling. The bow-hunted venison that was roasted over the fire, and then served for dinner only enhanced the experience.

The most impressive thing about the gruits they shared (Classic, Sage, Burdock Root etc.) with me was that despite being young they did not have an overpowering herbal flavor (something that plagues several of the commercial examples, like Professor Fritz Briem 13th Century Grut Bier). Fair and Gross are still tinkering with the timing of their herb additions, sometimes adding all of the herbs near the start of the boil, and others saving the more aromatics herbs for an addition 10 minutes from the end of the boil. Their gruits develop a tart character from being allowed to cool loosely covered outside overnight before they pitch dried yeast.

Thursday, April 10, 2014

Pairing and Cooking with Sour Beers

My book (American Sour Beers) will finally be published two to three months from now! To tide you over until then I'll be posting trimmings and add-ons to the blog. In some cases these are non-essential sections that simply couldn't fit into what ended up being nearly 400 pages of material. In other cases they are sections deemed too in-flux to be valuable during what will hopefully be a lengthy publishing run! The material in these posts was cut at various points during the process, but none received the complete battery of review and editing that the book itself was subjected to.

This first post is a section I originally had in Chapter 12, "Packaging" (actually it was part of Chapter 16, "Enjoying" before reorganization combined the two). Most of that chapter now focuses on the processes of controlling carbonation and critical evaluation of the finished beer. My thoughts on drinking sour beer with food, and cooking with sour beer are below. Enjoy!

Sour Beer and Food

Sour beers are delicious on their own before or after a meal; the lighter ones tend to work better as aperitifs, with the darker-stronger ones saved for nightcaps. With that said, sour and funky beers do extremely well when paired with food. The typically dry flavor of beers fermented with Brett makes them food friendly, and their carbonation and acidity pair well with spicy or rich dishes that can cause problems for wine. Garrett Oliver's The Brewmaster's Table: Discovering the Pleasures of Real Beer with Real Food (Ecco, 2005) is the best reference on the intersection of cuisine and beer, but with a few suggestions you will be able to pick a beer for most situations.

Cheese makes a natural match with sour beer, which scrubs the fattiness of the cheese off the tongue. Stinky cheeses, which often overpower other beverages, often work beautifully with the funky character of Brettanomyces. Milder cheeses mesh more readily with softer beers, especially those with a citrus character. By adding nuts, compote, or other accompaniments you insert another dimension to play with. Fig jam, brie, and a dark sour beer is a harmonious combination (especially when the beer includes dark crystal malt or actual dried fruit).

With the wide range of fruit and spice flavors sour beers contain, it is easy to imagine potential food pairing. Sour fruit beers cut through rich braised meats, which often need to be enlivened. The melanoidins in dark sour beers mirror the melanoidins produced from searing meat, making them a reliable choice with a steak. If you want to impress a wine drinker give them a big tannic sour like Russian River Consecration to drink with their beef. Seafood finds easy matches amongst sour beers, whether it is a tart spiced wheat beer with a lemony white fish or a sour red with crustaceans. Pale sour beers like gueuze are a classic with Belgian mussels, because they are bright enough to cut through the cream or spices in the sauce, but not so aggressive that they obscure the briny bivalves.

When it comes to dessert, things get trickier. The only sour beers that I have found to work are bigger or sweeter, drier sour beers are not satisfying enough. Even overly-sweet fruit lambics can work with creamy or chocolaty desserts. Avoid anything too tannic, as I find that creamy desserts highlight their rough mouthfeel. A dry fruit beer can work with less rich desserts, even fresh berries; if you drizzle high quality balsamic vinegar over them it can bring the acetic beers into play.


When you have packaged enough sour beer to the point that you can spare a bottle or two for cooking you will be following in the rich tradition of Cuisine à la Bière, and doing something not many people are willing to with a 15 dollar bottle of commercial sour beer. Sour beers lack the hop bitterness that hampers cooking with other styles in many applications. They excel in deglazing pan drippings, or in reduction sauces, taking the place of both wine and vinegar. Remember to reserve a small amount to add right at the end if the flavor needs to be brightened. A pale sour beer can work wonders either replacing the vinegar in a vinaigrette or part of the citrus juice in ceviche. A rich strong sour beer can take the place of port to add complexity to a stew. If you are making a sauce with fruit, try using a beer brewed with the same fruit.

While sour beer can complement a recipe, it can also be the star. Sour beers can be churned into sorbet rather easily as alcohol lowers the freezing point, thus reducing crystallization and in turn lessening the amount of sugar required to achieve a smooth texture. Use a decent sour beer, but it is not worth using your best vintage. Start by allowing the beer to degas (a mixer, blender, or whisk will expedite this process), because dissolved carbon dioxide will disturb the texture of the sorbet. Mix in a quarter cup (60 mL) of sugar for each 12 ounces (355 mL) of sour beer. The more sugar you add the finer the ice crystals and texture of the finished sorbet will be, but I find that excessive sweetness veils the acidity and complexity of the beer (something the cold contributes to as well). Churn the sweetened beer in an ice cream maker following the manufacturer’s instructions. You can allow the sorbet to harden in the freezer, or it can be consumed immediately if chilled bowls have been prepared in advance. Add whole fruit if you want to complement the flavors of the beer, or boost an already present fruit component.

Even the wood from a retired barrel has a use, smoking meats, cheeses, or vegetables. Add the beer-saturated wood as you would hickory, alder, or mesquite to your grill or smoker. It will take trial and error to determine what level and application works best for the flavors of your particular oak, but that is just a good excuse to cook and eat delicious food. This is certainly more fun than turning an old barrel into a planter, or burning them for fuel as Cantillon does.

For more information on cooking with sour beer visit Sean Paxton’s Homebrew Chef blog: or read one of the many articles that he has written on the topic.

Tuesday, January 28, 2014

American Sour Beer: Book Pre-Orders

Stand-in American Sour Beer cover.The book (originally codenamed Mad Fermentation, now officially American Sour Beer: Innovative Techniques for Mixed Fermentations) that I’ve been researching and writing for more than three years is available for pre-order! Not exactly breaking news considering it has been listed online since October... but I’d been reluctant to spread the word too much because the cover is a stand-in (the actual one has been mocked-up, but not shot) and the listed release date is overly optimistic (the current projection is May/June).

Tweets/links/posts started flying on Friday about the release, so I decided it was time to loop everyone in. Sunday ASB briefly peaked at #373 on Amazon (not bad out of over 8,000,000 books – top .005%). It’s also been battling How to Brew for the #1 spot on their beer books list (a testament to the lasting popularity of the book that taught me the basics). Last night Charlie Papazian randomly (no kidding) showed up at the DC Homebrewers meeting at Bluejacket, I took the opportunity to razz the president of the Brewers Association about my momentary lead over Joy of Homebrewing.

As the release date draws closer, the blog will be getting some trimmings that didn’t make the final cut (e.g., kvass, gruit, saison, pairing etc.) as well as some online appendices (commercial microbe descriptions and viable bottle dregs) that I will continue to update. I’m really happy with the way all 400 pages of what remained is coming along! The copy editor is about half-way through his review, with a goal of being completely finished in a week or so. From there it’ll be a jump to layout, graphics, indexing, final review etc. Excited to read the forward as well, and odds are you will be too when you hear who’s writing it!

So order now, or wait for the AHA pre-sale (about two weeks before the release) or the ebook (which is coming eventually) if you’d prefer! You’ll be sick of me soon enough. I’ve got articles for BYO (solera-style blending) and Zymurgy (mashing sour beers) in the works, plus I’ll be at NHC Grand Rapids (hopefully presenting) and later GABF this fall! You’ll start seeing ads in the brewing magazines in a couple months, and I’m sure I’ll be making the rounds on the homwbrewing-podcast-circuit.

In the meantime, please tell your brew-buddies about the book, post it to your homebrew club’s discussion forum, name your first-born after it etc. Any added publicity would be greatly appreciated!

Monday, April 8, 2013

My Book has a Publisher!

When I started writing a book more than two years ago the goal was to collect my thoughts on brewing sour beer and self-publish it through Amazon CreateSpace. I wanted to pull together all the tips, techniques, and science I’d learned over the years of blogging/brewing into a single resource. I assumed it would take a year at most…

As I wrote and edited I decided it would be helpful to talk to a few other brewers (both craft and home). The generosity of the people I contacted overwhelmed me. Virtually every brewer I wanted to talk to answered my questions, although occasionally it took a bit of nagging.

A list of some of the people I talked to for the book:

Vinnie Cilurzo (Russian River)
Ron Gansberg (Cascade)
Scott Vaccaro (Captain Lawrence)
Tomme Arthur (Lost Abbey)
Ron Jeffries (Jolly Pumpkin)
Eric Salazar, Lauren Salazar, and Peter Bouckaert (New Belgium)
Tyler King (Bruery)
Jeff O’Neil (Peekskill/Ithaca)
Will Meyers (Cambridge)
Jason Perkins (Allagash)
Gabe Fletcher (Anchorage)
Shaun Hill (Hill Farmstead)
Pat Mcilhenney (Alpine)
Scott Smith (East End)
Todd Haug (Surly)
Brian Strumke (Stillwater)
Alex Ganum (Upright)
Chad Yakobson (Crooked Stave)
Jason Davis (Freetail)
Dan Woodske (Beaver Brewing)
Kristen England (Pour Decisions)
Nathan Zeender (Right Proper)
Remi Bonnart, Sebastian Padilla, Ryan Ekre, Levi Funk, Seth Hammond, and Dave and Becky Pyle (homebrewers)
Chris White, and Neva Parker (White Labs)
Al Buck (East Coast Yeast)
Greg Doss (Wyeast)

In November, 2011 I emailed Kristi Switzer the Publisher for Brewers Publications and ended up talking to her on the phone. A few weeks later I submitted a proposal. A proposal consists of answers to questions about the book: target audience, content, author qualifications etc. In addition I submitted the table of content (draft table of content you can actually read), a sample chapter, and a writing sample (one of my BYO articles). I signed the finalized contract last week!

For awhile I was quite torn on if a publisher was what I really wanted. Self publishing held the allure of complete control over the process and end result. The ability to revise and update as I saw fit, not to mention about 10 times more money for each copy sold. However, the legitimacy conferred by having a publisher, and their expertise on editing, layout, publicity etc. was enough to convince me that Brewers Publications was the right choice!

Brewers Publications is the publisher of just about every book about brewing you own (from How to Brew, to Radical Brewing, to Wild Brews etc.). It is a wing of the Brewers Association, the organization that runs the Craft Brewers Conference, National Homebrewers Conference, Great American Beer Fest, Zymurgy Magazine etc. This will open up opportunities for me to speak and promote the book.

July 1st is my deadline to submit the completed manuscript, however don’t expect to be able to buy a copy of the book in August. As a small publisher, they only aim to release two books a year, and at the moment mine is slotted for sometime in 2015. However, Kristi assured me that if there was an outpouring of demand (or another book had to be delayed) mine could move up. Contractually they are bound to publishing the book within three years of when I submit the manuscript.

The bulk of the writing for the book was completed by six months ago (currently sitting at 140,000 words all told). I’m still waiting for the last couple brewers to review their sections and submit their comments/edits. Otherwise I’m working hard to fact check and cite what I have already written. Luckily for me, Audrey weirdly enjoys formatting references (one of my least favorite aspects of the process).

I apologize to everyone who was hoping the book would be published by now, but when it is finally released hopefully it will be a valuable reference for years to come. It seems like American sour beers are starting to really take off (when was the last time a brewery opened without plans for some sort of sour program?). I’m hoping my effort will produce a book that both professional brewers and homebrewers will benefit from. Something that is simple enough to help you brew your first batch of sour beer, and detailed enough that brewers who have been making sours will take away information and inspiration.

Thank all of you for your support you’ve shown the blog (me) over the years! The comments, emails, not to mention beers and microbes, you've sent have kept me honest and inspired many research tangents. The blog might be a bit lean on sour beer content for awhile to avoid stealing stuff from the book, but I’ll do my best to post updates about the Modern Times sour beer program (something that probably will not find much coverage in the book). There are many similarities in the book and the brewery, in both cases I am giving up control to work with people who really know what they are doing, and who have the funding to take my ideas and turn them into something wonderful (hopefully)!