Tuesday, 1 August 2017

Please Excuse The Mess


Please excuse the lack of posts and videos lately...The SG Brewery (and my family) have recently moved to the country, and I will return to my regular brewing/blogging/vloging activities later in the summer.

And look out for some changes too - a new website, new video features, and maybe even a little bit of social media.

Tuesday, 18 July 2017

At long last, how the cheap beer kit turned out.

Back in early December 2016 I posted a rambling "brewversary" video, looking back at my 20 years as a home brewer. As part of the video I attempted to rebrew my first ever home brew - a Coopers Lager canned malt kit. The goal was simple - to see if 20 years of experience was sufficient to enable me to make the kit beer taste good, as my notes from 20 years ago (and my vague memories) indicated that my first batch of beer was horrible. I've actually had a few people ask how that beer turned out, and as it turns out, back in January I pulled a half liter that I force carbed and tasted. So its well neigh time for the big reveal...


...it was nearly "flawless", and therefore horrible. I had managed to make an on-style and off-flavour free light American lager. The sort of beer yellow fizzy stuff you buy for a buck a can. Minimal malt flavour, minimal hop character, no yeast presence. Boring, dull, uninspiring...you get the gist. Which left me with a problem - what the hell do I do with 23L of piss-water?

Inspiration struck me as I drank a glass of wild cider a few nights later. I had made the cider in 2015, brewed exclusively with the wild yeast present on the apples pressed for the cider. It was fantastic - good apple taste, with a mild funk in the background to provide some complexity. So I swirled up the dregs from the bottle and dumped them into the beer. I figured that, at worst, I'd get a bit of a show and end up with a dumper...at best I may convert the beer into something less boring.

And a show I got - within weeks I had one of the gnarliest pellicles I've had on a beer in a while.
She's a think of beauty!

The pellicle persisted until early June. Three weeks of a stable 1.001 gravity (down from 1.011) indicated the beer was ready to package, and in early July I transferred it to a keg. Interestingly, the beer had acquired a slight pink tinge during ageing; probably from oxidation, but perhaps contributed by the bugs from the cider.

The yeast and bugs from the cider did exactly what I hoped they would - they converted this boring light lager into something more like a farmhouse ale or even a saison (despite the absence of wheat). Importantly, the milder character of the yeast/bugs didn't overwhelm the wild taste of the beer, providing just enough character to make the beer interesting, without overwhelming the character.

I now love this beer...so without further ado, the tasting notes.

Appearance: The beer is a light copper, bordering on straw in colour, and has a very faint haze. It pours with a thick white head which dissipates over a few minutes into small ropes of foam. The beer is highly carbonated (3 volumes), and as a result is lively in the glass.

Aroma: Very little of the base beers aroma is present, and indeed, the aroma itself is quite mild. Dominating the aroma is an earthiness, much like freshly turned loam. A subtle pear-like fruitiness emerges as the beer warms.

Flavour: The flavour of this beer is superb. It is very dry and thirst quenching. Up front is a modest malt character - not the bready character of pilsner malt, but rather the more grain-like character of 2-row. There is a subtle hint of hop flavour, but just barely noticeable. The real star of the show is the yeast character. The cider yeast/bugs imparted a modest earthy/woody funk; not dissimilar from the flavour of a chanterelle mushroom. The yeast also provided a subtle pear-like ester whose "sweetness" helps balance out the funk. The beer is very slightly acidic; not to the point of being tart our sour, but acidic enough to stand out from conventionally brewed beers. The aftertaste is a lingering earthyness and subtle ester character.

Mouthfeel: The beer is light and effervescent in the mouth. It is very dry and light bodied, leaving your refreshed and wanting more.

Overall: This isn't the best beer I've ever made, but it is much better than how it began, and it is a perfect summer beer. I don't think I'd rebrew the beer as-is, but I could see using the cider culture to brew other light summer ales in the future; the balance the yeast achieved is fantastic, allowing for the production of tasty, but light, farmhouse style beers.

Monday, 3 July 2017

One Solera, 2 Beers

Brewing a refill for
the LHBG solera.
Over the past 5 years I've maintained a series of solera's - two at home which, sadly, after 3 years of successful operation died to a bit of neglect on my part. The third belongs to my brew club, for whom I manage the solera. Starting this winter I am planning on a series of posts and videos about solera brewing, but as a bit of a prequel, I thought I'd share a brief post on by brew clubs solera (LHGB Solera) and two beers I prepared from the first pull out of it.

Firstly, for those of you who don't know, a solera is a method of continually producing sour beer. For a sour beer solera, a fermenter (often a large barrel) is filled with beer and allowed to ferment and age. At a set interval (usually between 6 months and 1 year) a portion of the solera is removed and bottled, and the solera topped off with fresh beer. Over time the effective age of the beer in the solera will approach a average age which will then be retained for the remainder of the solera's lifespan. For example, for the LHBG Solera, we remove half the beer every nine months, leading to a beer which will eventually converge on an effective age of 1.5 years. How effective ages are calculated, managing a solera, and other topics, will be the subject of some future posts.

The LHBG solera has been designed to be a middle-of-the-road sour beer; modest funk and restrained sourness. The beer is ~5% ABV, 50:50 mix of pilsner and wheat malt, and 10IBUs. This recipe was selected for a few reasons - the beer is aging in a white wine barrel, and this lighter tasting beer should allow for that character to shine through. Secondly, it allows members of the brew club a lot of flexibility in turning their share into something unique, through adding fruit, spices, or blending with other beers.

Refiling the LHGB solera.
The first time the solera was filled we brewed the beer on the personal brewing equipment of 10 volunteers, which was then pooled into the solera. The logistics of this wasn't trivial, leading our club to decide to build a large brew-rig to fill barrels (we have two at this time). Construction took a lot longer than expected (18 months), which was a happy mistake as it gave the beer a good bit of age on it, and got us to a point where we would have a solera with a stable effective age of 1.5 years. The first beer from the solera was a little more acidic than planned, and lacked brett character, so we tweaked the refill recipe to adjust. IBU's were increased to suppress sourness, performed a ferulic acid rest and fermented with a Belgian yeast to increase brett character, and finally, we added another sour culture to the mix to try and bring out a bit more complexity in the beer. These adjustments highlight the power of a solera - you can tweak a sour beer as it ages, to get a desired and consistent product.
Pellicle on the LHBG solera, as viewed during the refill.
A little over a month ago we "withdrew" the first beer from the LHGB solera, and shared the beer among interested club members. I am moving in the very near future, and has such had to do something quick with my share, as moving some carboys of sour beer are not really an option. Half of my share I bottled straight-up. The second half I put on some hibiscus for a week, whose fruit character should complement the sour beer nicely. The beer was bottled using sugar and champagne yeast, and left to carbonate for the past 6 weeks.

Straight Sour

Appearance: The unmodified (straight) sour beer pours with a thin and short-lived head. Body is golden in colour with a slight haze and a nice effervescence.

Aroma: Aroma is lactic with a notable white-wine note. Missing from the aroma is any hint of funk - no mustiness, leather or barnyard to be found.

Flavour: Up-front is a strong lactic tartness and a modest white wine character. Behind this is a bit of a bready malt character and a touch of hop bitterness. The flavours are a little unbalanced - the acidity is too high given the lighter nature of the beer, and this acts to hide both the wine and malt character. There is no brett funk at all in the flavour. There is also a slight off-flavour on the after taste; a touch of diacetyl which leaves a bit of butteriness on the aftertaste.

Mouthfeel: Acidic, crisp and dry. Aftertaste is a lingering acidity in the back of the throat, and a bit of a buttery sweetness.

Overall: Not bad for the first pull from a solera, as there has been no chances to correct for flaws yet, but still in need of improvement. Good news is that all the flaws are correctable, and on the re-fill we modified the recipe to give more brett character (which should also clean up the diacetyl) and to suppress the lacto to make it less acidic. I'm stuck with my share as-is, but if I had the time I'd blend this beer with a saison to cut the acidity, add some funk, while still allowing the white wine character to shine though.


Hibiscus Version

The choice to add hibiscus was based on a few factors. The first was speed - hibiscus was something I could add and bottle on time for our big move. The second was balance - hibiscus adds a sensation of sweetness (although not actual sugars) which can help to counteract the acidity of the beer. Finally, its floral/fruity flavour should complement the white wine character of the beer nicely.

Appearance: Strawberry-red, with a touch of haze. Unlike the straight solera beer, this one has some additional head retention, with a modest white head that lasts for a couple of minutes.

Aroma: Remarkable similar to the unmodified version; acidic with a touch of white wine. The aroma is perhaps a touch more fruity than the unmodified version, but only slightly so.

Flavour: This is where the big difference is. While still acidic, there is enough "sweetness" from the hibiscus to counter-act it somewhat. It is still a very sour beer, but is less harsh and better balanced than the unmodified version. This helps to bring out the white wine character, with the hibiscus acting to accentuate the berry character of the wine rather than acting as its own flavour. And while I know this is purely perceptive, I cannot detect the diacetyl note that is present in the unmodified version.

Mouthfeel: Dry, crisp and acidic. Despite the less acidic taste on the tongue, the beer still gives a lingering acidic burn in the throat. Aftertaste is an acidic berry character.

Overall: The hibiscus makes this a more balanced beer than the unmodified version, but as with the unmodified form, this one too has some flaws that will be corrected by adjustments to the solera's recipe.

Monday, 26 June 2017

Apparently DMS is Still a Thing

DMS-Rich Vienna. Don't let
its yummy appearance
foold you!
I've been brewing since the bad ol' days of the mid-1990s. Back then malt quality is not what it is today, so we had to use a lot of tricks to get good beer. One of these was the 90 minute boil, a necessity when using Pilsner malt (and other minimally-modified malts), to drive off DMS. DMS, for those who do not know, is a sulphur-based compound present in malts which in high enough concentrations gives your beer a cooked-corn aroma and a green-vegetable-like flavour.

Obviously, something you don't want in your beer. But, luckily for us, boiling drives it off...hence the old method of boiling lagers (and other Pilsner-malt rich beers) for 90 minutes.

The good news is that malt quality has dramatically improved over the past 20 years, and the levels of DMS precursors in malt are pretty low compared to historical norms - so low that experiments by Brulosophy found it hard to detect, even after short boils. This improvement in malt quality has led homebrewers (including myself) to do things previously unthinkable - no-boil, 100% pilsner malt sours, 60 minute boils for most lagers, etc. Some of the best lagers I've brewed, like the Vienna & Pilsner I brewed last year, used 60 minute boils with great success.

So imagine my disappointment when I brewed a Vienna this year, using all the same methods and near-identical recipe to last years brew, only to find that the resulting beer had an intense DMS aroma and flavour - probably the worst DMS off-flavour I've had in a beer since the late 1990's. The beer is not undrinkable - in fact, I served it at a recent party and received good feedback - but it is flawed and not up to my normal standards. So what went wrong?

Vienna is prepared in a similar manner to Pilsner malt, meaning it has a similar risk of DMS precursors - but should also be subject to the malting improvements over the past two decades. I've brewed beers previously made of 100% Vienna, with 60 minute boils, without issue. But there is one difference - this was my first time using Weyermann Vienna; all previous batches used Vienna malt from Breiss. Although the character of the malt from each manufacturer is very similar, slight differences in their malting process may have led to different levels of DMS precursors in one malt versus the other - this conceivably could occur even on a batch-by-batch basis within the same manufacturer. That said, a google search failed to find any suggestion that Weyermann had higher levels of DMS in their Vienna than Breiss; although I did find a few reports of DMS in Vienna-heavy beers.

A second issue may have been batch size - I did a 40L batch this year, in place of a 20L batch last year. Because I use the same pot for both sizes of brews, the recent batch had half the surface area:volume ratio, which would slow the volatilization of DMS.

A third issue may have been boil vigour; while I have an over-powered burner on my brewing rig, the larger boil volume, brewing of the beer on a cold day, plus a lot of wind on this years brew day, meant that the boil vigour and rate of boil-off were not as good on the more recent batch.

At the end of the day, I think there are a few things to be learned from this batch. The first is that I probably should return to 90 minute boils for beers brewed using malts with high potential for DMS; especially if brewing larger volumes or on a day where boil vigour may be an issue. The second issue is that I should brew mission-critical beers - e.g. those intended for parties - with a bit more lead time, to allow for additional ageing (or a brewing of an alternative beer) should issues like this arise. And lastly, this beer allowed me to relive my youth, through recreation of flavours that were common in the early years of my brewing "career".

Monday, 12 June 2017

Beer on the Brain - Where the Wild Yeasts Roam

A few days ago I posted episode 3 of my "Beer on the Brain" series. This new video looks at new science which finally identifies the wild source of Saccharomyces cerevisiae - and its not fruit or tree bark, as we long thought...

Friday, 12 May 2017

To Vrai or Not To Vrai - Another White Labs Controversy?

The Short Version

Brewing practices in both home and commercial breweries have undergone somewhat of a revolution over the past decade, leading to a cohort of brewers who approach brewing from a much more technical & microbiological perspective. As a direct consequence of this, some commercial yeast products have been revealed to be other than what the manufacturers have stated - in at least some cases, with the manufacturer themselves being unaware that their product was a yeast/bacteria different from what they believed they had. In this blog post we reveal that the yeast sold by White Labs as Brettanomyces vrai (WLP648) - ironically a yeast mis-identified previously by the same manufacturer - is, in fact, a blend of two different yeasts - both are Brettanomyces bruxellensis, but are separate strains...although strains which appear to have evolved from a recent common ancestor.

Some Background

Brewing practices have changed dramatically over the past decade, with procedures such as sour worting, wild captures, and home/brewery isolated yeasts going from rare experiments to commonplace brewing practices. This change in brewing practices has led to some issues with commercially sourced yeasts - as one example, the growth of practices such as sour worting have revealed yeast-contamination issues in packaged "pure" strains of Lactobacillus. Similarly, the more microbiology-centric practices of home and commercial brewers has led to some unexpected revelations, including identification of "Brettanomyces trois" as a unusually flavourful strain of conventional brewers yeast (Saccharomyces cerevisiae). I was part of that effort, and the results of my and others work in identifying this yeast are the subject of a previous post. According to the manufacturer, this mis-identification was due to a chance contamination of "Brett trois" by this strain of Sacc, leading to the release of the "correct" strain of Brettanomyces, under the 'vrai' (French for 'true') strain name.

But is the strain name accurate - is this truly a pure strain of Brettanomyces? Most of us assumed so, even though this strain shows some characteristics when used as a pure culture for primary fermentation that run contrary to how most Brettanomyces behave when used for primary fermentation. When used in primary fermentation, most Brettanomyces act much like Saccharomyces - they rapidly ferment the wort, usually leave some residual sugars behind, and don't evolve over ageing as much as beers do when Brettanomyces are added during secondary fermentation - e.g. there is a lack of phenol production and super-attenuation. Beers brewed with WLP648 do ferment out fairly quickly, but tend to be more highly attenuated than beers brewed with other strains of Brettanomyces as the primary yeast. In addition, beers brewed with WLP648 also show some development during ageing similar to that of beers with Brettanomyces added to secondary - i.e. emergence of phenolic "funk", and additional attenuation of the beer. So is WLP648 simply a more aggressive Brettanomyces than other common brewing strains, or is something else going on?

To our knowledge, it was assumed by other brewers that Brett vrai was simply a somewhat more attenuative strain of Brett - that is - until my friend and brewing collaborator (and co-author of this blog post) Devin streaked WLP648 on a wort-agar plate. Initially, the plate appeared as one would expect of a pure culture - all colonies on the plate appearing similar in size, shape and colouration. But over a longer incubation time smaller colonies began to appear between the larger colonies, leading us to speculate that there may be a second strain of yeast in WLP648.

Using a combination of classical microbiology, microscopy, gene sequencing and test batches, Devin and I explored the two strains of yeast present in WLP648, demonstrating that Brett vrai contains two unique strains of Brettanomyces bruxellensis, strains which share a relatively recent common ancestor, but are otherwise quite different in their morphology and brewing characteristics.

Experimental details can be found below the fold.

Tuesday, 9 May 2017

My Warm Lagering Method

I must apologise about my poor blogging output over the past year or so, but there have been some big changes behind the scenes which have got in the way of my blogging and brewing...but I've not been completely inactive.

As my regular readers may recall, I've done some test brews using a newer "lagering" method in which lager-style beers are produced using lager yeasts fermented at ale temperatures (post 1, 2, 3 and 4). Motivated by these successes, I've brewed over a dozen lagers using this method in order to refine this process, with my last two batches produced using the same refined method. The first of these was a German-style pilsner; specifically the "Myburger" Bitburger clone from "Brewing Classic Style". Not only was it delicious, but I had trouble telling it apart in side-by-side tastings from its commercial cousin. The second beer was a doppelbock, and was everything I'd expect from the style. The take-home lesson from those two brews is that you can make very good "lagers", true to style, without the need for prolonged cold fermentation. Indeed, the Pilsner was 2 weeks grain-to-glass, and a month for the doppelbock.

All the gory details are below the fold.