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.