Monday, August 22, 2016

Homebrewing Lambic|Sour|Funky Beers: A Starter Guide

So you had your first sour and/or funky beer and now you can't wait to make your own right? That's how it happened to me. When you're a homebrewer you eventually want to dive into every style you enjoy, that's most of the fun in a hobby, learning new things.

This won't be an in depth  article about brewing Lambics|Sours, just a starter guide. A pamphlet if you will. You should really read "American Sour Beers" by Michael Tonsmeire to further your education if you're truly serious about making great sour and funky beers. I'm going to layout what I think are the important notes on how to get started and create the flavors you want in your mixed culture beers.


First lets layout a few sour and funky styles just for reference:

Lambic - A spontaneously fermented beer brewed from at least 30% wheat [1][2][3]. Usually raw wheat then using a turbid mash to create the wort. The turbid mash is an intentionally cloudy mash with different temperature rests and "decoction like" removal and heating of small amounts of the wort to stop conversion. The resulting wort is said to have more starches and long chain sugars for various microbes and yeasts to munch on. To make this entirely accurate it must also be brewed in the Brussels region of Belgium. In the USA we refer to these beers as Spontaneously Fermented rather than Lambic.

Gueuze - A beer made by blending young and old Lambic style beer. Some sources have said  1yr, 2yr and 3yr old sours are blended together [4] while others have stated an approximate 2/3 old plus 1/3 young Lambics are blended [1]. The bottling of the original Lambic is said to have given birth to Gueuze in 1880 [1]. The blending of the young beer with the old is what starts re-fermentation in the bottle for Gueuze.

Framboise - A Lambic beer that has been fruited with fresh Raspberries or Raspberry syrups.

Kriek - A Lambic beer that has been fruited with Cherries. Black Cherries are macerated then placed in the barrel 6 months after brewing then the beer re-ferments and is aged another 3-6 months.[1] I have read multiple accounts on the best ways to fruit beer, read American Sour Beers for some practical knowledge on the subject.

Flander's Red - It should be obvious by the name that this is a red ale, it is fermented with a mixed culture of Saccharomyces & Brettanomyces yeast plus Lactobacillus and Pediococcus microorganisms. Aged for 1-3 years and tends to have a cherry pie like flavor from the Brett [6].

Flander's Brown or Oud Bruin - Also obvious by the name that this is a brown colored ale but it differs from the red in more ways than color. The fermentation is special for Oud Bruin. It is fermented in an open fermented with Saccharomyces until it reaches 75% attenuation then transferred to secondary where Lactobacillus and Pediococcus are added. The absence of Brettanomyces and the primary fermentation with only Saccharomyces keeps the tartness of this beer much lighter than the Red because there are less sugars for the microbes to consume. It's also has a higher hopping rate which may keep the Lactobacillus from getting out of hand.

Gose - A sour and salty German beer. Gose is made from 50% malted wheat and 50% malted barley. Hops and Coriander are used to balance Gose. Traditionally the saltiness likely came from the water source, now salts are added to mimic the expectations.[5]

Berliner Weisse - A German beer made up of 25-50% Wheat with the remaining being Pilsner [8], lightly hopped and soured with Lactobacillus only [7]. This beer is traditionally served with syrups to cut the acidity. Raspberry and Woodruff are the two flavors used in Germany and this is typically a women's drink. These are very dry, effervescent beers which makes them refreshing on a hot day[9]. I have found when brewing this beer if the pH drops too far below 3.4 while kettle souring you need a brett strain to ferment the beers as sach strains seem to peter out after a few points at the low pH. One of the easiest fast souring beers to brew. If you're kettle souring this beer it gives you a chance to play around with hopping rates since the beer will be soured prior to boiling.

There are a few other styles like Cassis, Muscat and Fargo and American Sours which I'll save for another post. If there are others I'm not aware of them.

Getting Started

Okay so how do we get started brewing one of  these styles or maybe none of them? You don't have to conform to one of these traditional sours, really any good base beer will make for a good sour. It can be helpful to read about the styles above and see what their differences are and how they came about.

A note on base beer recipe formulation

One thing to consider when brewing the base beer to sour is that you're feeding multiple organisms that have varying degrees of optimal dietary and environmental needs. It's best to select ingredients and mash temperatures that will accommodate all of them as best you can. Include very starchy ingredients like oats, wheat and spelt along with your base malt. Step mashing can be helpful to include both short and long chain sugars. Mashing at 148 for 10 mins then rising to 161 for 40 has produced some good sour beers for me. Adding maltodextrin sugar in the boil can also be beneficial.

The first thing to do when considering a sour is ask yourself what you want the beer to turn out like. Do you want extreme sourness, light tartness, major funk or a combination of these different aspects of sour and funky beers? Once you figure that out see the tips below to help you get what you want.

Bring on the Funk - So you want some funk in your beer? This one can be tricky but here's what I've found to work best. Use your Sach + mixed culture in the primary then pitch Brett Brux into the secondary aging vessel after the Sach has done it's job. When Brett is used in primary fermentation only, the beers tend to come out cleaner than you would expect but that could change after very long term aging. Brett works better when pitched to consume the left over complex sugars that primary fermentation leaves. If you still don't have the funk you're looking for re-pitch brett to bottle condition your beer but you want to make sure your FG is below 1.010, I'm usually looking for 1.000-1.004, or you risk bottle bombs.

Extreme Sourness - Are you sure? This can really mean a lot of things but I'll take it was you want a sour beer that makes your mouth pucker and strips the enamel from your teeth but still tastes great. Essentially what you need to do is get some commercial sour dregs where the beer is unpasteurized and taste similar to what you're looking for. The bugs from commercial sours tend to be much stronger than what you buy from a yeast lab and will get you closer to what you want quicker. You'll want to put the dregs from this beer into a 250ml starter of 1.025 wort and step that up until you have a starter big enough for the OG of your recipe. There's really no way to know for sure if a bottle has viable dregs in it so watch for signs fermentation and the formation of a pellicle. If there's a lot of yeast that forms this could be any kind of yeast including wine or champagne yeast so you'll have to decide if it's worth using or not by tasting the starters. When you pitch the starter also pitch it with a clean Sach strain or even a day ahead of pitching Sach. This will give the bugs a little head start. I've had good luck with this technique and had some very sour beer within 6 months but it could take 1-2 years so be patient if you want a super tart beer.

Lightly Tart - There's a few ways of going about this. You can follow the Oud Bruin method of fermenting with Sach first then age in the secondary with Lacto and Pedio. Another method, if you're kegging, would be to test the beer frequently. Taste and check pH once a month until the beer is where you want it. Then keg it and stick it in your kegerator straight away. The cold temperatures will halt fermentation and you can enjoy the beer as is. Another option is to put the beer back in the kettle and heat to pasteurization temperatures. I've also found Belgian Sour Mix 1 from Whitelabs and Flanders Red Ale from Wyeast to take a long time to get any kind of real tartness so using this culture, aging for 6 months then packaging and drinking at your leisure will likely produce a very lightly tart beer. Another option is to kettle sour your beer. Treat brew day like any other up until just before boiling. Then instead of boiling cool your wort to 115F, use phosphoric acid to lower the pH to 4.5 and pitch lacto. Check your pH and tastes the beer every 8-12 hours until you've achieved your desired tartness. This will likely occur in the 3.7-3.9 pH range but your mileage may vary.

I guess that's the best advice I can give for now. If you've have some advice you'd like to share please leave it in the comments.

  1. Deboeck, Guido J. "Flemish DNA & Ancestry: History of Three Families over Five Centuries Using Conventional and Genetic Genealogy Hardcover – Oct 31 2007." 
  2. Guinard, Jean-Xavier. Lambic. Boulder, CO, USA: Brewers Publications, 1990. Print.
  3. Piatz, Steve. "Lambic Brewing." N.p., Oct. 2004. Web.
  4. The Sour Hour. "Russian River, Allagash, Cantillon"
  7. Tonsmeire, Michael "American Sour Beers", Brewers Publications, 2014 p. 80

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