I’m Dreaming of a [Belgian] White Christmas (with bacteria!)

DSC_0755Yes, bacteria! A few months ago at a Belgian beer event I stumbled upon a Vicaris Tripel-Gueuze and man, what an amazing beer. A perfect blend of a classic Belgian tripel and a funky brett-style lambic beer, really unlike anything I’ve tried before. I highly recommend picking this beer up if you happen to come across it. I’ve grown fond of sour beers over the past few years so, with a little inspiration from the Vicaris, I decided to add a little funkiness into a fairly standard Belgian Wit recipe (since I’m not so confident with tripels, yet) to see what’ll happen. I’m definitely no expert on lambics (or even regular ales), so every sour beer enthusiast will probably read this and think “ugh, what a n00b”, but hey, I figured it’d be a cool experiment to just dive into.  WYeast makes lambic strain of yeast (the homebrew store guy informed me that it’s a mix of a Belgian ale yeast, a sherry yeast, and a few strains of bacteria that I can’t pronounce), so I will likely add it into the secondary after the beer’s done fermenting. The bacteria should eat up some remaining sugars and make it just a little funky, hopefully.

  • 7 lb Belgian Pilsner malt
  • 2 lb White wheat (Briess)
  • 1 lb Flaked oats (Briess)
  • 9 oz Belgian aromatic malt
  • 8 oz Carapils (Briess)
  • 1 oz German Hallertau (60 min)
  • 0.5 oz German Hallertau (30 min)
  • 0.5 oz German Hallertau (dry hop)
  • 1 oz Coriander seed, crushed (7 min)
  • 1 oz Dried bitter orange peel (7 min)
  • WYeast 3944 Belgian Witbier
  • WYeast 3278 Lambic blend

// Strike w/ 3.68 gal 164F water (1.33 qt/lb), mash at 153/154F for 60 min. Sparge to collect 7.5 gal 1.038 wort. Boil 90 minutes, adding hops at specified times. Add coriander seed and orange peel in two mesh bags, remove bags when half way done chilling wort after boil. Chill to 70F, pitch only the witbier yeast (no starter). Collected 4.5 gal, OG 1.055 //

From my experiences thus far, any kind of witbier yeast is a freakin’ tank. Equipped with bazookas and flamethrowers.  Every beer or starter I’ve made with it takes off right away and is overflowing with activity. This one definitely acted up, but luckily did not overflow. Activity got going within a few hours of pitching.

UPDATE 11/27:  Strangely, after 10 days in the primary at ~65F it was still bubbling about once every 20 seconds. I decided to rack anyway. As soon as I tasted it, I knew it wasn’t done. Still had that sticky, sweet, unfinished taste. Gravity read 1.031. I had already started to rack at this point, so I finished, then wound up dumping the yeast cake from the primary right back into the secondary. Gave it a good shake to aerate a little, and also added 1/2 oz hallertau hops.  If the activity doesn’t kick up again, I’ll go ahead and add the bacteria. I might want to start fermenting in carboys since you can see what’s going on and not risk racking too early. Definitely a full head of yeast on top when I opened the primary.

UPDATE:  This thing has turned into such a frankenstein beer. After another week in the “primary” (carboy this time), I took another gravity reading and racked to another carboy – 1.018. Still not done. At this point, my patience was worn down enough so I went ahead and added the lambic cultures, then gave it another week. It definitely picked up in activity, and a weird thin layer of foam settled on the top. Gravity was 1.010 after the next week.

THE VERDICT

Well this may seem ridiculous… but despite how long it took to fully ferment (~4 weeks), this is likely one of the most complex tasting beers I’ve made so far.  The flavors and aromas from spices, fruit, dry-hops, yeast, and bacteria all come together to create a really exciting package. The lambic is just noticeable enough to give it a little funk in both aroma and taste.  I won’t lie; I was pretty nervous about using that lambic strain. I like sour beers, but having a whole keg of one makes me squirm a little. Adding the lambic strain with ~10 gravity points left in the beer (1.018) gave it a little of that earthy, brett-y flavor without any noticeable sourness – similar to the Vicaris if I may be so bold :D.  The beer is not as wheat-y as I anticipated, but that’s OK with me.  Cheers!

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4 Comments

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4 responses to “I’m Dreaming of a [Belgian] White Christmas (with bacteria!)

  1. Hey, man! I stumbled in your blog while watching my kids at the park. I like your experiments and have enjoyed reading your experiences. After brewing for 10 years, I’ve learned a few things that really seem to have made my beer better (and may help you too):

    – Always pitch cool, regardless of style. It looks like you chill to 80F then pitch… this really is way too warm, even if you’re placing your fermenter in a cooler after pitching. If your intended ferm temp is 66F, you should be pitching at 64-65F. This is true for all strains- ale, hybrid, and lager.

    – Bugs require quite a bit of time to impart any character… like 6 months minimum, though my pals and I always let them go for 9-12 months minimum.

    – Your IC will work more efficiently if you crank your source (faucet) all the way up and constantly agitate your wort and/or the IC (I can chill 11 gal to groundwater temp in 15 min).

    – Racking to secondary for nearly every single style is truly unnecessary… truly. I’ve tested it and everyone agreed that the primary-only beer (split batch) was noticeably better.

    – If what you want is more malt character, stick with batch sparge.

    Anyway, cheers to you! I hope this didn’t come across as too arrogant.

    • Thanks for the comment! No arrogance taken, I’m always happy to take brewing suggestions and advice. I’ve heard some conflicting things and have had different experiences, so let me pick your brain about a few of those points:

      – I’ve always assumed that if you had the option to pitch slightly warmer or colder than your fermentation temp, it’s to your advantage to go warmer so that the yeast will be encouraged to get moving in the presence of a little more heat (within reason). Is your experience with chilling colder to suppress esters and achieve a cleaner tasting beer?

      – This one is my only “infected” beer so far, but it’s good to hear that it takes time. I got a little funky-ness with this one but I’m pretty impatient with aging anything. Do you suggest aging it in bottles, or is it safe to leave it in a carboy for that long?

      – I definitely notice a faster cool-down when I’m stirring the wort while it chills. Good point.

      – I’ve only made a couple of styles/beers that I’d be comfortable racking directly from primary to keg with. Do you give the beer an extended primary time if you exclude the secondary? Do you find that it leaves a yeasty-er character doing this? In what ways was the non-secondary beer better compared to the secondary?

      – Thanks for the tip on batch sparging. My fly-sparge failed the first time so I’ll probably just still with the batch method as is since I get OK efficiency.

      • brulosopher

        I’m happy to give you my opinions, which are hugely based on experience.

        – When it comes to pitching yeast, there are some highly talked about “importances,” such as pitching the right amount of healthy yeast- hence starters. I’m assuming you usually do this (though just re-read you didn’t in this particular beer). If you do this, there’s absolutely no need pitch warm, as you’re throwing a whole bunch of healthy yeast into your wort, and they go to town pretty immediately. If you’re pitching liquid yeast without a starter (haven’t done this in years), which I really don’t recommend unless you’re making a Bavarian Hef or something with a similarly strong ester profile, I still don’t see the benefit in pitching warm, as it will only lead to increased ester production. By pitching cool (by 2˚ or so), you suppress may undesirable flavors and aromas- the fermenting yeast will produce enough energy to raise your beer’s temp 5˚+, hence the importance of controlled ferm temp. I always pitch starters 2˚ cooler than my intended ferm temp and produce beers with no off flavors. If I were to pitch warm, it would certainly be no warmer than 72˚, and I would immediately put it into a well-controlled ferm chamber. The one issue with pitching cool has to do with not pitching an adequate starter, which stresses the yeast and can kick off some terrible stuff… think egg farts.

        – I know some folks fear hot side aeration, an issue that has all but been proven to be a myth. The technique that works best for me, and that makes me feel most like a homebrewer, is grabbing my IC and not-so-gently moving it up and down in the wort. Please, please, please remember to turn your water on full blast, you’ll thank me later 😉

        – LHBS owners used to tell their patrons secondary was necessary in order to “clear the beer,” another absolute myth. When I started brewing in 2003, that was the only reason the owner of the shop who sold me my first kit could give me. The reality is, beer actually seems to clear better when left on the yeast cake! Plus you get all the benefits of the yeast reabsorbing some of the yucky shit left in many homebrewed beers. I know (and hangout with) a lot of homebrewers and not a single one of us use a secondary for anything but beers we’re bulk-aging that have NOT been inoculated with bugs (the bacteria and Brett us sour brewers use actually profit from dead yeast cells). My typical ale and hybrid (Kolsch/Alt/Cal Common) process includes pitching 2˚ cooler than intended ferm temp, letting it ferment in primary for 5-10 days, raising temp to 65-68˚ for 2-5 days to finish fermenting, cold crashing at 33˚ for 2 days, kegging and carbing for 5 days, drinking. On lower OG paler beers using a highly flocculant strain, I can go from grain to glass in as little as 10 days, and we’re not talking shitty beer here. Even with super hoppy IPA, I just add all my dry hops directly to the primary (the same way most craft brewers do it, actually), then remove them after 3-5 days and add more if I so choose. All the big comp winners have ditched their secondaries including Tasty McDole, Jamil Z, John Palmer, and many more.

        – I prefer to stay between 70-73% efficiency, as it seems the beers tend to have a much better malt profile this way, not necessarily “more malty,” just a better malt presence. Plus you don’t run the risk of tannin extraction with batch sparge… and it’s faster… and easier.

        Cheers!! Time for another pint…

      • Good stuff, thanks for the advice. I brewed an American Amber this weekend and pitched the decanted starter a few degrees cooler than my fermentation temp. It got going right away so I’m curious to see how it will come out – I used WLP001 so hopefully it’ll finish pretty clean. I don’t have any means of actively controlling my fermentation temp, unfortunately, but my basement is around 72F right now. Maybe I’ll try the no-secondary route as well. Prost!

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