Having brewed predominately sour beers for the past few years now, I’ve for assorted reasons, always avoided Lambic. I’m sure it’s some combination of the mythical significance it holds within the brewing community at large, and with that the lore of how incredibly difficult it is to produce. Turbid mashes, fussy microbes, and assorted other difficulties, make producing Lambic seem like something only some legendary brewing superhero could undergo.
However, over the past couple years, a lot of reading, thinking, watching, listening, reading and thinking, I’ve realized that, thankfully this is mostly bullshit. I have a whole separate post I’d like to do about Lambic philosophy and politics, but for now let’s say, things are a bit simpler than at first they may seem. And, hopefully with a few posts here, I can save some of you who are on the edge of trying a Lambic or sour beer project yourselves, some wasted time.
For this first post, I’d like to start with a basic overview of how I view Lambic production as a homebrewer, and some details about my upcoming project. I’m leaving the issues of introducing microbes aside, as that warrants it’s own future post.
Lambic in the home brewery, a lifestyle as much as a beer style
When it comes to making Lambic at home, aside from all of the peculiarities of reproducing the style, two main issues have always bugged me…
- What if I make, 5 or even 10 gallon batch and its amazing? When its gone I’m back where I started
- What if I make, 5 or 10 gallons, and it’s just not very good? I’ve wasted a year
The only satisfactory answer I can come up with is to have a few batches going at the same time, and blending for a finished product. If I want to always have Lambic in my cellar, brewing and aging it needs to be something I do consistently. Not just another beer I brew, a way of life.
This may sound fanatical, or over the top to you, but all it really means is that you create a routine in your house and stick to it. You probably have a few of these routines already. The nice thing about Lambic is that it ages so long, you really only need a couple days a year to keep it going.
Now you may say, Yeah, but won’t I be starting from scratch each year? How am I ever going to build up aged stock to blend from?
This is where Solera comes in…
Solera is a process for aging liquids such as wine, beer, vinegar, and brandy, by fractional blending in such a way that the finished product is a mixture of ages, with the average age gradually increasing as the process continues over many years. A solera is literally the set of barrels or other containers used in the process. Products which are often solera aged include Sherry, Madeira, Port wine, Marsala, Mavrodafni, Muscat, and Muscadelle wines; Balsamic, Commandaria, and Sherry vinegars; Spanish brandy; beer; and rums.
In short, Solera is a way to achieve the complexity of flavor you get from blending many different ages of stock, without having to keep a separate vessel for every year.
I currently participate in two single barrel Solera projects; my 15 gallon bourbon barrel sour brown ale solera, and a 65 gallon Belgian golden ale, wine barrel solera, I share with some friends. The way it works on both of those projects, is that we rack a third of the barrel out for bottling, and rack new replacement beer in, every six months. Why a third? It was somewhat arbitrary at first, but having worked with this ratio for both barrels, for multiple years each, I think it really works well. Some of the beer in those barrels is now over three years old, and tasting incredible.
This type of solera is a great way to easily make blended sour ales at home. The only restriction is, you are stuck with a set blend ratio (in this case, a third), of new beer and older beer. If you want more control over the blend, you need a multi-vessel solera.
This is how a multi-vessel solera would work, if we carry on with the one third blend…
- All three vessels get filled in as quick a succession as possible. I wouldn’t allow more than a month between the first and last if you can help it
- Wait one interval (six months, one year, etc.) from the month when you began the project
- Brew enough Lambic to refill one vessel (plus some extra to account for evaporation)
- Blend to taste a third of the total beer, using stock from all vessels
- At this point, you should have 3 vessels which are all part way full
- Carefully rack the remainder from the weakest tasting vessel, to the strongest, until you are left with two now full vessels, and one empty
- Rack your fresh wort into the empty vessel
- Bottle your blend
See what we did there? Because we racked the barrels in order from weakest tasting to strongest, and then re-filled what would have been the weakest barrel, we have now insured that next year we will have three somewhat different tasting barrels. The strongest stock will typically be the oldest, and since we never empty any one vessel completely, that beer will continue to age for years, giving you more and more complexity each year. Even in my single vessel Soleras, the level of complexity after only 2 or so years was incredible.
This brings us to what I’m currently planning…
The Lambic Project
While the above solera program could easily be carried out using plastic buckets, of just about any size from 5 gallons on up, I wanted to go bigger. Not just for economy of scale. Sure, I do want to produce as much as I can handle, but more specifically I want to work with oak barrels. Now, taking on filling three oak barrels alone as a homebrewer would be kind of nuts. Not just in brewing time, but also in cost. It’s for this reason I’ve chosen to form a collective; a club. For me, and the other members, possibly the coolest homebrew club we could imagine.
I count myself lucky to have a few close friends who are either brewers, or just people who care intensely for Lambic, who want to be a part of such a club. It means that all of us, together will be able to afford an experience most brewers only dream of… blending our own Gueuze from oak barrels.
Part of the inspiration for such a big move comes from some hero’s of mine, The Pyles. I don’t know how I first found this article, but I think it was also my introduction to Michael Tonsmeire’s blog. I owe a lot to Tonsmeire’s spirit of experimentation, and I wouldn’t even know about Solera if it wasn’t for him. Seeing the Pyle’s operation… essentially two people working a 4 barrel setup was a revelation. It brought it home to me, that not only was it possible to make beer this way at home, it was possible to make incredible beer this way at home. Not just some half-assed American equivalent of Gueuze, but a product that nears the glory of it’s namesake.
The structure of the club is based on shares, which members purchase up front. This is essential to fund the project. We’ve broken down the 63 gallons take each year into 12 5 gallon shares. The 3 left over will be covered by evaporation. Members may buy as much as 2 shares each.
Of course in a brewing collective there is much needed beyond funding. We will need at least 3 brew days, and a lot of equipment to produce Lambic to fill all of these barrels, so member participation during all of these is going to be mandatory within reason. That said though, there is a core group leading the project and we will handle most of the work.
Speaking for myself, it’s work I’m happy to do. For instance shepherding the barrels is going to be one of the key elements of this project. It’s comprised largely not of big efforts, but of many small checkins, various sensory analysis, and of course, barrel sampling. I would like though to organize a couple group meetings at the barrel’s storage location (A member’s house) throughout the year, where we can do group samplings, and talk about planning for future stages of the project. Arguably the most important day aside from brewing days, will be blending day. But, I don’t think I’ll have any trouble getting people to attend that one.
Well, I hope you’ve enjoyed this introductory post. I have some future posts lined up on specifics of the various aspects of the project, Lambic philosophy, financials, barrel care, microbe farming, etc.