I recently did two things that I would typically never do, and that is sending out beers for complete strangers to review, and then being interviewed about said beers for the world to hear. The former is largely because I typically eschew competition, and the second because it’s horrifying to hear my speaking voice played back to me (as I’m sure it is for most people). (However, credit to James, I don’t sound nearly as bad as I’d feared.)
I’d like to use this post to one direct your attention to this episode, and also, to Basic Brewing as a whole, as it’s a wonderful resource, especially with their focus on the use of experiments to better understand brewing and fermentation. I’d also like to supplement the information in that episode with a bit more background on my experiences with the Solera process. Firstly though, Thanks again to James Spencer for having me on, and both he and Andy Sparks for their very generous appreciation of the beers. (I’m really happy you guys liked them as much as I do!)
My first encounter with the Solera concept was from Michael Tonsmeire’s excellent blog. For those who don’t know, Solera involves aging in a vessel or vessels that are never completely drained, so that new stock and old stock are always mixed and so that the aggregate age of the stock gets older over time. Having an interest in brewing sour beers, and especially in wood aging, his blogging on the subject was pure beer porn, and got me thinking for the first time about doing a serious sour project at home. Previously, I’d avoided sours, thinking that the fussy microbes, and my typically small batch size (5g), coupled with a wait of a year or more could end in serious disappointment. Plus, as most breweries will tell you unblended sours can be very hit or miss, even if they’re made properly. For some reason this idea of an ongoing project that could develop over the years (hopefully improve!) and feature blending as a part of the process took some of my apprehension away and got me motivated to take the leap.
Around the same time, my friend (and quite possibly the best barman in town) Biscuit informed me that the great Tuthilltown Spirits, in upstate NY was selling off their used Bourbon barrels directly from their website. Most importantly they were selling barrels of smaller sizes than the typical 55-59 gallon size. I’d never realized they even made barrels that small, (Tuthilltown has barrels as small as 3g!) I immediately announced to my wife that a 15 gallon barrel was going to be my birthday gift that year, and my first wood aging project was getting under way.
Choosing a Recipe
A lot of research went into my choice of beer for this project. Pretty much everyone on the internet will tell you that a small, fresh whiskey barrel is a terrible idea for aging beer in. The reasons are typically that you will extract a ton of wood and whiskey flavor, and that that’s a bad thing. While this may be somewhat true, it’s not as if people are just giving away perfectly seasoned oak barrels on street corners. If my choice is a pretty ripe barrel, now, or waiting months to track down a just emptied perfectly seasoned barrel, I’ll take the former. It should also be noted that this argument assumes that you will be fully emptying the barrel and re-filling it. In Solera this is not done, and so you as the brewer have the rare opportunity to observe through taste the extraction process, and how those flavors diminish over time. While I think this is scientifically valuable, I’d also say it makes for some pretty lovely drinking experiences as well.
The beer did need to stand up to these strong flavors some however, so I decided something in the Flemish tradition suited best. I began reading and formulating my recipe, with great debt to Raj B Apte, who’s wonderful articles on brewing (and understanding) Flemish sours are now woefully missing from the internet. I still can’t remember all the sources for the recipe. It’s not traditional really, nor is it 100% my own invention, but having tasted it over the years I think it’s safe to say I chose pretty well. In the Basic Brewing interview I give the recipe for 15 gallons, but here’s the recipe for 6. (The keen will notice it’s slightly different in ratios. I can’t recall why I did this, but I’ve been brewing this slightly modified version ever since, and it’s great both sour and straight.)
A small gallery of images from the initial brew day
Sour Brown Ale (5g)
2lbs Caramunich III
2oz British Roast Barley
2oz Chocolate Malt
Mash: Single infusion 60min at 153º, Mashout/Sparge infusion 20min at 170º
1oz Hallertau @60min
1oz Saaz @60min
Primary Fermentation: US-05, for at least 2 weeks, keeping temps somewhere below mid 70’s in the fermentor, if possible. (It doesn’t matter too much if it gets slightly out of hand, with all the aging and blending, whatever unwanted compounds that get produced, get scrubbed out pretty well in the end)
Secondary Fermentation: at least 6 months on oak, with one of the great yeast/bacteria blends from East Coast Yeast. This barrel was started with Bugfarm 4, and dregs, but could be secondaried with ECY01, 02, 20, or 23.
My method is to blend off 1/3 of my total volume for bottling every six months. I’m using this ratio on 3 different Solera projects with great success. Once you have a batch started you never need to add secondary yeast again.
Sour Brewing as a Lifestyle Choice
I mention this concept in the interview, but I don’t really explain it so well there unfortunately. I think what put me off brewing sours for so long was this idea of trying something that took a long time, and may or may not work out. The fear of a potentially fruitless, and excruciatingly long wait. I think sours are seen this way by a lot of brewers, and I think this can absolutely be true if you think of sours as just another style to brew.
With Solera, you are adopting a ritual you can continue for years. Something much more akin to the lifestyles of the Belgian brewers who’s beers these imitate. The experience of this kind of regiment is something incredibly valuable to any brewer both for education, and production. Watching my Solera beers develop over time, and tending to/spending time with them has been amazing. I’ve learned so much about my own approach to beer making, about the seasons, about the behavior of microbes. These are things you just don’t get from a one-off. While Solera isn’t the only way to have this experience, in many ways it’s the most accessible, and sensible for the homebrewer.
Since my first Solera project I’ve made many one-off sour beers. Once you have a few things going, the wait is much shorter, as there’s always something finishing up and ready to bottle. But it’s still these ongoing projects that I’m closest to, that I work the hardest at, and that I most look forward to.
Part of the reason I wanted to submit my beers for a show on Basic Brewing, was to give back a bit if I could. I think the beers I’m making now are pretty great (IIDSSM), especially the Solera beers. That probably wouldn’t be the case if it wasn’t for shows like Basic Brewing, blogs like The Mad Fermentationist, and the countless other sites and forums dedicated to what I see as a big open-source beer project.
One of the most important parts of that ecosystem is people posting results from methods, experiments, accidents, etc., so their experiences can be of the most use to others. What I felt like I could show with this episode, is that a Solera system is a worthwhile option for the homebrewer, and that if tended to well, can give great results for up to 3 years (That’s more than 13 cases in my case!). I intend, as Andy Sparks suggested in the episode, to keep on going pretty much exactly as I have up to this point and tracking my results. Hopefully I can show that this method is viable to 5 years and beyond.
I hope I’ve helped inspire a couple people out there to make the jump into Solera, or sour beers in general. To them, Bon Voyage! It’s a worthy adventure indeed.