Sunday, 18 January 2015

Lambic: Brewing Up A Barrel - Part 1

One of the benefits of being involved with like minded people in the locality is that a project which is out of reach for one person is not necessarily out of reach for a group. In fact it might be perfectly suited to one.
Our first barrel, a whiskey barrel
filled with imperial stout

We had previous experience as a group brewing an imperial stout and ageing it in an ex-Bushmills whiskey barrel (itself and ex-bourbon barrel from the US), which I had the pleasure of homing in my garden shed for around 8 months. Indeed it surpassed all expectations and gave me the determination in January 2014 to reach higher with the next brew: a bona-fide, barrel aged lambic. The first barrel of lambic anywhere in Ireland ever.

So I asked around as to what would be a suitable barrel. The Bushmills barrel was ruled out straight away as being too flavoursome. Ironic, but nonetheless true. Following up an imperial stout which itself had followed up cask strength whiskey would result in too much flavour being imparted into the lambic. What we needed was a wine barrel.

The barrel in GG's minivan.
Sourcing a wine barrel
A quick Google lead me straight to Kelly Wine Barrels in Tipperary who stocked a wide variety of fresh barrels in very good condition. A quick call to Tom, a fellow sour beer fan from Tipperary and one of the local home brewers was dispatched to Tipperary in his Citroen minivan. €90 and a few hours later he arrived back at my house with a fantastic Spanish oak barrel. I'm not sure what was in it beforehand, whatever it was, it was red. Probably wine but it might have been port. Either way the barrel was perfect.

While the barrel was being sorted research was going on into a suitable "yeast" to use, eventually settling on East Coast Yeast as a supplier. ECY is a relative newcomer to the scene, and well received in their native US. I say "their" but it appears ECY is a one man show as the only person we dealt with over the next few days was Al Buck. Al had never shipped to Ireland before and we had never bought yeast directly from the US before so there was a bit of flaffing around before we eventually found expedited shipping for a reasonable cost. Once we did we fired off our order to Al, and simultaneously ordered our oud bruin barrel pitches.

Two days later ECY01 BugFarm (and ECY23 Oud Brun, more on that later) arrived, packed in a well insulated box with cool packs. Receiving goods from outside the EU can raise a demand from Customs & Excise for duty and VAT, but fortunately such a demand didn't materialise in this case. Each pitch is 125ml and as we bought one pitch for every 20L that would be in the barrel we didn't need to make a starter. It's important not to make starters with pitches like this or with White Labs WLP655 for example, as to do so will throw the ratio of organisms out of kilter.

ECY01 BugFarm, fresh from the US

Al describes BugFarm as
A mixed culture of wild yeast and lactic bacteria to emulate sour or wild beers such as lambic-style ales. Over time displays a citrus sourness and barnyard funk profile. Contains yeast (Saccharomyces, Brettanomyces) and lactic bacteria (Lactobacillus, Pediococcus). The Brett population is typically >50% of the culture pitch. The blend of strains change every calendar year for those who like to blend or have solera projects.   The 2014 version contains a wild Saccharomyces yeast, four brett strains, various lactobacilli and Pediococcus. 
Interestingly ECY01 changes every year (and our 2015 lambic barrel is about to start!) and that's the description of the 2014 version. Unfortunately I didn't save the description of the one we bought but while it's not the same, it's broadly similar (mental note: ask Al and update).

Recipe & Ingredients
Once we had the pitches sorted it was time to decide on the recipe which for a lambic would be very simple: just do what the professionals do: two thirds pilsner malt to one third unmalted wheat, neither of which are too exotic. Most of us had lager malt from the Malting Company of Ireland in Cork, but sourcing unmalted wheat required a trip to the farm shop as it's frequently used in animal feed. (Sometimes I hear silly statements about animal feed not being "food grade" which is ridiculous -- if the animals can eat it and we can eat the animals, then it's food grade). Fortunately there's a Glanbia farm shop in Mullingar where a 25kg bag can be had for the bargain price of €5.75. Glanbia farm shops are located all over the country except really for the Dublin area, but are well worth a visit if you're looking for grains. The only other requirement was some old hops, which wasn't a problem between us.

I think it's appropriate at this point to mention "popcorn". The lady in the shop said the wheat might have acid on it, that he would know when he opened the bag if there was a waft from it. This was news to us and generated a bit of consternation. I phoned my college buddy and farmer Fergus in Wexford to ask him what that was about. Fergus informed me of propanoic acid which is better known in farming circles as "popcorn". Propanoic acid is a harmless naturally occurring acid which is applied grains to stop them from sprouting in storage and was nothing to be concerned about. You can read more about it on Wikipedia

The Mash
What a lambic gains in terms of grist simplicity it loses again when it comes to the mash schedule. A turbid mash is what's used by most lambic brewers, seemingly to make a cloudy wort with plenty of long chain carbohydrates. With that in mind and after doing a lot of research, this mash schedule was was basically copied from Wyeast. (Edit 01/01/15: In hindsight, this is needlessly complicated)

Cereal/single infusion mash for a 22L batch:

  1. Dough in with 1.76kg Wheat, 0.352kg Pilsner malt and 8.91L water @ 60°C.
  2. Increase to 100°C, and hold for ~30 minutes.
  3. Add remaining 3.168kg malt and 2.97L water. Adjust mash to 70°C, and hold for ~2 hours, stirring continuously, and rest for 30 minutes.
  4. Sparge with 19.4L water at 95°C.
  5. Two hour boil with ~55g hop addition @ 60 minutes.

Step 2 requires applying heat directly to the mashtun so would only work for those brewers who had the right set-up, namely metal pots. Roger didn't, so he designed a multi step infusion mash schedule which is a lot simpler as each step just requires adding the right amount of water.

Step mash:

  1. Dough in at 45°C for 15 minutes
  2. Rest at 50°C for 15 minutes
  3. Rest at 65°C for 45minutes
  4. Rest at 70°C for 30 minutes
  5. Mash out 76°C and sparge with 88°C water
Of course the actual quantities added depend on the the size of the grist.

Coming up Part 2 - The Brew Day

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