Thursday, November 14, 2013

Sour Belgian Red Ale - Tasting Notes & Recipe

Brewery: Bear Flavored
Style: Sour Ale
Brewed: 11.20.2011
Bottled On: 5.12.2013
ABV: 7.9%

Appearance: amber / ruby red, low-med head, good clarity, good retention
Smell: sweet cherry, spicy funk, oxidized note, slight acetic
Taste: huge bright cherry, juicy tangy sourness, slight oxidized note, prickly vinegar finish
Mouthfeel: highish carbonation, creamy, medium-full, dry finish

All beer goes through a fascinating series of events and adventures as it is transmogrified from plants and water into the wonderful beverage we all enjoy daily, but this particular batch had a particularly special journey. It is an outcast of another batch, an improvement over its parent, a dog-like companion on car rides (well, one long car ride), and the first Bear Flavored beer to ferment in Beacon, sort of. Allow me to explain. 

Back in 2011, I had only a dozen or so batches under my belt, and with the hubristic folly of youth, got a wacky idea for a Belgian-ish ale featuring a pretty weird grain bill. I guess I was still learning my own tastes at the time, because I remember being really excited about this idea, though looking back at the recipe, it sounds kind of terrible to me now. And it was pretty meh, featuring a bizarre merger of Belgian yeast over rye malt and sweet/smoky Cherrywood smoked malt. Living in a tiny Brooklyn apartment at the time, I had no room for an extensive sour pipeline, but I figured I could steal a gallon here and there to test the waters. This oddball Belgian rye was one of two beers I selected to dump some dregs into, and in retrospect, I'm sure glad I did. The base beer only fermented down to 1.018, and to make matters worse, I grossly under-carbed the bottles. Within a few weeks I was entirely sick of the stuff, and eventually used most of it for cooking and baking. 

A few months later, I found out I had to move apartments, and made the slightly intimidating decision to abandon NYC and move upstate. And so, one night in February of 2012, a couple jugs of beer were held in my lap for a middle-of-the-night two hour journey in my girlfriend's car. Every bounce caused the beer inside to slosh about noisily, to my great dismay. I figured there was going to be at least some oxidation, and unsurprisingly, I ended up dumping the second jug of beer a few months later when it settled into a flavor profile that can only be summed up as "liquid cardboard" (that one was Belgian pumpkin beer that I pitched some different sour dregs into). 

Somewhat miraculously, my Belgian rye survived. Though it went through some phases of tasting a little bizarre (as many sour beers will), it ended up aging for about a year and a half before I bottled in May 2013. I gave it a few months in the bottle, and now that we're approaching the beer's two year birthday, I can finally say: it's better than it has any right to be. 

Homebrewers often propose pitching souring bugs into bad batches to "save" them, and the general advice given back is: "No." There's a lot of reductionist (and slightly condescending) sentiment out there insinuating that extreme flavors are just easy ways to cover up flaws in a beer, but this is rubbish. A great IPA is actually incredibly hard to brew. Likewise, funking up a beer is no Band-Aid (though it may result in Band-Aid flavors). Brettanomyces can do many things to rearrange the elements of a beer, and sourness can scrub out undesirable elements of a beer over time, but it can also enhance or create some very un-fun things too. With this batch — though I ended up not liking the base beer very much — I had decided to do the sour gallon thing in advance, just thinking it might come out nice.

The results are good, not great, but much better than the original beer. Souring this had a few unexpected advantages: mostly, the high terminal gravity of the base beer gave the bugs plenty to work on. They got fed, and the sweetness that made the clean version somewhat cloying was brought down to complimentary levels, creating a sweet and sour dynamic not unlike that of a Flanders Red. The cherry character in this is huge, especially prominent in the initial wave of flavor. I'm not sure if that's simply a general characteristic of the sweet malts overlayed by tangy sourness, or a more specific result of the Cherrywood smoked malt. Any smoke character has by now faded from this entirely (thankfully), but the cherry flavor was pretty noticeable in the original beer too. It's interesting how much this came to resemble the usual Flanders Red profile — it even finishes with an aggressive acetic note, the kind of prickly sourness that lingers for a while. 

This is certainly not a great sour, but it's a pretty decent one, especially considering its origin. Some oxidized notes make their way in here and there, mostly in the nose, but they don't ruin the beer. The balance of the sourness starts off nice, shouldered by those very vivid cherry notes, but the vinegar notes that close the beer out are a bit too harsh and not super well integrated. 

It's good to know that some beers can be saved, and can even travel. But I wouldn't make a habit out of it.

4 Gal., Partial Mash
OG: 1.072
FG: 1.012
ABV: 7.9%

57.3 % pale LME
21.5 % Belgian Pilsner malt
7.6 % rye malt
5.7 % acid malt
2.4 % special roast
1.6 % cherrywood smoked malt

Hop Schedule-
0.5 oz Summit @60
0.5 oz Summit @8
0.5 oz Palisade @5
0.5 oz Palisade @0

Wyeast Belgian Ardennes
Dregs from Jolly Pumpkin Bam Biere
Dregs from Russian River Temptation


  1. Probably a good thing that it didn't come out exceptional, because it sounds like a hard process to replicate.


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