Thursday, August 28, 2014

Blended Farmhouse Technique - Fermenting Brett and Saccharomyces Separately Before Blending

Brewery: Bear Flavored
Style: Farmhouse Ale
Brewed: 6.02.14
Bottled On: 7.10.14
ABV: 6.5%

50% Saison + 50% Brett C:
Appearance: pale straw yellow, thick head, lingering foam, good retention
Smell: citrus, orange, grass, soft spice, meadow, yeast, mild clove / pepper
Taste: zesty citrus, orange, lemongrass, soft spice, yeast, dry fruit, low bitterness
Mouthfeel: high carb, velvety nouthfeel, light body, dry, clean finish

50% Saison + 50% Brett Trois:
Appearance: pale straw yellow, huge fluffy head, lingering foam, good retention
Smell: grass, spice, meadow, citrus, orange, perfume, pear, mild clove
Taste: zesty citrus, soft fruit, orange, pear, spice, yeast, low bitterness
Mouthfeel: high carb, creamy mouthfeel, impression of body, dry, clean finish

What's the primary difference between most serious homebrewers and most professional breweries? There's the equipment and scale, sure, but regardless of your system, the goal is just to produce good beer. And that can be done at any size, so long as a few basic factors are met. But the perhaps the most significant difference is operational: most professional brewers are brewing a lot; a couple times a week, or maybe even around the clock. If not brewing exactly, then there's someone in the brewhouse, doing... something. Most homebrewers brew a few times a month, maybe. They have limited fermentation space, and knock out one batch at a time. In general terms, it's just the difference between a hobby and a job, but in practical terms, it means a professional brewer can, theoretically, do more things with more beers.

As a homebrewer, it can be very hard to get into blending. The variety of batches, the number of fermentors, the time involved — the opportunities for blending don't always present themselves, and require some planning. Of course, those elaborate blends that we mostly think of when we think of blending — geueze blenders taking shares from an entire cellar worth of barrels — are perhaps beyond the scope of what would be a sensible amount of effort for most of us. Sour blends from even just a handful of beers require a reasonably deep pipeline.

But lately I've been wondering: what about more straightforward, head-to-head blends? Maybe it's misleading to call this blending at all; it's more... pairing two beers, uniting separate, established flavors, and seeing how they split the difference. It's not a novel idea, to be sure; my inspiration was simply all the times I've seen discussion of using English and American yeast side-by-side. Two complimentary strains, each doing their own thing in their own way... and then combined. Why not?

Of course, to me, this experiment seemed particularly appealing with the complimentary profiles of a saison yeast and a Brettanomyces strain. Not that there's anything wrong with the usual methods of fermenting a Brett saison, and I've found that pitching both Saccharomyces and a small dose of Brettanomyces at the same time can get you a beer that's fermented out in a very reasonable time-frame — a month or so — and still has a nice, mellow Brett character. So why ferment them separate and then blend? It's not like 100% Brett-fermented beers are funkier, as we know. But they are, nonetheless, distinct. I often find myself mostly loving the unique weird funky fruit essence of a new Brett strain, but just not super into throwing back pint after pint of it. Brett strains sometimes have a hard time creating a desirable mouthfeel and body in a beer, so where the flavor and aroma may even be super appealing, they still drink like something weirder than they truly are.

I went with Wyeast 3711 French Saison for the "straight saison" portion of this batch, because it's such a monster attenuator (meaning, I figured, the batch could be done faster if there wasn't much gravity for either side of the split to munch on), and because 3711 is known to create a slick, full-bodied mouthfeel despite the lack of residual sugars. The idea being that even if Brett didn't create much mouthfeel, the other half of the blend will help to boost it — each split, hopefully, complimenting the other. French Saison can get a bit spicier than I prefer, on the other hand. I do like my saisons rounded off and balanced either by some fruity Brett funk (which literally reduces the sharper saison character by consuming some of the other yeast's by-products) or some acidity, or both. The saisons I most enjoy find a way to balance that farmhouse character without losing its complicated essence. Here, instead of letting Brett chew on the esters and phenols like a scavenger, the idea was to blend the character down, cut it with the more fruity Brett fermentation. My friend and I did some proportion tasting before we actually blended, but for simplicity, we ended up going with an even split of 50% Brett and 50% saison into each final blend.

The results are promising, though not yet what I would call a unqualified success. My conclusion, for now, is that you'll have to really select the right strains in order for this technique to set itself apart. Proportions of the blend will make a big difference, as would the timing of when you blend — things we weren't really able to fiddle with due to the aforementioned challenges of the homebrew scale. And I guess that all goes without saying; this was just a very basic demo of a concept. Worst case scenario, here, you have a beer that just kind of tastes like a standard farmhouse ale.

Trois fared the poorest of the two blends I tried, but I think my particular stock of that is getting on in age, as the base beer didn't have the depth of explosive juicy character I've come to expect from it. The blend that came out is totally overshadowed by the saison yeast, with its coarser, slightly spicy yeast-notes more apparent than I'd like, and a finish that's very much like a typical saison. It's still a really nice saison, dry and highly drinkable with some intriguing and complex fruit stuff going on in the background, but there's not quite enough different about it to be worth the effort.

Brett C held up better in the blend, as that strain (quickly becoming one of my favorites for versatile 100% Brett batches) leaves a succulent tropical orange flavor and drinks almost as clean and smooth as a 'normal' Saccharomyces beer on its own. Blended, it cut down a bit more on the forward 3711 notes, added some more complexity, and actually managed to taste like it brought something new into the beer. 

The merits of this technique, or some variation of this technique, will come down to whether or not it can produce a beer that's unique and distinct from those made with more conventional fermentation and blending methods. With a whole barrel room full of various farmhouse and Brett beers, you could combine them in any way you wish until something tastes fantastic. But for most, that's not an option. I'll try a few more simple experiments with this blended farmhouse / Brett technique in the future, because I do think something very exciting could come out of it with very little extra effort or resources. Simply using different strains may make all the difference: I actually think I'd use something other than 3711 French Saison for this, because it is too dominant in the resulting beer, and doesn't seem to give the Brett as much to work with afterwards as I would have thought. I've always been a fan of White Labs Saison II, and would like to try this again using that strain. The Brett strain (or strains) used obviously make just as much of a difference, so that presents dozens more opportunities for experimentation, as well. Finally, even the timeline of blending should have a significant impact. I brewed this at my friend Phil's house, since he's got one of those 'basement' things that come in so useful for carboy storage, but the result was that we didn't get to blend the beers as early as I would have liked — it was over a month after fermentation until they were united. Had we blended, say, a week or two into the fermentation, when the yeast were still actively doing their thing, the finished character may have been a more seamless merger, with Brett having had more time to reduce phenols and round off the beer before fermentation ceased.

As always, there's plenty more work to be done. For #Science.

Brewed 6.02.2014
Mashed at 150 degrees for 60 minutes
Fermented at basement temp, 75 - 80 F
OG: 1.053
FG: 1.003
ABV: 6.5%

78% [#8] Pilsner malt
9.8% [#1] flaked oats
9.8% [#1] rye malt
2.4% [4 oz] rye malt

Hop Schedule-
0.5 oz Nugget @60 min
0.5 oz Nugget @10 min
2 oz Cascade dry hop for 6 days

Wyeast 3711 French Saison [Split #1]
Brett C [Split #2]
Brett Trois [Spit #3]


  1. Interesting method that I haven't seen done before except at taps on my kegerator at home.

    What Brett C are you referring to?

    Also I found it interesting that your Brett Trois is losing its juicy character. This happened to me and has me wondering if the if it is a mutation or a growth rate issue. I actually thought the problem with my pitch was that the 2 strains (per Chad's work) had different growth rates. I was then getting dominated by a less "juicy" strain as time progressed. I do not know if the WL Trois is one or two strains, but this may be a possible reason.

    1. This was White Labs Brett C, which has also been around for a long time, but seems to be maintaining the same character pretty steadily over time.

      Yeah, I remember that. Maybe it's a strain that's more prone to mutation, which wouldn't be that weird. Conan's character seems to change after just a few brews. I talked to Chris White about Trois for the BYO article that I did, and I don't believe he mentioned anything about it actually being two strains, but who knows. That would certainly explain it too.


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