Wednesday, January 21, 2015

Strong Sour Ale with East Coast Yeast Bug Country - Recipe & Tasting Notes

Sour Ale with ECY Bug Country

Brewery: Bear Flavored
Style: Sour Ale
Brewed: 5.27.2013
Bottled On: 7.31.14
ABV: 9%

Introducing any type of wild microbes into a beer always means some big potential departures from the well known and easily controlled, at least the first few times around. Sure, you can learn the habits of semi-domesticated, once-wild microbes  at least, you can learn their habits in those specific contexts. But new cultures can always be expected to carve their own path, like water down a mountain. Sometimes the flow just can't be steered, and your well-worn trail gets washed out. Sometimes it's easy to find a source of nice clean water. Sometimes there's a dead squirrel floating down the stream, and you didn't see that coming, did you?

The two versions of White Manna  a pair of tarts saisons I did the other year with two mixed cultures — remain some of my favorite beers that I've made. The Fantome culture didn't develop the acidity early on of the other version, but more and more over time, a soft berry fruit tartness emerged, quite unique among other saisons I've had. I'm so happy I still have a few bottles of each, because watching them develop over time has been just real neat. Real neat.

When deciding to do this strong sour saison for my 50th batch (and my dad's 50th birthday; happy coincidence), I had to decide among my available cultures what might lend the nicest character to a 9ish percent ABV tart sour saison. The blend of Saison II and Fantome dregs that I had used before seemed as good of a choice as any. And so I let the beer do its thing for four or five months.

One thing about being a homebrewer with a decent pipeline of beers in production and a lot going on in life: that early rush to see your aged beers be ready to drink eventually dissolves into a sort of forgetful patience. Or maybe that's just me. Beers that need more tending-to get it, while beers that I know are fine to age for a while often sit quietly in the corner, going about their business as I remind myself that I should really check on them soon, but maybe not tonight, because all these kegs need cleaned and I'm already a few pints deep. Which is to say, I could have easily turned this batch around much, much faster, in retrospect. Still, the way I went about it returned a very interesting beer. If I had packaged it after four months, it would have been another, different, interesting beer. Just ready much sooner. That's often how it is with, especially, wild beers: whatever path down the mountain the fermentation tends to take, there are many possible outcomes that are all interesting. Just interesting in different ways.

After four months, I added honey and sugar to bring the calculated ABV of the batch up to about 9%. This is an easy trick employed by various Belgian styles to keep a beer dry and drinkable and clean and deceptive in its ABV — elementary stuff, but again, I could have added the sugar much earlier, even in the boil itself. Realistically it wasn't going to make a huge difference either way. Three weeks into fermentation versus four months into fermentation was somewhat arbitrary. However: knowing that I was already taking my sweet time with this batch led to another, more serious editing choice.

Right after adding the sugar to re-initiate fermentation, I decided to add another microbe culture. Having some newly-acquired secondhand dregs of East Coast Yeast Bug Country to play around with, I figured: why not?

With the new dregs added in, I figured this might become more of a full-on sour than just a lightly acidic saison, and so ultimately this batch got almost a year to age. Its lifespan offers up a few glimpses of lessons about, I dare say, the lives of sour beers in general.

Most full-on sours with mixed cultures aren't considered done for at least a year, and this is generally a good baseline if you know you're using lambic-like cultures. That is why my procrastination at bottling this until approximately a year after it was brewed didn't seem extreme. If I had meant it to be a full-sour from the start, this would be the normal timeline anyway. Why not have the patience to wait and see what, if anything, would change?

Flash forward to the beer being ready to drink. Yes, I've not really checked up on it for a few months, but I know it should definitely be done by now. There's no sign of a pellicle or anything. Definitely no activity. I could have bottled a while ago, I'm sure. Oh well. It's not as sour or lambic-like as I expected, but it's... interesting. There's a flavor note I can't quite pinpoint, at first. It certainly doesn't taste like the "strong sour saison" I originally intended this to be.

Rather than a brisk, pale saison, I find a profile I have not encountered in many beers previously: sherry.

It's hard to describe the flavor profile of sherry other than "sherry." At first, I couldn't figure out what was going on. Even the color of the beer was darker, though the recipe was essentially the same as other saisons I had done. But that unique sour note.... The flavor of sherry so particular, I might not have even been able to place it had I not randomly bought a bottle of sherry not too long before I brewed this beer, from my friend who runs the fancy schmancy wine store in town. Maybe it's just this particular region, but I can't say I find sherry to be a particularly oft-consumed beverage. (When was the last time you personally consumed sherry?) The flavor of it, though, is very distinct. It's a profile similar to what you might get with a minor acetic backbone, and both depend on the presence of oxygen, to some extent, to arise. Had I allowed this beer too much oxygen due to its overly-long aging process? And how had excess oxygen gotten into a glass carboy?

Now, as I finish this write-up, I can no longer find the description for East Coast Yeast Bug Country online (the results turn up hits for "Bug County", which I assume is a different, newer blend. Al is changing his offerings all the time). But when I was first trying to solve this riddle, I had pulled up the description for the Bug Country blend release, and noted that it contained sherry flor. Ah-ha. This previously mysterious flavor that I hadn't been able to place, clicked into place. I at least understood what I was tasting, now, if not exactly the path the beer had taken.

Perhaps I favored the flor cultures in the blend unintentionally, by feeding the beer in stages with additional sugars; by giving it so much extra time to age; by allowing it the headspace it had, for the months it had once fermentation was otherwise complete. I'm not entirely sure. This is a beer that I don't know that I could reproduce, if I wanted to brew it exactly like this a second time. Which is kind of a shame.

Ultimately, I'm glad this one came out the way it did. No, it's not lambic-like. It's not quite Flanders like either, though that's the style probably closest to it, with that oxidative, semi-acetic influence. Like I said: I've never had another beer that tasted much like this. And since this is an enjoyable, flavorful, surprisingly-drinkable strong sour beer, that's kind of a shame. A lot of things about this batch fascinate me.

After all the aging-pitfalls it's already handily dodged  and at 9% ABV too  this one is set up to age for quite some time. Good thing, as I donated most of the bottles to my dad for his birthday and told him to open them infrequently. Maybe a couple a year. Maybe, once they're down to a sixpack or so, once a year. A beer like this is meant to take the long, winding path of patience.

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