Thursday, March 5, 2015

Barrel-Aged Sour Saison on Doughnut Peaches - Recipe & Tasting Notes

Brewery: Bear Flavored
Style: Sour Farmhouse Ale / Saison
Brewed: 4.24.14
Bottled On: 9.24.14

ABV: 5.6%

Life in a barrel, round two.

The first thing out of my beautiful new-to-me (used) 6 gallon oak barrel was a weird concoction, partly just to see if anything even weirder than what I was planning would arise. So I aged a 14% ABV Brett cyser in the guy. When that checked out, clearly its next passenger would have to be beer. And since its previous inhabitant had been funky, its next inhabitant would be so too. I'd committed this barrel to funkdom for life.

Many homebrewers don't get the chance to mess around with barrels. Small barrels have this annoying tendency to be both aggressively over-priced, and yet less practical in use than their bigger brothers, due to the drastically increased ratio of surface area. Which means they'll set you back a lot of dough, and yet you can't easily age in them the types of beers a brewer would be most inclined to age in a barrel. Like long-aged sours.

Fortunately, I brew a lot of sour farmhouse ales that only take a couple months to finish up. Just about perfect for small-barrel aging.

Sour saisons have become big lately, and I wonder if it's just because saisons in general really took off, and obviously we're going to try to sour just about anything, or if everyone realized the same thing at the same time: you can ferment out a sour saison in much less time than a lambic-like aged sour, and yet still achieve a beer that's complex and interesting enough to be worth the effort. Saison yeast are so highly attenuating that there's generally not a lot of residual sugar left for the other microbes to work on — meaning, theoretically at least, less time required. And sour saisons generally don't invite the entire complex ecosystem that most aged ferments have, so there's less of the long-term breakdown of complex sugars; more big pushes of initial primary fermentation. Since I incorporate Brettanomyces in mine, you still have at minimum the standard aging process of a Brett beer. But that's a matter of months, not years. Some sour saison blends use only Saccharomyces and lactobacillus, and those could probably finish up in weeks.

I've been tempted to move a long-aging sour into this barrel, believe me. I have a few going that would be solid candidates. The problem then, is, your barrel is now permanently an aged-sour barrel, as far as the cultures inside go. So you've either got to keep moving aged sours in and out of it, keep an aged sour in it for a while (until another is ready to fill it) and risk an ingress of too much oxygen, or else leave the barrel empty of beer for long spells in between brief aged-sour excursions. (Even writing all those logistical concerns out hurts my head). I've given this much thought, trying to decide what cultures I wanted to have a home inside this wood permanently. The sour saison culture (White Mana) living within now is, I'm pretty sure, the best possible tenant.

One of my favorite souring cultures, a barrel that had already proven to be reliable and trustworthy, and a good base saison. What else could a beer need?

Fruit, maybe?

And so I ventured to Fishkill Farms, one of my favorite local growers of Food, where I've also done a few homebrew demos and sauerkraut workshops. They're good people and take their shit seriously, so I knew they'd have something for me. Sure enough, I found not just beautiful peaches, but a type of peach I didn't even realize existed before: doughnut peaches. Look if you're just going to go ahead and combine two of my very favorite things together in one weird looking fruit, I am so on that.

Adding fruit to a beer in a barrel is a royal pain in the ass. The easy way would have been to cut the peaches into cubes and jam them through the bunghole of the barrel. For some reason that is no longer clear to me but was clearly the result of sheer stupidity, I felt strongly at the time that puree'ing the peaches would be the way to go. Cubing and dropping would have been much faster. But I got out my blender and spent a lovely Thursday evening covered in peach detritus as I blended, two liters at a time, and poured the puree into the empty barrel. Once the peaches were all blended up real nice and inside the barrel, I finally transferred the beer on top of them. Piece of cake doughtnut!

Actually, I remember now: I figured turning the peaches into puree would save me the trouble of potentially having peach cubes lodged in my barrel afterwards, impossible to remove. Shit, that was actually smart. I take back portions of the last paragraph. There might just not be a good way to easily add fruit into a barrel. At least this was just one 6 gallon and not dozens of 225 liter barrels. It's the small things in life.

Peach is notoriously subtle in beer, hard to express even in tame sours. An average for fruit in sour beer is probably somewhere around 1 lb per gallon. With peach, some brewers go as crazy as 4 lbs per gallon. I went with half that. The result, and the success, is subjective... as with so much in brewing. At first I felt this still didn't come out with enough peach character. Many I gave it to said that it had the perfect amount of peach character. As it aged, I came to agree: sure, it could be peachier, but the subtle nature of the flavor is perfectly balanced by the gentle acidity and smooth, richer oak character. Oak and peach together seems like a no-brainer to me, with the vanilla and lingering tannic structure from the barrel positioned just enough to compliment the fruit character, you've established one of the quintessential flavor pairings of the culinary world (peach and vanilla). And I think this is part of the reason that the peach itself doesn't have to be overwhelmingly present, but just present enough. What you want here is the third corner of a well-balanced triangle. There's a brisk, clean acidity, and some residual funk from the last occupant of the barrel: I'm actually quite surprised how much of the cyser carried over. It takes this maybe from a three-pointed beer to a four, but as all of the elements exist in harmony, I find it works quite well even with this unexpected additional dimension.

I found the main down-side to this "fruit in a barrel" business the hard way, when it came time to drink this batch. Pureed fruit still leaves lots of little bits and pieces, which mostly settle to the bottom of the beer by the time it's ready to package. But it would be impossible to avoid sucking them up entirely, and suck up many pieces of peach I did. As a result, the "late fills" off my bottling bucket received huge amounts of sediment. And as a result of that crazy amount of sediment, the bottles all gushed (tons of nucleation points for CO2 to start foaming) and poured like sour peach smoothies. The majority of the bottles, which have only a typical amount of sediment, are perfectly carbed. Except for the ones I bottled in these weirdly-shaped Belgian-cap bottles I love, which, apparently, my Belgian crown capper does not love. And as a result of that, some of those bottles pour basically flat. As a result of all of these things, this may be the most inconsistently carbonated batch of beer I've made in years. Sours are always a pain in the ass to carb properly and consistently, but my main takeaway: always use something to filter out fruit chunks. A fine mesh straining bag, or a steel screen like I use in my dry-hop setup, would both make a huge difference in the amount of gunk that ends up at the bottom of your bottles.

Then again, a sour peach saison smoothie isn't the worst thing in the world, either.

5.0 Gal., All Grain
Brewed: 4.24.14
Bottled On: 9.24.14

Fermented at room temp, 72 F
OG: 1.048
FG: 1.005
ABV: 5.6%

72.7% [#6] Pilsner malt
12.1% [#1] rye
12.1% [#1] white wheat
3.1% [4 oz] acidulated malt (pH adjustment)

Hop Schedule-
0.5 oz Citra (old leaf hops) @FWH
0.75 oz Citra (old leaf hops) @flameout

White Labs Saison II
House Sour Saison Culture - White Mana

10 lbs Doughnut Peaches
1 Oak Barrel


  1. Definitely has become a popular style. A small brewery out here called Council Brewing makes a very popular tart saison. They just did a silent bottle release with different fruits and they all sold out within a couple hours. Crazy. Anyway, in your process did you primary outside of the barrel and then rack to the barrel for secondary, relying on the leftover microbes from the cyser? How long was it on the fruit? Thanks for the write up.

    1. Oh yes, Jeffrey Crane is doing the sour program at Council Brewing, right? They sound like they're killing it!

      I did primary for a few months outside of the barrel, but I primary fermented with all the microbes at once -- my souring culture, plus a fresh pitch of Saison II. I got transferred into the barrel onto the peaches and probably picked up a few new Brett strains leftover from the cyser then too.

  2. Commercial strain for the souring? Any suggestions?

    1. Some of the blends coming out of The Yeast Bay are very nice. Anything that will get you a nice soft acidity over time plus a little bit of balancing funk. Ideally I think you want to have an aggressive primary fermentor, so a saison strain that you like, plus lactobacillus and Brett.

  3. Hey, whats in your white mana house culture - if you don't mind me asking?

    1. It's been with me for a few years, so it's changed a bit over time, but it started with some Hill Farmstead saison dregs, which is the main source of the lactobacillus in the culture. It's picked up some additional Brett strains over time, plus a couple different saison strains. I think it really found its balance after brewing with it a few times, which is likely going to be true of any house culture like this that you put together.

  4. Last night, my wife and I were discussing planting fruit trees in the next couple weeks, and one of those was peach. My first thought was a peach saison, so I laughed a little when I woke up to this.

    Also, can I say I love the fact that you incorporated the word "detritus" into a blog post? Awesome.

    1. Haha, nice. Detritus is one of my favorite words, highly underrated!

  5. This is exactly what I've started doing with my 5 gallon barrel recently. The first sour I aged in it was for almost a year and you could definitely get some acetic notes from it. Although I will say it wasn't as bad as I expected (I thought I would have to dump it). The next one was about 6 months and actually had some lambic like qualities. After that I kept the beer in it for only 3 months and it was more sour then I had intended. I think I've turned the barrel in to a quick souring machine, which while the wait time is down is nice, I'm a lazy brewer. If I wasn't lazy I wouldn't brew sours ;) My plan is to keep beers in it for about two to three months at a time and either fruit or dry hop them or use them for blending.


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