This weekend, whilst huddling indoors to avoid the persistent downfall of fluffy white snow, I decided to do some beer crafting that I had been avoiding. About a month ago I brewed a Flanders red ale to commemorate my trip to visit Rodenbach Brewery in Roselare, Belgium. That beer has been sitting in the primary, working on becoming a sour. I have made this beer before, and my goal is to do one each year, until I really get the process down right.
For this particular batch of beer I wanted to spice things up a bit. The biggest complaint I have had on reviews of previous batches was a lack of cherry flavor, so I figured I'd accentuate that perceived lack with some real cherries. Now the BJCP style mentions intense fruitiness, with plum, orange, black cherry or currant flavors. Having been to the source, I can say that the basic Rodenbach is pretty light, thin and has a tart but not especially cherry flavor. The Grand Cru certainly has more of this character as it is blended with less young beer; and the Vintage is not blended at all, resulting in a lot more sourness and deep fruit. Most of my batches have ended up tasting like a regular Rodenbach, which makes sense since I'm dealing with one batch and not blending old and new to get the roundness of character. I just don't have the carboy space to take on the blending.
My friend Jon grows sour cherries and had a surplus this year, so I lucked out in getting a hefty batch from him. I decided on 10 pounds of these tiny tart cherries for the current batch of beer. They were all frozen, so I pulled them out of the freezer in the morning and slowly worked on de-stemming them. I'm not sure if this step was really necessary, but I worry that the stems in contact with the beer for most of a year will add a tannic astringency that might cut down on the smoothness and body in the finished product. So I took most of the day working on this. Being frozen or mostly frozen, this was chilly work. I would pick for about 5-10 minutes until the hands were numb, take a break, then return for more. In retrospect, I would pull the cherries out the night before and let them thaw more. Though the stems pop off easier if the cherries are still firm and cold than warm and squidgy. Let me tell you that ten pounds of cherries is a lot!
Finally all my work was done. Now the question is how to get those cherries into the small neck of the carboy. Improvisation is key. I found a large plastic funnel left over from my stove-top brewing days and rolled small amounts of cherries at a time through it. When the cherries got stuck in the funnel I used the handle of a sanitized plastic spoon to jam them through. Ghetto, but it works! These are the logistical issues that the magazines and brewing books never cover. One is simply told..."put 10# of cherries in the batch..." This process took me about 30 minutes. A plastic carboy bucket would have worked great for this, but too much oxygen will permeate that over the year this will sit. The acetobacter that gives this style much of its sourness needs a bit of oxygen, but not that much. I often use a Parafilm over the top of the carboy for a month or so to let in a limited amount of oxygen later in the process.
Why am I doing this in the laundry room instead of my basement brew area? I am paranoid about mixing my sour process with my regular brewing. I use all different equipment for sour beers and keep them sequestered in Tupperware containers in the garage when not in use. I use the laundry sink for clean-up and even keep my carboys up in the laundry room (much to my wife's chagrin.) Don't bother buying extra equipment for sours, just use your older equipment. That carboy you have had for 10 years with a few scratches on the inside? Sounds great for sours! The Auto-siphon with the little crack in it? Sours! Old tubing? You get the picture.
I have to say that the first taste of this beer is not thrilling. Bitter and nasty. I almost didn't add it to these hard-bought cherries. But remembering previous batches tasting pretty "Blech" before aged made me take the risk. Hopefully I don't waste a lot of time and cherries.
Now it sits until next Fall, when I will taste it and transfer to a third carboy to get it off the cherry sludge. Getting all those cherries out should be just as exciting as getting them in there. Maybe more so. Might have to take pics of that too.
Up next on the brewing agenda is a 10 gallon batch of lambic. I'll be putting the other 10# of cherries in half and my first big batch of frozen raspberries from my backyard bramble for the other half. And another year of waiting begins. I do have a 5 gallon batch of last year's raspberry lambic that still has a white pellicle on it that I might have to finally try blending with. After my trip to Cantillon I really want to make some great lambics. I have less spiders in my house than they do at Cantillon though...this might interfere with my process.