For the month of May 2013 Jack Of All Brews is having a special brewing event: The Belgian Brew-Off! This initially started as one of our 3-4 times a year monthly style focus, where as many members as possible will brew up that style for the month's meeting. But thanks to Tim Roets' hardcore pursuing of sponsorship, we've expanded this into a full-blown event. Tim managed to finagle Belgian yeasts from both White Labs and Wyeast as well as several different sugars from Candi Syrup, Inc. Some of the yeasts and sugars were handed out at the last meeting, and I believe there are some more for this week's Friday meeting. Having ingredients to hand out for this challenge is just what is needed to get some homebrewers out of their comfort zones! I know several JAB members who claim to not like Belgian beers, but there is no doubt in my mind that after tasting all the different brews that will available in May, we will probably have some converts.
I am especially excited about this challenge after my trip to Belgium last Fall with Sj, Chris and Hassan. While there we tried nearly 200 different beers, all amazingly unique--ranging from sweet, strong, light, refreshing, complex to even hoppy! My eyes and taste buds were opened to new beer styles during that trip and I've been crafting several Belgian ales since. This was just the kick I needed to start my next batch. Hands down my favorite beer from that trip was Westvleteren 12, a very difficult to find beer to say the least. It is a strong, boozy dark beer with incredible complexity in aroma and flavor, and quickly became my bench mark for what a Belgian dark strong ale could be. I have actually been procrastinating making such a beer after tasting its perfection--how could I ever get close? Now is the time to try it out!
I received a 1# bag of the liquid D90 Dark Candi Syrup at the last meeting and created my recipe to include it as one of the key ingredients. I made up my own recipe for this one based in a large part on knowledge gleaned from the book Brew Like a Monk by Stan Heironomus. There are limited actual recipes in the book, but lots of information about the types of ingredients and fermentation processes used for those styles of beer. My most recent batches have been a very refreshing and hoppy Belgian pale ale and a less-than-successful tripel, so I wanted to go with something darker--a dark Belgian strong. Most commercial examples use very little specialty malt, mostly just a Belgian pilsner malt base and candi sugar to add flavor, fementability, and perhaps color. Putting my recipe through Beersmith it was looking a bit light so I also added a pound of the D180 (named after the lovibond color value of the syrup.) This took me to a very dark place...perfect! The beer will be dark in color but lacking any of the roast or bitter character from the classic dark malts.
For hops I used what I could find hiding in the depths of my Hop Freezer: some German Tradition and Hallertau hops. The hops for most Belgian ales are lower alpha acid noble hops, and the majority of the dark strong ales use only a small amount of hops at the boil for bittering. I went with just one 60 minute addition of hops for this recipe. I don't really want much hop flavor or aroma, just the bitterness to even out the sweetness of the beer. Contrary to common sense the added sugars in these beers are nearly fully fermented out, leaving no residual sweetness from the sugar itself. Most leftover sweetness comes from the malt used or is residual from fermentation stopping before all the sugars are gone.
Yeast! I picked the Wyeast Belgian Abbey yeast as it was most likely to give me the type of flavor and aroma profile I was looking for. I want this beer to be similar to a Rochefort 10, Chimay Blue Cap or Westvleteren 12, so what better to use than a clone of the yeasts used by such breweries. I want a strong yeast that will stand up to the high alcohol levels found in these beers, that won't drop out early leaving too much residual sweetness. Proper yeast management is key to brewing these strong ales, and is the main reason that many homebrewed examples end up being disappointingly sweet. I smacked my Wyeast smack-pack and let it sit overnight, with minimal plumping by the next day. I went ahead and made a 2 liter starter on my 1940's era stir plate. By 48 hours there was still no action in the starter. My yeast seemed to be DOA. I made a quick trip down to the homebrew shop and picked up another pack the following day, having to postpone my brew day. That afternoon my starter began to work--nearly 72 hours after pitching it. Smelling the sulfurous wine-like funk coming out of the starter, I dumped that batch and smacked my second pack. No sense in wasting a whole batch of beer with an iffy yeast. The second pack plumped up nicely and my starter was vigorous and active within six hours of starting it spinning. With a beer this big (1.100) it is suggested that one step up the starter to a 4L batch, but I didn't have time to do that. I have also found that sometimes with the estery strains of yeast (like Belgian and German Hefe) having too large of a starter can lead to a less estery aroma and flavor profile. I can only assume that the slightly stressed out yeast puts out more of these compounds.
Come brew day I was ready for action! I started with RO water, cut with a couple gallons of local crazy hard water to make sure there was some calcium in the mash. I did a 90 minute mash, wanting to make sure that the pilsner malt I was using had complete conversion. I probably could have gone shorter, but my last pilsner batch came out a little low on gravity and I was feeling gun-shy. I went with a mash temp of 149, using for the lower end of the scale to get a dryer finish. I hit my target gravity right on this time and added the Candi Syrup after it came to a boil. I decided on doing a 90 minute boil for two reasons: The first was to add some additional carmelization and color to the wort by boiling longer. The second was to get rid of any DMS that might show up in the beer from the use of pilsner malt. Everything went without a hitch (highly unusual for my brew days) and I hit a bit above my target OG--1.108. Close enough for me! I transferred to a carboy (with blow-off tube) and moved it to my cool basement fermentation chamber (closet.)
Fermentation temperature can have a significant impact on any beer, but especially with Belgian ales. Many of the characters that one associates with the Belgian beer styles come from the yeast: fruity esters, clove, spice, pepper. I have found that low fermentation temps with these yeasts will often leave less impressive aroma and flavor. I have started to do my yeast pitch around 65 degrees, letting it rise with the heat generated from fermentation. The goal temp is different for each yeast, but for this one I'm going for about 68-70 degrees. My basement is usually around 63 degrees this time of year, which helps keep the fermentation temp from getting too high. Another tricky thing to be aware of with many of the Belgian yeasts is flocculation. Lots of these (especially Saison) will not flocculate well, leaving you with a slow, prolonged fermentation and a cloudy finished beer. I have a Ferm-Wrap hooked up to my glass carboy, with a temperature probe inserted into a thermowell, that allows me to ramp up the beer temp if I feel that the beer is slowing down too quickly, or if the temp has dropped below the ideal level for that yeast. Also of note, I can't have the temp probe inside the carboy at the same time that I have the blow off tube inserted. This type of beer requires some frequent babysitting to make sure I'm maintaining the right temps and level of yeast activity to fully finish a good fermentation. Sounds like a lot of work? Yup, which is why I tend to make more quick and easy English style beers! A lager fridge can also be great for keeping temps down, but can run the risk of getting too cold since they lack the ability to heat your carboy up.
Hopefully this batch will turn out like I want it. Highly doubtful I'll end up with my own Westy 12, but this has helped me to formulate my own recipe and try some new techniques in the pursuit of brewing perfection. I'm really looking forward to May when we all get together to try the varied Belgian ales at that time. With the myriad different styles and yeasts available to us, this should be a fun and educational experiment. I hope that most of the club members will take this particular challenge and try a new style--even if they don't "like" Belgian ales. Don't worry, we will help you drink it!
18.5# Castle Belgian Pilsner malt
12 oz Aromatic
8 oz Special B
4 oz Crystal 60
1# D90 Candi Syrup
1# D180 Candi Syrup
Hops: German Tradition 5.7 AA 1 oz and Hallertau 4.6 AA 0.75 oz at 60 minutes
Yeast: Wyeast Belgian Abbey with 2 L starter
Whirlfloc 1 tab at 15 minutes
Mash 90 minutes at 149 Degrees F
Boil 90 Minutes