Tuesday, January 27, 2015

Demeter Facile: Tasting Notes

After nearly three months in the bottle, I'm getting around to posting tasting notes for Demeter Facile (recipe).  The idea behind this one was to go with a (relatively) simple malt bill and fairly-minimal hop additions so that I could get a beer that showed off the character of my current house blend (Ambrosia 005) of saison yeast (Saccharomyces), Brettanomyces strains, and lactic acid bacteria (LAB).  Overall, I'm quite happy with the results, and this is something that I will most definitely be brewing again in the future.  I'll also plan to do an oak-aged version soon enough.

Appearance: Quite clear.  Color is a medium yellow with a sizable initial head that fizzles down a bit quickly.  Could be better in this area, though the retention isn't horrible.  

Nose: Begins with yellow and orange SweeTarts, leading into faint tropical fruit.  A bit of apricot. Light grass and wheat.  Some honey as it starts to warm, potentially from the bit of honey malt that I used in this one.  (While I wanted to keep it simple, I love honey malt in saisons and couldn't resist).  Hints of lime zest as well, lingering after the more-upfront mango and tangerine subside.

Flavor: Similar notes as the nose, but with a light-to-moderate tartness through the finish.  Just where I like it, tart without really being sour.  Maybe a bit of pineapple that I wasn't really getting from the nose.  Mango, tangerine, and light lemon/lime seem to be the dominant characteristics.  I'm guessing this is mostly from the yeast and bacteria rather than the hops, as I didn't use much Centennial, and it's not the light orange and generic citrus that I typically associate with Centennial.

Mouthfeel: Light and airy, definite saison carbonation.  Could use a bit more body.  Might need to up the adjuncts next time.  Really easy drinking; the bottle goes down way too quickly.

Overall: I really like this beer and am pretty damn pleased with what my standard blend did with an otherwise-simple base beer.  I'd like to try bottle conditioning this with honey at some point, and also potentially with a tropical fruit juice.  As mentioned above, a bit of oak could also add a bit of complexity.  

Wednesday, January 14, 2015

Commercial Review: Crooked Stave Surette Reserva (Dry Hopped)

Long before I started focusing on brewing saisons and similar beers, I was frequently seeking out any and all new saisons, sours, and similar beers.  While my focus now is more on homebrew, I still try to seek out great commercial examples of these beers.  As much as I homebrew, there are still so many commercial examples with unique ingredients, processes, yeast/bacteria combinations, etc., and trying them out is a great way to get a feel for something unique without having to brew a different batch.  This is great, of course, since I'm frequently coming up with way more ideas than I can possibly execute.  

I've been trying to get better about taking actual notes (meaning more than the 140 characters allowed by Untappd) when I try beers, and while I'm on my (hopefully) short brewing hiatus (twin boys born in November 2014!), I thought a good way to keep up the blog would be to have my thoughts on some commercial breweries and beer.  I'll start things off here with a beer review, and plan to include more commercial reviews, and also have brewery profiles where I will give background on a brewery, its equipment and production volume, special beers, and the person or people behind that brewery.  Brewery background is something I've really been focused on as I start very preliminary planning for eventually opening up my own small place.  Of course, to the extent possible, I focus on breweries specializing in saisons and mixed fermentation beers.  I closely followed/am following the development of places like Casey Brewing & Blending, Haw River Farmhouse Ales, and Wolves & People.

With that background behind us, below are some thoughts on Crooked Stave's Surette Reserva (Dry Hopped), which is a dry-hopped version of their standard Surette, which itself is a mixed fermentation saison that is part of their year-round lineup.  Per a response from Crooked Stave's Twitter account, the dry hops were a mixture of Pacifica, Motueka, and Wakatu.

Appearance: Pours hazy with a light peach color. There's an initial two-finger white head that quickly dissipates down into a collar around the edges of the glass, leaving a bit of lacing behind. No apparent rising carbonation.

Nose: The first whiff does not bring forward as much New Zealand hop goodness as I was expecting.  It doesn't quite explode with hop character like some other dry-hopped Crooked Stave beers have, e.g., Dry-Hopped L'Brett d'Or.  Instead, the nose is more muted, with faint hints of gooseberry and green grape.  As it warms, there's just a hint of oak.  It could use a little more oomph, but overall it's nice enough.

Flavor: Here's where the beer really shines.  While the hop character is still pretty subdued, the light Brett fruitiness and light-to-moderate acidity fit together quite well.  The mouthfeel is fantastic.  It could use a bit more carbonation, but the body is light without being too thin, and the acidity is slightly puckering, but certainly not to the point where it detracts at all from drinkability.  As with the nose, hints of barrel come through toward the back end.

Overall: A really nice beer that I would happily consume on a regular basis if given the chance.   It's fairly similar to the regular Surette, but with a bit more tartness and less oak and funk.  Although they don't stand out too much, the hops have to be contributing a decent dose of fruitiness, as this beer tends more toward the gooseberry, white-wine-type character you get from New Zealand hops, as opposed to a more stone-fruit character in the regular Surette.

Homebrew Thoughts: This is the sort of beer that I would really love to be able emulate on the homebrew scale.  I'm planning on getting some smaller barrels in the coming years, and would love to make sure that all of my saisons (or at least most of them, keeping a clean petit saison as a crushable, everyday brew) take a pass through.  The dry-hopping is something I love, and Crooked Stave has done a great job with.  Using tropical and citrus-heavy hops as dry hops in a wild and/or sour beer is a great idea, as they play off of the fruity character that many Brett strains create.  

Wednesday, January 7, 2015

Saisons & Farmhouse Ales: General Thoughts & Brewing Overview

Recently there was a thread in the homebrew forum on TalkBeer.com where a user had some questions on brewing saisons and farmhouse ales. I eventually posted plenty of my thoughts here, but the thread also gave me the idea to do an overview post on my saison brewing process and thoughts on brewing saisons in general.  I've been brewing for just over four years now, and the last 2-2.5 years have been focused almost entirely on saisons and other mixed fermentation beers.  For the most part, my saisons tend to have Brettanomyces and/or lactic acid bacteria (LAB).  I feel that this offers greater opportunity to create complex flavor profiles, and also keeps away comparisons to Saison Dupont, which is nearly impossible to rival when dealing with clean saisons (though Off Color comes damn close with their Apex Predator).  At the same time, I have found a place for light, clean saisons as a way to bring an approachable example of the style to those who are otherwise unfamiliar with beers of the farmhouse tradition.  When I eventually start up my own brewery, it'll focus exclusively on saisons and wilds, but everything won't be too crazy, as I'd love to offer a low-ABV saison with a fairly-light yeast profile to get people started down the farmhouse track.

A word of caution.  Portions of like may seem like a bit of stream-of-consciousness rambling.  I think about saisons and future brewing plans constantly every day, so it's been hard to contain and edit my thoughts, though hopefully I haven't gone too overboard.  Since I feel like every good blog post should have a picture, below is one that seems appropriate.  It's a picture of one of my saisons in a glass with the future logo of Ambrosia Ales, sitting atop a table littered with coasters from many fantastic saison, lambic, and other wild beer producers.


Since the question always comes up, what is saison?  The following is simply my opinion; there are certainly many valid opinions, including Shaun Hill of Hill Farmstead recently indicating that the term shouldn't even be used by American brewers in this interview with Good Beer Hunting.  I take a very broad approach, using the label for any beer that is yeast-forward using a Belgian strain with or without Brettanomyces or lactic acid bacteria.  The only other requisite characteristic as far as I'm concerned is that the beer finishes quite dry.  From there, it doesn't matter to me whether the beer is light or dark; high or low ABV; or makes use of fruit, spices, or other adjuncts.  To differentiate, I will sometimes use "saison" to refer to beers that are clean and crisp, rendering them quite drinkable, whereas farmhouse is a term I use for beers that are more toward the pre-Industrial beers of Wallonia that would have been funky and/or sour.

As mentioned above, I typically gravitate toward saisons that utilize Brettanomyces, LAB, and/or other non-traditional (or traditional, depending on how far back you look) fermenters in addition to Saccharomyces.  Given that, most of this post will focus on beers along those lines, but I'll first provide some quick thoughts on "clean" saisons that are fermented solely with one ore more Saccharomyces strains.

I've long thought that if a brewery is going to offer something to introduce saison to a broader set of customers, something along the lines of a sub-5% ABV clean saison would be perfect.  When sticking with a beer fermented solely with a saison strain, the first question is whether you want to go with a beer that is phenolic and spicy, or tends toward the fruity side of things.  Comparing to other styles, I think you could go toward the spicy side to "replace" something like a pilsner.  You would want to keep the phenolics to a low level, complementing the dryness of the beer without being overpowering.  The drinker should smell and taste something beyond clean grain/malt, but without being able to specifically say what it is.  I've encountered this effect when introducing light-beer drinkers to something like Penrose Devoir or Stillwater Classique, both fantastic beers and excellent examples of what an approachable saison can be.  I would keep hops and malt relatively simple, focusing on the yeast without too many distractions.  I haven't truly brewed something like this, but plan to in the future, likely utilizing Wyeast 3726 (Farmhouse Ale), which is reportedly the Blaugies strain.  Another option would be using one of the abbey/Trappist strains, which are often used for Belgian Blondes, a style that can have considerable overlap with saisons, often times seeming to be one in the same.  For example, are the great beers from De La Senne (such as Taras Boulba) saisons, Belgian Blondes, or something else?  (Not that it truly matters what you call these beers; they're absolutely delightful no matter the terminology.)

On the fruity side, I think you can go a bit more complicated, as this would be less of your straight light-beer substitute, and be more comparable to something like an introductory American Pale Ale.  The idea here is that you'd have something with light-to-moderate bitterness (probably sub-30 IBU) and use the yeast and hops to accentuate citrus and/or tropical fruit notes.  In my experience, I've found that strains/blends like East Coast Yeast 08 Saison Brasserie can pair perfectly with flameout additions of American hops to offer an easy-drinking beer.  This is example what I did when I brewed my initial batch of Saison Faible (recipe; tasting notes), a beer I definitely intend to brew again in the future.  The aforementioned Apex Predator is a great example of a very fruit-forward clean saison.  While the comparison to an APA is further off than a lightly-phenolic strain to a light beer, it still offers consumers a starting point, drawing parallels to the fruitiness that American hops bring to pale ales, while taking things in a slightly-different direction.



First, and most importantly, the yeast and other fermenters.  Since saison is such a wide-ranging "style," a lot of your yeast decision depends on what you're looking for, as people certainly have different goals. If you're shooting for something that's more funky, spicy, and phenolic, I'd recommend just going with Saccharomyces in the primary, letting it get down quite low, and then adding dregs/Brett in secondary or at bottling. Nearly any saison strain should work for that, though as many others do, I would caution using Wyeast French Saison (3711) as it tends to get overly spicy and one dimensional.  It will get your beer dry, but doesn't offer the complexity of things like White Labs Saison II (WLP566) and Wyeast Farmhouse, which are both a bit more spicy rather than fruity.  However, many brewers do have success blending in a little bit of 3711 with a more-interesting saison strain, as it is a workhorse that will ensure the beer finishes dry no matter the recipe and fermentation temperature.

If you prefer saisons that are fruitier with some tartness, I'd go with something along the lines of The Yeast Bay Wallonian Farmhouse or ECY08 (Saison Blend). I would then also pitch this alongside a healthy dose of Brett that tends to be fruity-heavy in primary before it starts working on the Sacch.-created compounds. Here, best bets in my opinion are Brett Claussenii (WLP645) and "Brett" Trois (WLP644) (not really Brett).  I use both.  You could then also go with some fruitier American hops at flameout or for dry-hopping.  Think intense tropical- and citrus-forward hops, just only use a third or a half of what you'd use for a bigger IPA.

In terms of fermentation temperature, I've honestly had success anywhere from the low 60s to the upper 70s when going with a fruitier saison strain paired with Brett, with fermentations taking about 2 weeks at the upper end of the range, and more toward 4 weeks at the lower end. However, the flavor profiles aren't too noticeably different.  Thus, when using Brett, I think you can go with a more Laissez-faire attitude.  Results will likely differ, but that's part of the fun of brewing these beers.  Each batch is unique.  With that said, you can always achieve more-consistent results through blending.

Now, with regard to temperature, you need to be much more careful if you're going to be barrel-aging or using other methods of fermentation that may expose the fermentation to oxygen.  If this is the case, you need to ensure you keep temperatures down, as otherwise you run the risk of dealing with an acetobacter infection.  Saisons should be crisp and refreshing, and the vinegar produced by acetobacter completely destroys that possibility.  When dealing with strict Saccharomyces fermentations, also make sure to maintain temperature control and take detailed notes, as a clean saison fermented at 70*F will taste much different from one fermented at 80*F.  With clean fermentations, I also recommend starting in the upper 60s or maybe low 70s, and then let the yeast free rise or slowly push it upward into the upper 70s or 80s.  Going too quickly may result in fusel alcohols and other off flavors.

One final note on using bacteria (and this is more of a preference than a hard and fast rule), and that is to keep the bacteria in check.  Aside from avoiding vinegar, you also want lactic acid kept to a background note.  Saisons are great with a nice tartness, but should not be overly sour to the point where that is the dominant character of the beer.

Finally, as saison is a style that originated in the agricultural regions of Belgium, using locally-harvested yeast or that borrowed from nearby farms, catching your own wild yeast to use as a sole fermenter (if you're lucky) or, more likely as part of a blend offers great opportunities to add depth, nuance, and a distinct house character.  This has been done by breweries such as Jester King and Plan Bee.


For the most part, when I've seen discussions surrounding water profiles for saisons, people tend to recommend high sulfate levels (often over 100 ppm) to accentuate the dryness of the beer.  I'd offer advice to the contrary.  Personally, I find that the very low finishing gravity (approaching 1.000) that can be achieved through proper fermentation procedure (especially when saison yeast is paired with Brett and/or LAB) achieves the requisite dryness.  Instead, I like to keep the sulfate at a moderate level and instead accentuate the malt flavor and give some perceived body through chloride and sodium additions.  I generally put the sodium levels right around 50 ppm, thereby accentuating the flavors of the beer without approaching any sort of actual salty flavor.  With chloride, I'll push toward 100 ppm, thereby providing some grain and malt flavor to complement what the yeast and hops are doing for the flavor profile.  This also protects against the beer seeming overly thin.

One minor caveat to my statement about sulfate additions is that I will push the levels to 100 ppm when I'm doing a very hoppy saison, e.g., my Wallonian Pale Ale.  Even here, however, I keep the sulfate at the same level as the chloride.

When dealing with mineral additions, and throughout the saison brew process, pH is also incredibly important.  First, since many saisons are using exclusively or nearly-exclusively Pilsner malt, you really need to make sure your mash pH is in order and doesn't get too high.  The ideal mash range is often given somewhere in the area of 5.2 to 5.5.  Personally, I like to keep it right at the bottom of that range for saisons, as the lower pH tends to soften the overall profile of the been, enhancing the overall perception and drinkability.  If you're adding your minerals to the mash rather than to the kettle, keep in mind what effect they'll have on pH, and then use either acid malt or lactic/phosphoric acid to adjust to the appropriate level.  Depending on your base water, malt profile, and mineral additions, the amount of acid malt that may be required could be enough to give a little bit of acidity to the finished beer.

If you're taking care to adjust the pH of your mash, make sure to pay attention to the pH of the sparge water as well.  It's important here to keep that pH low so as to not pull tannins from the mash as you sparge.  I typically just use lactic acid to adjust the sparge water to the same pH as I had the mash.

For all my pH adjustments (actually, for the entire recipe), I use the BrewCipher spreadsheet.  With regard to mineral additions, I generally add everything to the kettle so that I can use only acid to adjust mash and sparge pH.  I can then adjust mineral additions for flavor without worrying about their effect on mash pH.  Starting around a year ago, each recipe post on this blog details the mineral and acid additions, including timing and (sometimes) rationale.


Really, this is mostly going to be about personal preference.  The one "rule" I would have is that IBUs should be kept in check, as the dryness achieved by the extreme attentuation will enhance bitterness levels.  Thus, for a typical saison, I recommend sticking at 30 IBU or less, potentially then pushing things up to 50 or so IBUs if you're looking for a really hoppy saison akin to the Wallonian Pale Ale that I mentioned above.  Even then, I wouldn't go much higher as you'll be getting that dry, bitter profile and can then focus more on flavor and aroma hops so that the beer really pops.

From there, the hops you use will really depend on what your goal is.  If you're doing a clean saison that tends toward the phenolic/spicy side of the style, sticking with Noble and other European hops (and their American counterparts) is probably the best bet, keeping aroma and flavor additions to a minimal, and using minimal (if any) dry hops.  This same advice would like apply if you're using Brettanomyces to achieve a funky, earthy finishing profile.  On the other hand, if you're using a more-fruity, ester-heavy strain, then American and Southern Hemisphere hops work really well.  You can go with citrus-heavy or tropical hops, as both will play well with the fruity character created by something like The Yeast Bay Wallonian Farmhouse or East Coast Yeast Saison Brasserie.  These hops also work quite well when you add in a little bit of tartness through the addition of bacteria.


Malt might not be the least-important of the four main ingredients, but it's my least-favorite component, so it goes last.  In practice, there are so many different directions that you can go with the malt profile of a saison, so I really can't give too many broad generalizations.  I'll give a bit on my preferences and general techniques, offer a few pointers, and then discuss things to avoid because, in reality, by altering the water profile and fermentation of a given beer, you can turn almost any malt bill into a saison.  I say almost because caramel/Crystal malt has no place in a saison.  None.  (Okay, maybe a bit of CaraMunich for color, but I'd even discourage that.)  Other than that, let the experimentation begin.

Non-barley additions work fantastic in saisons, providing some additional mouthfeel and comlexity, particularly when you're dealing with a Pilsner base.  It's always nice to get at least 10-20% wheat, spelt, oats, rye, flaked corn, etc. in there for some additional mouthfeel.  One caution with rye is that it can get fairly spicy as you go above 10% of the grain bill, so be careful crossing that threshold if you're already using a yeast that's going to put out plenty of phenolics, as that may result in any overly-peppery, one-dimensional beer.

Aside form these adjuncts, using 5-20% of something like Munich or Vienna is nice as well if you want to have a bit more bready flavor than what you'd get using only Pilsner for your barley component of the mash. Higher than that and I think you get too much of a bready or doughy character that can begin to detract from the yeast.  Personally, I also like using 5-10% honey malt, as that adds a nice layer of flavor without detracting from other components of the beer.  (Of course, you can use actual honey, too.)

When dealing with a dark saison, I recommend against overly-roasty malts, as those will contrast with the flavors created by the yeast.  When going with a darker beer, I recommend using something like Carafa II or III for most of the color, and then accenting the beer with malts like Chocolate or Special B, if you're looking for chocolate or dark fruit character, respectively.  Again, I'd stay aware from any straight caramel/Crystal malts, as those add caramel-like sweetness that contrasts the dry nature of the beer, while Special B at least offers some dark fruit notes that can add a nice twist to a darker example of the style.  If you want to call me an idiot and say I'm way off base with the caramel/Crystal thoughts, just point me toward this interview with Alexandre Dumont de Chassart of Brasserie de Jandrain-Jandrenouille, one of Belgium's best saison producers, where he discusses using caramel malt in their beer V Cense.

Fruit, Spices, & Other Additions

Given that the idea behind saison really depends on dryness and being yeast-forward, there really isn't anything out of bounds here.  Cherries or other fruit?  Sure.  Citrus zest?  Most definitely.  Spicing to complement the yeast?  When used in moderation, absolutely.  Coffee in a dark saison?  Works as well.  Really, here, just let experimentation run wild.  Keep things to a minimum at the beginning, as you can always add more.

With fruit additions, I think that you want to be considerate of the underlying beer, so my rule is to cut the typical lambic level in half, starting at one pound per gallon for common fruits like cherries, raspberries, grapes, etc.  If you're going with some more exotic and pungent, e.g., passion fruit or pineapple, think about cutting that down to half a pound per gallon or less.  You want the fruit to complement the yeast profile of the beer.  If you're just going to have the fruit dominate, you might as well just brew a clean ale and add all the fruit to that beer.

Since there's such a wide range of possibilities here, instead of going through everything, I'll offer a few examples of my own recipes that use fruit and/or spices:

As you can see, I've tended to use fruit more often than spices, but there are plenty of commercial examples using nearly anything you can imagine.  Some things I'd like to work with in the future include grains of paradise, grapefruit zest, rhubarb, yuzu, sumac, wine grapes, hibiscus, lilac, tea, and plenty of oak cubes soaked in different wines/spirits.


Some of these things I've gone over above, but here's more of an overview of how process might differ from a typical ale.  Again, first and foremost, temperature and pH are going to be key throughout the saison brew and fermentation process.  If you want to achieve the requisite saison yeast character and mouthfeel, these are two most-focus variables.

A few other things you may want to consider:
  • If you want the resulting beer to be more ester heavy, go with a little bit less oxygen.  I use 30 seconds of pure O2 through a diffusion stone per 5 gallons, as opposed to the general recommendation of 45-60 seconds for an ale of standard strength in the range of 1.040 to 1.050.  (Remember, many saisons will ferment down to near 1.000, so the alcohol will build up fast compared to a beer that finishes at 1.010-1.015.)
  • If you're looking for more acidity and/or funk, starting out (and also to shorten the timeline), I recommend doing a cleaner saison with just Sacch. and Brett, and then always keep on hand some base blonde wild for blending (even half a gallon of that in 5 gallons of beer without lactic acid will make a noticeable difference).  For ideas and notes on blending, see my post (and accompanying links) on my Science & Art series of blended saisons and wilds.
  • I always use double the recommended rate of yeast nutrient per the recommendation in Farmhouse Ales. I don't know if it really makes a difference, but it's not hurting anything and the stuff isn't expensive.
  • If you're messing with water profiles, a lot of people recommend heavier sulfate additions in saisons. Again, I really don't like this. The finishing gravity is low enough to make it dry, and 25-30 IBUs will give it a nice bitter edge. I favor keeping chloride and sulfate roughly the same, aiming for no higher than 75-100 ppm.
  • If you're dealing with pH, keeping the mash pH down in the range of 5.2-5.4 (room temperature) really helps smooth things out.  There's a very-detailed discussion at this Braukaiser page.
  • For mash temperature, you really can't go wrong.  Different temperatures will yield different results, but if you know your fermenters, you'll be able to get the beer sufficiently dry.  For a clean saison, I like something that finishes fast and dry, and would recommend staying under 150* F.  For something with Brett or bacteria, push that number up for increased funk and acidity levels.  The higher you go, the more you'll allow the non-Saccharomyces fermenters to do the work, though saison strains can tackle plenty of complex sugars all on their own.


Saison has become such a wide-ranging idea that it's really difficult to place in a neat box.  Here, I've only scratched the surface with what you can do.  For instance, I haven't tackled thoughts on barrel-aging (yet).  If nothing else, hopefully this post has served to pique people's interest in brewing dry, refreshing beers with a Belgian influence.  There are many other great resources out there.  If you're interested in learning more about the subject, I can't recommend Phil Markowski's Farmhouse Ales enough.  In particular, the essay on saison from Yvan de Baets (of the aforementioned De La Senne) is phenomenal.  

Any thoughts, questions, or concerns?  Did I leave anything out?  I'm always up for saison discussion, so please comment away!  In the future, I hope to have a post or set of posts highlighting the different characteristics of most of the available commercial saison strains and blends, pairing plenty of them with different Brettanomyces offerings and/or lactic acid bacteria.  I also plan to do a post on what I believe the ideal saison-focused brewery would offer and how it would operate, as it's something I've put a lot of thought into and would like to attempt in the not-so-distant future.