42 Below post: Souring Methods #2

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Geek Notes

As an alternative method to “kettle souring”, discussed in our last post, the following can also be followed to quickly produce sour beers through short-term mixed fermentation

If you’ve stopped in the brewery this summer, it’s likely that you have seen some variation on our farmhouse sour series. This project started last fall with small-scale experiments, and has now been brewed several times on our 20 BBL system. Like a kettle sour, this beer is fermented with both Saccharomyces (brewer’s yeast) and Lactobacillus. However, instead of pitching the Lactobacillus first, souring the wort, and then killing it off with a boil, we pitch the Lactobacillus into the fermenter with the yeast and it remains alive throughout the entire process.

The benefits of this process are three-fold. First, by removing the kettle-souring stage, we free up our brewing rig for other beers. Instead of taking two days (one day for souring and one day for re-boiling), we can dive into the next batch of Asylum Porter or Illumination Pilsner. Second, the delayed souring helps improve the fermentation-derived flavors. In a typical kettle sour, the wort that is sent to the fermenter is highly acidic. This suppresses the yeasts’ ability to produce esters (fruity flavors). For our farmhouse sours, we allow our saison yeast to develop character for several days before we add the lactobacillus. Finally, and we’ll discuss this in more detail in a future post, the interaction between yeast and lactobacillus during fermentation can produce novel flavors that neither organism would produce by itself. So, by tweaking the kettle sour process a bit, we can turn out what we feel is a more refined product in a comparable amount of time.

Other elements can also be added to this mixed fermentation process to bring even more complexity to the final beer. Brettanomyces can be introduced to bring some musty, fruity funk to the profile. The beer can be aged on oak, to add some tannins and wine/spirit character. (Stay tuned for a version of the Treaty Farmhouse that includes both of these elements!) These variations do add to the timeline of the beer, stretching it from a quick 3-week turn-around to a 2-3 month process. However, this pales in comparison to traditional barrel aged sours, which can take years to hit their stride.

In the next blog post we will be describing Long-Term Barrel-Aged Sour beers like those that will be produced at 42 Below. Stay Tuned….

-Clay & Zack

42 Below Blog Post #2: Souring Methods

The sign is up. The barrels are stacked. The beer is fermenting. When can we expect some beer? For better or worse, barrel-aged beer, and specifically barrel-aged sour beer, is an exercise in patience. While many of you reading this blog have probably tried some of our house sours, like Treaty Farmhouse and Island Farmhouse, the process for making those beers is a bit different from the process we will use the 42 Below beers. So, to start this adventure off right, we’re going to talk through the different types of sour beer you’ll find on the market, and hopefully shed some light on why the 42 Below project is so special.

Over the next three blog posts we will be describing three different sour beer production methods to help shed some light on the complex world of

Kettle Sours

A lot of the sour beers you see on draft at local bars and breweries, and many the beers you see on the shelves of the bottle shops, are classified as kettle sours. This category includes several historic styles that have gained traction in the US over the past 5-10 years, including Berliner Weiss and Gose, and newer styles like many of the hoppy and fruited sours you’ll see on the market.

Brewers have embraced the kettle sour style for a number of reasons. For one, it allows them to offer a sour beer to their customers with little risk to their brewhouse. The acidity found in these beers is produced by lactobacillus (pictured above), a bacteria that most brewers would not want anywhere near their fermenters. With a cell size 4 times smaller than typical brewer’s yeast, it can hide in the nooks and crannies of equipment and settle into soft parts like hoses and rubber gaskets. It can also spread quickly, allowing a small population to impact the flavor of a beer. The kettle souring process mitigates the risk of a lactobacillus infection, by keeping the bacteria out of fermenters. These beers are soured in the brew kettle and then boiled to kill off the bacteria. This means that all wort (unfermented beer) that is pumped over to the fermenters is sanitized of spoilage organisms, like any clean fermented ale or lager.

The other reason brewers like the kettle souring process is that it’s relatively quick. A typical clean beer takes 2-4 weeks to make its way from grain to glass, and kettle sours are no different. The acidification process takes between 18-36 hours, and is followed by a standard fermentation with brewer’s yeast. This means that a brewery can add sours to their lineup without tying up their fermenters for an extended period of time.

Unfortunately, as your friendly beer nerd will tell you, this process can also lead to a product that is somewhat one dimensional. Kettle sours are often criticized for featuring a clean sourness at the expense of other flavors. Now, not all beers need to be hugely complex and challenging beverages; sometimes a crisp, clean kettle-sour hits the spot, in the same way a cream ale or an amber ale might. But, this lack of complexity is part of the reason why fruited and hoppy sours have risen to prominence. Brewers have found that layering other flavors in post-fermentation, can turn a kettle sour into a more complete product.

In the next blog post we will be describing an alternative to kettle souring through short-term mixed fermentation. Stay Tuned…

– Clay & Zack

Why a barrel house?

From nails to butter, our ancestors stored and shipped almost everything in barrels until the creation of steel drums, cardboard, and plastics.  Cooperages operated all over the world for hundreds of years.   Buffalo itself was home to many cooperages with one of the most prominent being the Forlorn Cooperage on Chicago Street.  As a very popular commodity, especially throughout Europe, beer spent many centuries being transported in oak barrels by land and sea.  Wood also became the material of choice for beer production including fermenting and aging.   First used out of convenience and function, brewers began to realize that wood held the keys to success for their most complex, aged beers and this helps inspire their continued use today.

Oak barrels, and large tanks called Foudres, remain the vessel of choice for long term aging of styles like Belgian Lambics and Russian Imperial Stouts. The oak allows just the right amount of oxygen to pass into the liquid, aiding in the development and transformation of flavor compound. For mixed-culture sour beer in particular, it provides the various wild yeasts and bacteria used in the process a porous place to reside during and between batches. In the tradition of past centuries great barrel-aged beers, 42 North is excited to launch The 42 Below Barrel House. 42 Below is a barrel aging facility located across Persons Alley from 42 North. The cellar will eventually house 80 wine and spirit barrels for barrel aged beer fermentation, producing 3000 gallons a year.    

For 42 North, our love of beer and brewing is not just about the liquid.  It is about the culmination of art, science, and history that collide in any given tulip glass.  For me, there is no greater example of this than a great oak-aged beer.  It is beer that our ancestors drank, a challenging balance of the wood-derived and/or acidic flavors in addition to the malt, hops, and yeast. The barrel house allows us to separate our long-term sour projects from the rest of the brewery, and grow our barrel program from 16 barrels today to 60 in 2018.  We hope to integrate even more local ingredients into these beers through the use of fresh fruits, and the cellar will serve as our oak and sour flavor lab.  

We look forward to challenging ourselves, and the expectations of our customers, by redefining what a great beer is. We hope you join us on this journey at 42 Below. Zack, our white coat lab guru, and I will be writing blog posts regularly and we invite you to keep track of our progress. If you would like to get more involved in 42 Below please check out our Vagabond Society, a very exclusive enthusiast group for those passionate about 42 North and Barrel-Aged beers.

-Clay Keel

Chief Brewing Officer, 42 North Brewing Company