Home Brew Bloggers on May 27, 2020 0 Comments You’re headed down an archaic and weird road when you decide to make your next brewing adventure a Lambic-style beer. It’s a road where you’ll do things that, on any other brewing day, you’d avoid at all costs. It’s also a road that will severely test your patience. First, a quick note: Lambic, much like champagne, is a protected designation. Only Lambic brewed in Belgium can officially be called Lambic. So here, as you’ve no doubt noticed, I try to use Lambic-style when speaking of what we brew at home, just to keep everybody happy. Traditionally, Lambics were brewed using a strange mash called turbid mashing and old oxidized hops. They are fermented in wood instead of steel after being allowed to sit open to the air for a night so that the local microflora populates the wort. A lot to take in, I know. However, we’re homebrewers, and as homebrewers, it’s prudent to exercise judgment when it comes to just how traditional and…funky you want to get. Some of the traditional techniques are worth using for fear of “changing” the finished beer, while others I’d recommend steering clear of for the exact same reason.. at least for your first few batches. True Lambics can take years to ferment and age properly and nobody wants to spend all that time waiting for their Lambic-style beer to mature only to experience the frustration of finding, in the end, that it is undrinkable. That being said, there’s an element of luck involved with brewing Lambic-style beer. You could do everything right and still end up with something far less than you imagined. It’s the nature of fermenting with wild microbes. I hope I haven’t scared you off yet (did I mention how long it takes?) because, though many might consider this style quite a complex undertaking, as you’ll see, there’s a close relationship between the choices you make and how complex it is to make. The one thing you will not be able to do without on this road is patience — lots of patience. Grain Bill The grain bill for a Lambic is about as straight forward as they come. Base Malts: Base malts will be a combination of barley malt and wheat. High-quality pilsner malt usually makes up the barley portion, though lager malt and other light two-row varieties can be used as alternatives. The wheat will make up the difference at anywhere from 30 to 50 percent. Traditionally, raw wheat was used. It was broken down into starches and free amino nitrogen through a long and laborious process called turbid mashing. Lucky for us, we have much easier options available. Your best options are rolled, flaked, and malted wheat. Rolled and flaked wheat are basically pre-gelatinized, making for a simplified brewing process in which you can add them directly to the mash. As its name suggests malted wheat has been through the malting process so it too can be added directly to the mash. If you use raw wheat you will have to grind it first. You’ll likely have to send it through your grinder several times. Wheat has no husk so don’t worry about grinding it too fine; even if you make flour, it’s still usable. It will then have to be pre-gelatinized. This can be done with the traditional turbid mash or a simpler cereal mash (basically cooking it like oatmeal gruel). Specialty malts are rarely used. Extract Brewing The simplicity of the grain bill makes extract brewing your Lambic-style an easy option. One hundred percent wheat extract is almost impossible to find, but there is wheat extract available which is usually a blending of 60 to 70% wheat and 30 to 40% pale barley malt. This is basically the reverse of what traditional recipes call for, yet you can certainly use just this malt extract and nothing else. Another option is to add some pilsner extract to get closer to the target blend of 60-70% barley and 30-40% wheat. Be sure to find the freshest, highest quality extracts you can. If at all possible make them Belgian too, for tradition’s sake. Either liquid or dry will work, but keep in mind dry tends to be lighter than liquid. Something worth considering when making a beer that has a color range of only 3 to 7 SRM. Some brewers will also add a small amount of maltodextrin (4 to 6 ounces for a 5-gallon batch) to ensure there are some sugars left over for the wild organisms to eat after the brewer yeast has finished its work. Even if you don’t add maltodextrin it’s not a bad thing to have handy for both extract and all-grain Lambic-style brewing. If you find your fermentation completing (dropping to terminal-specific gravity) and you don’t yet have the desired lactic acid profile you can boil some in a little water, let it cool, and add it directly to your fermentation. Hops Tradition dictates you use old oxidized hops here, and not just a couple of months old — I’m talking 6 months to several years (depending on temperature and humidity). This idea may go against every fiber of your homebrewer being (especially if you have a love of IPA), but the only reason hops are used at all in Lambic is for their preservative qualities. The beer is balanced by acidity, not bitterness. You don’t want any hop character (bitter/aroma/flavor) in your finished brew. Obviously this takes a little bit of forethought and planning on your part because you’ll have to start aging the hops long before your brew day. The best way to age hops is to put them in a loosely closed paper sack and store in a dry, warm place. The dryer and warmer the faster they will age. They should be aged past the stage of smelling cheesy. Because you are using aged hops the variety doesn’t matter much at all. That being said I’d personally try to go with European hops (for tradition) and low alpha acid (because this can decrease the aging time, plus you don’t want bitterness so why use high alpha hops). You’ll also want to use whole cone and not pellets because pellets will take a lot longer to age. You can even mix varieties if you have several small quantities of different hops left over after several brews, just dump them loose in a paper bag and squirrel them away. Keep in mind, you’ll likely want to make sure their alpha acid content is similar, to help ensure they are ready about the same time. Using aged hops may be traditional to what we know of as Lambic today, but you can easily get away with using fresh hops, especially if you plan on aging your beer for a year or longer. I’d even take a guess and say, the zero hop character is possibly due more to the age of Lambic than the use of aged hops. When hops are aged alpha acid bitterness decreases, but beta acids oxidize into strong bittering compounds. On the other hand, bitterness drops dramatically as beer is aged. After only a year the IBUs are reduced by anywhere from a quarter to a half. So, if you let your beer age for two years, there would be very little hop character, especially if you use low alpha acid hops (which you should). So, it comes down to tradition or convenience. By all means age some hops for a batch of Lambic-style beer, but in the meantime don’t be afraid to use only slightly aged or even fresh hops. Of course, try to find those with the lowest alpha acid content possible. I know Hallertau Select is right around 1.5% alpha acid and is usually quite cheap. Also, the Teamaker variety might be a good, though less traditional fit at only 0.6 to 1.8% alpha acid. Hop addition should be at the beginning of the boil. The Mash and Sparge Some will no doubt argue the only way to achieve optimal Lambic flavor is through the labor-intensive process of what’s called a turbid mash. I’ll leave the arguments to the connoisseurs. One point to make right off is you need only consider this method if you are using raw wheat, and even then there are other ways to get the job done. So, what is a turbid mash? It’s comparable to a decoction, but instead of taking and boiling a portion of both liquid and grain, you’d only remove a portion of liquid (no grain) to be boiled and returned to the mash. This is done several times, adding back and forth to slowly raise the temperature to the appropriate saccharification rest. The goal of all this work is to create wort high in dextrins, starches, and free amino acids. I’m not going to go through the whole process of a turbid mash here. You can find in-depth breakdowns of several variations online, or use the procedure in Jean-Xavier Guiland’s book Lambic, but I’d highly recommend you brew at least one batch (if not several) before you take on the turbid mash. Beyond going turbid, what mash you use will be at least partially dictated by what form of wheat you use. If using rolled, flaked, or malted wheat you could do a simple single-step infusion mash at a conversion temperature range of 150-155oF. A better option, because of the wheat, would be to do a step mash with at least a 15 to 30-minute protein rest at 122oF. Rests in the optimal ranges of both beta-amylase (140-149oF) and alpha-amylase (155-162oF) can also create a more fermentable wort. You’ll also want to throw in half a pound of rice hulls just to preempt the possibility of a stuck sparge. Boil Turbid mashing gives a large boil volume, so traditionally you’d be looking at a 4 to 5-hour boil. This is only necessary if you’ve gone the route of the turbid mash (and I applaud you for it). Otherwise, a slightly longer than normal boil of 1.5 to 2 hours is all you’re looking at. This longer boil is used to help precipitate out the excess wheat proteins, along with DMS from the pilsner malt. Remember to let it boil vigorously and don’t cover it. Add your hops at the beginning of boil time. Yeast To ferment a Lambic-style ale you’ll need a mix of yeast and bacteria. Along with the regular Saccharomyces yeast you’ll need Brettanomyces, and the bacteria strains Pediococcus and Lactobacillus. You can buy blends of all of these together or opt to buy them singly. It’s a good idea to start fermentation with a neutral ale yeast, allowing much of the sugar to get used up before pitching the critters. This will help control the sourness of your finished beer. Below I have a few neutral ale yeast suggestions and some suggestions for the blends. You can also find pure single cultures of all the critters needed at White Labs or Wyeast, though this is likely to be more expensive. Yeast WHITE LABS WYEAST DRY ORGANIC American Ale Blend (WLP060) American Ale (1056) Safale (S-04) Imperial Yeast- Flagship (A09) California Ale (WLP001) Belgian Ardennes (3522) Lallemand- West Coast Ale (BRY-97) Imperial Yeast- House (A01) Bacteria/Wild Yeast WHITE LABS WYEAST ORGANIC Belgian Sour Mix 1 (WLP655) Belgian Lambic Blend (3278) Sour Batch Kidz (F08) Roeselare Ale Blend (3763) In addition to or instead of adding your Brettanomyces/bacteria, you could either make a starter from the dregs of a bottle of Lambic (or several) or just add the dregs directly to your fermenter. It’s a good idea to still use a pure culture too because there’s no way of knowing what is still viable in the bottle, but this can get you closer to a true Brussels Lambic fermentation. If you want to try this be sure to practice good sanitation. Pour all but the last little bit of the Lambic into a glass, without swirling the bottle. Then sterilize the bottle opening with a flame, swirl what’s left to kick up the sentiment, and pour it into the fermenter or a sterilized container. Fermentation and Bottling Ideally, fermentation would take place in an oak barrel, and nowadays oak barrels are available to the homebrewer. Even small 5 liter (1.3 gallon) oak barrels would allow you to experiment with a small portion of your batch. The wood makes the beer more complex while allowing a bit of oxygen in, which is important for the development of small amounts of acetic acid. If you don’t have a barrel, go with glass, not plastic. Plastic bucket fermenters allow too much oxygen in. Your beer is going to be sitting a long time and will likely end up closer to vinegar than a Lambic. You might be thinking that glass doesn’t let any oxygen in either. There’s a way to let just the right amount in. In his book Brewing Classic Styles, Jamil Zainasheff shares an idea he got from Raj Apte: use a wooden stopper (oak for authenticity) instead of the regular cap and airlock setup. However, this only fixes one of the problems of not fermenting in wood. To address the other, the complexity gained, we need to add oak directly to the fermenter. You can buy oak chips for adding to your fermenter or you can cut a square of your own. The first time you use it, sanitize it by boiling, but after you’ve used it once for a Lambic-style brew, you have the option of allowing the microorganisms to take up residence in the wood, basically keeping it “infected.” Then you can add the oak to any future batches of Lambic and in this way bring something of the same idea of using a barrel over and over again. Fermentation After your wort is cooled to pitching temperature, throw in your neutral yeast strain. You want a lower pitching rate here, so use one liquid yeast packet (no starter) or about half a packet of dry yeast. Find a place in your house with little daytime temperature variation. The spot should also have a year-round temperature range of around 50 up to 75oF, but closer to between 60 and 70oF is a more ideal spot. Again long term temperature changes will usually be okay. It’s the sporadic and quick (day-to-night) temperature changes you want to avoid. Once the fermentation shows signs of slowing, pitch the blend of wild yeast and bacteria. From here on out you don’t want to move the fermenter at all. The Long Wait Now comes long weeks of waiting. You’ll want to check the fermenter every month or so to ensure the airlock has water. After a month or two a pellicle will form on the surface. The pellicle is a biofilm of microbes. It may look sort of disgusting, but it’s normal. Though a pellicle isn’t guaranteed to form, take it as a good sign when one does. At some point, usually within 6 months to a year (though much longer is possible if your fermenter is in a very still environment), the pellicle will fall back to the bottom. This is a good indication that it may be getting close to bottling time. It’s something that needs to happen naturally. Putting The Fruit in Fruit Lambic Whether you’re brewing a straight Lambic-style or Fruit Lambic-style, up to the fermentation everything is the same. It’s during the fermentation that straight Lambic can become fruit Lambic. What sort of fruit? Well, the most traditional are cherries (Kriek), and raspberries (Framboise). Other fruits that have found their way in include grapes, plums, apricots, and various berries. You have a lot to choose from. You can use any fruit as long as it’s slightly tart. The amount of fruit added can range widely, but it can be as little as 1 lb/gal all the way up to 5 lb/gal, and even more sometimes. A good place to start is about 2 pounds of fruit per gallon. Of course, the type and intensity of the fruit need to be considered too. Also, think about leaving the seeds/pits with the fruit when adding. This can add subtle woody/nutty flavors. The classic example being Kriek, in which whole cherries, including the pit, are used; bringing a note of almond to the finished beer. True Fruit Lambic isn’t a sweet beer, though some commercial Lambic-style beers may try to convince you otherwise. In reality they should maintain their dry, crisp character. To this end, you need to give the yeasts time to do their work on the fruit sugar. You can add the fruit anytime after most of the primary sugars are gone. Some brewers add fruit the same time they add their wild yeast/bacteria blend; others will wait a couple of months, 6 months, or even a year to add the fruit. Once the fruit is added you want to let it sit for at least another 3 months, but you could extend this up to a year. Bottling Lambics are sometimes left in the fermenter for up to three years. So, the question of when exactly to rack your beer and bottle is really a matter of personal taste. Once it has dropped to the final gravity start tasting it every-so-often. When it’s reached a point you like, and your patience just can’t take it anymore, it’s time to bottle. Often, straight lambic has very little carbonation, if at all. If you want it to be a bit bubbly shoot for 1 to 1.5 volumes. Depending on how long you’ve let the fermentation go, the yeast can be quite tired and unlikely to crank back up, so it’s not a bad idea to pitch a bit more brewing yeast with your priming sugar. Even then, don’t be too disappointed if the beer ends up with little to no carbonation; the high pH in a Lambic-style often inhibits the yeast. Fruit Lambics are often bottled at much higher pressure, up to 4 volumes. If you do this, take care and be sure to use thick-glass bottles and wire champagne-style corks. Once bottled, you can continue to age it. Try stashing a couple of bottles away for another year. It’s always interesting to see how a Lambic-style beer continues to mature in its complexity over time. Save your aging Lambic-style beer for special occasions. Their fancy bottles, wire corks, and surprising flavors are always bound to spark curiosity and plenty of discussions.