Michiel from Flanders

In November 2015, I was on a work trip in the San Francisco area. I figured this would be the best opportunity I’d had so far to try some fresh Pliny the Elder. While I found tons of other great beer at bottle shops and bars, I never found my Pliny. The last day of the trip, we finished up really early and had about 6-8 hours to kill before our flight home. My friend suggested we burn the time by driving up to Santa Rosa to Russian River. Works for me!

I got to try Pliny the Elder – but it didn’t turn out to be my favourite there. That went to Consecration. A Flemish red aged in red wine barrels with currants. It was awesome. I’d had other sour beers before, and I liked them, but this was next level for me. I thought “I need to try to brew something like this at home.” At that point, I’d brewed beers with brett before – but never with bacteria. I thought, “Well, might as well jump in feet first.”

I did some preliminary reading. I figured I’d use Jamil’s Flanders Red recipe as the basis for the beer. I didn’t have access to a barrel, but I could oak it with some sticks. And I could use black currants as a stand in for zante currants (turns out, no, you can’t; they’re quite different – oops).

For the oak (added when I racked to secondary), I took one French oak light toast stick and cut it in two. I drilled a small hole at the end of each piece so I could thread dental floss through – that way I could pull out the oak sticks if during sampling I found that the oak was the right amount (and save having to do a transfer). I never ended up doing that, but the option was there. I boiled my oak sticks in water for 5 minutes to sanitize and reduce some of the harshness – I’ve since moved to just steaming my oak pieces. After that I placed the oak pieces in a vacuum bag with some cabernet sauvignon to soak in the fridge for 4 weeks.

I racked to secondary 4 weeks after primary. Gravity had dropped to 1.019 from 1.068. At the time I was finding that I was getting lots from the Special W and Aromatic malts. And I thought maybe I was getting some smokiness. The oak went into the fermenter at this point. So did some dregs from a Rodenbach Vintage 2013 – this of course did nothing as I found out later that Rodenbach pasteurizes their bottles. Now I make sure to check a resource like Mad Fermentationist for a list of usable bottle dregs.

At 3 months in, I felt the colour was more orange than red. Sourness was very mild (sorry, I don’t have a pH meter so it’s not quantified). I added some dregs from Russian River Consecration at this point which DOES have viable dregs.

By 9 months in, the brett in Flemish ale blend had started to assert itself more becoming much more barnyard-like. Gravity had also made a sizeable drop to 1.012, but still not much in the way of sourness.

After 12 months I decided to add in 2 lb of black currants. These were previously frozen (I got them from the Farmer’s Market in the summer) – this helps break down the cell walls and helps with absorption. Once thawed, I put these in a 6gal carboy, mashed them up, added some pectic enzyme to increase yield and added a pack of WLP 661. I waited a day before racking the beer onto this slurry. Once I did rack it over, I had plenty of headspace in the 6gal carboy so I topped it up with some unoaked sour/brett beer that I was keeping as blending/topping up stock.

I left this alone for a long time. I remember tasting it at some point but didn’t take notes – I had pretty much given up on it honestly. I checked in on it during month 21 and FINALLY there was some sourness. Pretty assertive sourness. The aroma from the black currant was there but at the time I found it to be lighter. The carbonation in the bottle definitely amped this up (probably more than I wanted).

Prior to bottling, I cold crashed this for a week to try to drop out some of the fruit matter. Then, I let it warm back up prior to packaging – I find if I try to use cold beer at packaging, the priming solution does not mix in well with the beer. For carbonation I targeted 2.7 Vol CO2, and I also added 0.5 g of rehydrated EC-1118 to aid in bottle conditioning. I racked it to my bottling bucket with a Bouncer filter inline, in an attempt to keep as much fruit/seeds out of the bottling bucket as possible.

I definitely learned some things along the way. In addition to what I’ve already mentioned, I did this fermentation at ambient basement temperature the entire time. The bacteria would have benefited from a warmer environment. If I get around to making this again (and not a different sour), I’d try to track down Zante currants – black currants are pretty powerful in terms of aroma and flavour. I wanted more tobacco and leather to come through – and I think that all gets overpowered by the currants. Also, if I try to simulate a wine barrel again, I think I’d skip soaking the oak in wine. Chances are the wine is oxidizing over that time. A better idea might be to blend some in at time of packaging – something you can get away with in homebrew. Or possibly try adding some must as a fermentable.

Some photos are included below from bottling day.

Racking off of the currants using an inline Bouncer filter.
Into the bottling bucket. Champagne yeast added to ensure successful carbonation.
Very little of this precious sour was left behind with the currant remains.
Who could resist a sample!

About Jeff Bueckert

Jeff is the Engineering Manager for iGPS (large volume metrology) at Nikon Metrology Canada. He brews 5gal batches on his stove top, started brewing all-grain in 2013, and both kegs and bottles. He's also the father of two future homebrewers.

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