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.