Sour Beers and the Long Feedback Loop

Making beer is like anything else in the world.  You have to do it a lot to get really good at it.  Sure, you can make some fantastic beers right from the start, and your skills evolve even faster if you have the right resources and people to mentor you along.  But being able to make something special on a consistent basis takes a lot of trial and error, and getting used to the quirks of your home brewery.

I brew fairly often and I always aim to brew over 60 gallons a year.  (That is more than most brewers I personally know, but far, far less than the real homebrew addicts.)  Brewing a least once a month is relaxing, cathartic, and it keeps me from getting rusty.  The biggest benefit is getting things very right and very wrong, and learning from them.  If I brew a BJCP style that I’m not really happy with, I make it again.  Maybe not the next month, but usually soon after. 

Given my latest addiction to brewing sour ales, my new dilemma is figuring out how to speed up the feedback loop on beers that take several years to make.  I have a Flanders Red (Stupid Sexy Flanders) Ale that I brewed at the end of May, and it is fermenting away.  I’m pretty excited about trying it out, but it really isn’t going to be ready until May of 2011.  That is a long time to wait for that sort of feedback.  

Was I right to pitch a neutral yeast first?  Should I have just pitched the Roeselare blend from the start?  Did I use an oak with the right degree of toast?  Was the malt bill right?  Were there enough remaining sugars for the brettanomyces to dig into?

And what do I do with the sour beers that I brew in the meantime?  Do I try different methods and ingredients in those batches to contrast?  Because I might have gotten it accidentally “right” the last batch….

So far, I’ve been lucky with the lambics and Berliner Weisses I’ve made, but they can certainly be improved upon.  I have the feeling that I might be splitting some of these batches, in the future, to help accelerate the learnings about these wonderful beers that aren’t all that wonderful for the impatient brewer.


6 Responses to “Sour Beers and the Long Feedback Loop”

  • Jeff Bearer Says:

    Three options that I can think of.

    1) Time Travel – go back a few years and brew the beer when present time Jamey is sleeping. Hide it away someplace he will never look till he has the knowledge of time travelling Jamey.

    2) Near Light Speed Travel – Almost the same thing, call up flight of the navigator to fly you around the galazy for a few light years. when you get back the whole world will have aged except for you.

    3) How about monthly tasting notes of each beer, after you get a few under your belt, you might have some data much sooner than the finished beer. You might not have a conclusion till several beers are done, but you will surely have a lot more data about the aging characteristics and be able to infer things going back.

  • Barlow Brewing Says:

    The Light Speed Travel is attractive, but I have children and I wouldn’t want to miss them growing up. Unfortunately, that’s off the list.

    Time travel has occurred to me. I really want to brew ~20 gallons right now and then travel back in time and hide them when past me who is out of town on vacation. How awesome would it be to come home to 8 cases of sour ale that YOU made?

    But I fear future me(s). I think I might turn out to be evil. I envision me being bitter and scarred from the robot holocaust. I fear my future attention to sanitation might not be sufficient, and I might sneak forward some future computer virus that might mess up my iPhone.

    No, future me is a dick. Unless, of course, he brings present me Citra hops.

    Good idea about the monthly tastings, though.

  • K.G. Schneider Says:

    Hey, I thought time travel was my secret idea! Well, that’s what I get for tweeting it, darn those toobs…

    1. Take notes as you go along (I do this with fruitcake… gives me a chance to hide in a corner, eating cake)

    2. Crowdsource your notes by blogging them and requesting input from brewers making similar brews

    3. I haven’t looked closely at BeerXML in a couple of months but I’d really like to see brewing software provide better input for brewing notes. That may already be in the standard.

  • Stupid Sexy Flanders 7-4-09 Tasting | Barlow Brewing Says:

    […] before that I love sour beers, but they take  a long time to ferment and age.   This means their feedback loop is long, and that it is difficult to tweak recipes and experiment with them in timely way.  Jeff […]

  • Soured Saison Split Batch Experiment | Barlow Brewing Says:

    […] is more thinking (or is it typing) out loud about split batches.  In an effort to get a lot of brewing experimentation and testing done in a short amount of time, I’m splitting batches and that began not long ago with the […]

  • Bill Says:

    According to Raj Apte from Matadero Creek, Lactobacillus grows optimally between 110 and 120 degrees F, whereas yeast will obviously die at those temps. Also, hops kill Lacto (which was the original purpose of hops, of course) So buy your Lacto and yeast separately; don’t use the Roselare, and use no hops whatsoever. After the boil, cool half to 115ish, pitch the Lacto, and hold at this temp for 1 week; pitch yeast in the other half and let it a good start on fermenting the alcohol. Recombine at the end of 1 week. This supposedly will give the Lacto a big head start, shortening a Flanders Red to maybe 6 months instead of 18. Yeast nutrient helps, too, even the Lacto. Bottle by blending 2:1 sour beer with a fresh ale of your choice. The fresh ale will add a little hoppiness, plus the live healthy yeast you’ll need for carbonation.

    I wish you the best of luck since I think the world is a better place with more sour beer, not less.



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