Dec 23 2011

Organic Blue Agave Nectar Saison Homebrew – Tequilana Saison

The moral of this story, and I seem to be laying that down at the beginning of my blog posts lately, is that you have to know when to quit when you are ahead. That applies to many things in life, but even more so in brewing.

New Brew Thursday and Bison Brewing joined forces months ago to hold a homebrew competition. (Yes, this is a very old post that I’m just getting around to posting now. The bulk of this sending and brewing occurred between May and June of 2011.) Winning brewers from the first three rounds would go to a final round where they’d have to brew an original and all organic beer. Those final beers would be judged by Daniel Del Grande of Bison Brewing and Dr. Bill Sysak of NBT. The winning brewer from that final round would fly out to Berkeley, CA to make their beer on the Bison system, and it will also be entered into the medal competitions at the GABF, too.

Cut to the chase, I entered my Triple Lindy Belgian tripel, which the NBT guys seemed to like, in the first round and that got me into the final round. I had done one batch of organic beer before, the Haka American wheat beer, so I knew brewing organic was no different than what I was already doing. There are just less ingredients to choose from. Not as many crayons in the box, so to say.

I had been planning to do my yearly saison, since I always wait until the heat of the summer when it is easy to maintain those saison yeast fermentation temps, so that seemed like a good way to go for the competition. So, I placed my order with Seven Bridges Cooperative and got to work.

I followed an old recipe that I’ve used several times and been happy with over the years. The only omission was that of my usual few ounces of acidulated malt. I brewed the organic saison up without incident, pitched the yeast, and let the beer begin to ferment.

Then I got to thinking. Yeah, that’s dangerous in any situation, but especially here. I started thinking, “What’s the hook to my beer?” Bison Brewing does a wonderful Honey Basil ale and even a Gingerbread porter. What was special or unexpected about mine?

That’s when I decided to act upon an old idea to use blue agave nectar in a beer. A few of the styles out there are traditionally made with simple sugars. Usually this comes in the form of cane sugar, or candi sugar. The saison style often gets a pound of cane sugar to thin the beer’s body and to help dry out with a low final gravity. Blue agave nectar, a sugar-like sweetener and the base ingredient for tequila, fits that description perfectly.

So at the 48 mark of fermentation, I added 12 ounces of blue agave nectar. When adding the nectar, I noticed that it had a “heavier” aroma than I was expecting. More like a molasses than honey. I was surprised by that but, knowing that it was such a simple sugar, I figured there wouldn’t be much left once it fermented out.

It fermented out very dry and reached a final gravity of 1.001, just above the density of water. I started the fermentation at 76° and let it go (and helped it along with a heating pad) up to 85° degrees Fahrenheit. I’m a fan of trying to ferment beers cool and patiently, but my readings have lead me to agree with some experts who think that saison yeasts are direct descendents of red wine yeast and they like heat and abuse. I’ve probably made saisons as much as any style, and they love to stall and under-attenuate. If you’ve made a healthy yeast starter and added nutrients, then the key is heat and some gentle agitation.

It did not win the Bison-NBT competition, as that was won by Andrew Bell for his Zeal Island Pale Ale. Congrats to him as it sounds like he made a fantastic brew. And thank you to the Bison and the New Brew Thursday crews for putting on a great competition that challenges brewers and celebrates homebrewing. That was amazingly cool. 

How was the Blue Agave Organic Saison? It was good, but not amazing. Two things happened with this beer.

1)        In my meddling with the recipe late in the game and adding the agave nectar, I did add a lot of extra, highly-fermentable sugars. It had a thinning effect and some of the malt soul of the beer was lost.

2)       The saison showed signs of a brett infection about a month later. Now, as far as infections go, this one was a great one. Very similar to the house taste of a Jolly Pumpkin beer, but not what I intended and it caused the bottles to become super carbonated. Not to the point of bottle bombs but close. How did that happen? Either the late addition of the nectar post boil caused a problem (in theory, it shouldn’t have because it is hard for anything to live in a substance that high in sugar), or it picked up a Brett strain from my equipment. The latter is more likely.

All in all, a good beer, but nothing I planned. And, clearly, that was because there wasn’t a lot of thought going on about in this beer after I pitched the yeast. I second thought myself and got a little wild on the back-end. No pun intended.

And to be clear, I not saying that playing with beers after primary is a bad thing. I love splitting batches and adding fruit or oak, and seeing what comes of it all and comparing and contrasting the variants. But fundamental changes in sugar content can be problematic. Think about the beer you made and the effects of new ingredients. It can be wonderful, or it can leave you with something unbalanced.


Saison Tequilana – (Organic Saison) (5.5 gallons)

Starting Gravity: 1.055 (5/30/11)
Secondary Gravity: 1.006 (6/4/11)
Final Gravity:  1.001 (8/4/11) 66 Days
7.7% alcohol (by volume)
Apparent Attenuation: 98.2%
Real Attenuation: 80.4%

Mash (100 minutes ~145º)
13 lb Weyerman Organic Pilsner Malt
1 lb Weyerman Organic Wheat Malt
1 lb Briess Organic Munich Malt
1 lb Woodstock Farms Organic Pure Cane Sugar

Boil (90 min)
0.10 oz Organic Hallertauer Mittlefruh (4.7% AA) Pellet Hops (90 min)
1.50 oz Organic Hallertauer Mittlefruh (4.7% AA) Pellet Hops (60 min)
0.75 oz Organic Hallertauer Mittlefruh (4.7% AA) Pellet Hops (0 min)

1 tab Whirlfloc
¼ tsp Wyeast Yeast Nutrient

Primary (start 76º F-> 85º F)  
White Labs 565, 2 Vials, Starter was made
12 oz Wholesome Sweetners Organic Blue Agave (Agave nectar from Weber Azul) 6/2/11