Ever since I first got into homebrewing, I’ve dreamed of starting a sour solera.
The concept is simple: Brew a wild beer, let it develop for a year or more, package some portion, and replace it with fresh wort. Rinse and repeat, ad infinitum. Over time, the culture of yeast and bacteria develops and its flavors will evolve, meaning each batch will taste a little different, even if the base recipe remains the same.
A couple weekends ago, I brewed the base beer for what will hopefully become my house sour. It’s a straightforward grist, similar to what I use for my saisons: just pilsner malt, red wheat, and flaked oats.
For the first round, I decided on a clean primary fermentation with White Labs 644 (aka “sacch trois”), because it typically attenuates well and I wanted a mildly tart beer. In theory, a low final gravity gives the bugs and Brett yeast a little less to chow down on.
Similarly, I aimed for slightly higher bitterness than you typically find in a sour, since hop oils inhibit the souring activity of bacteria. While less than 10 IBUs is typical, I went for about 25 IBUs on the advice of John Rowley of Rowley Farmhouse Ales.
What’s in it?
- Method: BIAB, sparged
- Batch size: 6.25 gallons
- Mash: 60 minutes @ 150F
- Boil: 90 minutes
- OG: 1.051 (12.6 Brix)
- FG: 1.008 (primary)
- ABV: TBD
- IBU: 25
- Efficiency: 83% pre-boil conversion, 82% brewhouse
- 8.5 lbs Pilsner (mix of Best Malz and Mecca Grade Pelton)
- 1.5 lbs Red Wheat (Briess)
- 0.5 lbs Flaked Oats
- 13g Pekko [16.8% AA] @ 60 minutes
- Yeast: White Labs 644 Saccharomyces Bruxellensis Trois
- Water: Distilled/RO w/ minerals re-added by machine + 2.5g CaCl2, 2.5g gypsum, & 1 tsp lactic acid (targeting 5.2 mash pH)
- Extras: Wild ale dregs (detailed below)
How’d it go?
I ran into a couple hurdles with this one during prep, but the brew itself was pretty uneventful.
As usual, I ordered my grains from Atlantic Brew Supply. Quick sidebar: I love these guys for the following reasons (this is not a sponsored post!):
- They have a ton of inventory turnover, so grains and yeast are always fresh.
- They double (or even triple or quadruple) crush for free, which is great for BIAB brewers who don’t (yet) have their own mill.
- They allow grain orders down to the ounce, so you’re not left with weird quantities of leftovers that end up going stale.
- Super low prices, flat rate shipping.
- Awesome customer service.
However, this time I did need to augment my online order with some grain from my local homebrew store, The Brew Shop. (These guys also rule!) See, initially this was going to be a 5-gallon batch. Then I noticed that my carboy is actually 6.5 gallons. Whoops! That’s definitely too much headspace. So I grabbed a couple extra pounds of pils to beef up the grain bill and get me up to 6.25 gallons. That’s where the Mecca Grade Pelton came in. Why not? After all, it’s only grown like an hour away.
The second hurdle came in sourcing my water. I usually go to Safeway and use the Glacier machine out front to refill gallon jugs with RO. This time I decided to use the machine at a different store—one that’s much closer to my house and takes credit cards. Sounds great, right? Unfortunately, not so much in reality.
While this new machine also uses RO to purify the water, it then adds minerals back in (for taste) and raises the pH to 8.8 (because hippies and fitness fanatics think alkaline water will make them live forever). Unfortunately, I didn’t notice before I’d already filled up eight gallon jugs. I also didn’t notice (until I checked my credit card statement) that the machine tacks on another 10 cents per gallon if you pay with credit. A bad experience all around.
Since I already had the water and it tasted pretty good, I decided I’d roll with it if at all possible. I checked with my favorite water chemistry calculator to see if the 8.8 pH would affect the mash pH. Nope, turns out that it has literally zero effect! As for the minerals, I just decided to halve my planned salt additions and hope for the best.
I doughed into 4.15 gallons and mashed at 150F for an hour, stirring every 10 minutes or so. After a thorough squeeze, I dunk-sparged the grain bag in 3.5 gallons of 170F water, stirred for a few minutes, then squeezed again and combined the runnings. My pre-boil SG was 10.4 Brix, or 1.042—just slightly over the BeerSmith prediction.
Next, I boiled 90 minutes, adding the Pekko hops with 60 to go and a tab of Whirlfloc at 15 to go. I chilled to 70F, transferred to the ported plastic bucket I use as my backup fermenter (as my SS Brew Bucket was occupied with the polygyle stout), and took an OG reading: 12.6 Brix, or 1.051. Again, just a few points over target.
Side note: the gravity sample dropped incredibly clear in just a few minutes. I’ve never seen clarity like this in one of my beers pre-fermentation:
I pitched the slurry from my starter of WLP644, and within six hours there was vigorous blowoff activity. God, I love saison yeast. After 36 hours at around 75F, a quick refractometer reading showed it was already down to 6.4 Brix, or 1.011 (compensating for the alcohol). Damn, that’s quick. Surprisingly, though, it didn’t drop any further after another week-plus. WLP644 is usually a serious attenuator, so I was a little surprised. However, after another week it was down to 6 Brix, or 1.008. Perfect.
Wait, isn’t this a wild ale?
Since I’m doing a clean primary fermentation, my plan is to rack the clean-fermented beer to a glass carboy for extended aging on the bugs.
Which bugs, you ask?
Instead of buying a commercial culture of Brett and lacto, I decided to choose a few bottles from my “cellar” (aka my guest bathroom closet) and use their dregs. But since some breweries bottle their wild ales with wine or champagne yeast—extremely aggressive strains that can actually release toxins that kill other saccharomyces strains—I first emailed each brewery to ask how they package their sours. Remarkably, they all got back to me. Cellador Ales and Rowley both confirmed that they bottle with their own cultures, while Yachats and Highland Park Brewing told me they add wine yeast at packaging.
Good. To. Know.
I decided to go ahead with dregs from a bottle of Cellador Murex (a blended wild ale on boysenberries) and 3 Fonteinen’s Oude Gueuze. On top of that, I added the lees from my own blackberry sour stout—my first attempt at a wild ale that I brewed back in February 2017 and bottled in May 2018. That beer used both Wyeast’s Roeselare Ale Blend and dregs from bottles of Jolly Pumpkin’s Bam Noire, Haanssens Oude Gueuze, Odell Dark Theory, Firestone Walker Agrestic, and Monk’s Cafe Flemish Sour.
That’s a lot of bugs.
I added all of these to a 750ml starter, which I swirled occasionally over the course of a week or so. Once swirling started to consistently produce a foamy head, I cold-crashed the starter for a couple days. Then I racked the base beer into a glass carboy and pitched the slurry of my wild culture into it.
In a year or so, we’ll see how it’s tasting!