Saturday 12 April 2014

Brewing a Flanders Brown Ale

I typically follow your standard beer-geek cravings when it comes to beer; that is, I love really hoppy beers, and I love sour beers. I honestly do not do this to purposefully follow a trend, but they are, generally, the styles of beer I enjoy the most. What are ya gonna do? As a result of this, a lot of the beers I brew are hoppy, as anyone who regularly reads this blog will know.

But when it comes to sours, I really haven't brewed many at all, mainly because when brewed using the standard methods, they take a really long time to come out sour enough, and tasty on top of that. I brewed a Flanders Red Ale in early 2011; half plain, the other half aged on cherries, and it took over 15 months for the plain portion to be tasting good. The cherry portion was an additional several months. I also brewed a Berliner Weisse (again, half plain and half on cherries) in 2012, and unfortunately that beer never got sour enough to my liking, and hasn't really improved much, even with time.

Anyway, if you want to have sour beers on hand of your own, this is obviously NOT the correct approach. Whether you're using a faster method of souring, or a classic method that involves bacteria and time, you should really brew a sour ale every 3 months or so. After awhile, you'll start accumulating some inventory, and won't have to wait 1-2 years before you have something sour to drink. I'd like to think I'll stick to this method, but we'll see; maybe even every 6 months is something realistic I can aim for. In the meantime, I've finally decided to tackle another sour beer; this time, a Flanders Brown Ale (aka Oud Bruin).

Have you ever had a good example of a Flanders Brown? It really is a great style, especially if you're a fan of Belgian and sour beers. Yes, there IS a sourness to the beer, but the style is generally maltier and less acetic than a Flanders Red (a style which I also love, by the way). The BJCP describes the malt character of a Flanders Brown as being "deeper" than in a Flanders Red; generally, this character includes "caramel, toffee, orange, treacle or chocolate", together with a dark fruit character. Throw in some sourness and a medium-body, and you've got a great beer. I've been lucky enough to have actually tried some great examples of the style (such as New Belgium Lips of Faith - La Folie, Liefmans Goudenband, and Gulpener Mestreechs Aajt, to name a few) thanks to the great beer bar, Novare Res Bier Cafe in Portland, Maine.

So, on to the recipe. As usual, with a first-time style for me, I went to Brewing Classic Styles for ideas. The recipe that Jamil published for Flanders Brown is VERY similar to the recipe in the same book for Flanders Red (minus the addition of oak, of course). It's made up of Pilsner malt for the base malt, with a healthy amount of Munich malt for a toasty, bready character, some Caramunich and Special B for toffee and dark fruit, respectively, and some Wheat malt and Aromatic thrown in as well. On top of all that... just a touch of Black Patent, to (I assume) bring the beer into a brown color. I ended up changing the recipe slightly for my own use:
  • I cut down on the percentage of Pilsner malt and increased the Munich slightly, because I had less Pilsner on hand than I thought.
  • I decreased everything to an OG of approximately 1.056. The OG range for Flanders Brown is pretty wide (1.040-1.074), and I was more interested in having a beer with an ABV of ~6% vs 8%.
Hops, of course, are minimal for a Flanders Brown... a small addition of a noble variety at 60 minutes to provide a bit of counter-balance to all that sweetness. The range of 20-25 IBUs for the style is actually pretty high for a sour beer - some bacteria (such as certain species of Lactobacillus) don't work well with hops at all.

The fact that a Flanders Brown is usually maltier and less acetic than a Flanders Red, but still has an overall similar grist, would make me think that the deciding factor/ingredient is the yeast and bacteria used to ferment the beer. However, the yeast/bacteria culture recommended by Jamil for this beer is the Wyeast 3763 Roeselare Ale Blend, which I have used before... in the Flanders Red I brewed. Check out what a smackpack of this contains:
  • A Belgian-style ale strain
  • A sherry strain
  • Two Brettanomyces strains
  • A Pediococcus culture
  • A Lactobacillus culture

That's four different yeast strains (two of them wild yeast) and two bacteria cultures. It's always a little intimidating working with something like this; infection to equipment/other beers aside, do you make a starter? Do you aerate, or not (some bacteria work better in anaerobic environments)? On top of that, Jamil recommends pitching a neutral ale strain (e.g. 1056, WLP001, or US-05) for the first few days, and THEN the Roeselare blend, if you don't want your beer too sour. I'll summarize my recommendations, which are based on what I've read, heard, and practiced (opinions may differ; feel free to speak up in the comments!):

1) Don't pitch a neutral ale strain first - Well, at least don't if you really do want a beer with some sourness to it. Pitching a neutral strain before the bugs would take care of most of the sugars in the wort; that's not saying that pitching the bacteria and wild yeast afterwards wouldn't develop SOME sour and funky flavors, but most seem to feel it would be pretty minimal, and definitely not to style. In fact, I've had several seasoned homebrewers say that their experience with the Roeselare Blend doesn't result in a sour-enough beer, even when pitched on its own. It DOES take time for sourness to develop with this method, but my Flanders Red didn't really start getting sour until I began pitching bottle dregs of other commercial sour beers, even after waiting for almost a year. So, that being said...

2) Don't make a yeast starter - With that many organisms all in one yeast pack, it's not recommended to make a starter, even by Wyeast, as it can "result in a change of the proportions of the individual components". Lots of homebrewers will save the slurry after racking to secondary, however, and brew another sour beer with it... I'm sure the proportions have definitely changed by then; just be aware that this will continue to happen with each generation, and going too far probably isn't a good idea.

3) Aerate your wort - The only organism in the 3763 that prefers an anaerobic environment is the Pediococcus (although, Lactobacillus can work with or without the presence of oxygen). With the ale yeasts preferring an aerobic environment (especially at the beginning, as they use the oxygen to increase their numbers), aerating your wort is a good idea. After the oxygen is taken up by the yeasts, the Pediococcus will be able to start working with the Lactobacillus.

4) Pitch bottle dregs - Doing so will obviously, for the most part, give you a different beer in the end, every time. Even if you pitched the same brand of beer at the same time for every batch, would your beer turn out EXACTLY the same? Probably not. But if you want to increase the sourness of your beer, this can be an effective method (assuming there's sugars left in your beer for the bacteria to work on, of course).

5) Rack to secondary - In Jamil's book, there is no mention for the Flanders Brown or Red to do this; it seems he's recommending that you leave the beer in primary for a year or two. I actually did this with my Flanders Red (other than racking to secondary for the fruit addition), but found out later on that Brettanomyces will continue to feed on the dead Saccharomyces yeast. This is great in a beer where you want more funk character (like a Lambic), but not really appropriate for a Flanders.

Again, these are just some basic guidelines. I'm not going to re-invent the wheel when it comes to sour beers... there's more than enough great sources out there (The Mad Fermentationist, for example, who coincidentally has a book on sour beers coming out soon), and I'm not nearly knowledgeable enough.

So, the beer has been brewed, and now the waiting begins. My recommendation here is to tuck the beer away and try to forget about it. Keep it in an area where temps won't fluctuate too much, and where it's preferably a bit on the warmer side (again, if you're looking for a more-sour beer). Check the gravity and taste the beer every 3-6 months. If you're bottling, do not bottle the beer until the FG has rested at its number for some time - these wild yeasts and bacteria work slowly and often continuously... you don't want bottle bombs on your hands, especially after waiting so long for the beer to finish. Flanders Brown is a great style for blending with other beers, aging on fruit, etc., so I plan on taking at least a portion of the beer and doing something different with it.

Recipe targets: (5.5 gallons, 75% efficiency) OG 1.056, FG ~1.010, IBU 21, SRM 19, ABV ~6.1%

2.7 kg (52.8%) Pilsner malt
1.5 kg (29.3%) Munich malt
227 g (4.4%) Special B
227 g (4.4%) Wheat malt
200 g (3.9%) Aromatic malt
200 g (3.9%) Caramunich II (45 L)
57 g (1.1%) Black Patent

Tettnang - 35 g (4.75% AA) @ 60 min

Misc.: 1/2 tab Irish moss @ 5 min

Yeast: Wyeast 3763 Roeselare Blend (PD Feb 24, 2014)

Water: Fredericton city water, carbon-filtered; 3 g Gypsum and 3 g calcium chloride added to the mash

- Brewed on March 26th, 2014, by myself. 50-minute mash with 13.5 L of strike water, mashed in at target temp of 152 F. Mashed-out for 10 minutes with 6.5 L of boiling water, resulting temp 165 F. Sparged with ~4.5 gallons of 168 F water for final volume of ~7.25 gallons.

- SG a bit high at 1.044 (target 1.043). 90-minute boil. Final volume ~5.5 gallons. Chilled down to 64 F, then poured into Better Bottle. OG high at 1.060. Aerated with 75 seconds of pure O2, pitched smackpack. Placed BB in room with ambient temp at 68 F.

- Good activity for the first few days, then quickly settled down. About 10 day later, gravity was only down to 1.013.

- 23/3/15 - Over 8 months later, gravity still at 1.013. Started pitching bottled dregs over the next several months (should have started earlier); for a full list of what was pitched, check out the tasting notes (link coming).

- 29/9/15 - FG 1.009, tasting quite sour now. pH reading of 3.38. 

- 31/8/17 - Gulp. FINALLY got around to posting the tasting notes... sorry about that!


  1. So, how did this turn out?

    1. I actually still haven't bottled it! When I tried it a couple of months ago, I didn't find it sour enough, and the FG wasn't as low as I would like. So, I've pitched in quite a few sour bottle dregs; going to give it a bit more time and try it again, soon.

    I'm planning to make an Old and actually ferment in a once used Brandy barrel. it had a nice malty Barley wine taken out recently.

    1. Haha, ok, ok, you've officially reminded me it's time to taste it and check the gravity again. I'm really hoping that it's dropped; I think it was still at 1.013 or something last time I checked. I really have to update this post; I've pitched a good 6-7 commercial sour dregs into it.

  3. Hey Shawn,
    Is this the Ode Bruin you brought to Jake's Christmas party? If so it was delicious!

    1. Yes, Roger, it was... and thanks! And you've also reminded me that I haven't posted tasting notes on this beer yet. Oops!