Tuesday 16 December 2014

Brewing a Belgian Session IPA

After looking through the draft of the 2014 BJCP Guidelines when I was reading up on Brown IPAs (a style I brewed recently), I continued reading about the other types of "Specialty IPAs". My eye caught the detailed description of Belgian IPA, and it occurred to me that I've never brewed this style before. I've tried, and enjoyed, many commercial Belgian IPAs (notably Houblon Chouffe Dobbelen IPA Tripel, Allagash Hugh Malone, and Dieu du Ciel! Dernière Volonté)... I guess I just never got around to brewing my own.

A fairly new style that's become more popular over the last few years, Belgian IPA is pretty much what you would expect from the name: a beer brewed to be quite hoppy and bitter, and fermented with a Belgian yeast. This results in a strong beer (up to and above 9% ABV) that has a moderate to high hop flavor and aroma, with additional fruitiness and spiciness from the Belgian yeast. Try a Belgian IPA brewed in Belgium, and you'll probably notice a strong presence of noble hops (e.g. Saaz); try one brewed in North America, and you're more likely to pick out the popular American hops (e.g. Citra, Centennial, Cascade... on and on and on). The Guidelines sum the style up perfectly: "A cross between an American IPA/Imperial IPA with a Belgian Golden Strong Ale or Tripel. This style may be spicier, stronger, drier and more fruity than an American IPA".

So, there's basically two ways to brew a Belgian IPA: brew a Tripel or Belgian Golden Strong and hop it to be more bitter and more flavorful/aromatic (e.g. Duvel Tripel Hop), or ferment an American IPA with a Belgian Yeast (e.g. Stone Cali-Belgique IPA). But what I started thinking was, what if you brewed the same style of beer, without the high ABV? As in, a Belgian Session IPA? I thought I was a genius when I came up with that idea, but it looks like others have - not surprisingly, really - thought of it before me! At least, some things popped up on Google when I punched it in, and I notice there's at least a couple of beers listed as a BSI on Untappd, but I don't think the "style" has exactly swept the beer world yet.

I should take this opportunity to say, yes, it has occurred to me that a Belgian Session IPA really isn't that different from a low-ABV, hoppy Saison (such as my recent Oxbow Grizacca clone). I would say the difference is that a BSI would likely be considered to be more bitter, and probably hoppier than most of the hoppy Saisons you find. Of course, that's going to vary from beer to beer... it's getting really difficult to classify beers nowadays!

I didn't have a lot to go on in terms of putting a recipe together, other than the style descriptors from the BJCP Guidelines. I was looking for the grist to be fairly simplistic, but not TOO simplistic; that is, I didn't want it to be just Pilsner malt. I figure that with a Belgian Session IPA, like your regular Session IPA, you need to have a good proportion of specialty malts to prevent the body from being too thin. This IS a sub-5% ABV beer, after all. So, I added several malts that I've used in Belgian-style beers before: Aromatic, CaraVienne, and Wheat malt (along with a bit of Acid malt, strictly for mash pH purposes). At about 15% of the grist, I'm hoping this will bump up the body, but not take away from a dry finish, and allow the hops and yeast to be the big players. I also didn't want to mash too low, so I aimed for 153 F (similar to my last Session IPA).

Choosing a hopping schedule and yeast strain for this beer was quite difficult; more so than normal. I have been re-reading some of the great Brew Like a Monk (BLAM), by Stan Hieronymus; he discusses Belgian IPAs, and makes a point of noting that "the choice of yeast strain and hop varieties is critical since many choices will horribly clash". Makes sense to me... normally when you brew an IPA, you're using a fairly neutral yeast strain. Belgian yeast strains, in contrast, or usually so chock-full of flavors and aromas (fruit, spices, phenolics, etc.), that you really do have to choose the accompanying hop variety(ies) carefully.

I've been planning to brew a Belgian Tripel soon, so I chose my yeast strain based on what I wanted to use for that beer as well (i.e. culture the slurry from the BSI). I've always meant to try the Wyeast 3787 Trappist High Gravity, which is apparently the Westmalle strain. Actually, Westmalle provides the yeast for two other Belgian Trappist breweries, Achel and Westvleteren; I've had and thoroughly enjoyed beers from all three breweries, so figured this would be a good yeast to go with. According to BLAM, this yeast produces clove, alcohol, and pineapple at fermentation temperatures of 65-75 F; higher temps add bubblegum, fruity, and light solvent, but I'd be surprised if my fermentation goes higher than this at this time of year. Brewing during the colder temps of the year definitely has its perks, and its downsides, especially with yeasts (like this strain) that are a bit particular... BLAM states that this strain is well known to stop working - and "cannot be roused" - once it is cooled down when active.

Yeast health, pitching rate, aeration... they're always touchy factors when it comes to how you want your beer to be, but even more so when you're talking about BELGIAN yeast, which are generally so expressive. A higher OG beer fermented with a Belgian strain will produce more esters compared to a similar, lower OG beer; higher attenuation does the same. This is because yeast will usually throw off more fruity esters when they're made to work harder... so, a lower pitching rate and less aeration will also result in more esters in the beer. The trick is finding a balance - sure, you can pitch less yeast for more flavor, but of course you're putting your beer at risk of what happens when you underpitch, or under-aerate for that matter: more solventy flavors, incomplete attenuation, or even the dreaded stuck fermentation. It's tough. As I've recommended in the past, unless you have a good history of brewing Belgian beers and are comfortable with YOUR balance, err on the side of caution, and pitch a good amount of healthy yeast and aerate properly. I'd rather have a completely-attenuated, slightly-less fruity beer than a sweet, solventy mess.

After finally deciding on the yeast, it was time to pick some hops that I thought would complement the strain. I figured a beer like this would be better off with a fruity variety or two; noble hops would work great, I'm sure, but I was leaning towards the American side of things. When looking through my inventory, I noticed I had a good amount of Amarillo and Citra on hand, and I've had great results with these two varieties working together in the past (namely my Modern Times Fortunate Islands clone). Both varieties pack a lot of juicy, tropical, and citrus notes, which is just what I was hoping for. Combined with the "balance of complex fruity esters and phenolics" of the 3787 strain, here's hoping for something tasty, and not a clash!

I'm going to keg this beer, because I want to keep the hops as fresh and oxygen-free as possible, but I haven't been having the best of luck with getting the carbonation where I want it. Yes, it's supposed to be easier with kegging, but for some reason... Anyway, I likely won't have this carbed to where I'd really like to see it (maybe between 2.5-3 vol CO2), but hopefully it'll still be ok. Look for the tasting notes on this beer to be up very soon.

Recipe Targets: (4 gallons, 75% efficiency) OG 1.045, FG ~1.011, IBU ~40, SRM 5.6, ABV ~4.5%

2.45 kg (83%) Pilsner
150 g (5.1%) Aromatic
150 g (5.1%) CaraVienne
150 g (5.1%) Wheat malt
50 g (1.7%) Acid malt

Amarillo - 10 g (8% AA) @ 60 min

Amarillo - 20 g @ 10 min

Amarillo - 20 g @ 0 min (with a 10 minute hop steep)
Citra - 20 g @ 0 min (with a 10 minute hop steep)

Amarillo - 40 g dry-hop for 5-7 days (keg-hop)
Citra - 40 g dry-hop for 5-7 days (keg-hop)

Misc: 1/2 tab Irish Moss at 5 min

Yeast: Wyeast 3787 Trappist High Gravity (PD Oct 29/14, with a 1 L starter)

Water: Fredericton city water, carbon-filtered

- Brewed on November 4th, 2014, by myself. 50-minute mash with 8 L of strike water, mashed in at target of 153 F. Mashed-out for 10 minutes with 3.5 L of boiling water. Sparged with ~4.5 gallons of 168 F water for final volume of ~5.75 gallons.

- SG quite high at 1.038 (target 1.032). 90-minute boil. Flameout hops had a 10-minute steep before turning on the chiller. Final volume a little over 4 gallons; OG curiously on target at 1.045. Chilled to 65 F, then poured/filtered into Better Bottle. Aerated with 60 seconds of pure O2, pitched decanted yeast starter.

- Good fermentation over the next few days, but it settled down quickly. Temp never got higher than 72 F.

- 19/11/14 - FG 1.009. Racked beer to dry-hop keg, added dry hops and left at room temp.

- 23/11/14 - Placed keg in keezer to cold-crash.

- 25/11/14 - Transferred beer to serving keg and placed in keezer to start carbing.

- 22/12/14 - Tasting notes are up; very tasty and aromatic. Body is a bit thinner than I'd like, but otherwise it came out really tasty.


  1. Did you end up using the 3787 yeast? I see you've written US-05 in your recipe...? Thanks

    1. Thanks, Mark, for bringing that to my attention! I copied and pasted from another recipe, and forgot to change the yeast. The change has been made now. Cheers!

  2. Nice looking beer. I've done a couple of good Belgian IPA'a (With wLP530, the equivalent to 3787) with good results. I even picked up a bronze. I used cascade centennial, amarillo. for flavour. a good combo, but I think your onto something with the fruitiness. I found 530, to be a good start, but something with a bit more banana fruit type flavour is in order. something like WLP500, is supposedly better or even more so, WY3522.
    I might have to get stuck into a Citra/amarillo version soon. (I'll have a 500 cake in a few weeks)