Thursday 23 March 2017

Belgian Dubbel (with vanilla bean)

Disclaimer: This post is, uh, a few months overdue. Just go with it!

Another Christmas season, another excuse to brew a Christmas-giveaway beer! This has become an annual tradition for me, where I brew a new beer with the intention of giving most away as Christmas gifts to fellow beer geeks, and even a few who aren't. Two years ago was my first, a Red IPA, and last year was a DIPA. It's no secret I'm a fan of the hops, but I like many other beer styles as well, especially those with a Belgian influence. Looking back at all of the hoppy beers I brewed in 2016, I decided it was time for something a little different.

There's plenty of delicious Belgian-style beers, but I think if I had to narrow it down to my favourite (outside of Sours), I'd go with the Dubbel. Such a wonderful, complex style that somehow manages to focus on a blend of malt character, caramel, fruity esters, and spicy phenolics, with a bit of warming alcohol (but not hot), and little to no hop presence. When brewed well, it all comes together perfectly, resulting in a truly-fantastic beer. And there's plenty of great examples out there, with the obvious ones coming from several of the Trappist breweries, some of which are fairly-readily available (if you don't live in New Brunswick, that is).

I've brewed two Dubbels before, one in 2010, and another in 2013. They weren't the same recipe - the first was taken from Jamil's Brewing Classic Styles, and the second was from another great book, Brew Like a Monk, by Stan Hieronymus. The latter recipe came from The Lost Abbey's Tomme Arthur, and featured a hefty grain bill that showcased seven different malt types, along with some Dark Belgian Candi Syrup (which I will refer to as DBCS, due to laziness). Both beers came out well (I can't remember if I had a preference or not between the two), with a nice balance of toast, fruit, and spice... but there seemed to be something missing.

What I think it was in both cases was the presence of dark fruit; fruity esters is one thing, but it's the raisin/plum/etc. character that really makes a Dubbel different from many other styles. While some brewers actually add these ingredients to their beer, most of the time they come from two sources: a dark malt like Special B, and DBCS; and really, it's the DBCS that makes the biggest difference. Look at some of the most revered dark Belgian beers out there, and a lot of the really good ones (such as many brewed at Trappist breweries) consist of Pilsner malt, DBCS... and that's it.

There are different varieties of DBCS available, made by different companies. They also come in varying degrees of darkness... I guess that's the best way to describe them? As expected, the darker they get, the more of that dark fruit, chocolate, roasted character you're going to get. Luckily, the roast character is actually kept to a minimum; you don't want a Belgian Dubbel or Quad tasting like a stout, but having some chocolate character is still ok.

For the recipe, I decided to go with the Brewing Classic Styles one. It still has quite a few different malt types (mostly Pilsner, but with another 25% of the grist includes six others), which may not be necessary, but I do remember enjoying that first beer, so I decided to follow the recipe again. However, this time I went with a DBCS that is 180 SRM (D-180 from Candi Syrup, Inc.), much darker than my first Dubbel, as well as my second. As a result of this, I actually used less (just half a pound); going with the full pound would have resulted in a very dark beer, too dark if you're really trying to stay in Dubbel territory. With the descriptors of "subtle notes of anise, dark chocolate, dark stone fruit, caramel, with a hint of dark-toasted bread" for the D-180, I hoped that I was adding enough to bring that out.

I would have loved to have used a Belgian yeast strain that I haven't yet tried, but unfortunately I didn't plan enough ahead (it can take weeks to get a new yeast smackpack around here). Luckily, I did still have some extra Wyeast 1214 Belgian Ale slurry on hand; this is the Chimay strain, and I've used it in a few beers and always have been happy with the results. I find it gives a nice balance between spicy phenolics and fruity esters, so I was happy to use it here.

I decided before brewing this beer that I wanted to take it in a slightly different direction than before. When I was planning to brew my Milkshake IPA (which I had ready to go directly after the Dubbel), it was the first time in years that I had used vanilla bean in a recipe. It got me thinking to how much I enjoy vanilla in a beer... when it's used appropriately - that is, in the right circumstances, and in the right amounts. Too much vanilla can easily be cloying and off-putting. But it was pretty easy to see it working in a Dubbel, so I planned on adding a full bean when bottling. I scraped out the "flesh" of the bean, chopped up what was left, and soaked it all in a small amount of vodka for a week or so, then strained and added the vodka into the bottling bucket.

Here's where I had a moment of stupidity. For some reason on bottling day, I started wondering if the vodka was going to be adding some additional sugar to the beer... and if it did, shouldn't I therefore aim on the low side for target CO2, in case I ended up with bottle bombs? Pfft. Anyway, of course I didn't, and as a result the beer came out undercarbed. Dammit! Not flat, of course, but more like around 2 vol CO2 instead of the 3 or so I'd like to see in a Dubbel. Not to mention I underestimated the total volume (because I'm so used to brewing hoppy beers that leave lots of hoppy sludge behind)... sigh.

But on the bright side, the beer is really tasty! Unfortunately, the appearance kind of blows because there's basically no head retention due to the carbonation, but it smells ans tastes quite nice. The vanilla is just about where I wanted it - you can notice it, and it works well, but it doesn't overpower the beer. And this DBCS is great, easily the best of the ones I've used so far. Plenty of dark fruit character in the beer, accompanied by some light phenolics from the yeast.

This recipe has got me thinking that vanilla bean would work well in some other styles, so don't be surprised if I incorporate it again in the near future!

Note: Sorry for the lack of posting lately... no excuses, but I do have my next post on my Coffee Sweet Stout ready to go, look for that one within a week or so. I'm heading to San Diego next week with my family, which will - of course - also manage to revolve around beer!

Recipe Targets: (5.5 gallons, 80% efficiency) OG 1.063, FG ~1.015, IBU ~17, SRM 18, ABV ~6.4%

Grains & Sugars:
4 kg (70.8%) Bohemian Pilsner
400 g (7.1%) Munich
400 g (7.1%) Wheat malt
200 g (3.5%) Aromatic
200 g (3.5%) CaraMunich II
150 g (2.7%) Special B
75 g (1.3%) Acid malt
227 g (4%) Extra Dark Belgian Candi Syrup (180 SRM) (added during the boil)

Polaris - 8 g (17.7% AA) @ 60 min

1/2 tab Irish Moss at 5 min
1 x Vanilla bean, scraped & chopped, soaked in 1/4 cup Vodka; vodka added at bottling

Yeast: Wyeast 1214 Belgian Ale (with a starter, ~270 billion cells)

Water: Fredericton city water, carbon-filtered; 3 g Gypsum and 6 g calcium chloride added to mash

- Brewed on November 2nd, 2016, by myself. 50-minute mash with 15 L of strike water; mash temp on target of 153 F. Mashed-out for 10 minutes with 6.75 L of boiling water to 168 F. Sparged with ~4 gallons of 168 F water for final volume of ~7.25 gallons.

- Pre-boil gravity at 1.047. 90-minute boil. Final volume ~5.5 gallons; OG 1.063. Chilled to 64 F, then poured into Better Bottle. Aerated with 75 seconds of pure O2, pitched yeast at 64 F.

- Active fermentation by the next morning, really picking up by the evening, temp at 70 F. Turned up the heat in the room to boost it a bit higher, reaching 74 F by the next morning. Already started slowing down by that evening.

- 15/11/16 - FG 1.014. Strained vanilla/vodka liquid and added to bottling bucket, along with 137 g table sugar (boiled and cooled), aiming for 2.7 vol CO2 with max temp of 74 F reached.

This is the best I could do 3 months after Christmas...

Appearance: Pours with a small, rapidly-fading head that is virtually gone within seconds. Body is a dark brown colour with ruby highlights, and excellent clarity.

Aroma: Caramel, toffee, nice amount of dark fruit (cherry, raisin), and a mild-to-moderate presence of vanilla. No alcohol.

Taste: The caramel and dark fruit characters blend well together, and dominate; the vanilla follows and lingers into the finish. Low bitterness, still finishes fairly dry. Smooth.

Mouthfeel: Medium-light bodied, medium carbonation (after several months; was only medium-low at first).

Overall: A really nice beer. The appearance and carbonation was a bummer at first, but they've finally come around a little (now that I only have a few bottles left!).