Organic lambic one year later

With VeganMofo over, time for quick homebrew update.

On November 7th of last year, I brewed my first lambic.  About three weeks before the deadline for the National Organic Brewing Challenge, I bottled up 1/2 gallon of the nearly 1 year-old organic lambic, with the intention of entering it into the comp. Before I sent it out, however, I sampled a bottle with Kevin the weekend of our Stone IRS tasting. I was very disappointed to find the beer was flat, vegetal tasting, hazy…a drain pour. Needless to say, it did not get entered.  As the samples from the fermenter tasted awesome, I felt it must have been a shitty bottling job and/or it just needed more time.  It was probably too soon to open a carbonating bottle.  I left the other bottles to sit for a few more weeks, then, on the beer’s birthday, I gave it another try. Wow! I was simply blown away. VERY happy with the results.

The appearance is amazing. Brilliantly clear, golden straw-colored body, with a delicate head of tiny bubbles. The aroma and flavors are very similar: funk/mustyness, lots of grape notes and a touch of pineapple/citrus. Definitely sour/tart, but not overwhelmingly so. Dry finish,  that makes it very enjoyable to drink.

Right off the bat, I found it to be a lot like the flavors of Cuvee de Castleton, without the sweetness and complexity of Cuvee’s muscat grape addition. Yesterday, I brought a bottle to a sour beer tasting with some friends that are all very familiar with the Cuvee de Castleton. They too got the same impression. Among the 20+ sours we had (including some of the greats, like Lambicus Dexterius and  Isabelle Proximus), it held its ground. Everyone seemed to enjoy it.

A few notes about this beer worth mentioning. First off, I think the complicated mash schedule is worth the effort. It seems to me, this gave the microbes a lot to chew up and resulted in a very nice fermentation. Also, I did not use any primary saccharomyces strain, with the exception of the Belgian ale yeast in the Wyeast Lambic Blend. Traditional lambic is not made with a primary saccharomyces strain, so I choose to ignore the advice of some expert homebrewers like JZ, who say to start the fermentation with a neutral yeast strain. Instead, in an attempt to mimic what would happen when wort is added to inoculated barrels at lambic breweries, I simply pitched the pure culture lambic blend and the dregs at the start of the fermentation process. It took a bit longer to get going, but it definitely did not have a problem attenuating. The beer is already below 1.000 and is basically living off of the unconverted starches at this point. I believe this gave the beer the signature aged lambic complexity earlier on in the process.

Finally, once the beer was fermenting, it never moved. Again, like traditional lambic, it was never moved off of the yeast cake, as this provided a food source for the microbes as well. A year of aging and absolutely no off flavors from autolysis. During the bottling process, I did move it into a keg. With the increased headspace and fallen pellicle, I want to be able to keep the oxygen out of the beer by purging the keg with CO2.

I intended to brew another lambic this year to, eventually, blend into a geuze. However, I don’t know how much longer I can take living in Albany. I need to return to the civilized world, where a vegan who doesn’t drive isn’t considered a complete weirdo (i.e., Portland). As I can’t move a carboy of aging lambic, I probably will not commit to the geuze and will bottle this lambic up in the next few months.

At some point – perhaps the next Organic Challenge – I’ll enter it into a competition for more objective feedback. Anyway, I think this is a solid recipe, perhaps my best so far.

Organic Lambic

Drinking traditional lambic always seems to result in me saying “I’d like to brew one of these some day.” The complicated turbid mash and the very long aging have kept me from actually trying.  After reading Jeff Sparrow’s book Wild Brews: Culture and Craftsmanship in the Belgian Tradition I couldn’t put it off any longer. I finally broke down and brewed one.

To brew a lambic you have to change the way you think about brewing. Just about every part of the process violates a common brewing rule. The grist is typically made up of a large amount of unmalted grain – usually about 30% unmalted wheat. The idea behind this is the unmalted grain will leave unconverted starches in your beer, which the microorganisms (namely, Brettanomyces) will survive on throughout the long aging process. The mash schedule commonly used breaks down proteins to ensure you get that large amount of starch from the wheat. Sparge water is typically near boiling, with little concern about stripping tannins off of the grain. Hops are only used for preservatives and should be low-alpha and aged (never fresh). Finally, lambics are intentionally inoculated with the very same microorganisms we typically work so hard to keep out. Then the waiting begins.. at least a year for an unblended lambic and up to three years for a gueuze.

So, here is my recipe:


7 lbs.  Gambrinus Organic Pilsner Malt
4.5 lbs. Organic  flaked wheat

2 oz Organic Belgian Saaz (2.1 % AA) [2006 crop. Got these from the close out section on the 7 Bridges website, but they appear to be sold out]

Yeast: Wyeast 3278 Belgian Lambic Blend + dregs from an organic berliner I did with Wyeast 3763 Roselare Blend and the dregs of a Boon Kriek + dregs of Cuvee de Castleton

OG:1.058 FG: ? (should get pretty low) IBU:~5 SRM:3.9

I tried to stick to as many of the traditional methods as I could, beginning with the mash schedule. I did not, technically, do a turbid mash, but I followed the suggestions for a shortcut from Frank Boon, via Ryan Brews. Here was the schedule:

  • Dough in @ 86 with 3 gallons of water.
  • Collect about 1.5 gallons wort and bring that to a boil.

  • Meanwhile, dough in again with another 3 gallons to get mash up to 113 ( I added 118 degree water, based on calculation from this site. Hit it spot on.) Rest 15 minutes.
  • Bring up to 122 and rest for another 15 minutes.
  • Add boiling wort back to mash to bring up to 149. Rest for 45 minutes.
  • Here, I’ve read you should bring the mash up to 158 for another 30 minutes. I actually ended up higher in the previous step  (154), so I just kept it at that temp for an hour.
  • Bring up to 168 for mashout (I actually might have skipped this)
  • Collect wort, then sparge with 4.5 gallons of 190 degree water.

I had outstanding efficiency (89%) and ended up with about 7.5 gallons of wort. Boiled for 30 minutes, added the hops, then boiled for another 75 minutes. Chilled to 65, transfered about 5 gallons to a glass carboy and pitched yeast.

It took about two days to show any signs of life, but once it got going a healthy fermentation has been going strong. It’s been fermenting between 66 and 68 for the past two weeks. A film called a pellicle should form soon,which will protect the beer from oxygen/mold as the brett eats through the rest of the dextrins and starches. I will probably bottle a few after a year and keep the rest going for the next two years to blend into a gueuze. Hoping to make the fall lambic an annual tradition.