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“mash aigre”?

This weekend is busy, I have cleaning up and stuff to do, but I absolutely had to get some serious brewing done as well. So I did the very first step, and I’m about to do one more thing and get it done, and the do the stuff I have to do, like cleaning up, laundry, and grading. (Oh, and wandering off to someone else’s computer to try get my Emart order sent off too. I’m pretty sure there’s something with my current installation of Internet Explorer 6.0, but I can’t seem to fix it.)

Anyway, pardon my French in the title: I don’t know what French homebrewers call a “sour mash” but I took a stab at it, and “aigre” is used when describing sour milk, so I figure it makes sense. This is, indeed, relevant to the batch of brew I’m making this weekend, of course.It makes a lot of sense, actually, to use the same word for “sour milk” to describe the kind of mash I’m dong now, since a sour mash is the product of lactobacillus — the very same bacteria that makes milk go “sour.” Actually, sourness is acidity; what the lactobacillus actually does is this: it eats up the sugar and poops out acid. (If this sounds kind of gross, remember: alcohol (and gas — like what carbonates naturally carbonated beer) is  likewise what yeast poops out after eating sugars.)

I decided to do a sour mash for my SMaSH brew, an all-pilsner ale, because of a brew I tried in Wyoming. I can’t remember who was at that meal (though I suspect Mike Brotherton, Jeremy Tolbert, and Andy Duncan were there), but what’s clear in my memory is that Marc Laidlaw and I both decided to have a sour ale, and were warned by the waitress that it might be “too sour” for us. She brought us smaller sample glasses — I think a half-pint each — and let us try, saying that if we liked it, we could have the pint we’d ordered, but if we didn’t, we could have something else.

We both had something else, because the first sip was so shockingly sour, but I found that, in the end, it was quite enjoyable. I finished that glass, and I wondered if I might not have enjoyed a full pint of it, though finally I was happy to sample something else. There was, after all, an overwhelming selection of unique, microbrewed beer in Wyoming. But that sour ale stuck in my mind.

When faced with the question of how to make an ale with a single kind of malt and a single kind of hop, I started to wonder what I could do to make it a little more unique. Rob’s comment about how “[t]his is a great way to see the different flavour profiles that ingredients and brewing methods have on a beer” sealed the deal: brewing methods, eh? Of course, I could have just gone for decoctions, that sour ale came to mind again.

In fact, today was the first time I ever, in my life, mashed grains, and I’m amazed at how not-all-that-hard it turned out to be! Well, not amazed: I knew it wouldn’t be that hard, but I was still a little bit intimidated by the process. But this was so easy. It was, in fact, so easy that I went ahead and did a single decoction on top of it all. I could have done a second decoction, but I figured I’d save that fun for when I am doing the big mash, probably sometime tomorrow evening… which makes the sour mash a short one at something like 30 hours, but who knows, it may turn out well. If not, I can live with a mild sourness, and maybe try out a double decoction tomorrow.

For instructions on sour mashing, I turned to a post at, though I didn’t quite follow it exactly. For one thing, I mashed about 800 grams of my pilsner malt, which is just under 20% of the total of the grains I’m using. I have a feeling that in times to come, I’ll be sour-mashing a higher percentage — that puckeringly sour ale would be a nice thing to try make in a smallish batch, I think, and to bottle in small 330ml bottles — but I’m happy to start conservatively, with roughly 18% of the grain bill. Assuming it does sour, it’ll give the beer a kind of noticeable tartness without making it too overpowering.

For decoction explained clearly and easily, I turned to a series of videos by a guy who’s going by the handle Braukaiser. He’s mentioned on this thread at Homebrewkorea, though in fact I came across his videos on my own and stumbled onto mention of it at the site later the same day. The first video of three about decoction is here:

(I’ll add the other two at the end of the post, but if you want, check out his Youtube channel to see links for the other two videos.)

The single decoction I performed between the protein rest and the saccharification rest. I tended to do these rests on the higher end of the temperature scale for each step, because I’m interested more in body than in alcohol level, and because I’m interested in trying to get this beer nice and clear if possible. I only decocted a portion of the mash grains, I think about 40%-50% of the grains, with very little of the mash liquid. I think it won’t have an appreciable effect on the beer but it was a way for me to try doing a decoction. Depending how much time I have on my hands tomorrow, I may well try a double decoction of the kind BrauKaiser demonstrates.

But really, the decoction was simply included in a simple step-mash procedure, like the one Rob outlines here.After the decoction I returned everything to the main mash, ended up close to saccharification rest (and raised the temperature just a little to each it, again on the higher side of the range) and let it sit for a good long time. After an iodine test and a tiny taste test –it was very nice and sweet — I was satisfied.

(I didn’t perform a mash-out since that will come at the end, in the bigger mashing procedure to which some of this grain will be added during the mash procedure (to balance things out at a pH level of ~5.2 ), and the rest will be added just before sparging, so that none of that sour goodness will be lost.)

Then I just decanted everything — the mash liquid and the grains alike — into a couple of insulated coolers, one that holds 2L and one that holds 1.2L, and dropped some dry, unboiled malt on top of each mash before sealing them into the cooler. (Because the lactobacillus thrives on the husks barley plants, so it’s a great way to inoculate the mash.) I’d have been happier to have a single 3L cooler, but this will probably work out fine. The mash is split into smaller portions, and maybe it’ll sour more effectively in a shorter time that way. Also, I’m happy to have minimized headspace in each of the smaller coolers, because I’ve read that this helps to keep the mash cleanly sour, instead of letting other critters thrive along with the lactobacillus.

Anyway, I guess we’ll have to just wait and see. I wish I’d gotten this done last night, as the extra twelve hours might have made the mash even more nicely sour when time comes for brewing on Sunday night, but whatever happens, it’s an interesting experiment.And I suppose if it’s really truly insufficiently sour, I could also do a mini-mash and add the result while the fermentation is still under way… or, just give myself more time for the next sour mash batch.

Still not sure which hop type to use, though I’m leaning towards the milder and fruitier, something that will get out of the way of the sourness but also complement it.

UPDATE (9 May 2010): So… I just checked the taste and pH on the two mashes. Predictably, the mash done in the night tight thermos was more sour than the one in the big cooler. (Which should have had an electric blanket wrapped around it, I guess.) But because I won’t have time on Monday, and don’t want to leave it till Tuesday night, I decided to just go with everything I had.

Then I completely screwed up. (But don’t worry, it worked out fine.)

What did I do? I somehow ended up putting all of the water I had left for this batch into the pot and boiling it for dough-in. I didn’t realize that I’d left nothing to sparge with until later, and then I was in a panic, wondering what to do.

Of course, vague memories of parti-gyle came to me. First runnings: barley wine. Second runnings: ale. Third runnings, small beer. I knew I wouldn’t get anything thick enough for barley wine, but I figured I could get an ale and a small beer out of it.

In fact, had I mashed only a couple of kilos more, I probably could have done a barley wine, though I’m happier not having to wait ages for it to be ready.

Anyway, I figured I’d run off enough first runnings to fill up my little 11L carboy that I got last week, and then sparge out a bunch of second runnings for an experimental small beer. Then I realized that I’d just picked up some jaggery at one of the Pakistani groceries this weekend — which turns out to be very pale, very unlike Indonesian gula — and I figured, since this is a very pale beer, my bigger ale could have some fermentables from sugar. (I’m only entering the beer made with the first runnings into the SMaSH contest, after all.)

So finally, I had two big pots of wort going at the same time on the stovetop. The smaller SMaSH batch was relatively lightly hopped with… I decided to go with Styrian Goldings, about 10 grams in the mash (not all of the alpha acids of which will end up in this batch, of course), 10 grams at the start of boil, then 4 grams at 30 min and 4 grams at 10 min. Very simple. The only variation on the bigger batch — which was, I am quite certain, overhopped as I thought it was about 18L of wort, but it’s probably closer to 14L — was that the hops for the first addition (at the beginning of the boil) were a mix of Hallertauer and Styrian Goldings. Not a very well-researched choice, I just went with what was in the baggie of half-used packs of hop pellets. The AAUs should work out about the same as for the first runnings batch, or would have if I’d scaled the wort right.

By the way, the OG for the two were remarkably similar: the first runnings came in at 1.058, and the jaggery-sweetened second runnings ended up at 1.060. Both a bit heftier beers than I usually brew.

Yeast is Safale S-04. I’m trying to cultivate some Duvel yeast from a bottle, but it’s not going so well. I mention this because it’s a (slightly) higher gravity beer, but indeed, the Safale is also suited to gravities even higher than this, so no worries if the Duvel culturing fails.

One thing I’ll have to learn more about is eliminating trub, or hot break, or whatever that layer of thick stuff is in the bottom of both carboys. Well, wait, no, the smaller batch has a scary amount of it in the bottom, but the bigger batch has much less. I guess I’m going to have to rack my smaller batch to something when primary fermentation is done… probably temprarily to an insanely sanitized bucket for an hour, while I clean out and sanitize the little half-sized carboy, since it’s the only one I’ve got! One thing I shou;d have done, and know I should do, but forgot to do, is boil the little steel scrub pad I use sometimes for filtering. It would have been so easy to do that when I was siphoning the wort from the pot, and I imagine a bunch of this stuff would not have come through– except I’d forgotten to boil it earlier in the day, and was in a rush, and had no free burner — two batches at once, remember?

Ah well, live and learn! I’m still very curious to see how these beers turn out. The little one is almost sure to be bottled, but the bigger one may end up in a keg, if I can get my act together and order some this week.

UPDATE (16 May 2010): I probably should have done something during the week with this stuff. The two batches looked as if they’d finished fermenting on Thursday, or maybe even Wednesday, but I was too busy to do anything about it, and the little time I had was devoted to dealing with my abortive Pilsner/Pale Ale experiment.

I’ve finally racked the second-runnings batch to a clean carboy. Whatever was on top of it was not simply krausen — it was, I think, some sort of thick layer of hot break that got into the beer. I’ll be clearing it with gelatine, but before I do, I’m going to add watermelon juice to it. Yup, the juice of a whole watermelon. That’ll cut down the level of the alcohol a bit —  the brew calculator says that moving from 1.060 to 1.002 — which is where it ended up — means a final alcohol level of 7.6% by volume or 6% by weight. I am liking this Safale S-04 Yeast, therefore, and thinking I might work with it for a while.

The first runnings needs to get racked to the now-bleach-soaking carboy that the second runnings batch was in. I guess it’ll go in there tomorrow morning, or maybe this afternoon if I have time. It’ll go into that just for clearing — I’ll crash cool it for the night, and then add some gelatin tomorrow, and let it sit for the week, and I guess I’ll be bottling it on the weekend.

Tasting what was in the test tube for the gravity sample, I have to say that it is nice and tart. Not full-on sour, which was what I was hoping for, but somewhat sour and certainly distinctive. I think the next time I try a sour mash (probably in a week or two) I’ll get it right nice and sour. Not Kentucky Common sour, mind, but really tart. I’m wondering whether adding frozen raspberries wouldn’t be nice — the sourness of the beer complementing the flavor and tartness of the berries? Now that I have a little carboy, I can experiment, I suppose.

By the way, getting my hands on gelatin was a hassle. I was sure there would be some at the Shindorim Emart, but of course there wasn’t, so I had to drop by Homeplus in my neighborhood. I picked up a watermelon while I was at it, which, after a long day out, was no easy task. The things we do for good beer.

UPDATE (25 Aug 2011): It strikes me that this beer never got an update. So here it is:

It turned out horrible. Not completely horrible: for one thing, the sourness was much more pronounced when it was chilled, and actually the level of sourness was just about where I wanted it. Disregard my comment below: this was plenty sour.

But the flavors were not good at all. One problem was that I used Pilsner as my single malt, but something I’d hoped decoctions would help but which in fact did not — though I may have done them wrong, for all I know. A second problem was that I got terrible efficiency, probably because I messed up the sparge, as mentioned above. A third problem was that, it being my first attempt at all-grain brewing, I had no idea what vorlauf really meant, so the beer was cloudy as hell, and without much color — it was a kind of whitish-greyish mess.

It ended up not really being drinkable, in the final analysis, but I didn’t let that discourage me. After all, you win some and you lose some: that’s just how it is! I ended up using this beer for cooking, as well as for adding a little sour kick to other beers I brewed later (following the example of the 3% stale/soured beer that is pasteurized and added to Guinness in manufacture). I learned from the experience, in any case, and in fact, I’m eager to give this concept another try. I’m just as likely to just do a full on sour mash for a few days, though, instead, with a slightly more complex grist and a different yeast — something like, say, a Kolsch yeast. (Which I just happen to have on hand, and am thinking of using for a Rauchbier next month, if I can clear out the keg space in time; maybe I can do a sour off that yeast cake…)

I still get flashbacks to that amazingly sour ale I tried in a small bar in Laramie, Wyoming, and get the urge to just go nuts and really brew up something puckeringly sour, but golden in hue and clear as crystal. That, I think, is one beer I want to brew before this year is through.

No picture for this beer, and trust me, that is your good fortune.

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