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‘Tis the Saison

So the last couple of days were busy: I was given only a few days to submit some “necessary paperwork” to some committee, I’m not sure which one or whether it’s of any use to them. I also formulated my final exam for my Film course, which I’ll be giving today at noon. And of course I was grading student work.

But along with all that, I finally got in a mazing session–that is, I made some mead, which I discussed here–and I made a beer too.

Le Premier Fois Saison

Saison is, as the name suggests, a seasonal beer. It’s traditionally a kind of summer beer, a refreshing farmhouse ale to quench the thirst of hard-working farmers, it has become something of a summer-brew for homebrewers because the Saison yeast is an oddball —  it likes to ferment at much higher temperatures than other beer yeasts, for reasons I’ll discuss below. Of course it has changed over time, in all kinds of ways — the wort used to be boiled for hours on end (something I would indeed like to try sometime) and the style has mutated as techniques have modernized and malt quality has improved and tastes have shifted. However, there are a few characteristics I was trying to achieve:

  1. Low ABV: I wanted what is, for my brewing anyway, a relatively low degree of alcohol (starting with an OG of less than 1.050)
  2. Dryness: I mashed this beer at the low end of the mashing temperature range, to encourage the formation of more fermentable sugars, so this would dry out as it fermented. Maybe I defeated my own purpose by then adding muscovado sugar, but I don’t think it’ll contribute that much body; I think the muscovado will probably do more in the area of flavor, to be honest. However, I think my next Saison will be all-grain, just to see what effect that has.
  3. Color: I wanted a lovely amber color (not universal, but common enough from what I’ve read).
  4. Hoppiness: (despite not having the traditionally appropriate hops, I went with Cascade because that’s the most almost-appropriate hop I had on hand. I would have preferred Kent or Styrian Goldings, but you work with what you have, I guess. I just hope they don’t overwhelm the yeast characteristics; most of the hop effect was for bitteering with some for flavoring and slightly less for aroma. (The hop schedule is in the recipe, which I’ll link below.)
  5. Yeast character: I’m using the Saison Dupont yeast (Wyeast 3724), which likes to work at a much higher temperature than most beer yeasts — I have it sitting in a cupboard at 30-31 degrees Celcius, but I’m wondering if I can push the temperature up a couple of more degrees.

The grist was pretty simple, as you can see from the recipe, which as usual I formulated with the help of Beer Calculus over at 2.3 kilos of Pilsner malt, 0.7 kilos of Munich malt, 0.5 kilos of raw wheat (cereal mashed separately to ease the sparge, with some of the Pilsner malt). I used only one non-grain adjunct, a 500 gram packet of light Muscovado sugar.

As I said, there were about 30 IBUs of Cascade hops (a single hop for this brew), though utilization was probably higher, since I didn’t add the Muscovado until late into the boil, and I also included a few spices in the boil: some bitter orange peel, some dried mandarin orange peel tea (ie. sweet orange peel), a little star anise (much less than the recipe formulation guidelines in Phil Markowski’s wonderful book on Belgian Farmhouse Ales suggested), and a small amount of Balinese long pepper (maybe one or two grams at most). I want the majority of the spice characteristics to come from the yeast, but figured I could help it along.

The cereal mash went well, and it really was amazing to see something that looked like wallpaper glue turn so clear and fluid so quickly. The sparge went even better, and I found the wort was a pretty good color and also tasted quite nice.

During the boil, I was a little worried that the Saison wouldn’t have the color I was going for. I wanted to make a nice, amber-colored beer, and with the hops floating around, and the hot break, and whatever else was in there, it looked more… well, it looked muddy brown and none too appealing. However, it seems that letting the hops float free (instead of in teaballs) was a seriously good idea. Between the false bottom on my boil pot and the braided hose I use under it, the hops ended up accumulating en masse and acting as a kind of filter bed for the beer. I am pretty sure I must have extracted a little more goodness from the hops, like using a hopback maybe except that most of the hops were all used up, as the wort slowly, slowly sucked through the thick layer of hop pellet gunk, but more importantly, after the first second or so, the wort ran incredibly clear — clearer than any wort I’ve taken out of a brewpot before!

I have some whole Cascade hops (the flowers themselves) and may dry hop this if I decide to get a really hoppy aroma. According to Markowski, some Saisons are apparently quite aggressively hopped, and it seems like a little more aroma couldn’t hurt anyone. But like I said, I was already a bit iffy about using Cascade, and I fear if I dry-hop with it, I’ll be overwhelming the Saison yeast characteristics. We’ll see.

The Saison hasn’t begun fermenting, and I am sure I somewhat under pitched the yeast, but I put mead-like levels of DAP into the wort, so I’m hoping that helps it along. (In his book, Markowski mentions that DAP might help the wine-like Saison yeast by increasing FAN in the wort, since Saison yeast seems to be some kind of mutated wine yeast and all that. I would love for this to work, as I’d prefer to see the yeast eat right through the beer instead of struggling after it hits 1.022, as is very commonly reported for this strain of yeast. Also, I’m considering this a probably starter for a yeast cake onto which I can pitch a second, unspiced Saison in a week or two, depending on how the fermentation goes. (Apparently the yeast performs far better in the second generation. So I may end up racking off it, and adding some other finishing yeast, and dumping a new wort onto this sometime after exams and grading are all finished. We’ll just have to see.)

It’s always a little exciting to start a new brew. It’s also been nice to taste of the brews I’ve been aging and conditioning, and I suppose I ought to be posting on how I think they turned out. But that’s for another entry, and I fear this blog has become, essentially, a homebrewing blog these days. Enough of that: I want to write about SF for a while. So that’s next.

UPDATE (20 Dec. 2010): Well, I can’t say I wasn’t warned. I’ve read about a couple of gravity levels at which Saisons get stuck, depending on the yeast. For the yeast I’m using, which is Wyeast 3724 (the Saison Dupont yeast) the danger point is supposedly around 1.035, which my own batch sailed through–probably because I had it at a constant 31.9 degrees Celcius, but maybe also because, taking a nod from Phil Markowski, I gave this batch a small dose of diammonium phosphate (DAP) to increase free amino nitrogen (FAN) in the wort–I happened to have some on hand for a mead I was making, and didn’t need it all since (supposedly) FAN is a little higher in mead musts with whole fruit in the primary fermentation.

So that’s one potential pitfall that’s fallen by the wayside, but the fermentation is certainly slowing around the corner of 1.022, and that’s another gravity reading often reported by people brewing Saisons and experiencing stuck fermentations. It’s not stuck–there’s airlock activity, so it’s still outgassing significantly, and the gravity is shifting slowly, but it’s creeping along. I think it’s too late to add more DAP to the Saison, so I’m just going to keep the temp slightly higher with a heating pad–hopefully around 33-34 C internal temperature for the wort–and steady, and wait. I have to think it won’t take much longer to get down to a nice, dry gravity, and it should attenuate pretty well since I mashed it as low as I could.

One thing I do look forward to is reusing this yeast in a second batch of Saison as soon as this one is fermented out. I’ve read that Wyeast 3724 is way more of a go-getter in the second generation, for some reason, so I’m going to time it so I can dump a batch of wort right onto a healthy portion of the yeast cake. I think I’m going to mix in a little more Munich next time, or something, as this pilsner malt-heavy recipe has produced something a little more like a dark blond, and I am more interested in something with a richer, lovely amber shade and perhaps a little more residual malt character (not sweetness, just maltiness, if that makes sense) to balance the spiciness of the yeast. Also, the next one is going to be an unspiced Saison… I put a little spice into this batch, but want to see what the yeast can do on its own in the next generation.

UPDATE (21 Dec. 2010): Taking samples for a gravity check is too easy when you’re fermenting in a bucket with a spigot. This might be good in some cases, but I probably should wait a bit. Anyway, the sample I took was very close to 33 degrees Celcius, and 1.018, which adjusts (after taking temperature into account) to 1.022-something. However, I’m not going to panic. No point in that: I’ll probably do another wheat beer with the grains I have on hand, and the Weihanstephan yeast I harvested from the Berliner Weisse I brewed (and which is waiting now to be bottled). I’ll try leave the Saison at a steady temperature and not take another sample till at least the weekend or early next week.

UPDATE (7 Feb 2011): I let this beer sit for a long, long time, but it did finally dry out… all the way to 1.004! I forgot to update that at the time when I racked it to secondary, so I’m noting it now. The same yeast cake did something pretty spectacular to the second batch of beer I made with it, bringing things down to 1.002 (!) and I’ve got a third brew it’s churning through now. They’ve all been relatively light beers, but I think the next Saison I make will have to be a “Super” Saison… and I want to save the yeast, because this is about the only yeast one can easily do anything with in Korea in the summer, I think. (Since it likes the heat.)

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