Spontaneous Future Part Two: Our Journey Ahead

This is part 2 of 2 of our Spontaneous Future blog post series. If you missed the first check it out here. It takes a broader view of the history of spontaneous brewing. Part two takes a much deeper dive into the brewing process and discusses a little bit about how we plan to use spontaneous brewing in our operation. Readers beware, this is a pretty beer nerd, brewing process related post. I enjoy doing this stuff, talking about this stuff, and I enjoy writing about this stuff, but I realize it’s not for everyone and that’s ok with me.

Brewing Lambic inspired beer is a long, arduous process that in many ways adds to the mystique of the style. Nothing comes easy with these beers. They require patience in aging as well as the long brew day. The grist usually consists of 30 to 40 percent unmalted wheat with the rest being made up of malted barley (pilsner). A turbid mash is the traditional route and in many ways this intricate mashing scheme creates the backbone of the Lambic. With such a simple grain bill devoid of any real ‘character’ malts, the turbid mash creates a dextrinous wort that leaves both body in the final beer, and a long term food source for wild yeast and bacteria to chew on over time. I won’t go into too much detail on how to perform a turbid mash, mainly for the sake of time but also because there are far better resources out there that will give you a more complete run down. Here is however, a quick overview of our process:

Our Spontaneous Base Recipe

  • 60% Pilsner Malt

  • 40% Unmalted Wheat Malt

  • .75#’s/ BBL aged noble hops (aged at least 1 year) added at beginning of boil

Turbid Mashing Schedule

  1. Protein Rest @ 113* - Dough in using a very low water to grist ratio (around .3 qt/ pound).

  2. Gelatinization Rest @ 137* - Infuse boiling water to reach desired step temp. This step aids in breaking apart the starch molecules in the raw wheat.

  3. Turbid pull #1 - Pull cloudy wort from mash into a separate kettle (around 5% of your target batch size) and heat to 180*.

  4. Beta Amylase Rest @ 150* - Infuse boiling water to reach desired step temp.

  5. Turbid pull #2 - Pull cloudy wort from mash (around 25% of your target batch size) add to the first turbid pull and heat to 180*.

  6. Alpha Amylase Rest @ 162* - Infuse boiling water to reach desired step temp.

  7. Mash Out @ 168* Raise the turbid runnings from 180* to 185* then add it back to the mash. This should be enough to get to mash out temps.

  8. Vorlauf like normal.

  9. Sparge with 190* water and Lauter as normal. The higher sparge temp will pull necessary tannins that are classic to the style.

As if that wasn’t complex, we’re not done yet. After this exhausting process is an extra long boil, usually 3-4 hours. Similar to the turbid mashing process, this step results in an excessive boil off that contributes caramelization and dextrins which add body and character. It is also hopped fairly heavily, and not with any fruity designer hops either. We are talking aged noble hops that have been aged for a minimum of 1 year in an open bag exposed to the outside temperatures. They smell earthy, cheesy, musty and funky. Pretty crazy stuff, but aged hops are an often overlooked ingredient that helps contribute to some of the classic funk characters in these beers. At the end of the boil I like to pre-acidify the wort to ward off unwanted microbes. I tend not to go too crazy on this but I do like to see the wort in the 4.6-4.7 pH range when I can. This is actually a somewhat common practice that drops the pH to a level that is good for the yeast and bacteria we want, but unfavorable for microbes that we don’t. After this, it’s time to move on to the good stuff, the coolship.

After the boil is where the real magic happens for this beer style. Modern wort is chilled from boiling at 212*, down to it’s desired fermentation temp which is usually in the 60’s. This is done in line between the boil kettle and fermenter and is a very efficient and sanitary process. Traditional Lambics are cooled naturally in the coolship overnight, which is arguably the most important part of the entire process. This is where, in the right temperature ranges, wild yeast and bacteria settle down into the wort and eventually multiply, ferment, acidify and transform the beer into that funky goodness. The next morning the wort in the coolship is usually transferred into what’s called a ‘horny tank’ (i know, right?) where it is recirculated to ensure the newly residing critters are properly mixed up and split off into barrels for fermentation and aging. The ideal temperature is somewhere between freezing and 45F to cool the wort at an appropriate rate. Of course, living in San Diego this creates some challenges but we have come up with a few (unproven) solutions. It does get down that low here a few times a winter but if we would like to ramp up our spontaneous journey, which we sure hope to do, we will be taking this show on the road with a mobile coolship. We hope to take this beast out camping with us a few times a winter, and maybe even bring some friends along for the trip. More on that later, the campouts will likely start next winter (2019). This year we will be taking our setup to the place we have had the best results… Grandma’s house. That’s right. We did a couple spontaneous beers last winter at her house in Vista that has a mini orange grove flanked by a flower garden and other beautiful foliage. The batches from last winter turned out so nice in fact, it has become one of our main house cultures and is either the lone culture or a component of every beer we have aging currently. This really shaped our philosophy toward our house cultures moving forward also. We plan to pick our favorite spontaneous barrels to harvest cultures from to pitch during the non spontaneous brewing season.

When the barrels reach maturity it’s now time to blend. In my opinion this skill is best learned over a long period of time with help (at first) from someone with a trustworthy palate. It is difficult, for me at least, to articulate blending in a blog post or in person for that matter. Because of this, I won’t give too much advice here, but I will say that I am always blending for balance and nuance between acid and funky yeast character. More components usually give you more complexity, but at what cost? Complexity can be wonderful, but sometimes simplicity is the way to go. Balance. The last thing i’ll say is that we are most often blending with the intention of putting the beer on fruit. Whether that fruit be chosen ahead of time and you are just trying to find the right components to compliment, or you compose the blend first and let the beer tell you what fruit it needs, is up to you and your situation. I have done both and I will say that I prefer the latter because it feels like a less forced, more organic approach.

That’s all for now. A little long winded, but hopefully this gives you guys some insight into what it takes to make the beers that we love and maybe even inspires you to brew a spontaneous beer of your own! Thanks for reading, if you have any comments or questions please feel free to comment below, or get at us on the social medias!

Cheers, Justin