Tuesday, October 23, 2012

Three+ Years of Lambic -or- I Do a Decoction Mash

Step mashes are intimidating.  Different water volumes and temperatures.  Infusing here, removing wort there.  It's one of the more advanced brewing techniques that I have yet to take on.  When my friend Steve gave me over 20 pounds of fresh Cabernet grapes a few months back, I immediately added half of them to a nearly year old Flanders Red Ale.  I froze the remainder and started to mull over the best use for them.  Ultimately I decided to do the following:

  • Brew a series of three lambics, each roughly one year apart
  • Blend them when appropriate (3-4+ years) into gueze
  • Add fruit (the cabernet grapes, tart cherries, etc.) to portions of them if appropriate

It's an ambitious plan when you think about timelines and the potential for error-much like mead in that sense.  The desired final product is close to half a decade in the making and that's a long time to wait for certain uncertainty.  I'm hoping that I can make a quality fruit lambic using portions of the first one I brew when it's less than two years old.  With this plan solidified in my mind, I set out to learn all I could about the complexities associated with traditional lambic brewing.  I reread websites and books that had offered guidance in the past and approached them with renewed creative context.  As usual, I scoured the web for more information, the jewels of experience that make such a huge impression on my resolve to go forward with something potentially disastrous.

First water addition.
Traditional lambic brewing in the vein of Cantillon, Haansens, Oud Beersel and others typically utilizes a series of steps.  Water of different temperatures and volumes is added at particular times to raise the mash temperature and convert different starches.  Likewise, runnings are pulled from the mash and heated to halt enzyme activity and provide some of the long-term fermentables that keep non-traditional fermentation agents busy and make lambic interesting.  I went ahead and followed a comparable procedure, taking much from the Mad Fermentationist and his post on turbid mashing among other sources.  It was complicated and a little nerve-racking but worked out well in the end  Here's how the decoction mash shook out:

Water Temperature of Addition
Resulting Mash Temperature
3.1 quarts water
5 quarts water
1 quart, heat to 176°F, hold
6.5 quarts water
4 quarts, add to previous quart, heat to 176°F, hold
5.4 quarts water
5 quarts pulled, heated wort
Begin sparge

I adjusted volumes slightly on the fly in order to reach the desired temperature at each step.  I ended up gathering more than 8 gallons of wort when the sparge was complete, and a pretty hard two hour boil yielded the 6+ gallons I needed (5 gallons for the lambic and one gallon for a dregs batch made with Goose Island Sofie bottle dregs).  Pulling runnings from the wort at different times was really interesting, with the liquid coming out milky white and primordially hazy.  I ended up with a better original gravity than I expected based on past efficiency, and pitched Roselaire Yeast shortly after chilling.

I'm really excited to get this process under way and am already thinking about the recipe for Lambic #2, planned for roughly a year from now.


  1. I think you made a great call. I have wanted to do something similar, but I'm waiting for the space.

    Are you planning to use the same yeast every year or switch it up? Also why the roeselare yeast instead of a lambic blend?

    1. Thanks for the kind words. I plan to use different yeast, but I haven't decided which ones. My feeling is that the more variation the better. The final blend will be that much more complex and interesting. Any suggestions?

      Roselare is a blend of Lambic cultures, and with all of the different strains and bacteria it has (2 Brett strains, 1 Belgian ale strain, a sherry strain, Lacto and Pedio) it seemed a good choice for the beer that would likely be fermenting the longest. Since I have experience using it in Flanders Reds, I'm really interested to see how the flavor profile changes under different fermentation conditions.


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