Basic Homebrewed Lambic Recipe

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Bottled gueuze aging at Brouwerij Cantillon in Brussels, Belgium.

If you ask 10 sour beer brewers how to brew a sour beer, you’ll get 11 answers. Here is mine. This is a basic lambic beer. It can be used as the base for a fruit lambic, like a kriek or framboise. It can be used as a blender in a gueuze. (See my article on brewing a gueuze for more information.) Or, it can be enjoyed on its own. Over the years, I have adapted traditional lambic brewing techniques into something that can be done on a normal homebrew system. The main recipe is given in a stovetop extract formulation (countertop partial mash), but I also give an all-grain version.

About the Recipe

A traditional lambic is made from a turbid mash of barley malt and raw wheat. The proportions are usually 65% barley to 35% wheat, or thereabouts. For simplicity, and because we do not have access to the same malts that Belgian lambic brewers do, this recipe specifies a single infusion mash of pale malt, malted wheat, and flaked or torrefied wheat. (Flaked wheat and  torrefied wheat are easily mashable forms of raw wheat). Some sour beer homebrewers seem convinced that you need to leave a ton of unfermentable carbohydrates in your wort when brewing a sour beer. I have not found this to be the case. So, I use a simple single infusion mash (for the partial mash or full mash) at 152 °F (67 °C).

Sparging with very hot water (over 190 °F/88 °C) mimics the traditional Belgian brewing practice, and gives the beer a small amount of tannic astringency — something that is desired in a lambic.

I skip the long (3 hour or longer) boil and boil my wort for 90 minutes. I use aged hops if I have them, but if not I simply hop to a low-level with low-alpha noble hops. If you are planning on brewing a gueuze, buy all your hops the first year. After the first year, you will have aged tops to use in your subsequent lambics. Aged hops contribute tannins to the wort, which yields more astringency. Again, a measured amount of this is desired in a lambic. Use whole hops, if you can, but pellets will also work.

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The mash mixer at Cantillon.

I do not cool the beer in a coolship, or attempt to contaminate it with microorganisms from my environment. I brew the base beer initially as a normal, non-sour, beer, then add cultured microorganisms. I ferment and age the beers in plastic bucket fermenters. These are not as permeable to oxygen as wooded barrels, but I have found that they work fine. You can even use glass carboys. The need for micro-oxygenation is overstated, I believe. (It’s nice if you can manage it, but it’s not absolutely necessary to make a good sour beer.)

With the commercial blends of microorganisms available to homebrewers these days, you can brew sour beers with a high degree of success. The most important variable is time — if you give these beers times to age, they will sour gradually and be wonderful. When they are young, they can be very rough. You need at least nine months of aging to yield a drinkable sour beer. Further aging will improve it.

I do not add oak to my fermenters. However, this is something you can do, if you desire. Use approximately 2–3 oz. (60–90 g) of French oak cubes that have been soaked in water for a week or so, with a few changes of the water.

 

Basic Homebrewed Lambic

Lambic-style sour ale

by Chris Colby

Extract version; English units

 

DESCRIPTION

A sour ale that can be a base for a blended beer, like a gueuze, or as the base for a fruit lambic, such as a kriek or framboise. Or, it can be enjoyed on its own. The beer is tart, and gets more tart over time, and shows no appreciable hop bitterness. Depending on the fermentation, the beer may have some “funk,” but — given the directions here — it is more likely to be a mostly clean sour. A small amount of tannic astringency gives the beer “structure.” If brewed well, this beer will continue to condition and improve for years.

 

INGREDIENTS (for 5 gallons)

 

Water

carbon filtered tap water, with mineral content suitable to brewing a pale or amber beer

Malt and Malt Extract (for an OG of 1.051 at 65% extract efficiency and 5 SRM)

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In the loft at Cantillon. You can (barely) see bales of hops aging in the back left.

3 lb. 14 oz. Pilsner malt or Belgian pale malt

1.0 lb. wheat malt (white)

1 lb. 2 oz. flaked wheat or torrefied wheat

12 oz. dried light malt extract

1.75 lbs. dried wheat malt extract

Hops (for approximately 10 IBUs)

0.75 oz. Saaz hops (fresh)

or

1.5 oz. Saaz hops (aged 1 year)

or

3.0 oz. Saaz hops (aged 2 years)

or

4.0 oz. Saaz hops (aged 3 years)

Yeast and Bacteria (for an FG lower than 1.010 and approximately 5.3% ABV)

Wyeast 1056 (American Ale), White Labs WLP001 (California Ale), Fermentis Safale US-05, or the neutral yeast strain of your choice

(1-qt. yeast starter)

and

Wyeast 3278 (Lambic Blend), White Labs WLP655 (Belgian Sour Mix 1), other the sour blend of your choice or individual cultures of suitable Pediococcus, Lactobaccilus and Brettanomyces strains

(do not make a starter)

Other

1/2 tsp. yeast nutrients

 

PROCEDURES

Make the yeast starter 2 to 3 days ahead of time. Place the crushed malts and raw wheat in a nylon steeping bag. Heat 8.9 qts. water in your brew pot to 163 °F. Mash the grains in your brewpot at 152 °F for 45 minutes. Stir occasionally and add heat, if needed, to maintain the approximate mash temperature. When the mash is finished, heat the mash to 170 °F, then transfer the bag to the 3-gallon beverage cooler. While the grains are mashing, heat 9 qts. of sparge water to 194 °F. Recirculate the wort through the grain bed. Then, run off and sparge with 194 °F water. Collect up to 4.0 gallons of wort, depending on how much you can boil. Boil wort for 90 minutes, adding hops with one hour left to go. Do not let brewpot volume dip below 3.0 gallons. Add boiling water to top up, if needed. Shut off the heat, and stir in the dried malt extract. Take the temperature of the wort. It should be over 170 °F. If it is not, heat it to this point (to sanitize the malt extract addition). Chill wort to 68 °F, then transfer to a bucket fermenter. Top up to 5.0 gallons with filtered tap water, then aerate the wort well. Pitch the ale yeast from the yeast starter. Ferment at 68 °F. Add the wild yeast and bacteria after high kräusen. Let the beer condition, at ale fermentation temperatures, for at least nine months. Do not rack the beer to a secondary fermenter. In the summer, the temperature can rise, but do not let it exceed 80 °F. Check on the fermenter at least once every other month to ensure that the water in the airlock does not evaporate. The final gravity of this beer may drop as low as 1.004, given enough time to condition. A pellicle will form on top of the beer after a few months, but will eventually sink to the bottom of the fermenter in a year or so.

 

ALL-GRAIN OPTION

At 70% extract efficiency, the grain bill is 6.5 lbs. (3.0 kg) pale malt, 1.75 lbs. (790 g) wheat malt, and 1.75 lbs. (790 g) flaked wheat. Mash at 152 °F (67 °C). Sparge with 194 °F (90 °C) water and collect around 6.5–7.0  gallons (25–27 L) of wort. Boil to reduce to 5.0 gallons (19 L), adding hops for the final 60 minutes of the boil. Ferment at 68 °F (20 °C) with ale yeast, then add lambic blend after high kräusen. Age for a minimum of 9 months.

 

FRUIT LAMBICS

The two most popular fruit lambics are kriek (cherry lambic) and framboise (raspberry lambic). Use half a pound (230 g) of raspberries per gallon or a pound (450 g) of cherries per gallon (~4 L). Use fresh, whole fruit that has been washed. Cut off any bruises or blemishes. You can also use fruit purée. Add the fruit to the bucket after the beer has conditioned for at least nine months. You do not need to sanitize the fruit. If using cherries, remove any stems. Optionally, you can pit the fruit, but that is not needed. Allow the beer to contact the fruit for at least two months, although 6 to 9 months is more traditional. (Most of the color and flavor from the fruit will be extracted in the first few weeks. So, you can rush this step a little, if you’d like.)

Bottle and carbonate for up to 5 volumes of CO2. (See our carbonation article.) Young lambics, or beers that have had a short contact time with the fruit, may overcarbonate. Bottle in heavy bottles and monitor carbonation by opening a bottle occasionally. Store in a container in which a burst bottle will not cause problems. (For example, line a sturdy case box with a plastic garbage bag.)

Carbonate to a lesser degree, around three volumes of CO2, if you are concerned about the potential for burst bottles.

 

AGING HOPS

Aging hops can be dicey. Traditional lambic brewers age their whole hops, in bales exposed to air, at room temperature for up to three years. As a homebrewer, I age my hops in their nitrogen flushed packages, in my freezer. I feel I get everything I need from the aged hops, without the risk of them turning cheesy. If you are feeling more daring or traditional, you can your hops in the refrigerator or at room temperature. Any cheesy character should be expelled during the boil.

When aging hops at home, be sure to label each package with the date you purchased it. If you plan on brewing lambics every year, purchase new hops to set aside for aging each brewing season.

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Side view of the coolship at Cantillon.

 

Basic Homebrewed Lambic

Lambic-style sour ale

by Chris Colby

Extract version; metric units

 

INGREDIENTS (for 19 L)

 

Water

carbon filtered tap water, with mineral content suitable to brewing a pale or amber beer

Malt and Malt Extract (for an OG of 1.051 at 65% extract efficiency and 5 SRM)

1.8 kg Pilsner malt or Belgian pale malt

450 g wheat malt

500 g flaked wheat or torrefied wheat

340 g dried light malt extract

790 g dried wheat malt extract

Hops (for approximately 10 IBUs)

21 g Saaz hops (fresh)

or

43 g Saaz hops (aged 1 year)

or

85 g Saaz hops (aged 2 years)

or

110 g Saaz hops (aged 3 years)

Yeast and Bacteria (for an FG lower than 1.010 and approximately 5.3% ABV)

Wyeast 1056 (American Ale), White Labs WLP001 (California Ale), Fermentis Safale US-05, or the neutral yeast strain of your choice.

(1-L yeast starter)

and

Wyeast 3278 (Lambic Blend), White Labs WLP655 (Belgian Sour Mix 1), other the sour blend of your choice or individual cultures of suitable Pediococcus, Lactobaccilus and Brettanomyces strains

(do not make a starter)

Other

1/2 tsp. yeast nutrients

 

PROCEDURES

Make the yeast starter 2 to 3 days ahead of time. Place the crushed malts and raw wheat in a nylon steeping bag. Heat 8.5 L water in your brew pot to 73 °C. Mash the grains in your brewpot at 67 °C for 45 minutes. Stir occasionally and add heat, if needed, to maintain the approximate mash temperature. When the mash is finished, heat the mash to 77 °C, then transfer the bag to the 3-gallon (11-L) beverage cooler. While the grains are mashing, heat 9 L of sparge water to 90 °C. Recirculate the wort through the grain bed. Then, run off and sparge with 90 °C water. Collect up to 15 L of wort, depending on how much you can boil. Boil wort for 90 minutes, adding hops with one hour left to go. Do not let brewpot volume dip below 11 L. Add boiling water to top up, if needed. Shut off the heat, and stir in the dried malt extract. Take the temperature of the wort. It should be over 77 °C. If it is not, heat it to this point (to sanitize the malt extract addition). Chill wort to 20 °C, then transfer to a bucket fermenter. Top up to 5.0 gallons with filtered tap water, then aerate the wort well. Pitch the ale yeast from the yeast starter. Ferment at 20 °C. Add the wild yeast and bacteria after high kräusen. Let the beer condition, at ale fermentation temperatures, for at least nine months. Do not rack the beer to a secondary fermenter. In the summer, the temperature can rise, but do not let it exceed 27 °C. Check on the fermenter at least once every other month to ensure that the water in the airlock does not evaporate. The final gravity of this beer may drop as low as 1.004, given enough time to condition. A pellicle will form on top of the beer after a few months, but will eventually sink to the bottom of the fermenter in a year or so.

 

If you enjoy Beer & Wine Journal, please consider supporting us by purchasing my book — “Home Brew Recipe Bible,” by Chris Colby (2016, Page Street Publishing). It is available from Amazon and Barnes & Noble. You can also find the nearest independent bookstore that sells it on Indiebound

 

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Related articles

A Simple Sour Beer

On Sour Beers and Sanitation

Fossil Cove Sour Mash Experiment

It’s Not “Infected”

 

 

 

 

Comments

  1. Hey Chris,
    I have always read about the need to age for extended aging. But, I always worry about my airlock drying up. Is there any reason to not bottle condition for a large portion of the time. I know the brett can eat higher order sugars so there is some worry of over carbonation. But, could it be aged in secondary for say, 3 months, then moved to the bottle for 6 months? Especially if you aren’t a believer in the need for micro-oxygenation, it doesn’t seem like there would be any difference.
    – Dennis, Life Fermented Blog

    • Chris Colby says:

      And you’re right to worry about the airlock drying up. Even with the cap, they will dry out in an arid environment. (Incidentally, I like the S-shaped airlocks for use in sour beer fermentations more than the “jiggle hat” airlocks. It’s easier, for me at least, to see if they need water.)
      However, aging in bottles is a bad idea. You need the spent yeast at the bottom of the bucket to serve as a source of nutrients for the souring microorganisms over the long course of the fermentation. Also, you do not want a pellicle to form inside your bottles.
      Let the beer ferment and age in a bucket. Do not rack to a secondary fermenter, or attempt to age in bottles or kegs. As such, you will need to keep an eye on the airlocks to ensure that they do not dry out. If you check on them every couple months, you will have no problems.

      • D’Oh! Already messed up then. I racked to a secondary about 2 weeks in. There’s a thin dusting of trub/ yeast in the secondary, but nothing like the cake in the primary… hopefully that will be good enough. I haven’t even checked to see if there’s any sort of pellicle. Its in glass, but I have it paper-bagged to keep light out. Oh well, if I have a slightly less funky/ sour barleywine than I meant to have, I still have a barleywine, so life will still be pretty good.

        Beyond just leaving it for a while, is there any way to tell visually when enough time has elapsed, like the pellicle falling or whatnot?

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