A Simple Sour Beer

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Bottles of sour beer aging at Brouwerij Cantillon in Brussels, Belgium.

I’m a fan of sour beers. Last week, I posted an article addressing the biggest fear of most homebrewers contemplating brewing sour beers. However, I know that some potential sour beer brewers may also have second thoughts because of the perceived complexity of the process. They may have read that a large amount of aged hops are required, or that they must culture microbes from bottles of sour beer. They might have read that unusual or impractical fermentation vessels (carboys with table legs stuck in them or 55-gallon/210-L barrels) are required. This is not true.

While some sour beer brewers go to extreme lengths to mimic traditional methods or perfect their sour creations, it is possible to brew a very nice sour beer with just a bucket, some patience and ordinary homebrewing ingredients and techniques. With that in mind, here’s my recipe for a “simple sour” — a straight lambic-esque beer that tastes great on it’s own, or can be used as a base for a fruit lambic or as a blender with other sours beers.

Simple Sour Beer

Malt extract based (English units)

by Chris Colby

 

DESCRIPTION

This is a sour beer that can be made simply, but still turn out great. Wort production for this beer is very simple. The quality of the beer comes from the fermentation and aging.

 

INGREDIENTS (for 5 gallons)

 

Water Profile

The malt extract will already have minerals dissolved in it, so very soft water (even distilled or RO water) will work well. In reality, almost any tap water that tastes good will work. If you have water that is very high in carbonates > 150 ppm, dilute it with some distilled or RO water to lower the carbonate level to around 100 ppm. You should either carbon filter the water or treat it with one Campden tablet the night before to eliminate chloramines.

Malt Extract (for an OG of 1.047 and an SRM around 3 or 4)

5.25 lbs. dried wheat malt extract (*1)

 (*1 — if you’re an all-grain brewer, make a wort from 65% pale malt and 35% wheat malt, with a starting gravity around 12 ° Plato/SG 1.048)

Hops (for 10 IBUs total)

Saaz hops (10 IBUs) (*2)

0.75 oz. (at 3.5% alpha acids) boiled for 60 minutes

(*2 — if you happen to have some aged hops that do not smell cheesy, throw in a couple ounces instead of the Saaz)

Fermenting Microorganisms 

Wyeast 3278 (Belgian Lambic Blend) or White Labs WLP655 (Belgian Sour Mix 1)

You do not need to make a yeast starter

Yeast Nutrients 

1/4 tsp. yeast nutrients (boiled for 15 minutes)

 

PROCEDURE

Make your wort as you normally would. (And just because this is a sour beer, don’t skimp on cleaning or sanitation — you’ll be adding the “bugs” you want.) Cool your wort to 68–72 °F and transfer it to a plastic bucket fermenter. (A carboy will work, but a bucket is a bit better because it lets in a tiny amount of oxygen.) Aerate the wort, but don’t go nuts. If you can use air instead of oxygen, do that. Pitch the blend of yeast and bacteria. Put a strip of masking tape on the fermenter and write the name of the beer and the date you brewed it. For the first week, hold the fermentation within the typical temperature range for ales (68–72 °F). During this time, the brewers yeast in the sour mix will ferment the wort. Next, place the bucket somewhere at room temperature or above. Your best choice is to put it somewhere in your house that heats up a bit in the summer (up to 85 °F). In fact, exposing the beer to some heat (75–80 °F) in the first month or two after the primary fermentation is done will help the souring organisms. (Think about putting the bucket in a garage or near an outside wall in a room that the air-conditioner doesn’t cool well.) Now, leave it for one to three years. Yes, you read that right. The bacteria that sour the beer work slowly. Give them at least a year to do their thing before you either bottle the beer or add fruit.

 

 

Simple Sour Beer

Malt extract based (metric units)

by Chris Colby

 

DESCRIPTION

This is a sour beer that can be made simply, but still turn out great. Wort production for this beer is very simple. The quality of the beer comes from the fermentation and aging.

 

INGREDIENTS (for 19 L)

 

Water Profile

The malt extract will already have minerals dissolved in it, so very soft water (even distilled or RO water) will work well. In reality, almost any tap water that tastes good will work. If you have water that is very high in carbonates > 150 ppm, dilute it with some distilled or RO water to lower the carbonate level to around 100 ppm. You should either carbon filter the water or treat it with one Campden tablet the night before to eliminate chloramines.

Malt Extract (for an OG of 1.047 and an SRM around 3 or 4)

2.4 kg dried wheat malt extract (*1)

 (*1 — if you’re an all-grain brewer, make a wort from 65% pale malt and 35% wheat malt, with a starting gravity around 12 ° Plato/SG 1.048)

Hops (for 10 IBUs total)

Saaz hops (10 IBUs) (*2)

21 g (at 3.5% alpha acids) boiled for 60 minutes

(*2 — if you happen to have some aged hops that do not smell cheesy, throw in a couple ounces instead of the Saaz)

Fermenting Microorganisms 

Wyeast 3278 (Belgian Lambic Blend) or White Labs WLP655 (Belgian Sour Mix 1)

You do not need to make a yeast starter

Yeast Nutrients

1/4 tsp. yeast nutrients (boiled for 15 minutes)

 

PROCEDURE

Make your wort as you normally would. (And just because this is a sour beer, don’t skimp on cleaning or sanitation — you’ll be adding the “bugs” you want.) Cool your wort to 20–22 °C and transfer it to a plastic bucket fermenter. Aerate the wort, but don’t go nuts. If you can use air instead of oxygen, do that. Pitch the blend of yeast and bacteria. Put a strip of masking tape on the fermenter and write the name of the beer and the date you brewed it. For the first week, hold the fermentation within the typical temperature range for ales (20–22 °C). During this time, the brewers yeast in the sour mix will ferment the wort. Next, place the bucket somewhere at room temperature or above. Your best choice is to put it somewhere in your house that heats up a bit in the summer (up to 29 °C). In fact, exposing the beer to some heat (24–27 °C) in the first month or two after the primary fermentation is done will help the souring organisms. (Think about putting the bucket in a garage or near an outside wall in a room that the air-conditioner doesn’t cool well.) Now, leave it for one to three years. Yes, you read that right. The bacteria that sour the beer work slowly. Give them at least a year to do their thing before you either bottle the beer or add fruit.

 

Related articles

On Sour Beers and Sanitation

Fossil Cove Sour Mash Experiment

Brewing with Fruits

Comments

  1. Eric from Long Island says:

    Question…what about yeast auto lysis, shouldn’t the beer be racked off the primary yeast before letting the long secondary get going?

  2. Chris Colby says:

    For a sour beer, no. When yeast die, they provides nutrients for the bacteria.

  3. Courtney G says:

    I hought you had to use glass, for sours. I am interested to hear about your results using plastic

    • Chris Colby says:

      I’ve had good luck making sour beers in buckets. I’ve brewed many from a recipe very similar to this (except I made the wort all-grain). I once blended a 3-year old sour beer from a bucket, a 2-year old beer from a bucket and a 1-year old beer from a bucket to make a gueuze-style beer that won Best of Show at my club’s competition. Joe Walton and I also made a sour beer based on the Hymn to Ninkasi poem that was aged in a bucket for a year. It was Second Runner Up the year we entered it.

      When aging sour beer in a bucket, make sure the lid actually seals (sometimes I wrap the seal in duct tape, as an added measure) and keep the water in the airlock topped up. If you do this, you should be fine.

  4. I am going to do this in the next few weeks. I have a vial each of WLP sour mix and Flanders ale coming over from the States. I am thinking of adding 5% each of carahell and flaked oats.
    Right now we have ambient temperatures in the low 20s C for fluid(as we are in winter) but summer will up that by 10C or so.
    I have been waiting to get the chance to do this for sooooooooooooo long.

  5. I’ve read on different sour beer recipes that a big part of the flavour is aging the beer in oak barrels. If I don’t have access to an oak barrel, what do you know about adding oak chips to the carbouy?

    • Chris Colby says:

      A lot of sour beers are aged in oak barrels. However, these are — in every case I can think of — used or “neutral” oak barrels. They don’t contribute oaky, vanilla-like notes to sour beer as new oak barrels do to red wine. The beer in a barrel can “breathe” a bit because the wood is lets in a tiny amount of oxygen over time, and this may stimulate the souring microorganisms.
      If you wanted, you could boil some oak chips or oak cubes until most of their flavor was flushed out and add them to the fermenter. This wouldn’t (and shouldn’t) flavor the beer, but you could take the wood out of the fermenter when you’re done and use it again if your beer turned out well. The wood will retain a sampling of the microorganisms in the beer. (I think pitching from a commercial (or other) culture is better, but some people use the contaminated wood method to sour their beers.)

  6. Aaron Peck says:

    I forgot to use the yeast nutrient. Is it doomed? Or will I still be okay?

    • its fine.

    • Chris Colby says:

      It will be fine. The yeast nutrient would get gobbled up by the brewers yeast early on. If your primary fermentation went fine, then you have no worries. Just let the beer sit and sour. Check on the airlock occasionally, as the water can evaporate over time.

  7. I used this technique last September and pitched the Wyeast Roselaere blend. It is coming along nicely, tasted it last night and the gravity has dropped to 1.006. When it comes times to bottling, is there anything special that needs to be done (in particular, a yeast addition)? I assume the bacteria will eat the priming sugar, but was not sure how long that would take. Thanks.

  8. When in the process would you add fruit?

  9. I have made several attempts with sours in a bucket and they tasted like plastic.

    DO NOT AGE IN PLASTIC.

  10. what’t the mash temp for all grain?
    im guessing pretty low

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