Lambic. And yes, I’m calling it that. Deal with it. Part 3 – Q&A and various topics

In part 1 of this series I explored whether homebrew can be called lambic, and in part 2 I explored how to replicate the two most cited reasons why it shouldn’t be.

Today, in part 3, I planned to cover recipe creation, but that will have to wait for part 4 because I need to cover some omissions and questions I’ve gotten over the last two parts.

cantillon photo
Photo by toddross

Missing Pieces

Many astute readers pointed out that I had either skipped or glossed over some important parts of lambic brewing. A lengthy, super hot sparge, a long boil, and the use of aged hops were among the topics mentioned.

Belgian lambic brewers use a lengthy hot sparge to get maximum efficiency out of the grain. Again this was due to taxation. Since mash tun size was their greatest constraint, getting maximum extract efficiency was paramount. To get maximum extract, they sparge with super hot water (up to 190F) and do so for a long time. When I say ‘long time’ what I really mean there is that they use a lot of water. They are fly sparging, so the longer they sparge, the more water they use. The temp and pH of the grain bed typically rises during the sparge.

As a result of collecting a lot of wort with such a large sparge volume, Belgian lambic brewers use a very long boil (2-5 hours) to get the gravity and volume of wort to where they want it. OG for lambic is typically around 1.050, but there will be some variation for different brewers and even different batches. A boil of that length will result in some maillard reactions and some increase in color. I’m not sure if the golden color of lambic is primarily due to color increase in the boil or color increase due to oxidation over the long aging period or both.

Lambic brewers use aged hops. I haven’t found any source for the inception of the use of aged hops in lambic. I suspect it came about through some luck or experimentation with hops when they began to gain favor over gruit for preserving beer. Fresh hops introduce bitterness which clashes with the sourness, but gruit resulted in too much failure due to molds and other spoilage organisms creating problems.

Replicating the Hot Sparge

With a batch sparge it can be difficult to actually get the grain bed up to 180F or more to extract the tannin you want from the grain. I’ll have particular difficulty with this since I don’t have a heated or insulated HLT.

I do plan to use a mashout step by an infusion, so I’ll be trying to raise the temp to 167-170F via boiling water addition. A mashout step is traditional in lambic as well because the turbid wort(s) are added back to the mash and that brings the temp up to 167F or so.

Then I will attempt to lauter and sparge quickly with as hot water as I can. This will be limited by how much temp I lose in my HLT, but I think with the mashout I will be able to sparge pretty hot, especially if I’m quick.

sparge photo
Photo by cogdogblog

Replicating the Long Boil

I’ve gone back and forth on this one. I almost certainly don’t want to do a 5 hour boil. That’s a huge time investment that I probably can’t make.

On the other hand, a 2 hour boil isn’t out of the question, but I’m skeptical that a 2 hour boil actually makes a drastic color change and creates substantial melanoidins.

If I have to brew this on a weeknight, I’ll probably opt to use a small amount (2oz in 10 gals) of melanoidin malt and a normal 1 hour boil. The vast majority of color and flavor pickup in the boil should come from melanoidin formation, so hopefully melanoidin malt would be a good substitute for that.

If I decide to do this on a Saturday, I’ll probably try a 4-5 hour boil so I can take some samples throughout the boil and see just how much color and flavor change there is during an hour of boiling pale wort. This is not for simplicity’s sake as many of my other adjustments to traditional processes are, this would be to satisfy my own curiosity and skepticism.

Use of Aged Hops

The use of aged hops in Lambic is really interesting. Unlike turbic mashing to avoid taxation and coolshiping as a cheap way to chill the beer, I’ve not found any impetus for the use of aged hops. If anyone has any info, references, or even theories on why the use of aged hops became common in lambic, please let me know.

I have two theories:

  1. It seems lambic grew out of a wheat gruit in the 1500’s. Perhaps when hops were introduced the character of the beer changed substantially and through experimentation/luck/abandonment old hops were used and found to be suitable for producing a better product
  2. Again, when lambic grows out of gruit, I wonder if hops were not grown in Belgium, so what hops made it to Belgium from Germany were either old or discarded or poorly stored and again through some luck or experimentation it was found that old hops did what they wanted flavor wise.

In any case, I’m becoming more and more convinced that the use of old cheesy hops is very important to the flavor of lambic. Lambic brewers hop with pretty high rates. Some push towards IPA levels of hopping rates, at least in the sense of ounces per gallon. Cantillon appears to use 4oz in 10 gals, but others use 8oz per 10 gals. These high hopping rates contribute flavor, even if it’s weird, old, cheesy, funky, and even a little gross. The bugs in lambic seem to do some cool things with these flavors and in many examples you can taste the hops and it adds a nice extra dimension to the flavor.

I will be using 4oz of aged pellet hops from Farmhouse Brewing Supply. Mainly because that’s the amount I ordered, but I’m also not sure exactly how to convert aged leaf hops to aged pellets, but I figure like fresh hops, aged pellets will be more pungent. Any way I look at it, I’m in the right range using 4oz in 10 gals.

sparge photo
Photo by Jinx!

Why Not Turbid Mash?

Many asked why I can’t just do a turbid mash. They shared their experiences with doing a turbid mash and that they only experienced an extra 30 minutes or hour in total brew day time.

My biggest reason for not doing a turbid mash is that I’m not set up to do it. My boil kettle is a 15 gallon electric keggle that requires a volume of 5 gallons in it to fire the heating element. So if I pull the turbid worts I would have to take them upstairs and try to heat them on the stove. This means carrying hot wort around and up and down stairs, all while trying to manage the infusions. It’s just impractical for me. This is where BIAB would be great. With BIAB I could just heat the mash directly and easily pull the worts.

Why Not Mash High?

Mashing at a high temp has been suggested as a way to get extra dextrines without have to use the heresy that is Carapils. The question was posed to me: If you’re trying to create dextrins, isn’t mashing at high temp the simple/easy/straightforward way to do it? Quite simply, yes. If I had dreamed up a beer that I wanted to create more dextrine for Brett to eat, I would just mash high. That’s the simple thing. I like simple. I’m going to do that. I’m a big proponent of KISS. Keep It Simple Stupid.

I still like the idea of mashing low and adding some carapils. It’s a novel solution to the problem, and it’s theoretically possible that it’s closer to the turbid process. I may try it someday, but I’m going to try the high mash temp method once or twice and if I find that lacking I’ll give Carapils a try.

Fermenter

I said I was going to use a large plastic bucket, but I think I’m just going to use Better Bottles at this point. The bucket in question ought to be safe to use, but after some research and consulting with someone I trust with such research, I’d rather be safe and use a vessel of known quality. I wanted to use a vessel that had some initial O2 permeability, and a better bottle for long duration should have enough to get the job done, even if it’s not perfect. I may try to boil some oak cubes and add them at some point to get a touch of tannin and vanilla from the oak, but that will be something I do by taste later into fermentation.

Next time I’ll cover the recipe formulation with these ideas in mind. Cheers!

lambic photo
Photo by Bernt Rostad

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