Anything I’m Fermenting

November 10, 2008

Making the ‘Champage of Beers’ Part 3

This is the third installment of a series of posts on how to brew a beer that is like champagne. In the last two posts I discussed how to achieve a very light colour, fizz without head, and higher alcohol content. Here are all the characteristics I am aiming for.

1. Very light colour

2. Fizzy, but without much head

3. Alcohol content of around 8% abv

4. Noticeable acidity

5. Light body

6. Clear – minimal cloudiness

7. Low bitterness and no hop flavour or aroma

8. Fruitiness

9. Dry (i.e. not sweet)

4. Noticeable acidity. This may be the most involved part of making this beer, as it is a new process for me. Unlike most beers, wine balances its flavours, alcohol, and sweetness with acidity, whereas most beer balances these with bitterness. From most accounts, it sounds like it’s an either-or situation, as bitterness and acidity don’t seem to go well together for most people’s palate. In any case, I am trying to emulate a champagne, so I need to make my beer acidic, and not bitter (see Characteristic #8).

Beer was originally bittered with hops as the anti-bacterial action of the hops helped preserve it. Using aged hops contributes some of that action without bittering much, but the acidity (and higher alcohol) also help to preserve the beer, and allow it to age. This is, in principle, the same reason wine can be aged, due to it’s higher alcohol content and acidity.

There are several approaches to acidifying beer: using sour malt, making a sour mash, souring the fermenting beer, or simply adding food grade acids directly to the beer. I don’t have sour malt, so I will not be using that approach, and I don’t have and don’t want to use food grade acids. That leaves using a sour mash, or souring the beer.

Sour mashing creates lactic acid from the wort, before yeast fermentation. It can occur spontaneously because the production of malt creates ideal conditions for naturally occuring lactobacillus (and other souring microorganisms) to multiply on the malted grain. By boiling the sweet wort soon after mashing, brewers prevent their beer from souring due to these bacteria. However, if after mashing the sweet wort is innoculated with unmashed grain (the temperatures during mashing are high enough to knock off a lot of the bacteria), and allowed to ferment at temperatures around 50 degrees for two or three days, the wort will sour considerably. In fact, it will sour so much so that it becomes unpalatable for most – too sour, and too many ‘off’ flavour (cheese, etc). This is easily remedied by only sour mashing a portion of the grain, and then adding the sour mash to the rest of the grain at the end of the mashing, and boiling all the wort collected.

This allows you a fair degree of control over the amount of acidity. To properly mash a beer as light as the one here, I would have needed to add a bit of acidity anyway – using around 5 – 10% of the grain in a sour mash would contribute enough acidity to lower the pH of the entire mash enough for efficient mashing. At this level however, the acidity is not apparent to the palate. It is recommended that first time makers of sour mash beer use up to 20% of the grain for sour mashing. As I wish to have a noticably sour beer, I will use a little above that recommendation: 25% of the grain.

The other approach I could use is to sour the beer during fermentation. I’m leaning away from this due to several problems. One, I don’t have a good innoculum, and don’t wish to spend much, so won’t ship it in. I could possibly use a soured beer as an innoculum – but they have the problem of containing Brettanomyces and other ‘bugs’ that taste good in the beer in question, but are not really appropriate for champagne, I believe (not sure though…).

I’m also a bit nervous about souring the fermenting beer as it can be unpredictable at the best of times. Raj Apte has written the best explanation of brewing sour beers I’ve found (, and even he states that “Lactic [acid] levels are notoriously hard to control…” in the context of souring fermenting beer.

Furthermore, he suggests that using a sour mash is a good way to make sour beer quickly – he notes that it is not a method for replicating Belgian sour beers, as they need time to develop the Brett culture and flavour, but is good for such beers as Berliner Weisse. In a way, this beer is like a strong version of Berliner Weisse – light bodied, sour, etc. They even add sweeteners to it, much like they do to champagne (cassis, etc).

So here’s my proposed method to sour mash. Take 1/4 of my pale malt and rice grain and mash it (I’ll use distilled water to ensure the pH is low enough on this first mashing). This I will place in one or two (depending on it’s final volume) plastic 4 liter jugs, along with a handfull of unmashed malt grain and some cold water to reduce the temperature to 50 degrees. To keep the sour mash at 50 degrees for three days, I will hold it in a cooler, along with enough mini Christmas lights to maintain the temperature (see my tempeh making post to see a picture of what this would look like, approximately). On the third day, the sour mash will be mixed into the regular mash just before ‘sparging’ (not the best term when dealing with BIAB).

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