Ever since reading the Sour Solera Barrel post by Michael Tonsmeire, I have wanted to start my own project just like it. I kicked around the idea of getting a group together and filling a large 50-60 gallon oak barrel, but the logistics of getting everyone together to brew/empty/refill and not to mention store that huge barrel proved ambitious.
Solera, if you are unfamiliar, is a method of aging/blending for many types of products including Wine, Sherry, Balsamic vinegar, Port, Beer, and more. The basic idea is you have numerous barrels of different ages from which you will pull from to blend and bottle then transfer liquids from youngest to oldest in chronological order down the line. With this process, you are creating a complex product of an average age, where the average age gradually increases over the years.
On a homebrew level, it is very impractical to have many barrels of aging beer, but with the use of one vessel, we can pull portions of the fermented beer at various intervals for packaging/blending. Then the vessel can be topped off with fresh wort to create the same effect as a traditional Solera.
Since I cannot fill a 50+ gallon barrel with my own equipment I started to explore some smaller options. The 5-gallon barrels are too expensive and allow far too much o2 diffusion, especially for how long I plan to age this beer. I did find 15 gallon Rye Whiskey barrels for a good price locally, but after having a few beers that were aged in these barrels the oak and whiskey character was just too strong and it would take a long time to make it neutral.
This brought me to the 15.5 gallon Sanke keg, which I figure will be perfect for this project for a number of reasons. Most importantly, the size is more manageable to fill with my system and store in my basement. I also won’t have to worry as much about o2 exposure so long as I keep the keg topped off and possibly hard bunged after the active primary fermentation has finished. To mimic the barrel I will be adding some stripped Oak cubes so the brett and bacteria can get cozy.
Wort production was another dilemma I had when putting this plan into place, it basically boiled down to Turbid mash or not? In May of this year, I participated in a group Lambic brewday with my club, we all performed a Turbid Mash and racked the beer to a 53-gallon barrel to be stored at the LHBS for 1 year. It was a long and arduous process, I am happy I did it but was hard to enjoy everything else that was going on at the same time.
What I decided on was to do a step mash, full volume at 1.25q/lb, and do Wort Only Decoctions to reach each rest (113, 134, 150, 162, mashout in the kettle). I have read about and heard about, others using this method to create a wort that leaves enough dextrins for the Brett and bacteria to work on over time while still leaving enough simple sugars for the saccharomyces to work quickly on. With all of the Saison strains in this blend it should dry out to the 1.010-12 range pretty quickly then hopefully the rest will be taken care of by the funky stuff.
For my Clubs Lambic, we used ECY01 Bugfarm 6, which is the same blend that I will be using for my Solera, plus a myriad of bottle dregs. Granted there will be other differences in the 2 beers that may throw off any comparisons (barrel, inoculation rate, etc). But it should be interesting to compare the Turbid mashed Lambic to a different technique in wort production.
The grist will be comprised of domestic 2-row, I have plenty on hand but no Pilsner but I don’t think it will matter much, White Wheat and some Flaked Wheat for some added starches. As in traditional Lambic, I am looking for the preservative qualities of the hops with little to no bitterness, to achieve that traditional Lambic producers use hops aged for up to 3 years.
In preparation, I placed a few ounces of hops in a brown paper bag in the hottest part of my 3rd-floor closet roughly 18 months ago. When I opened them the day before brew day I was hit with a parmesan cheese aroma that reminded me exactly of walking through Brasserie Cantillon.
This post is already getting a bit longer then I had planned, but I wanted to document my line of thinking for the decisions I made with this brew. I put a lot of thought into this, but admittedly am cutting some corners i.e. no Turbid mash and Malted Wheat, I hope it pays off as I will be investing a lot of time and space to this beer. In the next post, I will chronicle the brew day.