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Cabarnet Barrel Flanders Red Ale

December 11, 2012

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Man, this is a fun one.  I’ve been fascinated by the Flanders Red Ale style for the past few years.  I can remember the first time I had one was at a restaurant in Rochester, NY.  They had bottles of Duchesse de Bourgogne that they were recommending as a pairing with a pork belly special. I can still taste the savory pork belly bolognese and how well it was both countered and highlighted by the tart, fruity beer.

Nowadays, Duchesse is readily available in my area.  Occasionally I can find Rodenbach (and Grand Cru) and sometimes, if I’m lucky, Cuvee des Jacobins Rouge.  I’ve sampled a few other examples, including an Ommegang one-off and New Belgium’s wonderfully tart La Folie.

As much as I’ve been enjoying the style for the last several years, I’ve yet to brew one.  I think this is particularly surprising to some friends, as I brew my fair share of sour beers and there doesn’t appear to be a real good reason why I haven’t gotten to this.  I think when it comes down to it, if I was going to undertake a Flanders Red, I wanted to do it right.

Sure, I needed to do some research and understand how the recipe should ideally be built, but also deeper dive topics such as – assuming an extended fermentation, how would the oxygen permeability of the vessel impact the various microbes.  

Acetic acid (vinegar) is essential to the character of a Flanders Red Ale, but only in a light proportion. If too much oxygen is present, acetobacter, which develops this character, can really take hold and create an undrinkable mess.  While keeping that in check, you still want enough oxygen for the brettanomyces, lactobacillus and pediococcus to do their thing.  There’s a balance that needs to be kept, but it’s quite challenging to achieve.  

The other, more in-your-face factor, was the need for oak.  I use oak in my beers somewhat often, but only in cube form.  That’s fine and dandy, but if I really wanted to do this beer justice, I needed a wine barrel.  Luckily, I have a connection at a winery in the Finger Lakes, who has access to such a thing.  After telling her what we intended to do with the barrel, Jess was able to get me a 7 year old cabarnet sauvignon barrel for free.  Well, I promised to give her some beer, but that was a given.

Last but not least, I didn’t want to do this alone.  The barrel is 55 gallons.  I typically brew in  5 gallon increments, partially due to the limitations of my equipment.  I couldn’t fathom brewing 11x my normal amount (plus extra just in case) by myself.  It also occured to me that this was a pretty fun idea that would garner some interest.  Fortunately, there’s a pretty vibrant homebrewing community in Buffalo, and with my friend Alex’s help, we were able to get 11 interested guys signed up (one being my dad, who also brews and was really interested in the idea).  While we certainly could have found more bodies, 11 seemed to be a good number, as everyone gets a decent amount of beer, and it was fairly easy to distribute the costs amongst teams or pairs.

Once our roster was ironed out, an epic email thread began, where we discussed everything that would go into this beer.  Timing, recipe formulation, ABV/OG, process, resource efficiency, storage, aging and more.  As I said several times throughout the process – what started as my idea truly turned into a group project.  We couldn’t have had a cooler, and more knowledgable group to tackle this with.

There were a few things that all agreed upon early on:

  • Where to store, how long, etc.
  • We decided to do this beer as a Solera of sorts.  This December, we filled the barrel.  Sometime about 12 months from now, we’ll bottle around 20 gallons and replace with fresh wort.  Same thing in 24 months.  In three years, we’ll bottle all 55 gallons.
  • We would need a sour starter – at least 10 gallons with a mix of microbes – given several weeks to begin souring before adding to the rest of the beer.
  • The ‘clean’ portion (at least to begin with) would need to be mashed high (or hot).  This ensures that there is enough residual sugar left for the microbes, but not so much that we have a full blown refermentation in the barrel.
  • The ‘clean’ portion (everything but the 10gal starter) would be brewed together, in one day – a brew party of sorts.

I offered to brew the sour starter, along with my dad, which we wound up doing about 5 weeks in advance of everyone else.  With the ~2.5 weeks of primary for the clean portion, the starter had almost 2 months for the bugs to get rolling, which I think was plenty.

Photos of the starter brew:

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Once that was out of the way, it was time for the big brewday.  Regrettably, my dad wasn’t able to make it, but everyone else was.  For a mid-November morning in Buffalo, we couldn’t have had better weather.  It was sunny and the thermometer eclipsed 60 degrees.  Everyone came in a great mood and loaded up with outstanding beers to share:

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Just a sampling.  By the end of the day, this table was covered with empty bottles – all of them excellent.

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The brewday went about as well as could have been expected.  Everyone (slightly) overshot their gravity, we were able to chill quickly and efficiently with a march pump, purpose-built manifold and 125# of ice.  We also wound up with a few gallons more than we needed, which was a nice safety net to have.

Once chilled, all of the wort was combined in a ~70 gallon PET barrel that we all took turns splashing sanitizer around in.

Two of our contributors, who happen to be professional brewers, were kind enough to bring a large slurry of US-05/WLP001/1056 yeast (Chico) that we used for our primary fermentation.  About 8 hours after we started, we pitched yeast, sealed the lid and let er go.  Here are a few more pictures from that day:

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Fast forward about 18 days and primary fermentation was complete.  We were ready to transfer into the barrel, along with our sour starter.

We started by pseudo-sanitizing the barrel.  We didn’t necessarily want to kill any wine yeast that might have bee burrowed in the wood, but we did want to kill any mold that might have grown on the inside surfaces of the barrel.  We carried the barrel outside, brought 10 gallons of water to a boil and quickly pumped it into the barrel with a march pump.  The barrel was then resealed and rolled around for several minutes.  Steam pressure built up inside of the barrel, popping the bung out several times.  I took this as a positive, as steam would be nearly as effective at killing any wayward mold spores, as the water itself was.  After several rolls, we emptied the water and brought the barrel back inside.

The sour starter went first, siphoned over out of its two vessels.  That was followed by the clean fermented portion, which was pumped over using the march pump.  This made light work of what would have otherwise been a very challenging transfer.  The wort foamed slightly, which we let run out until the barrel was full to the brim with liquid.  We’ll lose a bit over time, so it was important to start with as much as possible.

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With the barrel full, there’s nothing to do now but wait and watch.  I had more fun with this brew than any other I’ve done and can’t wait to get back together with the guys and drink some of this fine beer over the next few years.

Here is the recipe that we followed:

  • Filtered, but otherwise untreated water
  • 35.3% Vienna Malt
  • 22.1% Munich Malt
  • 8.8% Pilsen Malt
  • 8.8% Belgian Aromatic Malt
  • 8.8% Flaked Wheat
  • 8.8% Flaked Maize
  • 4.4% CaraRed
  • 2.9% Special B
  • 11.1 IBU Hallertauer Hersbrucker
  • 3x Roeselare smackpacks (WYeast)
  • 1x East Coast Yeast 23 – Oud Bruin
OG Target (79% efficiency): 1.062
Actual OG: ~1.065
Estimated FG: 1.006
ABV: 7.8%
IBU: 11.1
 
Microbes:
  • US-05/1056/WLP001
  • Wine yeast inherent to barrel (mystery)

Roeselare contains:

  • Saccharomyces C. Belgian Ale strain
  • Saccharomyces F. Sherry Wine strain
  • Brettanomyces Lambicus
  • Brettanomyces Clausenii
  • Lactobacillus Delbruckii
  • Pediococcus

ECY23 contains:

  • Saccharomyces C. Belgian Ale strain
  • Lactobacillus Delbruckii
  • Lactobacillus Mali
  • Lactobacillus Brevis
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