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Friday, March 23, 2012

Saison de Noel

Today's brew is a limited edition kit from Northern Brewer. The kit is essentially a dark saison and uses a yeast blend that is only available for three months in the early winter. Brewing of the kit was fairly straightforward, with the only problem I had being that the original gravity of the beer was a little below what the kit indicated it would be.

0.5 lbs Belgian Aromatic malt
0.25 lbs Weyermann Carafa III
0.25 lbs Weyermann CaraAroma
6 lbs Pilsen LME
1 lbs D-90 Candi syrup
1 lbs Briess Pilsen DME
1 lbs Corn sugar
1 oz US Magnum hops

Wyeast 3726 Farmhouse Ale

The brewing process is similar to other kits, with the addition of the D-90 syrup and Corn sugar to provide flavor and fermentables in the case of the former, and fermentable sugar in the case of the latter.

Since I have given brewing instructions before, for this I am only going to note steps that were not taken in previous brews. For complete instructions, refer here. Note that this kit has steeping grains in addition to liquid and dried malt extract. The steeping grains are placed in a muslin bag with the water during initial heating for 20 minutes or 170 F, whichever occurs first.

Another step I have not written about before is the use of a yeast starter culture for fermentation. Yeast starters are generally a good idea for any beer with an O.G. <1.060, and I pretty much use them for all beers I brew. Essentially you are providing billions and billions of active, healthy yeast cells that should be able to withstand the high sugar environment of fresh wort, and give a quick and active primary fermentation. In this case, I broke the inner nutrient pack in the yeast package, and let it inflate for a few hours. When the bag was inflated, I boiled 1/2 C of Pilsen or Light DME in 650 mL of water for 15 minutes. I poured the wort into a 1 L flask with a magnetic stir bar (both sterilized), and covered the top with tinfoil. This flask was cooled in a ice/water bath in the sink until it was cool to the touch. I then poured the Wyeast package into the wort, and resealed with the foil. You can create a starter without a stir plate, but the constant movement and resuspension of the yeast cells helps to promote better growth. If you don't have a stir plate, simply give the flask a good swirl every time you walk by. Anywhere from 24-4 hrs seems to be a good range for a starter culture. After fermentation, you are left with billions of healthy, active yeast cells that will ensure a quick, vigorous and full fermentation of your actual beer. For very strong beers with O.G. in the 1.080 or higher range, you can make a larger starter or feed the cells more than once with boiled wort.

Yeast starters (for two batches), sitting on the stir plates.
The final issue I had to consider was temperature control. Saison yeasts ferment at higher temperatures (70-95 F) than most ale yeasts (56-72 F), and the ambient temperature in my basement wasn't going to cut it this time, even considering that the fermentation will add 2-3 degrees of heat to the beer beyond ambient temperatures. I planned on starting at 70 and ramping up the temperature by 2 degrees each day. Reading online, I had seen suggestions to use a heating blanket combined with towels, or to buy an aquarium heater and place that in a large bucket filled with water and then submerge your carboy in that assembly. Instead of buying supplies, I found a circulating water heater in lab that I borrowed for a few days to achieve a more consistent result. I filled a large styrofoam box with water, then placed my carboy with the Saison inside. The water came about halfway up the carboy, which should be sufficient for heating. I then had to jury-rig a stand for the water circulator to sit on. After that, I just switched on the pump and set my temperature. Periodically I had to add more water to ensure the pump didn't get dried out, but I had very vigorous fermentation after 6 hours of pitching the yeast into the wort. I'll probably use this setup in the future for winter fermentation.
The homemade water bath/heating apparatus. 
The setup is shown above. The beige/yellow device at the left supported by the weighed-down baking sheets is the water circulator/heater. Obviously, the carboy with the wort is in the center, and I have placed a thermometer probe in it to monitor the temperature of the fermentation. Sadly this probe was broken, as it told me later in the day that the liquid was at 140 F! Not shown is a later assembly of a blow-off tube from the top of the carboy, as I was afraid the rising yeast foam would clog up my airlock. The tube from the blowoff assembly went into a plastic bucket filled with water and serves the same function as the airlock does, mainly preventing bacteria and other microorganisms from getting into the carboy. For several days air bubbled out like crazy and filled the area directly above with a delicious, estery beer smell.

At less than 1 week in primary, the gravity had settled to 1.012 (about a 78% attenuation of the yeast). I racked into a secondary fermentation vessel and rested the beer for two weeks. Following that, I bottled using standard procedures and allowed the beer to condition for at least a week before drinking.

The final beer is fantastic. It has pepper, spicy notes from the saison yeasts used. From the color, you'd think you'd get lots of dark, roasted flavors but in fact they are very subtle. The 7.5% alcohol is strong, but not too noticeable. Overall, this was a great beer and I'd definitely make it again.

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