Friday, 12 May 2017

To Vrai or Not To Vrai - Another White Labs Controversy?

The Short Version

Brewing practices in both home and commercial breweries have undergone somewhat of a revolution over the past decade, leading to a cohort of brewers who approach brewing from a much more technical & microbiological perspective. As a direct consequence of this, some commercial yeast products have been revealed to be other than what the manufacturers have stated - in at least some cases, with the manufacturer themselves being unaware that their product was a yeast/bacteria different from what they believed they had. In this blog post we reveal that the yeast sold by White Labs as Brettanomyces vrai (WLP648) - ironically a yeast mis-identified previously by the same manufacturer - is, in fact, a blend of two different yeasts - both are Brettanomyces bruxellensis, but are separate strains...although strains which appear to have evolved from a recent common ancestor.

Some Background

Brewing practices have changed dramatically over the past decade, with procedures such as sour worting, wild captures, and home/brewery isolated yeasts going from rare experiments to commonplace brewing practices. This change in brewing practices has led to some issues with commercially sourced yeasts - as one example, the growth of practices such as sour worting have revealed yeast-contamination issues in packaged "pure" strains of Lactobacillus. Similarly, the more microbiology-centric practices of home and commercial brewers has led to some unexpected revelations, including identification of "Brettanomyces trois" as a unusually flavourful strain of conventional brewers yeast (Saccharomyces cerevisiae). I was part of that effort, and the results of my and others work in identifying this yeast are the subject of a previous post. According to the manufacturer, this mis-identification was due to a chance contamination of "Brett trois" by this strain of Sacc, leading to the release of the "correct" strain of Brettanomyces, under the 'vrai' (French for 'true') strain name.

But is the strain name accurate - is this truly a pure strain of Brettanomyces? Most of us assumed so, even though this strain shows some characteristics when used as a pure culture for primary fermentation that run contrary to how most Brettanomyces behave when used for primary fermentation. When used in primary fermentation, most Brettanomyces act much like Saccharomyces - they rapidly ferment the wort, usually leave some residual sugars behind, and don't evolve over ageing as much as beers do when Brettanomyces are added during secondary fermentation - e.g. there is a lack of phenol production and super-attenuation. Beers brewed with WLP648 do ferment out fairly quickly, but tend to be more highly attenuated than beers brewed with other strains of Brettanomyces as the primary yeast. In addition, beers brewed with WLP648 also show some development during ageing similar to that of beers with Brettanomyces added to secondary - i.e. emergence of phenolic "funk", and additional attenuation of the beer. So is WLP648 simply a more aggressive Brettanomyces than other common brewing strains, or is something else going on?

To our knowledge, it was assumed by other brewers that Brett vrai was simply a somewhat more attenuative strain of Brett - that is - until my friend and brewing collaborator (and co-author of this blog post) Devin streaked WLP648 on a wort-agar plate. Initially, the plate appeared as one would expect of a pure culture - all colonies on the plate appearing similar in size, shape and colouration. But over a longer incubation time smaller colonies began to appear between the larger colonies, leading us to speculate that there may be a second strain of yeast in WLP648.

Using a combination of classical microbiology, microscopy, gene sequencing and test batches, Devin and I explored the two strains of yeast present in WLP648, demonstrating that Brett vrai contains two unique strains of Brettanomyces bruxellensis, strains which share a relatively recent common ancestor, but are otherwise quite different in their morphology and brewing characteristics.

Experimental details can be found below the fold.

Tuesday, 9 May 2017

My Warm Lagering Method

I must apologise about my poor blogging output over the past year or so, but there have been some big changes behind the scenes which have got in the way of my blogging and brewing...but I've not been completely inactive.

As my regular readers may recall, I've done some test brews using a newer "lagering" method in which lager-style beers are produced using lager yeasts fermented at ale temperatures (post 1, 2, 3 and 4). Motivated by these successes, I've brewed over a dozen lagers using this method in order to refine this process, with my last two batches produced using the same refined method. The first of these was a German-style pilsner; specifically the "Myburger" Bitburger clone from "Brewing Classic Style". Not only was it delicious, but I had trouble telling it apart in side-by-side tastings from its commercial cousin. The second beer was a doppelbock, and was everything I'd expect from the style. The take-home lesson from those two brews is that you can make very good "lagers", true to style, without the need for prolonged cold fermentation. Indeed, the Pilsner was 2 weeks grain-to-glass, and a month for the doppelbock.

All the gory details are below the fold.

Friday, 31 March 2017

Necessity - The Flower Vase of Invention?

I ran into a bit of a hiccup in preparing for a brewday this weekend. I had just finished preparing my starter and was getting it setup on the stir plate. After the usual jostling, I got the stir bar engaged to the magnet in the stir plate and turning slowly. Satisfied that everything was stable, I turned up the speed on the plate, producing the usual satisfying whirlpool in the starter. No sooner than I started my next task - checking my inventory of malt - did I hear a "ping"...followed by the sound of a slow drip of liquid.

Turning around I saw, to my horror, that the plate had thrown the stir bar and cracked the flask (you can see a bit of the crack, left-side of the image). The starter was too big for my smaller flask, so looking around I came across the only available container - a flask of flowers. Long story short, the flowers have been moved to a less visually pleasing container, and a bit of bleach rendered their vase clean and sanitary. The bottom is too thick for the stir plate to work, but it makes for a pretty starter!

Thursday, 23 March 2017

Adam's Pale Ale (an APA...get it?)

I've done a poor job of blogging recently, so here's my first attempt to getting back on track. Back in February I helped a friend (Adam) learn to brew on my system. This beer was designed with his tastes in mind - hoppy but not too bitter. A classical-ish American-style Pale Ale...an Adam's Pale Ale...an APA (get it, that's a beer "joke", or maybe a dad "joke"...regardless, its some sort of a joke, I swear).

Appearance: Golden with a modest white head. Sightly cloudy, although not as cloudy as it appears in the picture.

Aroma: Peaches. Lots and lots of ripe peaches...but there are no peaches in this beer.

Flavour: Overall I am happy with this flavour, although I would tweak the balance of flavours if I rebrew this beer. Upfront is a fruity hop character with a slight catty bite - courtesy of the large late addition and dry-hopping with Amarillo and Simcoe hops. Behind this was a slightly sweet, but otherwise fairly neutral, malt backbone. The hop bitterness was low - to my tastes a little too low to properly balance out the malty sweetness and hop fruitiness. Either a lower mash temp, or drawing back on the Munich malt, would give a more pleasant balance of flavours.

Mouthfeel: Modest body, accentuated by a lower level of carbonation, made for a creamy feel to the beer. Aftertaste was malt-sweetness and hop fruitiness. No lingering bitterness what-so-ever in the aftertaste.

Overall: A pretty good beer. The balance of sweet and bitter is a bit more towards the sweet than I would prefer, but its easy-drinking, hop-forward and delicious - just what Adam ordered.

Recipe below the fold.

Thursday, 9 March 2017

New Mailer System!

Mailer showing dividing lines, numbering & yeast deposited
on spots 1, 3, 6, 8, 9 and 11. Click for larger image.

As many of my readers know, I run an extensive yeast bank and frequently exchange yeasts with other homebrewers from around the world. In the past I've used a simple mailer system that allows yeast to be sent by letter mail. While this system worked very well, it had two major drawbacks. Firstly, it was a lot of work to prepare the mailers, taking me about an hour to prepare enough mailers to exchange 48 or so yeasts. Secondly, they did not always pack nicely into envelopes, leading to a few envelopes being returned by the post for being too thick for letter mail.

For my last few exchanges I've used a modified form of this mailer system. It is much easier to setup than the old mailers (enough mailers for hundreds of yeasts can be prepared in the time needed to make enough of the old mailers for a dozen yeast), and packs very nicely into envelopes. The only downside is that it is a little more work on the end of the recipient, as multiple yeast are now packed onto a single card.

Full details of the new mailer system can be found below the fold.

Wednesday, 8 February 2017

Cider 2016

Every year I brew a few batches of cider, using cider pressed at a local cider mill. 2016 was no exception, although I scaled back this years batch of cider to a single batch...mostly because we've still got two half-batches worth of 2015's cider remaining.

This years batch is a bit of an experiment, but one which came out fairly well. To backtrack a bit, last year I prepared a batch of cider which I allowed to ferment using only the wild yeast present in the cider. This cider was good, but not great - it was extremely dry, and the earthy/musty flavour was a little more intense than SWIMBO would prefer (I liked the strength of it, but I brew cider for her, not for me).

This year I took a hybrid approach, to get the higher complexity of a wild ferment while restraining the wild character to a more modest level.

The one issue I ran into this year was the raw cider itself. The cidery which sells my brew club cider produces raw cider for local grocery stores. As a consequence, they do not worry about the blend of apples used, so long as the sweetness falls within a specified range. With alcoholic cider making, professional cider makers will use deliberate mixes of different types of apples to get a proper sugar content, while making sure that the amount of residual tanins and acids are appropriate to lend the fermented cider a nice balance. The cider we received this year was very sweet (O.G. of 1.052), and was clearly made almost entirely of dessert apples as there was almost no acidity or tanic character to the raw juice. As a result the fermented cider was quite dry, thin bodied, and somewhat weak tasting - issues I addressed by an alternate method of back-sweetening which was a smashing success.

Details & tasting notes below the fold.

Tuesday, 7 February 2017

She's Just That Pretty

I've already blogged about my "Sour Grapes" berliner from late 2016, but she's a pretty beer and worthy of another photo!

Wednesday, 11 January 2017

The Power of Staged Fermentation - Sour Grapes

Progression of the beer from: Day of grape addition (left) to 4 months later in the glass (right)
I am a bit of an experimentalist at heart, and one area in which I do a lot of "experimental" brews is using the staged addition of pure cultures of wild or commercial yeasts & bugs, pitched at varying times, to produce unique sour beers that cannot be produced through conventional brewing techniques. I've made beers with similar complexity to classical sour beers using staged-addition of bugs, but that's not what this post is about. Rather, this post is about using these methods to make good beer from difficult ingredients. In this case, wild grapes.

Wild grapes are pretty common place across North America, and they come in two "flavours" - European wine grapes that have escaped the vineyard and native species of grapes. Wild European grapes are pretty similar to the grapes you buy in the grocery store, and can be used as would any other wine grape in sour beer brewing. Truly wild grapes are another beast. In fact, my first attempt to brew with these turned a rather lacklustre 2-year old golden sour into an unpalatable mess. Thankfully I only added grapes to one gallon of that beer, and rescued the rest with a more classical cherry addition! There have been attempts since, and none (until now) were worth writing about.

There are nearly 70 species of wild grapes native to North America, so I'm not sure how true the following statements will be for brewers in other regions of N. America (or elsewhere), but for people in Ontario and the north-eastern US, this should be relatively accurate. The three species of wild grape native to my area (Vitis riparia, V. aestivalis and V. labrusca) are quite different from their European cousins. These grapes are much more intense than their European cousins; while the juice of European varieties are generally used to make wine undiluted, our local wild grapes need to have their juice diluted between 1:2 and 1:5 to produce a wine with a tolerable taste. The grapes themselves are quite small (0.5 cm diameter or smaller), have a very thick and tannic skin, have a much higher malic acid content, and have a much larger seed portion (relative to the amount of fruit) compared to their European cousins. And it is those characteristics that make them hard to incorporate into sour beer - essentially, enough grapes to give a nice grape flavour also imparts a lot of tannins, malic acid and grape-seed character.

Tannins are astringent and drying, and while nice in small amounts, they can quickly become overwhelming and unpleasant. Indeed, tannins are often made by plants for the purpose of deterring animals from eating the plant - the term "tannin" comes from their ability to tan leather, so you can imagine how excess amounts make your mouth feel. Malic acid is also quite harsh - almost as harsh as acetic acid - and like tannins can be pleasant in small amounts but becomes harsh and overwhelming quite easily. The seeds of grapes are also problematic - they contain some earthy and woody flavours that are pleasant, but the high seed content of wild grapes means these characters can be somewhat strong, and in my experience, clash with brett phenolics.

My attempts at using these grapes in conventional sours failed because of these characteristics - the malic acid would make an already acidic beer far too acidic and harsh, the seed character would amp up the funk, which in turn clashed with the high levels of tannins. Even pressing the grapes for juice doesn't solve these issues (aside from the grape seed flavour) to any meaningful extent. But where traditional sour brewing methods failed, "experimental" methods succeeded.

More Below the Fold

Thursday, 5 January 2017

Fact of Fiction - Can Pathogens Survive in Beer? The RDWHAHB Edition

Its time for the third instalment of my pseudo-series Can Pathogens Survive in Beer (Part 1 - of course they can, Part 2 - Moulds). To summarise parts I and II, yes there are a number of pathogens that survive in beer, and yes, moulds can release poisonous mycotoxins into beer, but generally speaking proper sanitation and controlling your brewing environment can eliminate these risks.

Today's edition is a little different; my previous posts get "cited" a lot by people who seem to have been scared by my posts away from testing new organisms as potential brewing bugs. As one example, a few months ago at Milk the Funk a discussion on the potential use of Lachancea fermentati (a lactic-acid producing yeast) to make a "single organism" sour-beer. The interest readily split into two groups after a case report was found of a patient in Texas who suffered fungemia (blood infection) with Lachancea fermentati. This led many people who at first were anxious to try brewing with this yeast to become fearful about even letting it near their brewery. Yet I, and a few others, made beers with this yeast...and we're all still here and no one got sick. So what is going on? Why would I (a microbiologist by trade) risk making a beer with a known pathogen?

The answer, as always, is below the fold...

Monday, 2 January 2017

Beer on the Brain - Your Lyin' Hydometer

I'm excited to announce the next video in my Beer on the Brain series...Your Lyin' Hydrometer. In this video I quickly discuss how hydrometer readings can lead you astray when brewing high gravity beers.

 

Sunday, 1 January 2017

2016 In Review

Last night, somewhere around midnight, 2016 came to an end...meaning its time for my annual look back at the year that was.

The Good: Both my blog and youtube channel continue to grow in popularity; my blog reaching 394k views, and my youtube channel 103k views. Most of the beers this year came out either good or excellent, including what may have been my best Berliner Weisse to-date. My brewing output is up slightly over last year - 16 beers/ciders, plus a few batches of wine. I added a bunch of fun yeasts to the yeast bank, and found two new loves in the form of Kveik yeast and fast-lagering with W34/70.

Of course, this year was also my 20th brewversary, and the celebration of that went well...and is still continuing.

The Bad: Brewing output is still down compared to historical norms, and I ran dry a few times this year. My posting of both blog posts and youtube videos has also suffered this year, despite starting a new series of short videos intended to overcome last years rather meagre offerings.

The Ugly: Turns out I was growing my hops all wrong...I hope to fix that in 2017.

Some Quick Stats

My Favourite Blogs of 2016

(in no particular order)
I cannot claim to have any big things planned for this year - more posts and videos, and ore brewdays, I hope. I also hope to electrify my brew setup...but those plans have been in the works for 3 years and have never advanced past the planning phase, so I'm not going to hold my breath on that one.