Monday, July 2, 2012

Saison d'Etre (Classic Belgian Saison)

     Along with English session ales, Belgian saison is one of the styles that really got me interested in homebrewing in the first place.  The best Belgian varieties, like Saison Dupont and Fantome are around $9.00 and $12-15 a bottle, respectively, and because of the green bottles they're packaged in, you never know how well they'll travel.  Since a version of the Dupont strain is commercially available, I figured it was time to take a crack at this intriguing style.  With this brew, I'm going for something traditional, as described in a brilliant essay by Yvan de Baets in Phil Markowski's Farmhouse Ales .  These beers were traditionally created in small, regional farmhouse breweries, brewed for the additional seasonal farmhands needed during the summer and harvest months. As such, they had to be thirst-quenching, refreshing, and not too powerful.  I'm using Wyeast's version of the world-famous yeast strain cultured from Brasserie Dupont in the West-Hainaut region of Belgium.  This yeast is notorious for two things: it's incredible fruity/spicy flavor profile, which make Dupont's beers so respected, and the fact that it's absolute murder to work with.  This strain (which may actually be a combination of several strains and, additionally, may contain influences from a red-wine yeast) has a tendency to require substantially higher temperatures (75-90 degrees!) to work efficiently, and a significantly longer fermentation time than other ale strains.     
     Many homebrewers have been frustrated by this yeast's tendency to give up the ghost about 75% of the way through fermentation.  Markowski's book, along with a variety of web-based resources, however, suggest that a healthy pitching rate (I made a 1L starter with two Wyeast smack-packs), elevated temperatures, and a healthy dose of patience are all that is necessary for this one to do its magic.  Well, I've got my yeast, we've got 100-degree-plus weather here in mid-Missouri, and...well, I'm not so good at the whole 'patience' thing, but I'm gonna give it my best. 

Saison d'Etre: batch no. 1

       -2 lbs. Munton's Light DME
       -1 lb. Munton's Wheat DME
       -3 lbs. Briess Pilsen malt     (Mash between 150-154, rest for 70 minutes)
       -12 oz. Table sugar
       -1 oz. East Kent Goldings (4.5% AA) 60 minutes               (16.5 IBUs)
       -1 oz. East Kent Goldings (4.5% AA) 20 minutes               (10.0 IBUs)
       -1 oz. Williamette (4.7% AA) 5 minutes                             (4.3 IBUs)
       -(2) Wyeast #3724 smack packs, in 1 L starter wort
     This go-round, I tried a different sparging technique, thanks to some helpful online advice which pointed out the very obvious (it was one of those 'forest for the trees' mistakes) reason my efficiency had been utterly rubbish on my last two batches.  While my efficiency was a little better than my previous batches, it was still 4 points low.  As my wort was getting fairly close to the boil, I threw in the remaining DME I had left (13 oz by weight) and measured again.  1.043, my target pre-boil gravity, on the nose.  How's that for luck?  After the beer was in the fermenter, outfitted with a blowoff tube, I took a final refractometer reading of my wort.  It was at 1.056, a full seven points over where it was supposed to be (1.049).  This is not the end of the world: far from it.  Basically, I might get a saison that's up to 6.3-6.5% abv rather than the 5.00% I was looking for.  Perhaps a bit stout to keep field-hands working upright all day, but since I'm not out working in the fields, I can probably manage. 
     That's not to say that I'm not getting a bit frustrated with my continuing mash efficiency problems.  For my last three batches now, my original refractometer readings for my pre-boil gravity have been way low.  I've added DME to compensate, but then my OG ends up being high.  I'm wondering if I'm somehow getting flawed readings in attempting to measure my pre-boil gravity, but I'm not sure why that would be.  I'm going to have to do a bit more digging around online and see what I can find.  Meanwhile, this baby's in the fermenter.  Here's hoping for a great saison in 4-5 weeks' time!

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