Brew Day #63: Belgian Style Strong Dark Ale

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Today I am making my Christmas beer. Like many brewers (home or otherwise), I like to make something strong and special for the holidays. As a general rule of thumb, the higher the gravity a beer has (yielding a higher ABV), the longer it takes to ferment, condition, and mature. I try to schedule my brewing to take into account the varying amounts of time involved for each batch. Generally speaking, quickly maturing beers take around 4-6 weeks, medium-term beers 2-4 months, and long-term beers can take anything longer, up to and over a year! Last year I didn’t get my act together early enough to brew a strong ale for Christmas, and ended up making an Oatmeal Stout – it turned out great, but it was only 5% ABV.

This year I decided to try to make a copy of Chimay Blue “Grande Reserve”. I am following a recipe from the book Beer Captured by Tess and Mark Szamatulski. Often I will try to brew a clone of a commercial beer I like, adjusting or changing the recipe to suit my tastes or the ingredients available; just as often I concoct new recipes on my own after scouring through the books I have and postings on the internet for ideas. I’ve never brewed a Belgian Tripel before, although I’ve made several Dubbels, so I thought it safe to follow a recipe. In any case Chimay Blue is not called a Tripel by them – they call their “Cinq Cents” their Tripel – the Blue was originally brewed as a Christmas ale, in fact. From what I understand, it is basically a Tripel with a slightly heavier, darker malt profile, and the addition of “grains of paradise”, a spice. It will be the strongest beer I’ve made, with a target original gravity of 1.086, and around 9% ABV.

The process I follow is what is known as a concentrated wort boil. First I steep specialty grains in what is basically a little “mash” to release sugars and flavors from the grains, then strain the resulting liquor into the brew pot, add malt extract, hops (for bittering), and more water, and boil for an hour. More hops are added for flavor towards the end of the boil, and then the wort is cooled in an ice bath for about 20 minutes, then added to the fermenter, diluted with cold water, after which I pitch the yeast and seal it all up, with an airlock attached to allow CO2 to escape during fermentation.

Before starting I pull the yeast from the refrigerator – I’m using Wyeast #1214 Belgian Abbey Ale Yeast, which is the same strain used by Chimay. The packet has a small plastic bubble of unfermented wort inside, which breaks when I smack it with the heel of my palm, allowing the small amount of wort inside to mix with the liquid yeast. The yeast will begin to ferment as it warms up over the next hours, creating a slurry which I will then pitch into the finished wort at the end of the brewing process.

I pour a gallon of water into a two gallon pot and add the specialty grains – this recipe calls for Belgian Cara-Munich Malt, Belgian Aromatic Malt, Belgian Special B Malt, and Chocolate Malt – about 1 1/4 pounds total. The grains have been milled already, at the store where I bought them yesterday. I bring the water to about 155-160 degrees Fahrenheit and then cover the pot, turn it off, and set the timer for 30 minutes.

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I use bottled spring water for brewing. The city water here has a lot of chlorine and I don’t want to take the time to boil it out and cool it down. It’s also convenient to put three gallons in the refrigerator before I brew to dilute the concentrated wort at the end of the process – adding chilled water to the fermenter brings the wort temperature down to a level that the yeast is happy with.

While the grains steep, I turn to another brewery task that needs to be taken care of today. Last week I brewed a “mock-pilsner” – a German style beer which although it is an ale, I hope will successfully mimic a lager – and I need to transfer it from the primary fermenter, which I will use for the Christmas Ale, to a secondary fermenter (a five gallon glass carboy). I wash and sanitize the carboy and transfer the beer via siphon to it (this process of moving the still-fermenting wort from one vessel to another is called racking). I had hoped this beer would be fermented all the way out by today and I could bottle it, but alas! the airlock is still bubbling a bit and once it’s in the glass carboy it’s easy to see it needs more time before it clears and is ready to bottle.

After the specialty grains have steeped for a half hour I pour them and the water they steeped in through a strainer into the brew pot, and pour more warm water through the grains held in the strainer (this is called sparging). I add some more water to bring the level in the brew pot up to about two gallons, and bring it to a boil.

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After it comes to a boil, I take it off the burner and add the malt extract. This is a huge beer, and the recipe calls for 8.75 lbs. Munton’s extra light dry malt extract and 1.5 lbs. dark Belgian candi sugar (beet sugar). I decided to use Briess Pilsen Light dry malt extract instead, which is even lighter in color than the Munton’s, and I round up the amount to a full 9 lbs, and add it and the sugar to the brew pot. Returning the pot to the burner, I weigh out the bittering hops (I increase the amount slightly as I increased the malt), add them, and wait for it to come to a boil again.

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This is the dicey part of the operation. My brew pot is about 80% full and I know when the hot break comes it will try to boil over. Higher gravity beers need a larger volume concentrated wort boil in order to utilize the hops efficiently, and are very prone to making a mess of the top of my stove. This is exactly what happens! I turn my back on it for literally ten seconds and the searing hot concoction in my brew pot turns to foam and pours over the sides of the pot and all over the place. Yikes! As quick as possible I turn off the burner and lift the pot away, then spend several minutes mopping up the mess with paper towels. I’ll spend a lot more time cleaning up after this at the end of my brew day.

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I return the pot to the burner yet again and this time hover over it like a mother hen, lifting it off the burner and letting it settle down before returning it, over and over again, for about 15 minutes, cranking the heat down incrementally until I find the happy medium where the boil can continue steadily without it looking like Niagara Falls in my brew pot. I set the timer for 45 minutes and try to clean up a bit while I wait. I didn’t remember to chant Charlie Papazian’s mantra but I did indeed try to relax, don’t worry, and I had a homebrew.

When the timer rings I add a few more small additions to the brew: a teaspoon of Irish Moss, German Hallertau Hersbrucker hops for flavor, and crushed grains of paradise. The Irish Moss is actually a kind of seaweed, and is supposed to help the beer to clear through some mysterious alignment of proteins. My beers are clear most of the time but not always; I use it regardless. The hops I am using in this recipe are hop pellets: I use whole hops whenever I can get them, perhaps for aesthetic reasons? but I couldn’t get the noble hops whole, and I think this kind of beer really needs them. Grains of paradise are a kind of super boutique peppercorn related to ginger, which emit a peppery, citrusy aroma when I pound them up in the mortar. I set the timer for another 15 minutes and sit down to write out today’s recipe in my brew log. I also add a 1/2 teaspoon of yeast nutrient to the boil at this time; this is something I rarely use but the gravity of this beer is so high it may help to keep the yeast healthy.

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Now when the timer rings I make last additions to the brew for aroma: more Hersbrucker hop pellets and more grains of paradise, let it boil about three more minutes and then turn it off and set it in the sink. I dump the entire ice tray from my freezer into the sink with the brew pot, packing the ice cubes in around the sides of the pot, and then fill the sink with cold water. I set the timer for 20 minutes and while the finished wort concentrate is cooling in its ice water bath, I clean and sanitize the fermenter I racked the German Ale out of a couple hours earlier.

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When the concentrated wort has cooled, I sparge it into the fermenter and dilute it with chilled water, bringing the volume up to a bit over 5 gallons. The concentrated wort is thick, dark, and viscous – my daughter says it looks like chocolate. I splash the water a good bit (keeping it inside the fermenter though!) as I pour it into the fermenter, to aerate the wort well so the yeast has adequate oxygen for fermentation. For the sake of science, I take a small sample from the wort with a sanitized “wine-thief” and check the specific gravity by dropping the hydrometer into the tube holding the unfermented beer and taking a reading: 1.085, right on target!

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The last step is to pitch the yeast: I sanitize the outside of the yeast packet, cut it open and pour it in. After giving the wort a good last stir, I affix the lid to the fermenter and install the air lock and we’re in business. Time to clean up the kitchen!

In a week or so I’ll rack this beer to secondary, where it will sit for about six weeks before bottling. Once it’s in the bottle it will be a long wait until Christmas.

4 thoughts on “Brew Day #63: Belgian Style Strong Dark Ale”

  1. I like that concentrated wort technique you use. Seems manageable and probably more efficient than the grains-in-a-cheesecloth-teabag that I’ve been running with. I also like that you’ve reminded me that I need to think about making a holiday beer now. I’ve been calendaring for our annual pig roast (September) and hadn’t really considered past then.
    Oh, and thanks for liking my beer log (I’m stealing that term. See? I just stole it.). Looking forward to reading yours in the weeks and months ahead. Cheers! -J

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