Cheat sheet to start a slow sour fast

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March 8, 2016 by Gail Ann Williams

I’ve been meaning to post a very simple version of the classic Piatz Method for getting your first home brewed mixed-culture wild ale underway. This was how I started homebrewing sours in 2008, and it saves time and stress. Once you have this fermenting, you can read Tonsmeier’s American Sour Beers and delve in deep. Do a classic “turbid mash” and build a coolship, maybe.  But this is to get you going.

Create 5 gallons of wort from dry extract:

Targets OG 1.056; FG<1.012; IBU 0-10; SRM 3; ABV~5.2%

3.0 lbs (1.4 kg) light Dry Malt Extract
3.0 lbs (1.4 kg) wheat Dry Malt Extract
0.25 lbs (0.11 kg) malto-dextrin
(Optional: add 0.25 lbs broken whole wheat spaghetti (a quality brand with no eggs, just wheat) into the boil to release some gelatinized starches.)
3 oz (85 g) well-aged or oven-dried low-alpha whole hops.

(Or use a small amount of new low alpha hops, aiming for 7 IBUs or less. Use a brewing calculator to be sure you don’t add too much if not well-aged. Oven-dry whole hops for three hours at 200 degrees F, or the lowest heat your oven can be set at. Desiccate but do not brown them. Cool and air out for a week if you can. To age hops, store in paper or cloth bag for three years. Do not age high-alpha hops. Whole hops age better than pellets.)

Add the 6.0 lbs of DME and the malto-dextrine to the warming water as it heats. (Easier to stir in when warm but not steamy.)

Once boiling, add the hops. Add pasta at this time if you wish. This is traditionally a long boil, from 90 to 120 minutes.  You will boil off lot of liquid. Add some water back in, at ten minutes before you finish so you still have 5 gallons. It’s ok to add yeast nutrient if you have it handy.

Cool to 68 degrees, or the preferred temperature of your favorite clean ale yeast. Take the gravity for future comparisons.

Rack to fermentor, pitch a “clean” ale yeast, add an airlock.
Ferment for about two weeks. (The timing is not critical for this step.)

(If you have smaller glass vessels you could split this batch into two portions, and treat them differently at this point. Vary the pitching rate or the temperature, perhaps, or oak one and not the other.)

Rack into a glass, clear plastic or metal vessel, or leave the beer in the current vessel if you prefer. (Soft plastic brewing buckets let in too much oxygen over the long run.)

Add about five boiled oak cubes and a commercial pitch of “Lambic Blend,” “Rosalaire,” “Bug Farm,” “Melange Sour Blend” or other multi-species blend including both Brettanomyces and Pediococcus.

OPTIONAL: At pitching time, open the best bottle of sour beer you have and pour all but the last two inches to drink now, then swirl up those dregs and add them into your fermentation. Do not omit the commercial pitch — this is just an optional extra at this point.

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The beer will probably form a pellicle, a protective biofilm on the surface

Set into cool dark place for six months. Carefully remove enough to take a gravity reading, record, then taste and make notes. If it is good, taste again in a month. If it is not nice, taste in three months. If you can blanket it with CO2 before re-sealing, do this generously. (Start your next sour beer now.)

When a month goes by and the gravity has not changed, plus it tastes pretty good, decide if it is done, or if it needs fruit for character. You can now put chopped fruit into a different container and rack the sour onto it, avoiding excess oxygen uptake. Purge with CO2 if you can.

Take the gravity again in three months. (Four if in a cold basement.) Gravity should be back to where it was before fruit was added. The liquid should be clear (not cloudy with fermentation). Fermentation should be completely done all over again. If slimy (“sick”), allow more time.

Keg or…
Transfer into a bottling bucket. Purge with CO2 whenever possible.
Carbonate 5 gallons by first adding in a 1/4 pitch of powdered red wine yeast and enough priming solution.  (If the beer has been sitting for a long time at the same gravity, with nearly nothing to ferment, there is little natural carbonation in it. In that case adjust your sugar solution as if to carb 7.5 gallons of normal beer with plenty of CO2 in it.)
Bottle.

Keep the bottles at warm room temperature (68-78F) for three weeks, then chill one and try it.

If there are any new off flavors you didn’t have at bottling time, especially in the late finish, leave the bottles at room temperature for three months and try again.

Best luck with the adventure!

– Gail Ann Williams

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