Many things go into making a great beer. But what goes into making a great sour beer? What about an American wild ale?
First off, I would feel I wasn’t doing my duty if I didn’t explain the difference between a sour & a wild ale. Superficially they may seem the same, but if we dig a little deeper we begin to see a very distinct difference. Sour is a very one dimensional flavor originating primarily from lactic acid-producing Lactobacillus sp. Some brewers choose to enhance this ‘sour’ flavor by adding straight lactic acid or perhaps producing lactic acid through a shortcut known as kettle souring. Don’t get me wrong, I have tried many kettle-soured beers that are absolutely delicious. Wild ales not only feature a sour flavor from lactic acid producing bacteria but they also exhibit flavors from wild yeast like Brettanomyces that produce flavors and aromas ranging from barnyard to leather to tropical fruit to ‘funkiness’.
But how do you make a wild ale? First you begin with making a beer. That’s where Hell’s Cellar began. In February of 2015 we brewed an un-hopped version of our Belgian-style saison using the best Belgian pilsner malt we could find in addition to wheat & oats to contribute a higher amount of complex sugars (the reason why lies ahead). What we created was not only tasty, but was destined for many delicious versions of our saison. Our first goal was to procure our barrels for aging our saison in the presence of our wild friends (Lactobacillus, Pediococcus & Brettanomyces). We couldn’t think of a better home for our first Hell’s Cellar than wine barrels from Bryan/College Station’s very own Messina Hof. Thanks to the generosity of the Bonarrigo family and a little beer bribe to the head vintner we were able to purchase some beautiful Messina Hof Cabernet barrels that were freshly dumped and bring them to their new home at Blackwater Draw Brewing Company. (More on the wonderful history of Messina Hof Winery)
Our first step was to clean and sanitize our new (to us) wine barrels in order to prepare the wood for inoculation with our mixed culture of wild yeast and bacteria. In order to minimize oxygen uptake during the 15 month aging process of Hell’s Cellar we had to ensure that the barrel was free of leaks and would hold our saison for the next year and half without issue. The filling of the barrels was a fairly straight forward process that involved transferring around 59 gallons of clean fermented saison into each barrel. A mixed culture of Lactobacillus, Pediococcus & Brettanomyces was added to each barrel to begin it’s slow transformation into Hell’s Cellar. What happens during this journey of 15 months?
First the Lactobacillus & Pediococcus begin feeding on the sugars left behind from fermentation to produce the sour-tasting, lactic acid in addition to a buttery compound know as diacetyl. We don’t want our beautiful ale tasting like sour butter though, and this is where Brettanomyces comes to rescue. The Brett begins to consume the more complex sugars from the oats & wheat as well as the wood to produce a wide array of flavors and aroma that are most notably described as ‘funky’, ‘barnyardy’ or ‘sweaty horse’, tropical, leathery and sherry-like. But an added benefit of the Brett is it’s ability to absorb the diacetyl produced by the lactic-producing bacteria. But this all takes a very long time, what were we to do? We are in the business of making and drinking beer, if we wanted to wait forever to enjoy our creations we would have gotten into the wine-making business. Well turns out there was plenty of fun to be had.
Not all the beer we made could fit in the barrels we got from Messina Hof. We knew that we wanted to infuse Hell’s Cellar with some sort of fruit/flavoring at the end of aging so we did what any good brewery would do. Testing (and drinking). We were able to create some great flavored saisons using local fruits/vegetables during the Spring & Summer of 2015 to see how they would stand up to our discerning customers. We picked over 20 pounds of prickly pear fruit from a Brazos county ranch and juiced them (ouch!) to create our Prickly Pear Saison. We also received a generous donation of cucumbers from a local farmer. The cucumbers were all cleaned, sliced and infused into
the saison to create our Cucumber Saison…and boy was it a good one! But we didn’t stop there, we also created a somewhat unique creation in our Ginger Saison. Our personal favorite was Saison d’Jamaica, a saison flavored with the dry petals of the hibiscus flower. The hibiscus flowers added a very nice tart flavor reminiscent of cranberries that we felt would play well with the natural tartness of Hell’s Cellar. We were smitten. But that only took up about 2 months…13 more months till it’s ready. What to do now?
Road Trip!!! Actually it would be more correct to say trips. We didn’t invent the concept of wild ales. Brewers in Belgium have been making wild ales before they even knew what bacteria and yeast were.
We visited some great sour-producing breweries like New Belgium and Cascade Barrel Works to see how our brethren were producing sours. We found that their ‘barrels’ were much, much larger. We began to understand that if we really wanted to see Hell’s Cellar come to fruition it would be a very timely and pain-staking investment. We tried some of the best examples of the style and also began to realize that there were as many different ways for producing sour/wild ales as there were flavors. These excursions inspired us to learn more and develop our barrel program so that it could thrive for years to come. We began to isolate strains of wild yeast and bacteria from around the Brazos Valley. One strain in particular found favor among myself. Howdy! Farms gave me some figs growing on the Texas A&M campus that we cultured to begin our ‘house sour’ culture. (more on this culture later). We now had another mission, keep an Aggie cultured wild yeast alive for 10 more months. Through careful cultivation and propagation we were able to keep this bad bug alive for future use in our Hell’s Cellar program. Football season came and gone, we killed a few more months and were close to being finished…but 4 months is still a long time. What to do?
Staff Field Trip!!! We figured we had done a pretty good job of understanding what was going on inside that wine barrel. How about we learn a little something about the wine that used to be in that barrel. The staff at Messina Hof graciously hosted our entire brewpub staff on a tour of their winery and gave us an in depth wine tasting (which was definitely a staff favorite). We learned about the flavors imparted on wine through the use of barrels and gained a little insight into how this may translate into our finished beer. Although this didn’t eat up much time on the overall wait for our first Hell’s Cellar beer, it definitely got us all excited. We also realized that we were going to need something to put this delicious creation into if we were going to share it with all of our friends.
We chose what we felt was the perfect bottle for aging and enjoying our beer. If you look closely at the bottom of every bottle of Hell’s Cellar you will notice an indentation similar to that on a wine bottle that allows the yeast/bacteria to settle to the bottom allowing the beer to be poured with less sediment in the glass. We also got to the fun business of designing labels for the bottle. After a long night of
drinking designing we settled on what is shown on the left. We ordered the bottles, sent the labels to the printer and now had one more thing to wait on, but we were oh so close.
Two weeks before bottling we moved all the aged beer to age in the presence of over 50 pounds of hibiscus leaves. Maybe if we worked really hard we could release the bottles for American Craft Beer Week! Nothing ever goes as planned in the brewing industry though. But we now had 2 wine barrels worth of Hell’s Cellar: Sour Series (2016) ready to be bottled. Through the generous effort of staff at the brewpub we were able to knock out all the bottling in one day…and night…actually early morning. Now, we just needed labels.
American Craft Beer Week came and passed, and still no labels. But no later than a day after American Craft Beer Week, labels arrived. After 3 short hours in our walk-in cooler we now had a finished product, ready to share with the Brazos Valley. And share we did!!!
We ended up just shy of 60 cases of Hell’s Cellar (2016) Hibiscus Saison. And we planned the release of our wild ale into the…wild. What better day than June 3rd, 2016…or as we like to call it in Downtown Bryan, First Friday. We were so happy to see so many of our friends show up to try our very first bottle in the Hell’s Cellar series. What was even more enjoyable was the great photos you all shared enjoying our beer.
We could not be more happy to introduce y’all to Hell’s Cellar (2016) Hibiscus Saison!! If you have not tried it yet, I encourage you to stop by the brewpub on Northgate or our tasting room in Downtown Bryan to give it a shot. And as always, share your opinions with us on Untappd or a drunken text!!
So what’s next? We look forward to next year’s release of Hell’s Cellar and the process has already begun. A third barrel has been added to the Hell’s Cellar program and inoculated with our house culture that was isolated from figs growing on the Texas A&M campus. The process has come full circle and as we begin the long wait for Hell’s Cellar 2017 we can only imagine all the fun things the coming months have in store for BWD.
Check out our website on a regular basis to keep up to date on all the happenings here at Blackwater Draw Brewing Co.
Until then…Cheers y’all!