The Homebrewer’s Brain – Black Saison
Note: if this is your first time reading The Homebrewer’s Brain, please check this article for a background on what we are doing here.
I’m a really big fan of saisons and due to that fact I end up brewing them often. Sometimes, believe it or not, I brew what I want to drink.
I think part of my fandom, other than the obvious flavor factor, has to do with my great fascination with farmhouse breweries. I love the history of them – brewing beer for the farm workers to drink after a long, grueling day laboring in the fields. I am also enamored with the concept of growing ingredients on brewery property to be used in the beers brewed there. It’s exciting to me to have that much of a hand in what goes into the beer. I am working toward making this sort of lifestyle a reality for myself.
But, history notwithstanding, it’s the yeast and the yeast alone that makes a saison a saison. So I guess, more specifically, you could say that I love saison yeast. I think it’s so brilliant because it has a unique quality to it that makes it distinctly Belgian (or French) but it’s more subtle than your traditional abbey style yeast that’s often just packed with esters and phenols. Saisons are very distinctive. You know you’re having a saison the very moment you take a sip, no matter what the liquid looks like, but they’re never overpowering and always very drinkable and refreshing.
With that being said, it seems to make the most sense to start with a yeast and work backwards. I’m a Wyeast guy, so taking a look at what they have to offer reveals four options. Wyeast 3711 French Saison, Wyeast 3724 Belgian Saison, Wyeast 3726 Farmhouse Ale (Private Collection, available seasonally), and Wyeast 3725 Bier De Garde (Private Collection, available seasonally). 3725 just so happens to be available as I’m writing this article (Apr-Jun 2012) and I’ve never used it before so I have chosen to give it a try. I have come to learn that it was cultured from Brasserie Fantome in Belgium, which makes insanely unique saisons, so I’m really excited to try it. Bier De Garde is, obviously, a different style from saison, but shares the “farmhouse” connotation so I’m not too concerned, especially since Wyeast suggests a fermentation temperature range of 70-84 degrees (which is very much unlike a traditional Bier De Garde which is lagered).
From here I’m going to develop the grain bill. I’ve decided that I want to make this saison black or dark brown in color, perhaps around 24 SRM. I’ve wanted to use Midnight Wheat to darken up a beer style that isn’t traditionally dark for a while now. I have heard that it imparts a great depth of color without lending a roasty character. I also want to put Rye in the beer to add to the traditional spicy flavor element found in many examples of the style (most often from yeast derived phenols). Because many saisons yeasts tend to produce an extremely dry (and therefore often thin) finish, I want to add a few grains that will impart some unfermentables to increase the mouthfeel . Since I now have Rye and Midnight Wheat I thought it would be fun to do Crystal Rye and White Wheat so that I have two different types of each grain. Admittedly, this concept is somewhat inspired by a black saison brewed by New Holland Brewing from Holland, MI.
I’ll use European Pilsner as a base and a half pound of rice hulls to prevent a stuck mash due to the extensive use of wheat and rye (both grains do not have a husk). My false bottom generally does a good job at filtering but one can never be too safe. I’ll go lightest on the Crystal Rye to minimize the caramel flavor and use just enough Midnight Wheat to gain my desired color. I’ll try to keep my base grain at about 70% of the grain bill, but I’m really not too concerned with astringency since wheat and rye are acceptable as base grains themselves.
I must admit that I was pretty stumped at first with regards to the hops in this recipe. I was unsure if the standard bitterness numbers for the style would stand up to the added malt complexity. I decided that there was no harm in attempting to contact Brian Strumke of Stillwater Artisanal and picking his brain on the matter. His Existent Black Saison is definitely an inspiration for this beer. To my surprise, or maybe not, Brian responded to my query and suggested that I go with something in the 30-35 range but no higher. I heeded his advice with a bit of conservatism and chose to go with 28. I had some Hallertauer hops in the fridge that had to be used so I chose to pitch them in at 60 minutes for bittering. I also had some Sorachi Ace that I was holding onto for a saison. I have never brewed with the hop but I have sampled quite a few commercial brews that use it and I have always been very impressed. I chose to put some in at 20 and 5 minutes to get a good blend of flavor and aroma without over doing it.
I have made it habit to filter my water for the brew the day before and let it sit out so that the chlorine has time to dissipate. I think it has helped the flavor of my beer quite a bit. After all, water is the most substantial ingredient in beer. Another practice that I feel has been crucial to the success of my recent brews is doing a starter the night before and leaving it stirring on a stir plate the entire time to make sure it’s well oxygenated. To make sure that nothing unsavory gets into the starter I put a musting cap on the top of my Erlenmeyer flask with an air filter in place of the airlock. I currently have an oxygenation system on my wish list which would allow me to have more control of the oxygenation.
I think that about covers it. Let’s hope it turns out as good as I project it to be.