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Souring Beer with Homebrewer Andrei Henry

When I first got in touch with DC-area homebrewer Andrei Henry, we were hoping to meet up for a brew session. Specifically, for an empty-the-freezer batch, in which whatever hops were in the freezer went into the boil. “In the last five minutes of the boil, there’s a little over a pound of hops,” Andrei says. “It’s somewhat irresponsibly hopped.”

But we couldn’t rendezvous for a brew day, so we did the next best thing: share a pint and talk beer over Skype. Andrei had poured a home-soured barleywine. Coincidentally, I also had a sour beer on hand—Stillwater Artisanal’s Gose Gone Wild. Without knowing it, we had primed ourselves for a conversation on sours. In the interview that follows, Andrei talks homebrewing, gives some tips on souring, and leaves us with a sour recipe. Grab a sour and enjoy.

Chris Samoray (DCBeer): I’m always interested in hearing how folks first caught the homebrew bug. What got you into homebrewing?

Andrei Henry: I don’t remember exactly what the impetus was. But my wife bakes bread, and we do a lot of cooking. We’ve made sauerkraut before, and we have a large garden. When I got around to brewing, a lot of people asked why it took so long. Brewing beer just sort of fit in with my lifestyle— wanting to have control over quality and origin of ingredients and the pride of being able to make things on your own.

The more tactical start was Christmas 2011. I got the Complete Joy of Homebrewing and read it front to back twice over the holidays. I think I did maybe five batches of extract. Once I got that down, I read about brew in a bag and thought it wasn’t that much more difficult. You read about these techniques, and they sound intimidating, but you give it a try, and it’s really not that tough.

What beer styles do you typically brew?

Generally Belgians, but I’ve been doing a lot of sours. I had a basement full of sours. But I’m moving soon, so I’m down to three of four carboys. One thing I really like about sours is that they’re not quite so time sensitive as some other beer styles. If you don’t have time to package it up one weekend, it’s no big deal. You just waited a year for it to sour, and waiting another couple of weeks isn’t going to hurt.

My general approach to making a sour beer is to brew a slightly unfermentable wort high in dextrins, ferment it with regular ale yeast, typically a Belgian strain, then put it in secondary with Brett and bacteria. While I sometimes use commercial bugs, I almost always use bottle dregs. You just can’t replace the complexity you get from adding the sediment of a few good commercial or homebrewed  sours.

The reason I would encourage anyone to get into [homebrewing] sours is that they’re expensive to buy, and it’s just a whole new world of beer to get into. It’s really like a whole parallel universe of possibilities and flavors. It’s certainly frustrating to get into at first because you’re not going to see anything for a minimum of six months to a year. Once you make it through that first year though, just get a pipeline going: brew every six months, throw enough in a carboy to replace what you’re taking out, and you end up with some really fun beers.

Looking at your photos, your brewing setup looks pretty tuned. Can you tell us about it?

A friend I met through a homebrew forum helped me get started. He had me over at his place and showed me how to brew on a single-tier stand, so I built a brew stand like the one he had. My stand is built of shelving material that I found on the side of the road as I walked to the Metro one morning. I just called my boss and said, “Hey, I’m going to be late this morning.” It took me two trips to bring it all home. It’s pretty heavy stuff.

There’s gas plumbing that allows a single propane tank to feed all burners. There are two large burners on either end, and a smaller one in the middle. The big burners are on the hot liquor tank and the boil kettle. There’s also a smaller burner over the mash tun because I continuously recirculate during the mash, and you can add a little heat by firing that small burner.

The system has two pumps. One pump only ever sees water and pumps water from the hot liquor tank into the mash tun. I then use it to pump in the sparge water at the end of the mash. The other pump only receives wort. I also use it to cool. I do bulk cooling, or mass cooling, where it goes through my heat exchanger and back into my kettle. Not only do I recirculate the wort, I also recirculate the cooling water. The water will flow one way in the counterflow chiller, and the wort will go the other way, and the two temperatures equalize. I’ll then dump that water out, put cold water in the liquor tank and repeat.

I do 10 gallon batches, and depending on how much ice I want to throw at it, the fastest I could cool is around 20 or 30 minutes. One benefit of this is that it allows me to whirlpool cold, which happens as I recirculate. So it gets a light whirlpool going, and I can drop the temperature down to the 60s or 70s. It really helps with pulling off a clear wort.

(From left to right: the hot liquor tank, the mash tun, and boil kettle.)

It was getting late, and we noticed our pints of sours were on the low end. But I had one last question for Andrei:

Why do you enjoy homebrewing?

It’s this desire to have control over what I eat and [to] make it as healthy as possible. The other thing I really enjoy about homebrewing is that it is my own one day mini-vacation. It’s my time to not think about work and tune out. It’s just me and my brew day. There’s a little bit of escapism in there.

Thanks to Andrei for sharing a pint and for some brew talk. Find one of Andrei’s sour rye recipes below.

For an 11 gallon batch:

  • 10 lbs Pilsner malt  47.6 %
  • 6 lbs Wheat malt  28.6 %
  • 2.5 lbs Flaked wheat  11.9 %
  • 2 lbs Rye malt  9.5 %
  • 8.0 oz Acidulated malt  2.4 %
  • 4 oz Aged hops
  • 8 oz Maltodextrin
  • 1/4 cup flour

OG:1.052’ish

  1. Mash at 158F for 30 minutes.  
  2. Sparge with 170F water.  
  3. Boil for 60 minutes, adding half the hops at 60 minutes and the other half at 30 mins.  
  4. Add maltodextrin and flour with 5 minutes left in the boil (these will provide food for the bugs).  
  5. Chill and pitch a Belgian yeast strain.

I like to use a saison yeast, but just about any Belgian strain will work (but avoid 3711/Belle Saison, as that yeast is too attenuative). Ferment in the middle of the yeast's recommended temperature range. When primary fermentation is almost complete, rack to secondary and fill the vessel all the way to top (to within 2-3 inches of the bottom of your air lock).  Then, add bugs. Ideally, pitch dregs from several bottles of commercial sour beer along with a pack from a yeast lab. I've had great success with The Yeast Bay and East Coast Yeast. The Mad Fermentationist has a list of commercial beers with viable bugs (this list is not exhaustive). During the aging process, limit exposure to oxygen as much as possible. This includes keeping the vessel sealed and avoiding sampling. I typically leave the beer alone for at least a year before tasting it.  When bottling, use thick glass bottles if possible and carbonate to 3.0 vols.  Adding a few grams of champagne or wine yeast at bottling will speed up carbonation and reduce the chance of bottle-shock off-flavors (A.K.A. THP).

(Photos courtesy of Andrei Henry.)

If you're a homebrewer in the area and are interested in being featured in a DCBeer article, please contact editor@dcbeer.com

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