Homebrew Session: Experimental Sour Dough Ale

BetterBeerBlog friend and supporter Arie, is a breadmaker, among other things. It's not something he does for a living but for fun. Over the years he's fine-tuned his breadmaking skills and nowadays, Arie enjoys incorporating brewing ingredients into his bread, like wort and grains. In fact, I helped him bake some bread several months ago. It was during that time that Arie and I discussed collaborating on a homebrew project. So it was decided that we'd take some of his sour dough yeast and use it to ferment one of my homebrews.

Uncharted Territory

Choosing the yeast was the easy part. Unlike traditional brewer's yeast, there were no tasting notes for this particular strain of yeast. I wasn't sure how it would ferment or what its characteristics would be. Instead of brewing blind, I decided to brew up a yeast starter to see what the initial characteristics would be. 

Arie had given me a yeast starter for this yeast in a jar. In the jar, the yeast smelled bready, sour and a little boozy at times. But when I brewed up a yeast starter from the same yeast using dry malt extract, it didn't have any of those charateristics. What I did notice though, was that the yeast took off very quickly. I imagined that a 5-gallon batch would really get this thing going and that I would have to use a blow-off tube.

I decided to brew a simple wheat ale for this yeast. I felt using wheat malt was a natural choice for yeast that liked to dine on flour. I also wanted to have a more citrus-like finish to the beer to compliment the tartness, which is why I chose Citra hops. With these decision in place, we got to brewing.

Yeast History

Arie has been using this yeast for the past 7 or 8 years in his own breadmaking. Beyond that, the yeast has a very interesting history in and of itself.

The history has been asked for. All I know is that it started west in 1847 from Missouri. I would guess with the family of Dr. John Savage as one of his daughters (my great grandmother) was the cook. It came on west and settled near Salem Or. Doc. Savage’s daughter met and married my great grand father on the trail and they had 10 children. It was passed on to me though my parents when they passed away. I am 76 years old so that was some time ago. I first learned to use the starter in a basque sheep camp when I was 10 years old as we were setting up a homestead on the Steens Mountains in southeastern Oregon. A campfire has no oven, so the bread was baked in a Dutch Oven in a hole in the ground in which we had built a fire, placed the oven, scraped in the coals from around the rim, and covered with dirt for several hours. I used it later making bread in a chuck wagon on several cattle drives – again in southeastern Oregon.

Considering that the people at that time had no commercial starter for their bread, I do not know when it was first caught from the wild or where, but it has been exposed to many wild yeasts since and personally I like it. I hope you enjoy it.

You can read more about the history of this yeast here.

Ingredients

Malt

  • 6 lbs – Bavarian Wheat dry malt extract (DME)

Specialty Grains:

  • 1 lbs – Simpson's Golden Promise (2.6 L)

Hops

  • 1 oz – Fuggles (4.3) bittering
  • 1 oz – Citra (13.6) flavor

Yeast

  • 2L – Yeast starter of sour dough yeast

Process

  1. Steep all grains for 30 minues at 155° F.
  2. Remove grains. Bring to a boil, add 1 oz Fuggle hops for bittering, 60 minute boil.
  3. At 30 minute mark, add 6 lbs Bavarian Wheat DME
  4. At 40 minute mark, add in wort chiller to sanitize in boil.
  5. At 57 minute mark, add 1 oz Kent Goldings hops.
  6. Flame out, add 1 oz Citra hops, chill to 65° F – 70° F.
  7. Pitch yeast starter and aerate.

Tasting Notes (wort) — 12/1/11

Muddy, dark gold with hop particulate floating and no head. Aroma is sweet, wheat malt-like with fresh hop character, slightly citrusy. Flavor is sweet, like breakfast cereal (Honeycomb brand). Hop bitterness is medium. Body is full, no carbonation.

Tasting Notes (after primary fermentation) — 12/22/11

Hazy, dark gold color with no head. Aroma has a clovey, slightly peppery character. Some wheat malt notes as well. Flavor is wheat malt-like up front, slightly grainy character at the end with a light, wheat malt tartness in the finish. Hop flavor has a lemony citrus character to it. Body is light, no carbonation, balanced finish.

It should also be noted that I lagered this beer for about 7 days at ~40° F to see if I could get the yeast to flocculate.

Tasting Notes (final) — 12/24/11

Hazy dark gold color with a fluffy, merenge-like white/off-white head. Aroma is clovey, with a light peppery character, and lemony citrus notes. Flavor has a wheat-like malt flavor, with some lemony citrus notes, some clove-like flavors and light wheat-based tartness in the finish. Hop bitterness is medium-low with citrusy hop flavors. Body is light, carbonation is spritzy and the finish is balanced.

I carbonated this beer at approximately 3 volumes/atmospheres.

Original Gravity: 1.054

Final Gravity: 1.018

Estimated Alcohol by Volume: 4.8% ABV

Brewer’s Notes

This was an interesting experiment in brewing. Using unfamiliar ingredients can be a challenge but you don't have to go into things blindly. In the case of yeast, you can always brew up a yeast starter to get a small idea of what you're going to get. Unfortunately with starters, you don't get to see the other aspects of the yeast lifecycle, such as flocculation.

Even with the yeast starter, the sourdough yeast acted much differently in primary fermentation than it did in the yeast starter. For instance, there was a huge lag before the yeast finally got going. I didn't have this issue at all in the yeast starter, the yeast started working in a manner of hours. With the larger volume, it took the yeast nearly a day to show signs of life. I was getting ready to repitch some yeast from the bread starter but opted against it once I heard the first few burps from the airlock.

I also wasn't expecting the yeast to be so… thick. The sourdough yeast was a dark colored, viscous mess in the fermentor. I don't think I've ever experienced something like this before. One of the reasons I originally opted to do a wheat ale was that you could serve it cloudy and be forgiven. That said, the sourdough yeast wouldn't flocculate and it just hung around in suspension making the resulting beer look like mud. I wasn't having any of this so I put the beer into my lager fridge for a week to try and settle out the yeast. It seemed to do the trick.

Because this was a sourdough yeast, I also expected more… sour flavors to come out. They didn't, which I was a little disappointed with, but it's a learn-as-you-go sort of thing. At the very least I have a baseline to compare future brews with.

When it was all said and done, Arie was very pleased with how the final beer turned out. I'm going to bottle the beer in the next couple of days and put it on tap at home. Arie gets to keep the bottles and I'll get the draught version. Win-win! We were both so pleased with how the beer turned out that we have another brew scheduled for late spring using the same yeast, this time, a saison.

Mabuhay!

Note: Some of the images used on this post were contributed by Arie. 

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22 Responses to Homebrew Session: Experimental Sour Dough Ale

  1. Derrick says:

    You guys should try to brew a Common with Sourdough yeast in an attempt to create your own uber-San Francisco style.

  2. Jon says:

    I recently stumbled upon Sierra Nevada’s LSD (Liquid Sourdough) lager and it sounds incredibly interesting. Could you possibly give me some more information as to what you liked/would do differently? Your tasting notes seem to differ from those on the SN lager and sounds like you both have different flavors. Thanks in advance!

    • Peter says:

      Thanks for taking the time to leave a comment Jon. I’ll shoot you and email going into more depth about my process but for now, the one thing I would do differently is possibly let the yeast ferment longer.

  3. Geoffrey says:

    I think the reason why this beer did not come out sour was because it’s not the yeast in the starter that makes it sour, it’s the lactobacillae which also need to be present. In sourdough the yeast will produce alcohol when it works (in my starters that generally ends up as a brownish mess on top of the starter), while the lactobacillae feed on the alcohol and make vinegar out of that. The vinegar will create an acidic environment that inhibits mold and other bacterias from growing, and gives the yeast a nice place to feed on all the flour it can get.
    I actually came to your site wondering how to not have the lactobacillae turn the cider I want to make with my sourdough starter into fine but useless vinegar.

  4. Dan says:

    Hi!

    Love the post. I’ve been brewing for a few years now and about this time last year made a resolution not to buy bread until 1/1/12. I tend to go a little overboard with hobbies and never did buy another loaf of bread. In the time since, I’ve gone through over 60lbs of flour and bake at least 2-3 loaves a week.

    I’m looking to try a sourdough experiment like the one you detail above. I’d love to get any details you think would be helpful and/or to hear about the saison you mention.

    Really enjoy your blog. If you have a minute, I’d love to get some advice on this upcoming project.

    Thanks!

    dan

  5. Jim says:

    Very interesting post Peter! I use sourdough for a multitude of things like bread, crackers, pancakes etc. I also brew apple cider, some of with which I make apple jack. I enjoy the cider and the jack has quite a punch, but it always bothers me to use commercial yeast. It is probably the only thing I ever use it for. My fermentors are 5 gal. Do you think it would require 2L of sourdough starter? Also, how hard was it to clean up your fermentors after your experiment? I would imagine that the sourdough yeasties would thrive on sugar too or do you think not?

  6. Henry says:

    This is great! Thank you for taking the time to write this up.

    I keep a very well exercised, 2-year old sourdough poolish starter. It is 100% hydration (equal parts of flour and water by weight). What would I need to do to turn that into yeast starter?

  7. Arie says:

    It is now a year later, and I still have 2 bottles left. The beer tastes totally different. It got some sour notes to it. The yeast taste is gone. It became a very pleasant Belgian-ish sour beer.. I would do it again if I was guaranteed tha it will taste the same.. :) (Hint hint Peter_)

  8. Tim says:

    I literally dreamed about a sourdough dunkelweizen napping an hour ago. Yours was the first hit in Google :) Being a reformed homebrewer (bad for the waistline, I’m afraid) and sourdough baker (also not too easy on the beer belly) I hate the taste of baker’s yeast in general) I naturally want to at least give a sourdough beer a go. I haven’t seen the Sierra Nevada beer locally so I’m not sure how it would live up to the name. I seriously doubt they use 100% sourdough starter though. The starter you used is the “Friends of Carl” Oregon Trail starter. I have this one and it’s an extremely active starter, that’s why you got such a strong start. FWIW we live at the end of the Oregon Trail not far from where Carl’s family settled. Something you may want to try is Sourdough International’s San Francisco starter, it’s exactly what the San Fran bakeries use for their distinctive taste profile. Soooo anyway, what would you do to make this more like a dunkelweizen? When I did a lot of brewing my best beer was a raspberry dunkelweizen, but I’m afraid that the sourdough flavor wouldn’t come across with the darker malt. I wonder what using both a sourdough and Weihenstephan yeast would do? Would they just battle it out until one took over? Maybe you should try it out for me :)

    • Peter says:

      Well Tim, I will be brewing this beer again once I get back into town. I think I’ll be using a sourdough yeast culture to ferment this beer again. The lesson learned from last time is to give the yeast enough time to do it’s job. The resulting beer was drinkable, but after 6 months conditioning in the bottle, it was amazing and had that trademark sour quality.

      Using dual yeasts isn’t a bad idea. It all depends on what flavors/quality you want the final beer to have. Maybe I’ll give it a try one day.

      Thanks for reading, and leaving a comment!

  9. Tait says:

    Peter,

    I’m an avid sourdough baker and am about to start working with a friend to brew something along these lines and wonder if you have any additional info about how you created the yeast starter from Arie’s culture. Additionally do you know the hydration percentage of Arie’s culture when you got it?

    • Peter says:

      Sorry for the delayed reply. Arie was out of town when you left this comment. I will reach out to him and see if I can get some answer for you.

    • Arie Litman says:

      Hi Tait,

      Peter asked me to reply to your comment.
      My starter is 100% hydration to start with. I did a couple of feedings with wort only (DME/Water), each time waiting for the starter get all frothy. I do not remember how many times I did that (2 or 4?) until the flour would settle to the bottom on the jar. I poured a clean portion of the liquid, to another jar and added some more wort. At this stage I gave it to Peter and he did the propagation.

      Arie

      • Peter says:

        To continue on what Arie said, I took the yeast he gave me and let it warm up until I saw fermentation start up again. When there was a good amount of fermentation going on, I brewed up a 5 gallon batch of wort and pitched no more than half the jar (sans flour that flocc’d out) into the wort. Nature took care of the rest.

  10. Peter says:

    Truly interesting post! The absence of a sour character until a lengthy aging process was most likely due to a dominance of the fermentation by yeast (Saccharomyces cerevisiae and friends). The bittering compounds in hops produced during the wort boil inhibit lactic acid bacteria (the producers of sour character) even at low IBUs. Traditional Belgian sour beers use “aged” hops that will not inhibit bacteria. Just some food for thought. I hope to try a sour beer in the near future.

    • Peter says:

      Yeah, all this didn’t really occur to me until much afterwards. For whatever reason, I thought the bugs responsible for lactic acid production would kick in just as readily as the regular brewers yeast. But that’s what experiments like this are for, to figure things out.

  11. N. Netto says:

    Hi guys,

    this is an awesome post! I have one question. I am a baker and I have my sourdough. How did you make 2L of sourdough? How diluted was it? My sourdough is quite thick (1:1 ratio of water and flour). How diluted was yours?

    Thanks very much!

    • Peter says:

      Hi there. I think how we created our starter was addressed in the comments section of this post as it’s a fairly common question we get asked. That said, I took the sourdough that Ari gave me and allowed it to become active. I then swiped several ounces of the liquid portion of the bread starter and poured it into a 2L beer starter I created using dry malt extract. It took off quickly and was fermenting actively in just a few hours.

      With regards to dilution, I’m not sure what the ratio was, but it was definitely watery. I’d say… 10:1 at least. But there was very little flour in the beer starter. As I said, I only harvested yeast from the frothy liquid part of the sourdough starter. Hope that helps!

  12. ridge says:

    The”sour” in sourdough comes from the bacteria that coexists with the yeast in the starter. If the bacteria wasn’t present in sufficient quantities you wouldn’t get the “sour”.

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