The Joy of a Beer Solera: Reflections and Learnings
A few years ago, I embarked on an exciting beer brewing journey by starting a Solera project. The concept of a beer solera involves the continuous blending of old and new batches of beer, resulting in an ever evolving flavour profile. The process of using a solera method in beer brewing has become the term used for filling a single fermenter with a beer, and every 6-12 months taking one third or half of the beer out for packaging (and perhaps sometimes as much as 70% is taken out). My goal was to create a Lambic-style sour beer that would age gracefully over the years.
Unfortunately, due to an upcoming cross-country move within the UK, and the risk of damaging the fermenter, I made the difficult decision to conclude the solera project. As I reflect on these past few years of brewing, I want to share some valuable insights and lessons learned along the way.
Solera Year 1
When envisioning a solera, one might imagine a rustic wooden barrel tucked away in a corner of my garage. However, in my case, I utilized a 10-gallon glass fermenter to begin the project. On a bright sunny day, I brewed the initial batch of wort, filling the fermenter and pitching Wyeast 5526 Lambic yeast.
After six months of fermentation, I introduced French Oak spirals infused with South African Chenin Blanc wine, allowing the beer to rest for another six months.
When the first year came to a close, I bottled the initial batch and allowed it to mature for a few more months before sampling. While I was generally pleased with the results, the beer was not as sour as I had anticipated, likely due to an excess of hops added during the boil. I learned that an excessive number of IBUs inhibits the growth of souring organisms.
Solera Year 2
After savoring the first year's sample, it was time to top up the solera with fresh wort. In this instance, I brewed a simple batch consisting of 60% Pale Malt and 40% Wheat Malt, with minimal IBUs to encourage increased sourness.
This time, I aged the beer on American Oak soaked in Sherry for several months, imparting distinct cherry pie Brett aromas alongside oak and sherry notes. The beer turned out exceptional, bordering on being almost too sour for my personal preference. I look forward to witnessing how the acidity softens over the coming years, especially when comparing it to subsequent batches. To replenish the solera, I introduced an already fermented Saison beer that utilized Lallemand Belle Saison yeast.
Solera Year 3
This is the final year of the Solera.
I found that the base beer in the Solera started to get too sour for my liking. To address this, I blended it with a younger Brett beer that lacked sourness, which I had been fermenting separately.
The blend consisted of 80% solera beer and 20% younger Brett beer, resulting in a satisfying balance. Although I haven't had the opportunity to taste this particular beer at the time of writing, early blending experiments proved promising. Additionally, I have been experimenting with dry-hopping my sour/wild beers and have achieved excellent results. For this batch, I dry-hopped with Comet hops, enhancing citrusy and grapefruit aromas and flavors.
Things to consider
When creating a Solera, there are a few things that you might want to consider. These tips are from my own learnings and your mileage may differ!
- Adjust the wort/beer: Customize each top-up by changing the wort or beer to fine-tune the flavour of the solera.
- Impact of IBUs: Keep in mind that IBUs can influence the level of sourness in your beer. Higher IBUs inhibit sour producing bacteria, resulting in a less sour batch, while lower IBUs allow for increased sourness.
- Yeast maintenance: While pulling each batch, make it a practice to siphon off a small portion of the yeast settled at the bottom of the solera vessel to prevent yeast autolysis, which can occur over time.
- Documentation and tasting: Maintain meticulous records of each addition, including quantities, ingredients, and relevant details. Regularly sample the solera beer to track flavor development and make adjustments as necessary.
- Patience is key: Solera projects take time to develop complexity and character. Be prepared to wait months or even years for the flavors to mature and harmonize. The longer the solera runs, the more intricate and refined the beer will become.
Starting your own Solera is a rewarding experience. With a little patience, it offers a consistent source of outstanding beer, whether it be a sour, stout, porter, or barleywine. Observing the solera's evolution over time and witnessing how subtle tweaks affect the overall flavour is truly fascinating.
Although I will approach future solera projects with some changes in mind, such as exploring different beer styles and prolonging the process, I wholeheartedly recommend the experience to any brewer interested in Brett, sour, or wild beers.
Not only is it a valuable learning experience, but it also provides a regular supply of exceptional beer. I guess this is the end of a ..... Sol(era)......