Project Solera: Diary (Design)

A new and increasingly common trend (well maybe not “new” but having increased in popularity recently) is the creation of a solera beer project.  Simply put, a solera project is a consistently changing, reproducing, and aging beer experiment that requires patience, planning and a whole heck-of-a-lot of beer.

As I begin the first stages of a new solera beer project I figured it would be an ideal opportunity to share with you the entire process in depth and take you along for this exciting and often unpredictable journey.  My goal throughout this diary is to keep you up-to-date on the process, successes, issues, and outcomes that occur throughout the project and hopefully provide you with the necessary information and motivation to attempt a solera project on your own.

For me, what makes this project so enjoyable is the idea that your barrel is constantly filled with an ever-evolving beer and you have the opportunity to bottle different iterations of the same beer to identify how it changes over time.  More often than not solera projects are done in a vessel that promotes long-term aging.  For my project I will be using a 55 gallon Buffalo Trace Bourbon Barrel, that was also used by Jack’s Abby for their amazing Lagered Barleywine “Babymaker”.  Barrels are not only ideal aging vessels, but in a beer that will constantly be evolving, the different flavors that the bourbon barrel will instill in the beer should be extremely palatable and fun to play around with.

The bourbon-barrel selected for this project!

The bourbon-barrel selected for this project!

Having selected my aging vessel, my next step was to decide what type of beer I wanted to brew for the project.  Since this is a long-term project it is very important that you select a beer that will hold up over time.  Generally the idea of a solera project is to keep the barrel filled with beer for as long a time as possible (years even).  Therefore “big” beers, or sour/wild beers tend to be the best choices for this type of project.  While I bounced around a few ideas, I finally settled on doing a standard Lambic-Style beer for this particular project.  Ultimately I decided on a lambic based on the fact that these beers change immensely over time, and I figured I would get the most out of the project in terms of diversity and uniqueness if I went with this style.

Now brewing 55 gallons of lambic is a daunting task for any homebrewer, even if you have the capabilities to brew 15-20 gallons at a time.  Therefore I asked a few of my buddies from my local homebrew club (M4: Mid-Mass Malt Masters) to join the project and help with the brewing process.  The initial or primary fermentation will be done separately by each individual brewer, and then once primary is complete the beer will be added to the barrel.

For the sake of making the initial brewing process fairly simple I created a lambic recipe that I consider very straight forward and easy to brew.  Since the majority of the beer’s flavor, complexity and characteristics are going to grow in the barrel where it will be “bugged” and aged, I wanted  a simple clean base beer that did fulfill the majority of requirements when it comes to a traditional lambic.  While I plan on doing my own write-up on lambic brewing in the near future, I do encourage everyone to check out the Mad Fermentationists’ write-up on lambic myth-busting.  It has great information and was highly influential on my decisions for brewing the base beer.

First, while turbid mashes are generally the accepted route when it comes to brewing a traditional lambic in order to fulfill the general 30-40% ratio of unmalted wheat in the grist; the reality is that this “idea” is more of an ode to traditional lambic brewing rather than a set-in-stone requirement.  In fact many breweries producing incredible lambics have abandoned this method, and in some cases have even moved onto 100% malted barley lambic brews.  For the sake of simplicity and to make life a little easier for the multiple brewers involved in this project I ultimately decided to cut back on the amount of unmalted wheat in the grain bill in order to allow for a simple straight-forward single infusion mash.  Thus, the grain bill for this project per 5-gallons being brewed looks like this.

Grain Bill

10# Pilsner Malt
1.5# White Wheat (malted)
1.5# Torrified Wheat (Puffed)

While this grain bill almost completely consists of malted grains, the torrified wheat will provide the beer with some unfermentable starches to allow the bugs to feast during the barrel-aging process.  Furthermore other adjuncts will be added (if necessary) to provide the necessary food for the buggies to do their job.

As previously suggested the mash will be a simple single infusion mash.  The mash will be held for 90 minutes at temperature of 152 degrees.  Finally, based on the simplicity of this particular mash, any sparge technique can be used to bring the total volume up to the necessary level for your particular brewing setup.  I tend to boil off about 1.15 gallons during a 60 minute boil, thus, I will make sure my volume is about 6.25 gallons prior to the boil.

The next important decision that needed to be made revolved around hop usage.  Since the main purpose of hops in a semi-traditional style lambic is simply to inhibit heat tolerant Lacto strains that could effect the pH of the beer, lambics tend to have minimal IBU’s and no true hop character whatsoever.  Furthermore it is common practice to use aged lambic hops in place of any fresh pellet or whole hops that are commonly used.  Aged hops can be found online from many brew supply retailers or you can create your own over time by allowing hops to age, or even artificially by baking hops at a low heat (150-200) on a cookie sheet for several hours.  Even after baking/heating the hops, I suggest allowing the hops to age for another week or so in a warm area.  While this is still an extended process it does cut down significantly on the time it would take for the hops to age naturally.

Although traditionally aged-hops are used for this particular brewing style, it is my opinion that if brewing a lambic using cultured yeast strains as opposed to doing an open-spontaneous fermentation, you can easily brew a successful lambic by simply using the lowest AA hops available to you.  Again, the main purpose of aged-hops is to prevent certain lacto strains that are most common during a spontaneous fermentation, therefore, if you are using specific cultured yeast strains the chances of dealing with these strains is minimal.

Furthermore, many breweries that brew sours and lambics actually prefer to use fresh hops and bump up the overall IBU’s just a bit.  While they still avoid adding to much of a hop profile to these beers, the slight boost in IBUs does provide a unique profile while still remaining fairly true to style.  Perhaps the most well-known example of this trend is Russian River Brewing, who apparently practice this technique with their sour ales.

Here is a more detailed breakdown of the recipe I am using for this project.

11:11 Brewing Bourbon Barrel-Aged Lambic (Solera)

Grain Bill for 5 gallon Batch

10# Pilsner Malt
1.5# Torrified Wheat
1.5# White Wheat

Mash for 90 minutes at 152
Batch Sparge for 15 minutes at 168

Boil (60 minutes)
1 oz. French Strisselspalt 2.8% AA (60 minute)
Irish Moss (if desired) (15 minutes)

Chill to 62 and pitch White Labs WLP550 Belgian Ale Yeast

Let temp rise to 68 and ferment until fermentation is completed.


As I previous said I will add the bugs to the beer once it is moved to the barrel.

Looking forward to getting this started tomorrow.  Pictures and details to follow…


Tags: barrel aging beer, bourbon-barrel, buffalo trace, homebrew, homebrewing, , lambic, russian river, solera, sour beers

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