Brewing Belgian Beers (#8): Ingredients

1) Yeasts

Fortunately the Summer 1994 issue of Zymurgy covered most of this. In addition, Advanced Brewers Scientific offers a some nice strains including the Chouffe strain, and Head Start Brewing Cultures has a wide ranging set of very interesting bugs for advanced and adventurous brewers. My impression is that the Yeast Culture Kit Company offers the broadest selection of yeasts, but that most come in slant form that requires you to start your own cultures.

The Wyeast strains are also very good. The Wyeast White is an excellent choice for strong ales as well as whites (with a Celis Grand Cru-type flavor), and the Wyeast Belgian produces an authentic Chimay-type flavor when fermented very cool (at 60F or less). Ferment warmer with this yeast and you're asking for headaches and a Chiquita banana in your beer.

2) Candy Sugar

I think I can fairly say that I've hand-imported and used more Belgian candy sugar than just about any other brewer in the U.S. The stuff that's available in supermarkets comes in white (pretty much clear) and dark (about the color of awful coffee), in chunks half an inch across. Basically it's rock candy, but without the strings. It provides the same number of gravity points per pound as corn sugar (about 40 per pound per gallon), and it can be fun to play with. I add it the brew pot just before the boil, and it takes a while to dissolve.

The blond sugar adds no color that I can tell, and the dark stuff--at least the stuff from the Belgian supermarkets--doesn't have a very pronounced coloring capacity either. From personal experiece I'd say it's about 20 lovibond.

So after have brewed many batches with the stuff and having sent other brewers sugar samples too (in exchange for samples of the finished product), I can also fairly say that candy sugar is basically just sugar. If you can find it, great, you'll have some fun. If you can't, or don't want to pay for it, corn sugar will do just fine.

However, sugar does play an essential role in Belgian brewing. It allows you to brew strong beers without the heavy, full body typical of barley wines. Depending one the style you're brewing, you can use at least a pound of sugar per 5 gallons for beers of 1.060 and up. For triples you may want to go substantially higher than that.

For all-grain brewers, brewing with sugar lets you increase your original gravities without increasing your mashing and lautering capacity. My zapap lauter tun maxes out at about 15 lbs of grain, but by adding sugar to the kettle I can increase either the gravity or the quantity of the finished wort.

3) Coriander

Just about any form of coriander seems to work reasonably well, including the tired old ground stuff that's been in the spice rack for years. The result is a flavor that a very pleasant orangey flavor and aroma as well. For extra zing, though, nothing beats buying fresh coriander seeds and grinding them to a powder (although this does require a mortar and pestle or at least something more destructive than a food processor). The whole seeds are available at many health food and ethnic grocery stores.

If you're using coriander in a strong ale, you're probably trying to add a relatively subtle extra flavor. Half an ounce works well for five gallons, added for the last five minutes of the boil. If you want BIG coriander flavor and aroma, particularly for white beers, use an ounce.

Boiling your coriander too long (over 15 minutes) or grinding it too coarsely will result in lessened flavor and aroma.

4) Bitter orange peels

These usually come in quarter-of-an-orange slices, and are green or gray on the exterior. Also known as Curacao oranges, they look kind of ugly, aren't very bitter, and don't taste much like orange. Rather, they impart a nice herb-tea type of flavor, perhaps distantly related to chamomile.

Usually bitter orange is used in white beers. According to the instructions I received from a Belgian brewer, start with 0.5 grams per liter of finished beer (about a third of an ounce for 5 gallons). If you want more, some people go up to a full gram per liter. I usually boil the peels for about twenty minutes.

One drawback of high quantities of bitter orange peel (and of using even low levels of regular supermarket orange peel) is that you get a rather peculiar ham-like aroma that may or may not go away with age. Try boiling some supermarket dried orange peel in a small pot of water and you'll see what I mean.

Look for the French aperitif made from bitter orange; I believe it's called St. Raphael.

5) Sweet orange peels

This stuff isn't Sunkist either. It usually comes in strips, as if you were trying to peel an orange in one piece, and is much thinner and more orange in color than bitter orange peels. However, when used in roughly the same quantities as the bitter orange it produces a heavenly, rich, sweet orange flavor very similar to Cointreau or Grand Marinier. Goes great in conjunction with some of the Belgian yeasts and particularly well with coriander. Again, boil for 20 minutes--it's amazing how much flavor you can get out of less than an ounce of this stuff.

Unfortunately, at the moment this ingredient is not available in the U.S. I believe several people are trying to bring some over, and I hope everyone out there will feel free to bug their local homebrew sources! As far as I'm concerned this is the last important Belgian brewing ingredient that's not available to homebrewers here in America. In the meantime, it's possible that tangerine peel may provide a vague substitute.

Sources

For Yeasts, contact

     Your local homebrew store

     The Yeast Culture Kit Co.
     1308 W. Madison
     Ann Arbor, MI  48103
     800-752-2110
     313-761-5914
     DANIEL.F.MCCONNELL@MED.UMICH.EDU
     
     Brewers Resource
     409 Calle San Pablo #104
     Camarillo, CA  93012
     (800) 827-3983

     Advanced Brewers Scientific
     3034 SE 20th Ave.
     Portland, OR  97202
     (503) 234-7503
     GUMMITCH@TELEPORT.COM

     Head Start Brewing Cultures
     921 Bill Smith Road
     Cookeville, TN  38501
     (615) 372-8511
     BAN5845@TNTECH.EDU

     Scientific Service
     7407 Hummingbird Hill
     San Antonio, TX  78255
     (210) 695-2547

For Bitter Orange Peels, contact

     The Frozen Wort
     P.O. Box 988
     Greenfield, MA  01302
     (413) 773-5920
This is the only source I'm aware of for the peels, and the prices (at least when I last saw them) were quite reasonable. Don't forget to ask them to stock sweet peels as well!

For Candy Sugar

     Home Sweet Homebrew
     2008 Sansom Street
     Philadelphia, PA  19103
     (215) 569-9469

     The Decorette Shop
     5338 SE Foster Road
     Portland, OR [don't have the zip]
     (503) 774-3760
These people sell blond rock candy in 5 lb quantities, with the strings.

As stated above, I have no business relationship with any of these vendors other than being an occasional client of some of them. Several of the yeast suppliers carry strains supplied by me, for which I receive no commission, payment, consideration, appreciation, adoration, or what have you.

Well, that winds up this series folks. I hope this helps some of you on your way to Belgian homebrew nirvana. If you find it, don't forget to invite me!


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