A few years ago, I managed to score a ticket to Cantillon’s Zwanze Day at Hill Farmstead (surprisingly, through a beer trade) and I had a little solo adventure up to Vermont. The guy who I was trading with suggested meeting up at a little farmer’s market near Waterbury because Lawson’s Finest Liquids was doing a bottle release that day, so I was all aboard. Truly, the gem of that pickup was a bottle of Maple Triple, which is a beer that’s brewed exclusively with maple sap in lieu of water. Now, semantics, fresh maple sap, which is what you get from the tree and reduce down to make maple syrup, is pretty much water with a 1-5% sugar content and some light maple flavor. If you’re curious what it tastes like, it’s a cool health thing nowadays and you can buy it by the carton as “maple water” to drink.
However, not being in Vermont or having reasonable access to it locally, that shit is expensive and I’m not about spending $90 to get 8-9 gallons worth to brew with.
But, the idea of doing something similar to that, i.e. a beer made without water, was something that I had put on the back burner for a while. 2 years later, there’s a local cidery putting out some really off color cider bangers (barrel-aged, farmhouse, fruited sour, mixed drink inspired) and I managed to strike up a good relationship with them through work.
Eventually, I got the awesome (read: dumb) idea of doing a beer with cider. And by that, I mean only cider. No water allowed.
So, after talking about doing it for probably a year, I actually sat down and wrote a recipe for it, which is just a really basic golden ale recipe with a Belgian yeast strain. Then it was time to get into the technical aspects and figure out if this was actually possible.
My discussions started with Troy Lehman, who’s one of the owners and head cidermaker at Big Hill Ciderworks. Since I know him the best out of all the local cider guys, I wanted to get his input on it. Obviously, this is pretty uncharted territory, as most graffs generally involve blending the cider into beer, but he was pretty receptive about it and totally on board when I asked if there was any chance I could purchase some freshly pressed cider from him. The first bump in the road came from these discussions – the pH of the cider.
Typically, ciders have a pH that’s pretty far on the low end of the scale due to having high concentrations of malic acid. I managed to find an awesome study of apple cider called The Partial Compositional Characteristics of Apple Juice from 175 Apple Varieties by Thomas A. Eisele & Stephen R. Drake (Note: the hyperlink goes to a direct powerpoint file), which is chock full of information about ciders – acid contents, sugar breakdowns, mineral compositions – the works. Beyond that, Troy was able to give me the specifics about what I was getting from him; the cider was roughly 3.45 pH and, with a hydrometer test, about 14 brix (1.056), which would ferment out to close to 7.5% alcohol.
The amylase enzymes that convert your starches to fermentables during the mashing process like slightly acidic pHs, but that’s just slightly too low. By like 2 whole pH. Meanwhile, this isn’t even accounting for the fact that malts are inherently going to lower the pH of a mash even further, so I knew I was already going to be up shit creek without doing anything. That meant I was going to have to figure out a way to bring the pH of the cider up. Way up.
Silver lining, Jake Huolihan over at Brulosophy had very recently done an exBEERiment on the impact of low mash pH! O frabjous day! Callooh! Callay! I’m going to really abbreviate this (but you should still read it!), but he found that, [SPOILER] despite manually tanking his mash pH down to a 4.4, which is almost a whole point below what is considered the acceptable spectrum, he still didn’t discern any real differences, which was also reaffirmed by their typical triangle test. This means that I didn’t have to add quite as much akali to the cider as I thought that I’d have to.
I pretty much wanted to add as little of a buffering agent to the cider as possible. Based on the efficiency versus the amount I’d have to add, I ended up picking slaked/pickling lime to raise the pH. It also has a very neutral flavor to it, unlike baking soda.
Through happenstance, I ended up running into Scott Topel, who’s the head cidermaker at Wyndridge Farms during a collaborative brewday excursion. Broaching the subject with him, he gave me his personal experience using lime as a pH adjuster in conjunction with cider – that about 1g/L of cider would raise it about 1 whole point. Scott’s other note was that adding too much lime could impart a “chalky mouthfeel”.
Knowing that the grains would lower whatever my mash “water” pH was going to be, I tried to figure out just how much my 12# of grains actually would lower it. I pretty much exhausted my resources to no avail, including Bru’n Water and the Brewer’s Friend mash pH calculator, neither of which really liked what I was trying to do. I had to fly blind and make a guess how low the grist would drop my pH. Assuming that I was aiming for even the 4.4 pH that Jake managed to hit in his exBEERiment, I was going to have to raise the cider’s pH at least 2.5 points to be safe.
To save you some time: ~4L = 1 gal, so to raise a full gallon 1 point, I’d need 4g. For the mash that I had estimated with the recipe, which was 4 gallons (as per the usual 1.5 quarts per lb of grain), I was going to need roughly 38g of lime. Fuck.
Looking back to the study on the apple ciders I mentioned earlier, the average calcium (Ca-) content of cider was about 41.9 ppm, which is slightly low, but within the acceptable range for brewing beer (listed as 50-150 ppm in Water by John Palmer and Colin Kaminski). By adding 38g of slaked lime, I was going to be introducing another 600 ppm of Ca- into my “water”, according to the Brewer’s Friend mash pH calculator. According to Palmer & Kaminski, once you start running > 250 ppm of Ca- in water, it can potentially start to adversely affect fermentation by inhibiting the yeast’s ability to absorb magnesium. Double fuck.
At this point, I reached out to Kai Troester, better known online as braukaiser, who’s done research on water, grist, and mash pH, as well as speaking at the NHC. Incidentally, he also did a lot of work with building the mash pH calculator for Brewer’s Friend. He didn’t get back to me until I was already in the throes of the brewday, but he provided valuable insight into a lot of what transpired.
Batch Size: 5.5 gallons
Mash Temp: 152F for 60 min.
Boil Time: 75 min.
Batch Efficiency: 60% (for the grains, I guess?)
Original Gravity: 1.103 // 24.4 P
Final Gravity: 1.019 // 4.8 P
Estimated ABV: 12.1%
SRM: 8.8 EBC // 4.5 SRM (Plus the color of the cider)
- 8# Belgian Pilsner | 67%
- 2# Red/White Wheat | 17%
- 1# Bonlander Munich |8%
- 1# Flaked Oats | 8%
- 1 oz. Saaz @ 60 min.
- 1 oz. Saaz @ 40 min.
- 1 oz. Hallertau Mittfruh @ 10 min.
- Wyeast High Gravity Trapist (3787) – Fermented at Ambient Temp (about 72F)
Spices and Stuff
- ~70g of Mrs. Wages Pickling Lime (@ Pre-mash)
- 4 oz. My mom’s apple butter @ 5 min.
- 6g Fermaid O @ 5 min.
- .75 oz. Pectic enzyme @ Post chilling wort after boil
The day started off well. I arrived at my dad’s with two 5 gallon buckets of fresh pressed cider I had picked up from Big Hill Ciderworks a few days beforehand and had kept them sealed and chilled in a walk-in cooler at the gastropub I work at to prevent anything from spoiling it.
I set up the burner, measured out my grain and my cider that I needed to mash with (4 gallons worth), and then pulled out a scale to measure out the lime that I’d need to adjust the pH up for hitting a mash “water” pH as close to 6/6.5 as I could get. I weighed out the lime to the best of my ability on a rickety old kitchen scale (calling the 38/40g I needed 1.5 oz.) and I slowly added it into the cider that I had metered out into my “HLT” with a whisk. After adding in all the lime and making sure it was mixed, I calibrated my pH meter took a reading, which I was very confused by – 4.5
Fine, I said, I guess Scott was wrong and I needed more. So, I measured out another ounce of lime. Slowly, I started adding it in, roughly 5g increments, making sure that I was very thoroughly whisking. After that, I checked the pH. It had skyrocketed, and I was looking at 4 gallons of cider sitting at almost a perfect 10 pH. I had nuked my cider deep into alkaline territory.
In the post-brew email discussion, Kai gave me a solid explanation on why exactly this happened:
…Malic acid has a pKa at 3.40 and 5.20. That means it buffers really well around these pH values and the addition of slaked lime will cause a linear increase of pH. Above 6.2 (about 1.0 pH above the 2nd pKa) the pH will shoot up as you break through the buffer of malic acid.
I knew what to expect as far as gravity should be concerned. I was using 14 brix cider instead of water, so even if I had just fermented that, it should have been 7.5%. The grains themselves, at a 75% efficiency, should have netted me about .061 points, at best. Ended up clocking in at the highest OG that I’ve ever hit – 1.102 (1.103 with temp correction) – which is still even higher than the English barleywine I did last year for my new whiskey barrel. Math wise, not the greatest extraction from the grains (close to 60%, by my math), but fuuuuuuuuck it. If everything goes wrong with this fermentation and it still ends up at like 1.022/5.5P, the graff should still clock in around 12% alcohol. The range I had estimated was from 10-13%. God help me if it somehow manages to get anywhere in the teens.
I was a little nervous. With all the funky pH adjusting and Ca- additions, was this beer going to ferment? I checked in with my dad around noon the next day, roughly 20 hours after pitching the yeast, and there was little activity aside from the sediment settling out (it looked sexy af, tho). The next day, almost 48 hours later, I got a picture message showing a nice, healthy start of a krausen. My fears were quelled.
In the end, after fermentation started trucking along, the only four questions I had were:
- Did I manage to aerate the wort enough while simply transferring the wort into the car? (If history is any indication, probably, because the barleywine I mentioned earlier was tits and I did the same thing)
- Will the calcium affect fermentation/cause it to stall?
- Will the calcium affect the final mouthfeel of the beer? (It had almost no chalkiness like I was warned about when I tasted the sample, and I added wheat and oats for mouthfeel, on top of hopefully having some residual dextrins from mashing on the warmer side, but how low will it go? If it gets too dry, will I be hanging out with Snap in the ChalkZone?)
- How much will the pectic enzyme also affect the mouthfeel? (The pectin from the apples may have also contributed to the initial mouth feel. While yielding additional fermentables, will it also strip out body?)
After 10 days of what would most certainly be described as “vigorous fermentation”, the carboy quieted down and the krausen slowly started to fade away. Upon checking the gravity by thiefing some brew out of the carboy, the hydrometer showed it hovering about 1.020, pretty much the sweet spot that I was actually aiming for. It also reaffirmed my projection that this beer was going to be a fucking juggernaut. Using the “alternative” equation for higher initial gravity beers, this ended up clocking in at 12.1%
On bottling day, after everything was set up, I made a simple syrup for priming with, dissolving 3/4 cup/~5oz. of white table sugar into 1 cup of water, which with the 4.5 gallon yield of the brew, should net me about 3.0 volumes of CO2. Stylistically, this is actually a little shy of what the BJCP says a Beglain Strong Golden Ale should be, but I’m also leery about creating glass shrapnel projectors. And this beer was a little fucking expensive to make, so I’m doubly not about wasting it.
I had already designed the labels for this beer, but had slept on getting the vinyl adhesive sheets to print them out, as well as organizing the bottling day slightly last minute, but I did print a few out on my nasty ass, boring old Avery label sheets (it’s just not the same with matte as it is with a nice semi-glass and waterproof finish), but I had also planned on waxing at least a few for giving to the guys at Big Hill as a thanks, so naturally, I just waxed all the bottles. This seems to be a recurring theme, but I’m not entirely mad about it either.
Bottling up the 4.5 gallons ended up yielding one 750 mL, six 22 oz. bombers, and about thirty-six 12 oz. bottles.
The best way to describe this beer as succinctly as possible: it toes the line between cider, mead, and apple brandy.
The biggest issue that I was worried I was going to run into with the beer was the “chalky” mouthfeel that I was warned about. Suffice it to say, that is a relative non-issue. The texture is supple and soft, not slick or oily, and embraces the tongue in a Belgian tripel embrace that caresses you down slowly. I can softly hear Bruno Mar’s Versace on the Floor in the background while sipping this out of a snifter. It’s not overly heavy or chewy, almost exactly what a properly made Belgian should be (Note: this is not one of those, because I’m a lazy piece of shit and don’t want to deal with step mashing in an Igloo cooler).
That being said, this is absolutely still danger juice, and the slight whiskey-esque afterglow that warms you gently from the inside out is not overwhelming or upsetting. It’s very subtly spicy and not at all an in-your-face booziness or fusel quality. In fact, one of my thoughts was that, despite my trepidation, I almost wanted more spice flavors to come out from the apple butter. It’s so restrained, to nearly unnoticeable levels, until the back of the palate. And despite finishing in the low 20’s/high teens, this beer has an oddly light sweetness, to the point where I actually thought that if I ever brew this Lovecraftian abomination of an ale again, I might consider adding just a hint of lactose to it.
The initial nose and front are predominately light Belgian esters of stone fruit with the slightest hint, perhaps, of bubblegum, but that slides gracefully into the honey-like malt before quickly turning the reigns over to the cider.
If you sat the glass in front of me, not knowing what it was, I’d definitely guess some sort of Trappist beer on color alone. It’s amber and deep honey hues scream tripel or BSGA, maybe a touch darker than Piraat. It kicks up about a finger’s worth of slightly off-white colored head, which fades incredibly fast, leaving almost lacing on the sides of the glass. I didn’t fine it with anything past Whirlfloc and the pectic enzyme, initially leaving it slightly hazy, but after a month of just chilling, this beer is crystal clear.
One thing I really did fuck up on was the priming/conditioning. For some reason, my stupid ass didn’t think to mix in some fresh yeast at bottling time, so the beer has, after a month and a half, a very, very fine carbonation. Not flat any more, but only enough fizz after the initial pop of the cap to remind you it’s not a liquor or a cocktail.
For every headache and surprise that this session threw at me, I can whole-heartedly call this a success. Somehow, the gods of brewing smiled down upon me upon that day and allowed me to create something so outlandish and bawdy that it had to turn out well. So sayeth St. Boniface, perhaps.
As a last thought, I don’t know what sort of shenanigans I could pull, but upon discussion with friends, this would be even more lethal if I aged it on oak cubes soaked in calvados/apple brandy. Sounds like the bar has been raised.