Belgian Blonde Ale – First All-grain Batch

My first all-grain batch has been a long time coming. With my new malt mill arriving this week, nothing was standing in the way of brew day on Monday. A good mate Dany was keen to join, so after working 30 hours on the weekend, I reluctantly rolled myself out of bed and started getting equipment ready.

To put it lightly, I’ve been recently obsessed with Belgian beers. As a New Zealander, I find both immense pride and frustration in our obsession with hops. Pride, because I think we now make some the of the best hop-forward beers world-wide. Frustration because I think our hop mania means we let ourselves down when it comes to the malt profile of our beers. And that’s not even touching on the topic of yeast.

Growing up with the craft beer revolution kicking off in my hometown of Nelson, I was fortunate enough to witness first-hand as Kiwi beers grew more and more hop-driven. I had a major revelation in tasting Martin Townshend’s traditional English cask ales some years ago now. “What is THIS?”, I remember thinking on the first sip of his incredible ESB. The malt flavours were complex – toasty, mildly sweet, full, and the hop bitterness was there in the background. To me the beer had almost no hop aroma or flavour, but to the beer’s benefit, not detriment. I could wax lyrical about his beers for pages, but to keep it brief – here was a brewer that didn’t need to hide behind hops. If you like the sound of this style of beer as much as I do, make sure to check Townshend out here.

Martin Townshend's real ale brewery is a bloody inspiration, mate

Dany got to milling the malt while I made water adjustments as per Bru’n Water. Check out the Malt Kracker mill from ChinChiller here – it’s a high-quality piece of kit with a very reasonable price-tag.

Dany getting involved
Mashing in

I chose a target mash temp of 66.5 celsius for a balanced fermentables profile. Despite my grain being colder than I had guessed in my BeerSmith input, I was pleased to hit almost dead-on target, measuring at 66.4 after 10 mins for the tun to equilibrate. Aiming for a mash pH of 5.3, I was stoked to get pretty darn close with 5.32. Things were going well for our first all-grain batch!

The vorlauf
Looking a lot like chicken soup...

On the day I had to wonder whether my bazooka screen wasn’t really fine enough, as the vorlauf had some seriously chunky bits coming through initially. I probably recirculated 5 litres before it started to clear a little. Hitting around 27L of sweet wort, we were on to the boil. I had initially planned a 90 min boil to minimise DMS levels, though after reading this Brulosophy article (and the follow-up chemical analysis here) I was convinced that 30 mins of my time (and gas) could be saved, so a 60 min boil was undertaken.

The boil was hummin'
Dany was supervisin'

At the end of the boil and after cooling with my immersion chiller, 19L made it into the fermenter, and 1L went into a flask for propagation of a Belgian strain I recently harvested from a tripel. I had hoped to end up with a little more than this overall, but found it very difficult to get more wort off the trub. Although there was a reasonable amount of hop mass in the boil, I presume most of the crud at the bottom was bits of grain that made it through my bazooka screen. At the end of the day, this was my first all-grain attempt,  and the challenge of improving my system is thankfully more exciting than frustrating.

My choice of yeast for this brew was Safbrew BE-256. Dry options for Belgian yeast are pretty limited, though Mangrove Jack’s does seem to be adding some impressive variety to the market. That said, with only 50 billion cells in a Mangrove Jack’s packet and no intention of trying to sort a starter on my first all-grain day, I opted for the BE-256 which has around 220 billion cells per packet. Most reviews of this yeast lament the clean character it produces, with little Belgian notes turning up. Bearing that in mind, I decided to pitch a rehydrated packet a bit above optimum temp to see if I could coax the Belgian out. Pitch went down at 22 celsius (optimal range 15 – 20 degrees celsius). 

OG hit 1.052 - 8 points lower than predicted
In with a grin - pitched at 22 celsius

I was interested to find that despite hitting both my mash temp and pH almost bang on target, my brewhouse efficiency only came out at around 60%. I have a few suspicions about where I lost points here. Firstly, I added the grain to the mash water rather than the other way around. John Palmer writes that this method produces less dry spots, but is “thermodynamically harder on the grain”, as the grain  initially being added can be raised above the temp where enzymes denature. Secondly, we only stirred the mash a couple of times, whereas most brewers seem to stir every 15 mins or so. Finally (and I suspect most significantly) I wonder whether I didn’t set a fine enough crush on my malt mill.

From here the final step of the brew will be to add 400g of dextrose to the primary once the initial fermentation activity subsides. 400g of dextrose added to 19L will add 8 gravity points to the brew, bringing the cumulative SG up to 1.060. This equates to around 13% of the fermentables, with Belgian brewers often adding 10 – 20% to their Belgian Golden Strong Ales.

All-in-all, this was one heck of a fun brew day for a couple of newbie brewers. I’ll keep you posted on the fermentation – as I write it’s kicking off big time, only 12 hours post-pitch!



29/10/2018 – See tasting notes here!

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