Where’s there’s smoke…

It began as a casual comment and mini-discussion between my friend Aaron and me. We were judging wheat beers at a recent homebrew club meeting and we had before us a Belgian Witbier (it turned out to be Aaron’s, I found out later) and I noted a faint smokiness to the beer (there was no smoked malt used in the brew)… A dreamy look must have come over my face as I remarked, “Hmm, wonder what a smoked witbier would be like…” We agreed it was worth a try, and left it at that.

The idea fermented for a while and then I got access to some oak-smoked wheat malt, which sounded to me like the perfect ingredient and the perfect excuse to try that smoked witbier I had put on the back burner, so to speak.

I wanted the smoke to be subtle, but also wanted it to be the only thing different about the beer, so I went in search of a classic Witbier recipe. I ended up with a combination of Pierre Rajotte’s Silk Lady and Sierra Blanc (from the AHA Style Series book “Belgian Ales”) and my own clone of Celis White (from “North American Clone Brews”), and then tweaked it to its actual form.


Fumée Blanche (Belgian style Witbier)

5 gallons, all-grain


  • 5 lbs. Belgian pilsner malt
  • 1.5 lbs. light wheat malt
  • 1 lb. oak-smoked wheat malt
  • 1 lb. unmalted wheat berries
  • 1 lb. honey malt
  • 1 lb. flaked wheat
  • 1 oz. Saaz hop pellets (@ 4.0% aa)
  • coriander, cardamom, dried ginger root, bitter orange peel, ground coarsely
  • White Labs Wit II yeast (WLP 410)
  • 3/4 cup corn sugar (for priming)

Procedure: Crush grains (except the flaked wheat). Heat 13 quarts water to 165°F. Dough in grains and hold 60 minutes at 154°F. Heat 12 quarts water to 167°F. Begin runoff and sparge, collecting 23 quarts sweet wort. Bring to a boil, add Saaz pellets, boil 60 minutes. At kettle knockout, add spices and steep 5 minutes. Chill to 80°F and take a hydrometer reading. Pour into a sanitized fermenter, splashing well to aerate. Pitch yeast, seal and ferment at 65 – 68°F for ten days. Rack to secondary, condition 3 to 4 weeks. Prime with corn sugar, bottle and age 2 to 3 weeks.

OG: 1054

IBU’s: 17

Note on grains and style: The classic witbiers (Hoegaarden, Celis, Cheval Blanc) are all vaguely cloudy. This is due to the use of a certain amount of unmalted (i.e. starchy) wheat. I used unmalted wheat berries and flaked wheat, both, in this brew, and in the past I have even used a little whole wheat flour.

Notes on spices: I neglected to actually measure the spices used – which almost guarantees that this will end up with the perfect balance, and I will be unable to duplicate it… I would guess it was about 1 tbsp. of orange peel, 1/2 a tbsp. of ginger, 10 or 12 cardmom seeds and 20 or 25 coriander seeds…

Note on smoked grains: Here I go again… always with the smoked grains! I guess it’s becoming my house signature flavor…


‘Tis the Saison

It’s no secret to anyone who has ever talked beer with me that I am a big fan of all things Belgian. Strong Trappist ales, sour lambics, Flemish red ales, bring ‘em on. I usually can’t get enough. I brew my fair share too. In fact (stop me if you’ve heard this one…), I once won Best of Show at a regional home brew competition with an Oud Bruin, a soured brown ale, that happened accidentally. It was supposed to be an English Brown ale but it got infected and turned lactic – I didn’t tell anyone until after the competition, but the few who know the story still refer to it as my “compost bucket brown ale”.

One of the Old World styles that I enjoy less frequently, mostly because of its scarcity in the New World, is  Saison. Like with most Belgian categories, there are many different varieties of Saison. Some are very light and refreshing, some are quite bold and strong; some are spiced, some have a touch of fruit… They range in color from straw to dark amber, and can be quite hoppy or very mild in bitterness. Several of the home brewers I interact with in the Market brew Saisons regularly. I try to keep several Saison yeasts in stock at all times. I recently had a friend ask me to help her design a Saison, get her the yeast and special order a Brew Belt to help keep her fermenter at a high (70’s to almost 80°F) temperature during primary fermentation. Since I was ordering one I ordered three and decided I would also try my hand at an authentic Saison.

My research led me to Phil Markowski’s excellent book, “Farmhouse Ales”, which provides a detailed history of the various styles (including the French Bière de Garde style), the traditional ingredients, and concludes with a few recipes. In the end, I opted for a “Super Saison”, substantially stronger and more full-bodied than the usual thirst-quenching styles traditionally brewed for the farmers and miners of Wallonia and Flanders. My plan is to divide the batch in half and age part of it on strawberries, just for fun.

Mud Saison
5 gallons, all grain


  • 10 lbs. Weyermann Bohemian Pilsner malt
  • 3/4 lb. dark Munich malt
  • 1/2 lb. malted wheat
  • 1/4 lb. amber candi sugar
  • 2 oz. Hallertauer hop pellets (@ 3% aa)
  • 1 oz. whole Kent Goldings hops (@ 5% aa)
  • White Labs Saison Yeast blend (WLP568)
  • plus the recultured dregs from various Ommegang and Unibroue beers…
  • 1 lb. chopped strawberries
  • 2 doses of 3/8 cup corn sugar (for bottling)

Crush grains. Heat 15 quarts of water to 160°F. Mash in grains and hold 60 minutes at 149°F. Heat another 15 quarts of water to 170°F, begin runoff and sparge. Collect 26 quarts of sweet wort. Add candi sugar to the kettle. Bring to a boil and add the Hallertauer hops. Boul 55 minutes, add the Goldings hops (in a mesh bag), boil another 5 minutes (60 total) and trun off heat. Cover and allow the Goldings hops to steep for another 10 minutes. Remove Goldings hops, chill wort to 80°F and take a hydrometer reading. Pour into a sanitized fermenter, splashing well to aerate. Pitch yeasts, seal and ferment warm (75 – 80°F) for about eight days. Rack to two 3-gallon carboys, in one of which you have first put the strawberries. Age 15 – 20 days for the plain Saison, 30 for the one with the fruit. Add 3/8 cup corn sugar to each batch when you bottle. Condition cool (50°F) for three to four weeks.

OG: 1064
IBU’s: 29
Notes on style: as mentioned above, some Saisons are spiced, making them similar to a Belgian White Ale (or Witbier). Many home brewers think that they MUST be spiced, but in fact less than one in four actually has any spices added. The name “saison” probably comes from the French term “saisonnier”, a seasonal farm-laborer, for whom this type of brew was the regular lunch-time dram.

Notes on yeast: I had a few bottles of assorted Ommegang products a few weeks ago, and it seemed a shame to dump the yeast, so I poured them carefully and added the dregs, one bottle at a time, to a glass bottle with an airlock. Five days ago, I began feeding the yeast cultures with a weak malt-extract-based wort. Then I decided to add the dregs from a couple bottles of Unibroue products, in the same manner. There are perhaps 5 or 6 different yeasts in this blend, which may help to replicate the diversity of the old farmhouse wild yeasts.

The yeasts used to brew Saisons benefit from warm fermentation temperatures; indeed, some of the characteristic flavors of a Saison are created BY the warmer fermentation. Hence the use of a Brew Belt, a small heating element that wraps around the bucket and maintains a constant high-70’s to low 80’s temperature. My house right now averages around 60°F, which is not suitable for this brew.

Notes on fruit: strawberries? Because I had some left over from something I baked…



Just “gruit”…

I generally brew for myself. I don’t brew for competitions (although I have, of course, entered beers in local and regional competitions); I don’t brew for friends or relatives (although I frequently share with them); and I don’t brew to impress people. I brew for me, for my tastes; for my edification, sometimes.

Today I make an exception. This beer is for my Uncle Bob. Not that he will ever drink it, or even consider doing so. Uncle Bob, my godfather, is a great guy, a funny, friendly guy, one of those that almost every family has – he would do anything for anyone, has a heart of gold, loves his kids, grand-kids, nephews and nieces, etc. When it comes to beer, though, he’s a little narrow-minded. Drinks stuff out of silver cans with mountains on ‘em. And he always laughs at my home brew, scoffing, “What did you use, tree roots and bark?” That has become a standard, almost clichéd comment at every family gathering. Sometimes he will grab my brew out of my hand and sip it, pretend to choke or spit it out, and roll his eyes. And rinse his mouth out with the contents of his very cold can.

Well, Bob, this time I did brew with roots and bark. Among other things.

I got reading Stephen Buhner’s fascinating book, Sacred And Herbal Healing Beers, after looking online for some info about ancient and medieval brewing spices. I knew that hops were a relatively new addition to brewing, and that prior to hops, brewers used a multitude of different plant ingredients to flavor their brews. Buhner has cataloged, explained and traced the history of those ingredients, and the book is truly masterful.

That reading led me to design a sort of medieval “gruit” beer, using no hops at all and several different herbs and spices instead. I confess I was not brave enough to make a full batch of this experiment, but that’s one of the beauties of home brewing. I can make a small batch to try out an idea, and if the result isn’t up to par, I have not wasted a whole batch.

I intended to make a vaguely Belgian-style amber ale as the base for the herbs. So, I poured out a bottle of a boring (somewhat stale) amber ale brewed last fall, into a series of shot glasses. To each I added a small pinch of the herbs I was thinking of using, let them steep for a while, then taste-tested the effects. In the end I selected seven flavors I found intriguing, and combined them in one larger glass. I strained out the herbs and found the resulting mix quite interesting. So that’s what I used in the batch I brewed.

3 gallons, all-grain with herbs and honey.


  • 2 lbs. Weyermann Abbey Malt
  • 1/2 lb. amber malt
  • 1/4 lb. Special B malt
  • 1/4 lb. dark Munich malt
  • 1/4 lb. 160°L crystal
  • 9 oz. Cara-amber malt
  • 1-1/2 lbs. Cara-hell malt
  • 12 oz. Cara-belge malt
  • 1 oz. peated malt
  • 8 oz. honey
  • 10 grams “gruit blend” (includes sweet gale, wormwood, woodruff, sweet basil, chamomile, dried ginger root)
  • 300 ml. gentian root extract
  • Belgian Saison Yeast Blend (White Labs WLP568)
  • 1/2 cup corn sugar (for priming)

Crush the grains. Heat 10 quarts water to 154°F. Mash in grains, hold 60 minutes at 154°F. Heat another 6 quarts water to 170°F. Begin runoff, sparge. Collect 14 quarts sweet wort, add honey. Bring to boil, boil 30 minutes. Add gruit blend (in a fine mesh bag), boil another 30 minutes (60 total), remove from heat. Chill to 80°F, take a hydrometer reading. Pour into a sanitized primary fermenter, splashing well to aerate. Add yeast and gentian extract, seal and ferment 8 – 10 days at room temperature. Transfer to secondary, age 14 – 20 days at 55 – 60 °F. Prime with corn sugar, bottle and condition 15 – 20 days at 50°F.

OG: 1050
IBU: not applicable!

A note on the grains:
A little bit of a “kitchen sink” grain bill here, with an emphasis on caramelized malts, seeking to get a sweeter finish to balance the bitterness of the herbal ingredients. Suspecting that medieval brewers would almost always have dried their malts over a fire, I added the peated malt to give just a hint of smokiness.

A note on the herbs:
Some of the herbs used are reputed to be toxic or at least hallucinogenic – particularly the wormwood. Recent studies have shown that many of the claims were exaggerated; still it is best to consider very carefully when experimenting with medicinal plants. All these herbs are available in good spice sections or through your home brew supplier. Feel free to consult your physician, pharmacist or shaman if you have concerns about the herbs used.
I opted to make a tea by soaking the mesh bag in boiling water after removing it from the wort, and I jarred the tea to save for bottling, in case the herbal character is not enough at that point. The gentian root extract is probably the most bitter of all, and, yes, it is the herbal flavor in Moxie (my favorite soft drink).