A Tale of Two Saisons: What to Do When Disaster Strikes

by Robert Blagg | Updated: June 8, 2016

saisons-yeast

Complacency and hubris are your enemies as a homebrewer. I’m aware of their danger, but they got me anyway. This is the story of a cool idea I was cooking up for you guys. How it went wrong.  And how I recovered.

I love Saisons. It is my favorite style by far. It was one of the first styles I brewed that I was proud to serve. Although it is getting easier to find, it is still hard to find on a commercial basis.

I brew it frequently because I like to have it on hand all of the time.

Over the years, I have run through many different saison yeast strains. The WLP Saison III is my favorite. I love the flavors and aroma the yeast produces.

It is fruity, slightly tart with a bit of spice, but it is only available July – August.

YeastPackagin

I want to find a replacement for the WLP Saison III that I can brew year around. My local homebrew shop doesn’t carry Wyeast, so I figured that was fertile territory for finding something new.

I settled on Wyeast French Saison which I purchased.

My idea was simple enough, brew one batch of wort and split the batch between two yeasts. Then, compare the results and report back. I was coming off a streak of consistently good brewing.  

Even when a beer didn’t turn out exactly the way I wanted, it was always clean and well brewed.

I haven’t had any issues with fermentation or hitting my gravity in a long time.  In short, I became complacent.  I always emphasize the importance of consistency to new brewers looking for advice.  

Change one thing at a time, so you can isolate variables.

Hops

I completely ignored my own sound advice.

Here is list of things that I changed for this batch:

  1. My WLP Saison III was past the expiration date and I didn’t do a starter.  I convinced myself that it would turn out fine.
  2. I brewed 11-gallons instead of my normal 6-gallon batch. Instead of being extra vigilant about details, I relaxed and drank a homebrew.
  3. I decided to use home grown hops which is really cool except I don’t know their variety or their alpha acid content.  This almost ensured that the batch would end with too much or too little hop aroma and bitterness.
  4. I brewed at the last minute without a lot of preparation. My brewing schedule is dictated by my wife’s work schedule, so sometimes I don’t have a lot of time to prepare.

Here is the recipe:

  • Batch size:  11-gallons
  • OG: 1.069
  • FG:  1.007
  • 22 lbs of Belgian Pilsner
  • 2 lbs of Vienna
  • 2 lbs of German wheat malt
  • 4 oz of Caravienna
  • 1.50 oz Northern Brewer @ 90-mins first wort hopping
  • 2.25 Homegrown hops @ 10-mins
  • 1 lb of table sugar
  • Mashed @ 148F for 90-mins
  • Yeast:  Wyeast 3711 French Saison and WLP 585 Belgian Saison III (split batch)

What went wrong:StiringMash

  1. I overshot my gravity by a lot.  I was targeting 1.069 and finished at 1.075.  Because of the high gravity, I had to eliminate the sugar addition which changes the character of the beer.
  2. I didn’t read the directions of my Wyeast smack pack and it was not ready when I needed it.
  3.  I assumed the past its prime WLP Saison III would be ok, it wasn’t.

The Recovery:

The reason I’m telling this story is because every brewer has been down this road. We all get too ambitious or careless. I gave you the cautionary tale, so now I will give you my recovery strategy.

Diluted my wort

LateBoil

Coming out of my mash at 1.075 with a 90-min boil ahead of me, I knew that a good first step was to dilute my wort. I used this Dilution & Boil Off Calculator to figure out what to add.

I added a little over a gallon of water and dropped the gravity to 1.068. That  was still way too high, but closer.

I still ended my boil with my specific gravity at 1.075. This is why it is useful to have a large kettle. Since I was boiling in a 15.5-gallon kettle, I had plenty of room to add additional water.

Unfortunately, I was limited by the size of the two fermenters available. I could have diluted my wort further since I still had a pound of sugar to add, but that would have pushed me over 13-gallons.

Both fermenters are five gallons, not enough space to ferment the 12-gallons of wort that would be left after the boil-off.   It was a compromise I had to live with.

No Sugar

The recipe calls for one pound of sugar. I knew omitting the sugar would change the character of the beer, but I also knew my WLP yeast was not healthy, so I didn’t want to increase the gravity further.

Shortened my boil to 60-mins

I consulted Beersmith to determine how much my hop utilization would drop by shortening my boil from 90 to 60 mins and it was less than 1 IBU.  I was surprised that the difference was so small.  I worried about the impact of a long boil and then diluting the wort again.

After the boil

It was around this time that I read the directions on my Wyeast smack pack and realized that I should have smacked it earlier.  This was my first experience with Wyeast, so again, this was a case of not being prepared.

At this point, I knew I was fermenting a high gravity beer with old low viability liquid yeast and a smack pack not given sufficient time to start.  After boiling and cooling my wort to 64F, I filled my two fermenters.  Here is what I employed to give the yeast the best shot:

  1. Oxygen:  I hit both fermenters with pure o2 for a full minute.
  2. Yeast nutrient:  I would normally add 2 tbls of yeast nutrient, but doubled it 4 tbls in the last 10-mins of the boil.
  3. Tightly controlled fermentation temperature:  Most yeasts perform better with a constant temperature that rises over time.  I started both yeasts at 64F for 48-hours to avoid producing fusil alcohols.  I slowly raised the fermentation temp to 75F and held it there for 10-days.

Fermentation

The fermenters, temp controlled, waiting for signs of life
The fermenters, temp controlled, waiting for signs of life
Day 3 -- French Saison takes off, WLP Saison III, not so much
Day 3 — French Saison takes off, WLP Saison III, not so much
It's ALIVE!
It’s ALIVE!

In spite of smacking the Wyeast too late, it was showing signs of healthy fermentation within 24-hours. The WLP Saison III was not looking good. There was no sign of fermentation on the third day.

In order to salvage this brew, I oxygenated the WLP yeast again for a full minute. I also boiled a pint of water with additional yeast nutrient. Lastly, I added a second vial of WLP Saison III.  It was also expired but would increase the pitch of viable yeast.

Adding O2 during fermentation will, in most cases, increase your lag time, so be patient. With the presence of a high amount of oxygen, the yeast repeats their rapid growth phase.

About 10 hours later, the WLP batch was showing signs of normal fermentation.

Kegged

Both batches fermented for 20-days with last 10 days at 75F.

  • Wyeast French Saison finished at 1.004
  • WLP Saison III finished at 1.010

I cold crashed both batches for 3-days and then added gelatin. I kegged both batches three days later.  I let both batches lager for a full month before tasting them.

Tasting

I did a blind triangle test.  I was able to reliably distinguish between both beers and identify them individually.  To my palate, they tasted very different.  I am sure this is the result of yeast differences but also the quality of the fermentation.

Wyeast French Saison

This beer is crystal clear with a yellowish orange hue and a thick white head.  The aroma has hints of phenolic spice with bready and cracker aromas.  The brew started slightly sweet with light phenolic clove, pepper flavors with a slight non-hop bitterness.  The maltiness lingers before finishing dry.

Overall, I think this yeast has potential, but it is not the saison yeast I am looking for.  That is not surprising since ‘French’ saison is typically associated with Biere de Garde.  I love Biere de Garde as a style, but it is very different than a typical saison.

If I use this yeast in future, I would increase the bitterness significantly. The maltiness is a little one note and lacks the crispness I desire in a saison.  Given the alcohol content (about 9.4%), there was very little detectable alcohol warmth.

WLP 585 Saison III

This beer is crystal clear with a yellowish orange hue and a thick white head.  The aroma has a slight green apple aroma with hints of pilsner malt with clove phenols.  The brew starts with a rush of malty sweetness with waves sour and tart.  It finishes very dry with a slight lingering tartness.

Overall, some of the fermentation flaws showed with the green apple likely being acetaldehyde.  It was not overwhelming, but definitely detectable.  The greatness of this yeast is its complexity.  It produces phenolic spice and a wonderful tart finish.  The tartness makes this beer very drinkable in spite of its 8.6% ABV.

Even with the slight fermentation flaws, I still prefer this beer.  It is more complex, interesting and drinkable.

If you are at the Homebrew Con (formerly known as the National Homebrewers Conference) this week, come by the B-R-E-W homebrew club booth and you can taste both of these beers.  I would love to know what you think.

Robert is an avid homebrewer and craft beer aficionado. He loves the gadget side of homebrewing and is constantly tinkering with his two breweries, a 10-gallon eBIAB setup and a 20-gallon three-tier rig. He loves Belgian beers and is known for his saisons. Beyond beer, he is a soccer fanatic and member of the Screaming Eagles (DC United) and the American Outlaws (US National Team) supporters groups. His career path has been strange and varied, including time as a sous chef, political consultant for over 25 campaigns, and more recently as a business intelligence professional at the US State Department and large financial institutions.