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A Tale of Two Yeasties

Brewing test batches isn’t necessarily a whole lot of fun, but it does lend itself to some potentially useful experimentation. Throughout my (home) brewing career, I’ve bounced more or less randomly from one Belgian strain to another, in the process collecting most of the common strains, but without really settling on a “house” yeast. For the past couple years, most of my Belgian-style beers have been fermented with Wyeast 3787 (the Westmalle strain), which I find to be excellent for high-gravity beers. It’s a good attenuator, is reasonably flocculent, and has a moderate ester profile that helps to accentuate the malt and sugar characteristics of those high-gravity ales. Once I started working on the recipe for Backside Blond, however, I found it lacking. For a 10.5°P beer, it’s simply too attenuative and – here’s something you don’t hear very often about Belgian yeasts – too clean.

OK, enough of my life story. The experiment at hand is a split batch of wort brewed using a concentrated boil and fermented with two different strains: Wyeast 3522 (Chouffe) and a culture from a bottle of Unibroue beer, which I’ll refer to as Wyeast 3864 for simplicity’s sake. The full recipe is linked at the bottom of this post.

3522, left, and 3864, right, five minutes after pouring.

3522, left, and 3864, right, five minutes after pouring.

Yeast Strain Original Gravity Final Gravity Attenuation ABV
3522 10.5°P 3.8°P 52% 3.5%
3864 10.4°P 2.2°P 65% 4.3%

Given that the 3522 has a reputation for being so flocculent, I was expecting a somewhat higher FG, but not nearly such a large variation. I’ll be brewing with it again to verify that this wasn’t a fluke, but even if it was, inconsistency alone would disqualify it from being a contender for a “house” yeast strain.

On racking to the kegs, both batches were fairly cloudy. I fine with BioFine Clear, using the kegs as bright tanks, so that was more or less expected. As of now, some six weeks after brewing, the 3864 beer is brilliantly clear, but the 3522 continues to be hazy at a level I consider unacceptable. However, the 3864 beer is almost totally lacking in retention and lacing, so the winner in the appearance category isn’t clear, if you’ll pardon the pun. The photo at right was taken about five minutes after pouring.

In terms of aroma, the 3522 beer is very malty, with some sweetness from the wheat being very apparent. The 3864 beer has a more yeast-driven aroma, with esters and phenols being dominant and increasing as it warms.

For my tastes, the 3522 batch was a little too sweet, especially when young. This gives its ester presentation more of a cotton-candy quality than the outright fruitiness of the 3864. Overall, though, ester levels are comparable; the 3522 is balanced more toward a banana flavor, while the 3864 has more pear and apple. The 3522 beer does have a noticeably lower phenol content, but the overall impression is surprisingly similar to a German wheat strain. It would be a fun test to use it as such, and I might if I can find the time.

On the whole, both beers are free of any obvious defects, and I would flatter myself to think they’re good examples of sessionable Belgian-style ales. I’ll be fermenting more beers with both strains to try to identify a “house” Belgian yeast, but as of now I would have to say 3864 is winning.

10.2 Mk4 recipe (PDF)

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