Inventing your own style: How to make Belgian Wine

Beer Label

Flanz Belgian Wine

Lesson of the day: Temperature control, temperature control, temperature control.

At Nevada Street Bucket Brewing we recently finished brewing, bottling and trying one of our best beers to date: Flanz Belgian Wine. It’s a Belgian Golden Strong Ale base with Chardonnay wine added for the finish.

In this post I wanted to go through the process of coming up with the beer, inspiration, research, recipe design, creation and preliminary impressions.

Inspiration & Research

A friend of mine wanted us to create a beer for his father for a Christmas present. He said his dad was originally a beer snob in his youth and had lately turned into a wine snob. He preferred dry wines with spices. Naturally I went to Belgian style because they are often very dry, spicy, challenging to drink at times and very snobby. American beers in general tend toward being extreme in hops or malt while Belgian beers are more balanced and certainly unique. But because his dad is also a wine snob, I thought of a way to impart something reminiscent of wine.

Around the same time I had recently tried Dogfish Head Midas Touch. Midas Touch is based on the chemical analysis of a drinking vessel found in King Midas’ tomb. In addition to honey and saffron, Midas Touch uses Muscat Grapes, a sweet red grape though often only squeezed into a white wine and almost always used in addition to something else for a mixed wine. The difference is that Chardonnay grapes are white grapes and are less sweet, tend to be more dry over time and are more neutral in flavor.

During my tasting research, I also tried Stone Brewing Epic Vertical Ale 10.10.10. They too use muscat grapes, likely inspired by Midas Touch, to smooth out their Belgian Golden Strong Ale base. By this time I already picked that base but it was good to see someone else doing it and doing it well. Epic Vertical is delicious and they recommend aging it for 12 years or less. Luckily for me, they also have a “How to homebrew this” guide on their website which leads you through the percentages of grapes used, mashing and fermentation suggestions.

Finally, I listened to the Brewing Network’s Jamil Show “Can you brew it” on Golden Strong Ales to make sure I didn’t miss anything and read half of “Brew Like a Monk”. Then I tried Duvel, the original Golden Strong Ale and Delirium Tremens.

Recipe Design

I found Duvel and Delirium Tremens WAY too dry for my liking. Though this is the appropriate flavor, since Duvel invented it, I just didn’t like it. I found it astringent overall and hard to drink. It left my mouth dry and unsatisfied, overpowering the fruity character. At the same time though, an inappropriately attenuated Golden Strong Ale will tend to be very sweet which is also no good. The goal here then was to attenuate the malt as much as possible for dryness, then add the Chardonnay to smooth that out and sweeten it up a bit without tasting like grape juice.

While the ingredients are important, the process here is paramount. Belgian beers do not leave you any room for error, most especially in temperature control. Many ales are forgiving to temperature ranges; Belgian beers are not.

I’ll list out the recipe then discuss each item. This is for a 5-gallon batch using a mini-mash.

In Mash:
5# Belgian Pilsen Malt
1# Belgian Munich Malt
1# Belgian Aromatic Malt

In Boil:
3# Pilsen Liquid Extract
2# Belgian Candi Sugar

.5 oz UK Golding (50 min)
2 oz Slovenian Styrian Goldings (25 min)
.25 oz Irish Moss

In Fermenter:
4, 11.5 oz First Blush bottles of Chardonnay Juice at day 3 (will go into more detail about this)
Wyeast 1388 Belgian Strong Ale

~3 volumes of CO2 or 5.5 oz Dextrose

Mash: Single Step Infusion, 149*F 90 minutes
Boil: 90 minutes
Primary: 10 days, temperature from 67* to 84* in 7 days, hold at 84* for two days
Secondary: 13 days, cold crash for a week if possible
Condition: 15 days
Aging: 1 week to 2 years

Pre-boil gravity: 1.032 SG
Original gravity: 1.078 SG
Final Gravity: 1.012 SG
ABV: 8.8%
IBU: 27
Color: 6.7 SRM

Pilsen malt and beet sugar are the true bases of a Golden Strong Ale. Duvel specifically uses almost exclusively Pilsen malt. I don’t like just Pilsen malt, it has a flat malt flavor alone. It’s hard to describe, but Munich malt gives a particularly well textured complexity. While I didn’t use beet sugar, I used pre-packaged “Belgian Candi Sugar” which is “authentic” as a 10-year old antique. Candi sugar didn’t exist in Belgium, they had beets. Beet sugar is what baking sugar is made of unless otherwise noted as “Pure Cane Sugar.” You can use either beet or pre-packaged. Belgian Candi Sugar has “Belgian” in the name so it’s more convincing but still wrong. But you could probably use corn sugar too if you have a lot. None of it gives any flavor, you just want it the highest possible fermentable sugar you can find with the least amount of non-fermentable crap in it. So don’t use Cane Sugar.

I used the aromatic malt because it has a high diastatic power and I thought it would overpower the wine aroma.

The hops are traditional except the UK Golding, but I had left overs and it was a bittering hop so wasn’t a big deal. European hops are widely neutral in flavor and smell. Tend toward floral and are really more for balancing sweetness. Looking back, I should’ve separated it like I originally specified to a 1 oz at 30 and 1 oz at 5 or 10 minutes to give more aroma and complex flavor. But it might not have been all that appropriate, so no big deal.

More to the fun stuff. The Chardonnay juice is the best part. At first I searched the Internet for concentrated Muscat grape juice and others. They are hard to find and expensive and often only come in wine kits. Then I remembered this stuff. First Blush Chardonnay Juice.

I found this at Safeway of all places and it happened to be on sale for $10 for 10. Scooped up a bunch.

Check out the nutrition facts on your bottle. From here, we can figure out how fermentable this is and what it’s made of. You can do this with anything. The one I picked up did not have “brewed organic white tea & natural flavors” in the ingredients, it was just juice and water. Incidentally the bottle also specified that the juice was already pasteurized and the bottle sanitized, so that cut out all the hard work.

Anyway, so if it doesn’t give you the percentage of “Sugars” on the label, you can convert your serving size to grams and divide to find the percentage. Because the sugars in this juice are naturally occurring, you can pretty safely assume they are fermentable glucose, fructose and sucrose. It’s important not to go by the number of “Carbohydrates” if those numbers are different. More complicated sugars are not fermentable although I’m unsure how simple and complex sugars are classified in nutrition facts. Beware of your ingredients and how they pair with your Sugar percentage.

Since this is diluted compared to a truly concentrated wine juice, I found that my bottle was about 16% fermentable, meaning it was a 50/50 water to juice ratio, so I’d have to use twice as much to get the same effect as using real grapes. For reference, Chardonnay grapes are avg. 30% fermentable. Once you have your percentage of fermentables though, you can multiply it out to as much volume of the juice as you want with a constant percentage, it’s just a matter of getting your recipe percentage the way you want to increase your color, alcohol etc.

Putting it all together

Your mash is really important. Pilsen malt should not be steeped for this beer, it simply doesn’t have the heat and length of time to convert. If you don’t have a way to do at least a mini-mash, you should go build a mini-mash cooler and make this your first. You can do it for $30.

A traditional Belgian mash is a three-step infusion. It includes a low temperature protein rest and two saccharification rests. But most of them also use some pretty raw Belgian Pilsen malts that are not genetically modified. Therefore, a single temperature mash at 149* F provided a perfectly good body. If you want more head retention or slightly dryer beer, you can do a short protein rest at 133* F and probably a 147* F infusion but you probably don’t need to. The 90 minutes (mine was longer because I went shopping) is necessary to help the 5 pounds of Pilsen convert completely.

Similarly, your 90 minute boil helps break down that Pilsen malt.

Your candi sugar should be dissolved in a pot of water and added to the boil to avoid burning. If you can turn it into a syrup that’s awesome but it seems unnecessary.

The important thing to remember here, is not to put the juice into the boil. Because you’ve already got 2 pounds of simple sugar, your yeast will literally get bored or tired of eating simple sugar and won’t consume the malt sugar. So you need to give it a chance to finish up the malt and candi sugar before giving it almost 3 pounds more. Watch your fermentation and as it slows, or around SG 1.040 or lower, or day 3, toss ’em into the primary.

Your fermentation needs to start at a lower temperature and end almost 20 degrees warmer. This will keep your yeast active and help them complete the fermentation to dry out this beer instead of leaving it sweet. It also encourages them to convert all that grape juice into wine. There are many ways to do this, such as using hot plates (for brewing not coffee mugs), heat belts and other toys. Or you can just sit it near a vent with some protection (as to not overheat one side) and turn up your heater each day. However you do it, it needs to go from 67* to 84* in the first 7 days. After that you can slowly let it go back down to a comfortable temperature. Then cold crash that shit after secondary is over.

Finally, a Belgian style is really high in carbonation, but you also have to worry about explosive bottles. I know by accident that 12oz bottles can handle a lot without exploding, probably up to 3 vols. of CO2. To be safe I used 22oz bottles and Belgian Bottles which are much stronger glass and have more room for error. In either case between 3 and 4 volumes of CO2 should give you that sexy big long patient head the Duvel and Delirium will give you. But beee careful and really mix that stuff well and give yourself some extra room in those bottles. Then wax seal a shit load of them to keep for the next year or 4.

Tasting notes

So the first month aged is definitely a Belgian Golden Strong Wine or Belgian Wine for short. Quite literally you taste it in that order, dry Belgian beer first, buttery, mostly neutral Chardonnay wine second. The beer is somewhat sweet because of the wine and less dry like a traditional Belgian Golden Strong Ale. The aroma is less hoppy than it should be because the wine overpowers the hops but it does carry a unique aroma profile that’s hard to describe. The hop flavor is mostly non-existent now but Goldings are hard to pin down to begin with.

The beer needs some breathing time to cool off alcohol heat. I believe it has created some fusel alcohols due to the wine. A few swirls and about 30 seconds will evaporate those all away. Cloudy orange color. Very smooth overall. Yeast on bottom is almost sweet but can still be heavy on the chest if you’re prone to that sort of yeast reaction. Sweeter than Duvel or Tremmens. Closer to Goliath. Not as overal smooth as Epic Vertical Ale. Easy to drink. Good medium body with very short finish adds to drinkability. Definitely made for sharing and would probably go well with seafood.

Beer will definitely benefit from aging, especially up to a year or more. This should dry out the beer more, mellow out the wine and malt flavors and ultimately soften it, clarify it a lot and settle the heavy yeasty chest feeling.

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Mike Higdon

Editor & Publisher at Drinkable Reno
Mike Higdon is a journalist passionate about beer and cocktails. He started the site because no one else covered Reno's growing craft scene at the level of detail required to stay in the know about all things drinkable in Reno.

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