Thin, Watery, Flavorless Aged Beer... Help!

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barrel-o-trouble

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Hi folks, been reading these forums but not much of a contributor.

I've actually been making beer for a long time but only in the last couple years have I tried my hand at using brett, lacto and pedio, aging in a couple oak barrels. Okay so here's what my problem, and what I've tried. Frankly I try commercial sour funky beers and they blow me away, so full of flavor but rarely over 6.0%.

The problem:
All of my finished beers share a common characteristic - they are thin, somewhat watery, and lack yeast expression. I can put them on heaps of fruit, and while they'll taste great out of the fermenter the first couple weeks, and some of that fruit sticks round, it just tastes like some lightly fermented sour fruity water after a couple months. Same with the unfruited ones, they end up thin and weak, tasting more like the barrel toast or acidity present than any real brett character, and they are too damned thin!

What has not worked:
  1. Adding more protein rich adjuncts like higher % of wheat, rye, oats, spelt. In both flaked and malt... beers come out weak no matter what.
  2. Mashing higher. I have mashed at 148, upped to 155, upped to 165 for only 45 minutes to get more starchy stuff. While the beer might initially finish higher (say 1.012) it ends up thin and watery after its aging.
  3. Brewing a bigger beer - I went from around 1.044 all the way up to 1.058, which is a pretty big step up. Still the beer ends up pretty weak, only now it starts to get more alcohol so it's just harsh and weak!
  4. Limiting oxygen - I have purged everything after initial fermentation, any secondaries and such. This means running 30-60 seconds of CO2 at 2 PSI from one inlet and pushing out another, same with the transfer tubes. Closed transfers, even sometimes adding fresh wort and yeast to encourage scrubbing oxygen.
  5. Not sampling at all... keeping those barrels full of their own co2.
  6. Adding more salts to the recipe, e.g. from low digit ca/so2/cl to around 50 of each.
  7. Aging only in Stainless, no wood. These still lack a lot of brett character and now there's no oak to assist.
  8. Starting in stainless, then moving off lees into wood (or other stainless) through a purged, closed transfer.
  9. Just giving them more time to age - generally brings out more of the wood, or you can still get acidity, but missing any body or brett character.
  10. Trying different brett and bacteria strains - just in case, but a lot of them end up in the same place.
  11. Adding more hops - both pellets near flame out, and early boil aged hops - this helped keep some flavor, but there's still a thin/weak beer that has some hop bitterness, frankly just less drinkable. At least the thin beers are quenching.
  12. Adding maltodextrin, just made it sweeter and grosser but no real body/yeast experession.
  13. Open fermenting - not that it would... but hey why not try.
  14. Using different malts, different hops, you name it.
  15. Trying kegs vs bottles, corks vs caps vs cages
I'm at wits end, and it sucks. A lot of these are beers that aged for 2+ years, were a bit weak before bottling, but really were a let down after re-conditioning. I just want flavorful light/medium bodied beers with some brett character, like you can buy commercially.

There must be a flaw in my process somewhere, or is there some infection that could be endemic and ruining these beers? I just want my beers to have some "UMPH!" and not be something you can only drink in July when it's 95 degrees out.
 
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Wow! You have done a lot of experimenting and you’ve touched on all the stuff that’s usually suggested. Let’s see if we’re talking about the same things.

What is your all time favorite commercial, traditional sour?

Experiments aside. You just want to brew your best sour tomorrow. What’s the grain bill? What’s the mash temp? How’s it getting oaked? When or will it get fruit?

Have you ever made a kettle sour or modern fast sour? What was your experience with the body on that?

Have you ever done something like a Brett saison (ie just brewers yeast and aged with Brett…no other bugs)? What was your experience with the Brett character in that beer?
 
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barrel-o-trouble

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Okay that's a lot...

Favorite funky sour beer would be Cantillon Lou pepe kriek. I like some side project I've had too.

Brew day tomorrow. 55% pils 35% wheat malt 5% oats 5% vienna. Mash at 156. Start in stainless and when it's slowing move to oak (usually after taking beer out, I add more back in Solera style). Some of these I just keep in stainless and move to kegs. You didn't ask about pitching yeast and lab but I'd do it all at once. If it goes on fruit probably 6-12 months later.

Kettle sour only made berlinerweisse at 3.x% so thin bodied by design, that's fine.

Brett saison no bacteria yeah, they get pretty funky, body is fine because they just stay in stainless in primary. Some do get thin and watery though. But if I don't just keg and serve I'll usually blend with something too sour to balance it out then put on fruit.
 

monkeymath

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Oh wow, that does sound rather frustrating. Sorry to hear that!

Can you detail your typical approach to fermentation? Such as "primary sacch, pitch brett and bacteria in secondary" or "co-pitch all at once"?
I honestly don't have any real experience to share, but from what I've gathered, some byproducts of a healthy sacch-only primary fermentation (such as glycerol) might be important to retain body in absence of residual sugars.

Another thing that comes to mind: tannins? You mentioned hops and wood, which should contribute tannins, but possibly you could try adding some tannin--mix (used for winemaking or mead) to a small-ish sample and see if that helps.

Apologies for the unsubstantiated guesses and good luck!
 
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Your favorite commercial beers I don’t consider to be on the funkier side of things so I’m still wondering if the funk that you’re longing for isn’t some aspect of the fruit. But you have experience with making other funky beers so I doubt that.

As for where you stand on your current process given all your experimenting, maybe I can suggest a slightly different approach for further experimentation. Keep in mind that some variables will have a synergistic effect on other variables to alter the beer in a way greater than the sum of those variables on their own. So maybe we can make a ‘kitchen sink’ beer to get you what you want and then you can delete variables to determine their importance to you.

Maybe a grist of 40 pils, 25 wheat, 10 oat, 10 spelt, 10 rye, and 5 caravienna to a SG of 1.050. Lots of rice hulls. That’s all the gloppy grains and a little caramel which might fool you into thinking body. Mash at 156F. Hop to 10-20 ibu to slow acid production and allow yeast expression. Add the entire kettle to your stainless along with 1oz of new oak chips (see if you’re wanting more out of your barrel) and Bella Saison (good at phenols to turn funky and glycerol production for mouthfeel like monkeymath said). Ferment it for a week at 95F to stress the yeast for more phenols and glycerol production. Then pitch your mixed culture, 4 oz of wine maker glycerol, and 2tsp wine tannin powder (all assuming 5 gal batch). Close up that fermenter and don’t look at it for at least 6 mo. Then maybe split it and bottle half and put the other half on whole (more tannins) cherries for a few weeks.

If that doesn’t make you a funky, full beer then we’re not talking about the same thing. If it works, then you can start leaving variables out and see if it was very detrimental to the final product. The most frustrating part about these beers is trying to experiment bc they take so long to get your results.
 

jrgtr42

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I've got a sour that I've brewed a few times that comes out great, and ages beautifully.
I don';t have the exact recipe handy, but it's a clone - or started that way - of Russian River's Consecration.
It starts off as a Belgian Strong Dark, fermented down with Abbey |Ale yeast, then transferred to carboy with souring bugs - Pedio, Lacto, Brett blends. I;ve used a couple different ones and dregs, and it still comes out fine.
I age it for a year on the bugs, adding fruit - the original is black currents, I've used tart cherries with great results - roughly 6 months in, then add oak chunks, soaked in rum (original is wine barrels) roughly 6 weeks from bottling.
THe grist isn't really complicated - all barley, no wheat, spelt etc, it's mostly pale malt, with some crystal and maybe a bit of roast - I forget offhand. 1.080-ish SG, relatively high FG of 1.018 (my last brew) before transfer and aging. The bugs take it down pretty far - I didn't notate the bottling gravity.
 
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barrel-o-trouble

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Your favorite commercial beers I don’t consider to be on the funkier side of things so I’m still wondering if the funk that you’re longing for isn’t some aspect of the fruit. But you have experience with making other funky beers so I doubt that.
Most real lambic I've had seemed pretty funky... I like most Cantillon including their gueuze and various special barrel blends. It got me interested in making some of these beers and aging in barrels for over a year. Probably the funkiest beer I had was a beer from Plan Bee, absolute horseblanket and wet forest floor. The funkiest beer I made was just a belgian blonde I spiked with Orval dregs, so brett in secondary.

I appreciate the ideas, thanks everybody! I'm just trying to get to the bottom of what's making my aged beers so watery/thin, which coincides from a lack of any appreciable malt or yeast driven character. Getting more funk would be secondary, the fact is these beers are quite characterful 6 weeks in, it's at 6 months where they should be getting amazing, instead they are like oaked, tart water. I think there's quite a bit of tannin from the oak (some were fresh barrels), and the very hot mash (up to 165F mash, 180 sparge. The watery nature is what drives me mad.
 

goodolarchie

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Sounds like a pain. Do your beers taste watery out of the barrel/carboy, like from samples of the aged beer? Or is it only after bottling. I'm just wondering if oxygen is getting in somewhere even if you are taking care not to. You leave a sample on the table for a few hours it's surprising how thin they can become.
 

mashpaddled

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You mention this happens when using both malted and flaked adjuncts--have you tried whole unmalted adjuncts? I've only had problems with thin sour beer when using all barley or barley and malted adjuncts.

Are your mashes single infusions or are you running through lower temperature rests? If you conduct a protein rest I would stop because that's probably one of the problems.

When you keg these beers to what volume do you carbonate? Sour beer tends to need a higher volume of carbonation to add body and mouthfeel. Carbonating less than 3 vol seems to feel thin.

Are there any non-fruited sours you like that don't feel thin to you? How much fruit are you adding per gallon? Most fruited sours these days add a large volume of fruit per gallon which can add a lot of tannin and feel thicker because of the amount of fruit. Lower volumes of fruit can sometimes make beers feel thinner and you aren't getting a lot of refermentation flavors with the fruit addition. I wonder if you are not adding the same volume of fruit which might make the beers feel thinner and less flavorful than what you buy. I am pretty sure Side Project is going in 3-4 lb/gal or more on their fruited sours.
 
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barrel-o-trouble

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have you tried whole unmalted adjuncts?
As in wheat berries, raw barley and the un-gelatinized stuff? Yes, same issue. I did the whole 60pils/40wheat berries lambic mash once, don't think I'll do another. Though I have certainly made good beers with flaked (gelatinized) wheat instead of malted.

Are your mashes single infusions or are you running through lower temperature rests?
Tried to cover this in the OP, but I mash high, no rests. FG is still always lower than I expect.

When you keg these beers to what volume do you carbonate?
3.5 is my target, sometimes they get a bit higher... sometimes a bit lower.

Are there any non-fruited sours you like that don't feel thin to you?
Yeah, there are a couple. But there's like no common thread between them, so no clues for me here.

How much fruit are you adding per gallon?
Anywhere from 1 lb for something like raspberry or currant, to 4-5 lbs with fleshy stonefruits. I just did a peach beer with about 30 lbs for 6 gallons and yep... in terms of brett expression and body it's nice and fruity, but watery... and almost a 7% beer. It's like a peach cider. Not carbonated yet, but I assume it will be like the others.

As for how fruit impacts body, I am pretty new at this but I assume the simple sugars don't add much, but maybe you get some pectin and tannin from the skins and such. Like if something was half wheat beer, half nectarine by volume, I expect it to be thinner than the wheat beer as you remove the fruit since there's a lot of water that stays, not many complex sugars. Is that not the case?

Do your beers taste watery out of the barrel/carboy, like from samples of the aged beer?
I try not to distrub the carboy once its going. I sampled maybe once in a year and added some canned wort to it after. I have one barrel and I don't sample out of it until it's ready to transfer, like the day before. Or even the day of so I can add fresh wort or post primary beer (like a saison I have in a keg).
 
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