“Les Vagues Ambrée”: A Lesson in Brewing Serendipity

The most common advice that experienced homebrewers offer to first-timers is, “Try something simple.” Two types of malt; one bittering hop and one aroma hop; a clean, well-behaved strain of yeast; a modest ABV of 4-5%. Not much can go wrong with that. You won’t be disappointed, and therefore you won’t give up before you really get going.

I didn’t get any of that advice, and that’s why, for my first all-gain brew, I set my sights on one of the most admired beers on the planet: Trappistes Rochefort 10, from the Abbaye Notre-Dame de Saint Remy.

It was a glorious, inspiring failure.

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Brew Like a Monk Cover

Summer Inspiration

I was determined to do my homework. I put my shiny new brewing equipment aside and spent my summer holiday in the countryside of South Wales, sitting on a shady corner of a quiet canal reading Stan Hieronymus’s excellent Brew Like a Monk: Trappist, Abbey, and Strong Belgian Ales and How to Brew Them (Brewers Publications, 2005).

There are many enjoyable things about this book, from Tim Webb’s peppery foreword, through the local colour Hieronymus draws from his abbey and brewery visits, to its many priceless nuggets of brewing information (for example, there is a pinch of coriander in Rochefort 10, and the “Belgian Abbey Style Ale II” yeast strain from Wyeast Laboratories was derived from the Rochefort brewery). It was the sections on the grain bills of traditional Trappist ales and the brewers’ use of adjunct sugars that caught my attention the most, however.

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“The relationship between complex grain bills and complex beers does not extrapolate to Trappist breweries,” Hieronymus writes. He quotes Ron Jeffries of Jolly Pumpkin Artisan Ales warning against trying to replicate the depth of flavour of a strong, dark Belgian abbey beer with a riot of kilned, roasted and crystal malts: “You have to be careful you don’t get a speciality malt soup.”

Most Belgian brewers avoid that by using simple sugars in their recipies, and, to get the ruby-brown colour of a dark beer, sugar caramelised into a dark syrup. The idea is to push the ABV up and encourage greater complexity while maintaining a light “digestible” body that is deceptively easy to drink and well-suited to accompany food. It can be thought of as the equivalent to chaptalisation in winemaking. Those brewers prepared to reveal their secrets to Hieronymus indicated that adjunct sugars account for 15-20% of their fermentables.

Brewers outside of Belgium used to be uncomfortable with this idea. “I believe there is still a fairly prevalent anti-adjunct bias among many American brewers, both amateur and professional, that makes them hold back from using enough sugar to achieve the same level of dryness that the classic Belgian examples exhibit,” as fellow writer and Two Roads brewmaster Phil Markowski told Hieronymus. “It seems that many of these brewers tend to think of adjuncts as ‘dishonest’ ingredients.”

My basic “how to” recipe collection, The Homebrew Handbook: 75 recipes for the aspiring backyard brewer by Dave Law and Beshlie Grimes (CICO Books, 2012), calls for almost 600g of dark Munich malts and a pinch of aromatic Belgian Special B to make a “Quadrupel”. Oddly, it suggests Maris Otter for the base malt, despite listing Pilsner for its Dubbel recipe. But it is on more authentic ground with its recommendation of 1.3kg of candi sugar and dark cane sugar for the remainder of the fermentables. Online recipes tended to include many more speciality malts, with some even straying into the black, Carafa territory.

Armed with my Brew Like a Monk knowledge, I could tell that these concoctions would taste like stouts and feel like barley wines. Fired by a zeal for authenticity, I set about trying to find candi sugar and candi syrup at UK homebrewing suppliers. When that turned out to be trickier than I’d anticipated, Brew Like a Monk inspired me again. In it, Hieronymus quotes some very good sense from a friend who, faced with the same challenge, simply caramalised some sugar himself.

“Start with the idea that the spirit of Belgium is to make a great beer with what we have,” he suggested. “Then, it is almost anti-spirit to spend $2 a pound for candi sugar. The Belgians would have asked, ‘What is the cheapest sugar I have?’ and that was local sugar.”

And that is how, on brew day, I came to be heating 600g of dextrose brewing sugar on the stove as my wort worked its way up to a good rolling boil.

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In the end, my recipe was a mix of my “how to” book’s suggestions for a Quadrupel and a Dubbel, the pointers I’d picked up from Brew Like a Monk, and the ingredients I could get my hands on.

“Les Vagues Ambrée” (August 2014)

In the mash:

  • 6kg of Pilsner malt
  • 500g of Biscuit malt
  • 350g of Caramunich III malt
  • 50g of Belgian Special B malt
  • 500g of dark candi sugar crystals
  • 90 minutes of rest

In the boil:

  • 30g Saaz hops for 60 minutes
  • 600g of dextrose, caramelised, for 25 minutes
  • 1 teaspoon coriander seed for 20 minutes
  • 1 teaspoon of black pepper for 20 minutes
  • 30g of Perle hops for 15 minutes
  • 60 minute boil

Fermented with Wyeast Laboratories 1762 “Belgian Abbey Style Ale II”

Starting gravity: 1.090 / 22° Plato

Finishing gravity: 1.016

ABV: c.9.5%

A month after brew day it was time to taste my beer. With relief, I heard the hiss as the top came off the bottle; I poured; I held it to the light; I took a sip; and I knew then that I was a homebrewer.

As experienced brewers can probably tell, this beer didn’t look anything like Trappistes Rochefort 10. It didn’t taste anything like it, either. Nonetheless, after just two weeks’ bottle-conditioning it was clear that I’d created something utterly delicious.

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Rather than a dark ruby-brown, this beer was a deep honey-amber. Aromas of honey, rum, heather and rose gave way to a new note of caramelised orange on the palate. The finish was warm and just slightly spicy, with a suggestion of earthy mint from the Perle hops. It reminded me a lot of the Ambrée made by Brasserie La Choulette in Hainaut, Northern France – and later I discovered that the recipes shared quite a lot in common, including the rather unusual Perle hop.

Les Vagues Ambrees Final Magnum

Serendipitous Beer

Instead of a strong, dark, Belgian abbey ale I had made a French bière de garde. I realised that the “Pursuit of Abbeyness” name I had planned to use would have to wait, and this beer instead becameLes Vagues Ambrée” – a name evoking the “amber waves of grain” from “America the Beautiful”, and reflecting the beer’s colour, its style, and the association of that style with French farmhouse brewing.

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Since 2014 I have made three more attempts at Trappistes Rochefort 10.

In March 2015 I took the same recipe and added 200g of Cara Special III and 150g of Chocolate malt into the mash. Unsurprisingly I ended up with a very dry stout that took a good few months to smooth out its rough edges. I named it “Stout Abbot” to honour its origins in my pursuit of abbeyness, and I still have one small bottle maturing in my cellar.

PoA Tripel in a Glass

A Tripel, Not a “Quadrupel”

In September 2015 I decided to simplify the grain bill and lay greater emphasis on the sugar. A Pilsner base was augmented with just 50g of Belgian Special B and a 10g pinch of Cara Special III. For the boil I took 2kg of unrefined brown cane sugar and caramelised it for about 40 minutes.

This resulted in what remains perhaps my most accomplished beer, a brew of great depth and complexity. For the first time I felt justified in applying the “Pursuit of Abbeyness” name. Nonetheless, though it was drier and more elegant than “Les Vagues Ambrée”, there still was not enough sugar heated to a dark enough caramel to influence the colour of this beer. I therefore added the “Tripel” style designation to its name: four bottles have matured for nearly two years in my cellar, and the beer becomes more characterful with age.


You’ve Got the Look

A year later, I made my fourth attempt. This time, I was taking a risk: the beer was one of two commissioned by a friend to be sold on a stall at her company’s charity Christmas Fair. It didn’t have to be a Trappistes Rochefort 10 clone, but it did have to be good.

I tweaked the malt colouring up slightly with 200g of a mix of Special B and Caramunich III, and 100g of Chocolate malt; I added some wheat to encourage a nice fluffy foam; and I went for broke with the sugar, caramelising 2.5kg of brown unrefined cane sugar for almost 90 minutes, until it was a profound, sticky bronze.

This was a qualified success. I was now approaching the right colour, and the flavour was showing more of the rum and figs characteristic of a dark abbey ale. Some of the elegance of the “Tripel” had been sacrificed to get there. Time will tell whether this beer’s youthful infelicities can evolve into well-rounded adulthood: after nine months in my cellar, it will soon be time to try a little more. In any event, I feel that any further steps that I take towards Trappistes Rochefort 10 will now be improvements upon this recipe, rather than entirely new directions, and that is why I gave it the name “Pursuit of Abbeyness XII”.

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This story ends where it began.

A few weeks after I sold all but one of the new beers at my friend’s Christmas Fair, my family and I enjoyed the last magnum of the two year-old “Les Vagues Ambrée” on Christmas Eve.

Saying farewell to my first beer was another milestone in my journey as a homebrewer. It reminded me how serendipitous this accidental beer had been.

And it was still delicious.

7 thoughts on ““Les Vagues Ambrée”: A Lesson in Brewing Serendipity

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