Off the Rails Belgian IPA

One of my favorite local establishments is The Back Abbey, a little place in Claremont that has been a gathering spot to celebrate special occasions, and sometimes just to enjoy a nice meal (their fries are the best in the area). They also have a phenomenal selection of draft and bottled Belgian beers. When I want a treat, I’ll order a glass of Houblon Chouffe, a Belgian IPA. It has a cute gnome on the logo, and the beer is pretty good too! Because we’re not eating out much these days, I’ve been missing that beer. And the fries.

Thankfully, as a homebrewer I can fairly easily make a clone brew and enjoy my own version at home. I did a bit of looking around online, and found a clone recipe based on Houblon Chouffe that seemed pretty decent. The beer is fairly high octane, so I elected to do a 3 gallon batch rather than my usual 5 gallons. As noted below, I had to improvise a ton to hit my marks, so I dubbed this “Off the Rails Belgian IPA”. The improvisation made things a bit frantic, but also kinda fun.

The result was pretty great. It drank super easily, especially for something pushing 10% abv. The keg is drained, but here are the overall details and tasting for posterity’s sake.

Off the Rails Belgian IPA (Houblon Chouffe Clone)

  • 10.5 lb. Viking Pilsner Malt
  • 1.5 lb. white sugar
  • 0.55 oz. CTZ hop pellets (15.8% alpha), 60 minute boil
  • 0.25 oz. CTZ hop pellets (15.8% alpha), 20 minute boil
  • 1 tsp. Fermax yeast nutrient, 10 minute boil
  • 1 Whirlfloc tablet, 5 minute boil
  • 0.5 oz. Saaz hop pellets (5.3% alpha), 5 minute boil
  • 1 pkg. Belgian Ale yeast (WLP550)
  • 1 oz. Amarillo hop pellets (7.7% alpha), dry hop in fermenter

Target Parameters

  • 1.084 s.g., 1.009 f.g., 10.0% abv, 52 IBU, 5 SRM
  • Infusion mash, full volume, 144° for 30 minutes, 154° for 70 minutes, 168° mashout for 10 minutes
  • Claremont tap water, with Campden tablet to remove chloramine

Procedure

  • The night before brewing, I made a 1 liter shaken-not-stirred starter for the yeast. I also prepped the brewing water.
  • I mashed in with 5 gallons of water at 152° and 3.75 mL of 88% lactic acid, to target a mash temperature of 144°. It was a touch low at first (142°), so I extended the first mash rest to 30 minutes instead of 20 minutes as planned.
  • As the mash recirculated, I got a stuck sparge about 20 minutes in. It manifested as foaming in the mash, and a low water level outside my grain basket. Argh! I added two handfuls of rice hulls, which worked for a bit until it got stuck again. I hadn’t used the small batch adapter, so maybe that was the issue? Or perhaps it was the thickness of the mash? Either way, I had to watch things pretty carefully, and there definitely was some aeration (argh).
  • After 30 minutes at 144°, I raised the mash to 154° and held it there for 70 minutes, before finishing the mash cycle at 168° for 10 minutes.
  • I thought I had only put in 8.5 pounds of pilsner malt, but had actually put in 10.5 pounds. This led to a surprise gravity reading waaay above what I had calculated. With 1.067 after the mash and 1.080 after adding the sugar, I needed to thin things out a bit. So, I added 0.5 gallons of water to bring the gravity down to 1.072.
  • I boiled for 70 minutes, adding the hops as per the recipe. At the end of this, I ended up with 3 gallons, after discarding about a gallon of trub and a bit of extra wort. This brew session really went off the rails!
  • I brewed this beer on 12 December 2020. Starting gravity was 1.084.
  • I chilled the beer down to 75°, transferred to the fermenter, and chilled it to 65°. I aerated for 30 seconds with pure O2, and pitched the yeast (12 December 2020). I held the fermenter at 65° for 48 hours and then let it free-rise to 70° (starting 14 December 2020). I let it free-rise to 75° after 48 hours (starting 16 Decembe 2020). I held it at this temperature for a week, and then let it free rise to 78° (on 23 December 2020). After 24 hours, I let the beer drop to 70° (beginning 24 December 2020). I removed the beer from the fermentation chamber and brought it in to ambient (~65°) to finish fermentation, 19 days after brewing (1 January 2021). The gravity was 1.015 at this point, so I agitated the fermenter to rouse the yeast and hopefully help spur the last bit of fermentation.
  • I had steady bubbling in the airlock by the morning after pitching the yeast, and vigorous bubbling into a blowoff tube within 48 hours. I changed out the blowoff jar twice. The most vigorous aspect of fermentation was done by 19 December (one week after pitch), so I switched over to an airlock. The airlock had a crack, so tended to leak liquid…unfortunately, I think this means the fermentation got a little more latent oxygen than desirable.
  • I moved the beer to a ~64° location on 7 January 2021, adding the dry hops at this point. I cold crashed on 10 January 2021, and kegged on 15 January 2021.
  • Final gravity was 1.013, for 9.6% abv.

Tasting

  • Appearance
    • Medium gold beer, fairly clear; it has a pillowy and persistent white head.
  • Aroma
    • The aroma is wonderful! It is quite spicy, like gingerbread or spice cake, showcasing a really nice Belgian yeast aroma. The hops definitely faded a bit over time, starting out as herbal and slightly grassy, fading to a low herbal note towards the end of the keg. There is a light pear-like yeast character.
  • Flavor
    • Very clean! There is a wonderful hop/malt balance, with no boozy notes to speak of. Malt level is medium-low, with a cracker quality. Bitterness is relatively high, with an herbal and piney character, but that had faded a bit over time. There is a slight pear quality to the yeast, with spicy and peppery aspects more at the front.
  • Mouthfeel
    • Highly carbonated, medium-light body, with a medium-dry finish.
  • Would I brew this again?
    • Absolutely! I’m super pleased with the results, particularly in how well I nailed the yeast management. This fermentation schedule (gradual ramp up and gradual ramp down) seemed to do really well for WLP550, and I would absolutely use that again. I may have had some minor oxidation issues due to the mash problems as well as the airlock going dry, which resulted in a faster hop fade and slightly darker color than desired. The beer was definitely a deeper gold hue than I expected for 100% pilsner malt (with white sugar). I didn’t notice any sherry or cardboard or honey notes that I usually associate with oxidation, but I bet it would have manifested if I had let it age out a bit more. In any case, I’m super pleased with the overall result, and will give it another try someday when I want a high gravity sipper. I’ll need to reconfigure the malt and water quantities for a more carefully constrained future batch, but that should (hopefully) be trivial. I might also lower the second mash rest to 150° or so, to help dry out the beer a bit more. It finished a touch higher than desired, so I’ll mash a bit lower next time for the second step.
  • Overall
    • 9/10
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