Lambic, Wild Ale

Block 15’s lambic-inspired #181

Not even a month passed since I lamented the absence of good sour beers in Oregon when the 3rd anniversary of Bailey’s Taproom featured Block 15’s “lambic inspired” #181 as part of their barrel-aged celebration. #181 is a two barrel blend of one year old beers that was exclusively casked for the event.  A sign on the little barrel at Bailey’s informed us that it was brewed in July 2009 with Belgian Pilsner, unmalted wheat, aged hops and wild Belgium yeast and bacteria from the Zenne valley in Belgium.  A Turbid mash was used, followed by an extended boil, fermentation and maturation in oak barrels. The beer is “gently carbonated” and served by gravity at cellar temperature.

It is an understatement to say that this beer produced some strong reactions from those who sampled it. This should not be surprising because  straight young and old lambics are among the least accessible beers in the world.  Their limited availability is one factor contributing to this phenomenon.  The only bottled (aged) lambic is Cantillon’s Grand Cru Bruocsella. Young lambics are even harder to find and only available at the brewery, special events, and selected local Belgian pubs.

Technically speaking, Block 15’s #181 should be distinguished from such young and old lambics because it is a two barrel blend of one year old beers. But the blending of beers with identical maturation times results in the typical  apple juice “flat” beer that is reminiscent of an unblended lambic. The lack of carbonation eliminates the refreshing structure that typifies the traditional geuze or fruit lambic.  Block 15’s #181 shows a little carbonation after serving but the beer quickly takes on a still and flat appearance.

The beer is served at cellar temperature but gains more in aroma when it equilibrates with room temperature. The aroma suggests wheat, brettanomyces and vanilla notes. This medium-bodied beer starts off with sharp acidity, lemon and tropical fruits, followed by more mellow vanilla notes and a looooong bitter and “woody” finish. Unlike a geuze, this is not a session beer and would be ideal to sip with cheese and nuts.

I can only applaud Block 15 for brewing a beer like this.  Unlike other Northwestern brewers, this beer does not suffer from being a sweet fruit bomb or an experiment-for-experimentation’s sake. The unorthodox lingering finish left me somewhat puzzled and I wonder what kind of barrels Block 15 used for this beer.

Block 15 has a serious wild ale brewing program going on and an interesting account of #181’s journey from Belgium to Corvallis can be read here.