Going Gris and Rouge

As I have increasingly become a predominantly wine drinker, I find co-fermenting grapes with a beer, or even blending wine with a sour to be quite tempting.  Lambic brewery, Cantillon, has been adding grapes to two of its seasonal brews for years and one of them, Vigneronne, was a favorite of mine when their products were more readily available in Portland.

Sour beers and grapes can be joined to create a unique beer in a variety of ways, including co-fermenting the grapes with the beer, adding grape juice to the fermenting beer, or adding a portion of finished wine to  a completed brew.

My favorite Portland brewery, Upright, has been releasing a number of grape-incorporating bottles recently, and I purchased two of those to taste.

The 2017 Oregon Native uses estate pinot noir grapes from the Patton Valley Vineyards to co-ferment in Upright barrels. Intriguingly, the beer was fermented with yeast indigenous to the Patton Valley orchard, which introduces a natural wine touch to this creation. I poured the beer in a Cantillon glass and it boasted a translucent, Burgundy red color in the light. With a very pleasant aroma and what I would be inclined to call a classic Upright nose at this point, it had mild brettanomyces character and oak. My bottle was quite tart by Upright standards, with notes of lemon, cassis,  slight bitterness, and some residual sweetness accompanied by light tannins from the oak and grapes, consistent with the use of the leaner pinot noir.  It was a dry (but not bone-dry) beer with medium carbonation ditton on the mouthfeel.

Going Gris takes another step on the road of blending the philosophies of natural wine making and wild ales. This collaboration between Upright and natural wine experimenters Minimus Wines was made for the 10th anniversary of Bailey’s Taproom and features orchard yeast, a blend of beers (including one with rose petal), and the rare savagnin rose grape matured in an acacia wood cask. The beer looked extraordinarily clear and Pilsner-like, with a rapidly declining head. I observed spice and grain on the nose with a whiff of brett. It was tart, vinous, and herbal, with a pronounced bitter-lemon like note, and quite carbonated. The light mouthfeel gave this elegant and very drinkable beer a sophisticated and cerebral touch.

I had high hopes for these two beers and was not disappointed. Both brews were excellent but Going Gris was particularly fascinating. An obvious question is whether these grape / sour blends are more than the sum of their parts. I think it depends. I had another wine / sour blend by the glass at Upright which did taste more or less like beer blended with wine, mutually diluting each other’s likable characteristics. Other attempts, such as the Cantillon brews and the Upright bottles reviewed here do something more and open a world that cannot be fully captured with wine or beer alone.  As this beer style is a subset of an already smaller craft style it will probably still take a considerable amount of time to understand the behavior and outcomes of using different kinds of grapes, fermentation choices, and aging regimes to identify the most attractive combinations and styles. These experimental brews do indicate this will be a fruitful journey.

Block 15 Turbulent Consequence Premiere Annee

While American craft brewers release wild ales and beers fermented with “brett” around the clock nowadays, brewers who utilize spontaneous fermentation are still a lot rarer. Block 15′s Turbulent Consequence Première Année is a “spontaneously oak barrel fermented ale” that is brewed each fall and spring  according to Belgium lambic tradition. That means a turbid mash, unmalted wheat, a long boil, aged hops, and cooling of the wort in a coolship before barrel aging. This bottle is a 2012 selection of two barrels and bottled with honey (!). As such, the beer is an interesting approximation of a Belgian gueuze, albeit a little on the younger side.

The beer pours a cloudy, burnt / golden orange;  the head disappears quickly after pouring, producing a flat appearance. The aroma is fairly complex. Lactic notes dominate in addition to sweet, lemon,  funky, “wet cellar,” and brettanomyces notes. The taste is dry, lemony and puckering. Despite its flat appearance, carbonation is moderate, mouth feel is moderate, and there is some astringency from the barrels. This is a dry, light, and refreshing beer. Despite its low alcohol (5.8%), I would not characterize this as a session beer. It’s quite sour (at least the bottle I had), even for people who enjoy this kind of thing (me).

I cannot praise Block 15 highly enough for their ventures into spontaneous fermentation. I’d say that this beer is still a little young and raw and it lacks the complexity and depth of Belgian lambics but spontaneous fermentation and blending is an art that takes many years of experience to perfect. Strangely enough, I would say that this blend could have benefited a little from “something else” (a stronger oak note, botanicals etc.) to take some of the edge of the puckering lacto but that would have made it a different beer. I don’t know if the sweet aroma came from the honey that was added to the bottle, but I do like this natural approach to create carbonation because it adds a little complexity and allows the beer to ferment to dryness.

Not so Wild Ales

The recent Lost Abbey and New Belgium Lips of Faith Brett Beer has produced a number of interesting exchanges on internet forums and beer rating apps. Some reviewers are disappointed that the beer is not sour. Clearly, this is a misunderstanding of the brew because 100% brettanomyces beers are not necessarily supposed to be sour. They can be slightly tart as a consequence of acetic acid production by the brettanomyces yeast, but for a real sour beer the brett needs to work in conjunction with souring bacteria. A more understandable concern is that New Belgium filtered out the brettanomyces yeast prior to bottling. This is not speculation but has been actually confirmed by Lauren Salazar from New Belgium in an interesting and candid interview for Embrace the Funk. Lauren not only confirms that there is no living brett yeast in the Brett Beer, but also goes into quite some detail about their use of flash pasteurization for their sour blends.

To me such a development actually reflects how far sour beers and wild ales have come. If New Belgium would be one of the few producers of such beers, I could imagine some people being really concerned about such a procedure. In the current situation I suspect that many craft beer lovers who strongly prefer bottle-conditioned wild ales will just look for a release of any of the other 100+ craft brewers that do sour and brett beers. In fact, if you look at Flemish Reds you will note that pasteurization is not beyond the pale in this style at all. Clearly, there is a whole world out there between traditional spontaneously fermented lambics and pasteurized sweetened beers.  As long as a traditional beer style is not on the brink of extinction (such as traditional lambic was not that long ago), I think that respecting the artistic, business, and practical decisions a brewer makes is the most welcome approach.

Lauren does make a point about flash pasteurization that draws attention to different views people can have about what makes a style a style (or what makes a beer a beer). She says that pasteurization has “a side effect, but it’s a wonderful side effect. It locks the blend that I produce into place. ..You know some people store beers like Geuze for a really long time and what they don’t realize is that blender painstakingly made that blend.  The blender tasted all their barrels and said “This percentage of this barrel, this percentage of this one etc..”. That person brought all those together, tasted it and said “Perfect.” But 3 years later, who knows what it’s like if its not pasteurized. So when you pasteurize you can definitely lock in the blend, but it can also oxidize.”  This surprised me because it is well known that some lambic brewers and blenders do actually encourage people to age their geuzes and even highlight the qualities that the beer will pick up over time – just attend a vertical tasting of geuzes to experience this. When these brewers blend, the evolution of the beer over time and its aging potential is one of the things on their mind. Yes, the beer can get oxidized but that is something that both the drinker and the producer recognize – just like people with a wine cellar recognize their (expensive) wines may turn out fabulous, mediocre, or past their prime.

Lambic connoisseurs often have clear affinities with the (natural) wine crowd. No lambic or gueuze is the same year after year, but this is seen as a feature of lambic brewing and not a bug.  It is one of the things that makes spontaneous fermentation and natural wine making so interesting and fascinating (even from a biochemical perspective). It mimics life. It is as much about taste as it is about process and acceptance. Clearly, this is not an approach that is suitable for all brewers and as the craft beer revolution keeps on going we are going to see more safer and “consistent” approaches; filtered brett beers; pasteurized sours; changing the ratio between young and old base beers in a blend to make it more marketable; carefully cultivated “wild” yeast; and perhaps even sour beers that have never been in contact with bacteria at all! But there are also going to be the new craft- and home brewers who install coolships or use “infected” barrels to ferment their beers.

Speaking for myself, I increasingly have a hard time keeping up with and tasting, let alone reviewing, all the wild ales (and not so wild ales) that are being produced by American craft brewers. To keep things interesting and manageable for myself, I will now mostly confine myself to brewers that do spontaneous fermentation or who do something really interesting (such as gin barrel aging of sours, producing sour gruits etc.).

German sours

Although the theme of this website does permit it, I have never published on German sour styles such as Berliner Weisse. But a recent visit to Portland’s Belmont Station rewarded me with no fewer than four sour German beers:  Bayerischer Bahnhof Berliner Style Weisse, Bayerischer Bahnhof Berliner Style Weisse Brettanomyces LambicusDr. Fritz Briem’s 1809 Berliner Style Weisse, and Dr. Fritz Briem’s Piwo Grodziskie Grätzer Ale.

One of the intriguing theories about the origins of Berliner Weisse is that the style might have been brought to Germany by migrating Huguenots who were influenced by the sour reds and browns of Flanders — Belgian beer styles that have a rather complicated history themselves. As is virtually the rule with old beer styles, one can only speculate about how those ancient Berliner Weisse beers might have tasted, but beer writer Michael Jackson’s suggestion that traditionally these beers were buried in warm earth seems to indicate that the distinct lactic note may always have been a part of this style. Berliner Weisse (‘the Champagne of the North’) has survived but in terms of popularity it has been mostly replaced by sanitized bitter beer styles.

The Bayrischer Bahnhof Berliner Style Weisse beer that I tasted first has a low alcohol percentage of 3.0%, which is characteristic for the style. As far as bottle and label design is concerned, I will confine myself to the observation that German beers rarely excel in this area. Bayrischer Bahnhof Berliner Weisse pours a cloudy light golden color and has attractive crisp notes of peach, tropical fruits, wheat, and lactic acid. The refreshing dry lactic tart flavor gives way to a short Hefeweizen-like finish. Naturally, this beer is an easy drinker and I followed it with their Berliner Style Weisse Brettanomyces Lambicus release, which is a special edition of their classic style that received additional Brettanomyces Lambicus fermentation. This version produced an even bigger head after a vigorous pour, but also dissipated more quickly. The presence of brettanomyces is unmistakable in the aroma and it reduced the tropical complexity of the original version quite a bit. Although brettanomyces by itself produces little sourness, the presence of this yeast seems to amplify the lactic tartness of the beer by furthering drying it out, which is also evidenced by the thinner mouthfeel. In this case I think that the brettanomyces yeast took more away from the standard beer than it added, in particular the crisp fruity lactic notes. The finish is a little bit longer though.

Dr. Fritz Briem’s “historic” 1809 Berliner Style Weisse is quite a bit higher in alcohol (5%) and its production involved transferring the heated, un-boiled malt to open fermenters, after it was “pitched with yeast and lactic acid bacteria (isolated from malt) at 18°C.” The aroma suggests that wild yeast must have participated during the fermentation of this beer. This cloudy, yellow beer has a musty, honey-like aroma and is super carbonated. Whether intentional or not, there is little lactic tartness. Instead this beer is more similar to a traditional German wheat beer, albeit a little more rough around the edges. There was no finish to speak of.

Going by the label alone, Dr. Fritz Briem’s Piwo Grodziskie Grätzer with its sour mash and smoked malt looked quite appealing to me. My own readings of the native lambic literature support the idea that some lambic producers used smoked malt, and since Schlenkerla’s Märzen is one of the few non-lambic beers that really gets me excited, this obscure German style held great promise. The aroma of this golden, translucent beer certainly revealed its ingredients, although the smoke was not nearly as pronounced as I prefer. What struck me about this beer was how restrained all the different notes were; mild tartness, mild smoke, milt bitterness, and a nutty, medium-long finish. What surprised me the most was its smooth, cask/ESB-like mouthfeel. Although this beer turned out quite different from what I expected, it was the most refined and complex of the four sour Germans.

In traditional lambic, brettanomyces and lactic bacteria go hand in hand, but it was rather refreshing (literally!) to taste a wild beer (the standard Bayrischer Bahnhof Berliner Style Weisse) in which the emphasis was on the sour bacteria instead of the “brett.” I am personally at a loss to understand the contemporary preference for bitter over sour beers, but at least there are now numerous breweries experimenting with sour beer styles, and even uncovering some forgotten sour styles like Grätzer. The aim of resuscitating old, historical beer styles invariably produces debates about what the “real” or “authentic” style might have tasted like. The implicit fallacy, as recently discussed by Jeff Alworth, is that most beer styles were not made from scratch to conform to some kind of Platonic Ideal; beer styles often have a chaotic past and keep evolving, although it can be admitted that some styles have a more complicated and confusing past than others. The best brewery in the world, Cantillon, is an interesting example of the interplay of tradition and innovation. Cantillon is extremely traditionalist (non-interventionist) in its approach to brewing but also has an interesting record in experimentation with (or beyond) the lambic style, from the use of 100% malted barley and dry hopping (Cantillon Iris) to blending lambic and natural wine (Cantillon Pinot D’Aunis).

In closing, it is interesting to draw some attention to one of the unorthodox aspects of Berliner Weisse brewing; the no-boil (or short boil) method. Not boiling the wort can confer (or enhance) a number of characteristics of the beer; a lighter color, a “raw” dough character, cloudiness, reduced hop bitterness, participation of wild yeast and bacteria, and more sourness.  The no-boil method is now almost exclusively associated with the Berliner style but has a more varied history (it used to be a popular method in Norwegian brewing, too), a topic that will be treated in more detail in the future.

Gin barrel aging of beer

One of the most interesting developments in the Pacific Northwest has been the increasing popularity of gin barrel aging of beer. In particular, gin barrel aging of sour beers produces an interesting combination. This should not be surprising. Whereas whiskey, bourbon, and rum barrels can confer an overwhelming, “oppressive” note to beer (which is not always unwelcome, as in the case of imperial stouts), the pale ales and sour beers usually require a lighter approach, and the herbal and dry character of gin is an obvious choice in theory. In practice, the choice to age a beer in gin barrels is not so obvious because gin usually is not produced or aged in barrels.

The origins of gin go back to Dutch jenever (genever), a juniper-based spirit from which gin originated. Supposedly the tradition of adding juniper berries to distilled malt wine was to mask the poor flavor. When distillation methods improved, the use of juniper berries and other herbs was retained and jenever has been a popular drink in the Netherlands and Belgium since. Contemporary jenever can range from industrial neutral “jonge jenever” made with whopping amounts of sugar and juniper extract to authentic “oude jenever” made from 100% grain and fermented juniper berries, aged in barrels (unfortunately, modern oude jenever is often colored and sweetened with caramel). Naturally, only the rarer practice of using wood aging in jenever and gin produce barrels suitable for barrel aging of beer.

There are at least three approaches in which gin (or jenever) and beer can meet. Gin can be blended with beer, such as in the making of beer cocktails. Beer can be brewed with juniper berries and herbs that are typically used for gin to give a gin-like property to beer. Finally, beer can be aged in used gin barrels to impart the flavor of gin during barrel aging of beer. I will leave a treatment of beer cocktails to the side except to note that I once got reasonably interesting results from mixing gin and a pale ale (one needs to experiment a little for arriving at the right proportion). Distillerie Claeyssens de Wambrechies in France actually makes a top fermented beer blended with gin during the brewing process called La Wambrechies.

In Oregon, Rogue Ales makes a Juniper Pale Ale that has some subtle gin connotations. Of much greater interest is Rogue’s limited John John Juniper, which is aged in spruce gin barrels. Unlike Rogue’s regular Juniper Pale Ale, this beer had an unmistakable dry and spicy gin character. Another beer that was inspired by gin is Midnight Sun’s Bathtub Gin Gruit Ale.

But the most interesting application of gin barrel aging, in my opinion, is for wild and sour ales. Gin barrel aging can greatly enhance the aroma and taste of sour beer. Lambic is traditionally associated with the use of fruit but brews such as Cantillon’s Mamouche show impressive results for blending herbs into sour beers.

One of the pioneers in gin barrel aging of beers, and sour beers in particular, is Portland’s Upright Brewing. Aside from being the most innovative sour beer brewery in Portland to date, Upright has done gin barrel aging for a number of its beers using Ransom Old Tom Gin barrels. In fact, Upright seems to like the idea of a meeting between beer and gin so much that they brewed a special beer to be matched with Dutch jenever called Kopstootje Biere. Kopstootje is a Bière de Garde made with the same botanicals as Bols Genever. This beer was launched to great enthusiasm at special pub events where it was consumed in a challenging one-two punch with jenever, according to Dutch ritual.

Other recent and upcoming gin-inspired and gin barrel aged releases include Breakside’s Gin-Barrel Double Wit, Soursop Wheat, Citra Gin IPA, and Simcoe Gin IPA; Ninkasi’s Ransom Old Tom Gin Wood Barrel Aged Maiden the Shade; Oakshire’s Gin Barrel Saison and Gin Barrel Aged Imperial Overcast Stout; some beers in B’ United’s Zymatore series; and Stillwater’s Artisanal Kopstootje.

One of the common observations about beers that have been aged in gin barrels is that the aromatic properties this procedure confers tend to produce some variability in detection. There is little information to date how the “gin” character of gin barrel aged beer evolves over time. For example, I recently sampled a bottle of Belmont Station’s 14th Anniversary Commemorative Ale and Upright’s Special Herbs (a gruit aged in Old Tom Gin barrels) and I could not detect much gin character — in the case of Upright’s beer less than I recall originally tasting on tap. In the case of Rogue’s John John Juniper I was struck by the difference in gin character between the bottled and draft version. Such observations about gin barrel aged beers are not confined to my own, and I have read similar statements from other people. These complexities notwithstanding, gin barrel aging and brewing with traditional jenever herbs offer great potential for producing exceptional sour beers and lambics.

Wild Yeast

Chris White and Jamil Zainasheff’s Yeast: The Practical Guide to Beer Fermentation is a thorough review of the subject of yeast, with the practical (home)brewer in mind. It is mostly a treatment of commercial brewer’s yeast but there are some interesting observations about wild yeast, too. The authors define wild yeast as yeast “that is not in the brewer’s control.” For example, commercial Brettanomcyes is not wild yeast but native strains of Saccharomyces that (unintentionally) are introduced during cooling of the wort or barrel aging would be. Of course, today’s commercial strains of Brettanomyces may still have a lot in common with yeasts that are found in the wild, but one could imagine a scenario where the use of Brettanomyces becomes so popular that commercial yeast sellers increasingly select these strains for certain properties. As a consequence, wild yeast is not characterized by its aroma and flavor properties (such as tartness or funkiness) but by its involvement in (ambient) spontaneous fermentation.

There are a number of distinct traits that have been retained in wild yeast. Wild yeasts are usually diploid, form spores, and are still capable of mating. Commercial yeast, in contrast, has lost this ability because mainstream brewers desire consistent characteristics from their yeast. Wild yeast usually has low flocculation, which can produce higher attenuation because the yeasts will not quickly drop or rise in the wort. In commercial yeast, however, such a property is not desirable for many beer styles, where a quick and clean beer is the goal.  Unlike wild yeasts, which have evolved to compete against each other, commercial yeast can often co-exist and ferment at similar rates.

The book also includes sections on Brettanomyces and capturing wild yeast. Although the name Dekkera is often used interchangeably with Brettanomyces, it is only Brettanomyces that is of the non-spore forming type. One of the intriguing things about Brettanomyces, much to the chagrin of wine makers, is that it produces the enzyme Beta-glucosidase, which can convert the wood sugar cellobiose into glucose, a phenomenon that is more prevalent in new barrels that have higher concentrations of cellobiose. Brettanomyces is quite sensitive to oxygen, with moderate concentrations most favorable to its growth, and lower and higher concentrations, unfavorable. Increased oxygen produces more acetic acid as a fermentation product.

Instead of inoculating wort with commercial Brett, some (home)brewers aim to capture real wild yeast for fermentation. There is no shortage of methods for doing this, including ambient exposure of the wort, fermentation in “infected” barrels, the use of wild fruit and herbs to start fermentation, or using dregs from the bottles of traditional lambic brewers. Of course, such methods usually introduce souring bacteria as well, and the art is to discover and perfect a method that leads to consistent, favorable outcomes. Because many brewers prefer not to waste multiple batches of wort on spontaneous fermentation experiments, and the yeast captured in the wild may not be sufficient to start a healthy fermentation, one approach is to create ambient spontaneous starters (there is a lot of information about creating conventional starters in the book). At this stage, such efforts are still largely the work of some adventurous (home)brewers, and documentation of such efforts is still in its early stages (the Mad Fermentationist blog is an excellent resource). In the case of spontaneous starters it is important to avoid sampling at an early stage, where aerobic conditions, higher pH, and low alcohol still permit the presence of dangerous pathogens.

Because the book is mostly written for brewers who have control over their yeast and fermentation, a lot of information is not completely applicable to brewers who use spontaneous fermentation or incorporate spontaneous fermentation. But there is some information that is interesting for “wild” brewers as well. For example, proper wort aeration is important for healthy yeast growth but brewers who use barrels for (primary) fermentation may have problems in getting enough dissolved oxygen at the start of fermentation. The authors report on a New Belgium method where olive oil was added to the wort to supply the sterols that yeast cell membranes require for proper structure and function. One also wonders how the use of coolships (with their large surface to volume ratio) influences initial wort aeration. Temperature is another topic that affects conventional brewers as well as those using wild yeast. As far as I am aware, traditional lambic brewing does not necessarily exclude temperature control, but I think it is safe to assume that most fermenting lambic wort is subject to substantial seasonal and overnight temperature changes that would be contra-indicated for conventional brewers (Cantillon’s Jean-Pierre Van Roy once looked horrified when I asked him about active temperature control). It would be quite helpful to quantify and characterize the effect of ambient temperature fluctuations on wild yeast and bacterial growth, fermentation, and flavor.

Much of the information on yeast growth, handling, storage, and labs is not applicable to spontaneous fermentation but some of the techniques (such as wild yeast tests and forced fermentation) can be used by adventurous brewers to study wild yeast and the conditions that influence spontaneous fermentation. Ultimately, there is an increasing need for an extensive book treatment on (home)brewing with non-conventional and wild yeast. Modifying or ignoring (!) procedures for brewing with domesticated yeast will only take you so far, and the homebrew recipes that can be found in some classic lambic and wild beer books give little guidance about expected fermentation behavior and troubleshooting. Of course, no matter how much our knowledge about spontaneous fermentation grows, beer that is produced in this way will always have more variability than beer that is produced with domesticated yeast under highly controlled conditions. But this is also one of its strengths, and like authentic wine, can lead to surprising results. Many readers of this blog will agree that the best beer in this world remains a product of spontaneous fermentation. If you brew conventional beer in addition to wild beer, Yeast is an invaluable resource.

Interview with Crooked Stave’s Chad Yakobson

Chad Yakobson has done the world of homebrewing and microbrewing a great favor by making the results of his academic investigations with brettanomyces yeast available on his website and participating in online exchanges about the use of brettanomyces in homebrewing. Chad is also one of the (early) readers of Lambic and Wild Ale and has contacted me from time to time about an item I posted. I am therefore quite pleased to publish this interview about his artisan brewing project called Crooked Stave.

1. Did your desire to start a brewery come out of your academic studies, or did you always want to start a brewery?

I actually wanted to stat a winery at first. I studied grape growing in my undergrad and then moved to New Zealand to study wine making. Throughout all of this I was always more passionate about brewing and during my travels after New Zealand I decided that I wanted to work for a brewery instead of a winery. I was still interested in further academic studies so I eventually made my way to Edinburgh, Scotland, to study at the International Centre for Brewing and Distilling…with the final goal of one day opening a brewery of my own.

2. How would you summarize the most significant findings of your studies with brettanomyces?

I would say the most significant finding was that Brettanomyces yeasts are capable of Primary fermentation in a manner similar to Saccharomyces strains but with an incredibly different means to metabolite production and even greater variability in their ability to ferment and produce secondary metabolites like esters and phenols.

3. What is the biggest challenge of 100% Brettanomyces brewing?

Choosing the right strain to match the beer you’re trying to brew and hitting the fermentation profile you’re looking for with that beer. There aren’t enough strains right now, so most Brett beers taste the same. Brewers only have a few strains to choose from and it takes time to learn how the different Bretts ferment and how best to accentuate their characteristics in the beer.

4. Do you think it is possible to brew a quality 100% Brettanomyces beer on a similar timescale as a regular ale?

I do! Our last Brettanomyces fermentation took 6 days to go from 14 Plato to 3 Plato. To make a quality 100% Brettanomyces beer is a bit more of a trick. That is my goal through producing a series of beers called Wild Wild Brett. The first series plays off the color wheel (ROY-G-BIV), incorporating an ingredient into the beer that in some form relates to the color of the color wheel for that particular batch. In the end I’m looking for the ideal Brettanomyces beer, one that can be produced as part of a brewery’s normal lineup of beers.

5. Do you favor certain grains and hops in your brewing?

Absolutely, I can’t say I favor them as much as the yeasts (both wild and non-wild) I use, but every brewer will tell you they have certain ingredients they like to use. For me I like what rye can do as well as steel-cut oats. I use steel-cut oats in quite a few of the beers. Special B is a great malt as well as Carafa II debittered. As for hops, it’s really specific on the beer and the flavor profile I’m looking for. Centennial is a nice hop with a good aroma in a beer. I haven’t had a chance to play around with the fancy new hops that brewers are using so I’m looking forward to trying some of those out and developing a greater opinion on how I can use hops in the beers we’ll be brewing.

6. Can you give us a taste of the kind of “unique ingredients” that you have encountered during your travels that you would like to use in brewing?

Something I get the most out of when traveling is visiting markets and trying the local foods, to me that is a big part of culture. We don’t have anything like the markets I’ve visited throughout Southeast Asia, Africa, even South America. Walking through the markets grabbing new fruits like buddhas hand or a mangosteen is exciting to try and think how they would incorporate into a beer. The spice market in Cairo is the largest of its kind and the variety of spices is unreal. Maracuyá and Lulo from Colombia are similar to passion fruit and have a great acidity, there is also a raw pressed cane sugar called panela which lends a some dried fruit flavors when used in fermentation. The variety of fruits, herbs, spices, and flowers that exist outside of what we have available is amazing and the way the various ingredients are incorporated into the local foods is also unique. Every culture is different and they incorporate the ingredients differently. A curry might have 10 spices which come together to create a singular flavor while a still equally flavorful dish in South America might have only 2 or 3 ingredients but still be just  savory. It’s all about the way the ingredients are used that bring out their unique flavors and I like to think of brewing in the same way.

7. Your brewery seems off to an ambitious start. Can you tell us something about your objectives and achievements to date?

Our objective is to produce expressive well crafted beers. I’m building a library of barrels and filling them as fast as I can to get them souring. I’m only adding certain cultures of critters to the barrels to see how they develop to build our house flavor. It’s not something I can control but I do play a hand in it when blending barrels, and choosing which stay and which get tossed. We are concentrating heavily on Brettanomyces fermentations and I want to see the abilities of these yeasts culture and find new strains and discover new flavors. Bioflavoring is very promising with these yeasts and can really lend some interesting characteristics to the beers. Playing around with the barrels and making sour beers is exciting for me, but I look forward to having a very diverse portfolio of beers. Diversification is our model and we plan to produce many types of beers in every fashion possible. With creativity the options are endless.

8. How big is your brewery currently? How much space do you think you will need in the future?

We are currently using about 5,000 sq. ft. of space shared between two breweries. This is going to put our limits at about 100 barrels the oak foeder and the 17bbl fermenter and bright tank for a total of around 500-600 barrels of beer a year. We’re are looking to expand into Denver, Colorado, to have a brewery of our own as soon as we get the capital raised. At that point we will be looking for something with at least 10,000 sq. ft.

9. What are your short and long term goals for Crooked Stave?

Short term goals are to open a brewery location in Denver and be a successful brewery, one which people look at and hopefully think we are trying new things and making exciting beers. From there we’ll see what the future holds. Ideally we would build a green site brewery out along the front range up against the foothills west of Denver and have acreage for agriculture crops. I’d love to have an onsite orchard, small vineyard, and greenhouses for seasonal crops and herbs and spices to use in small batch beers.

10. Do you have any specific plans for spontaneous fermentation?

Absolutely! We actually just brewed a no boil beer to start a sour culture going this past week. If that works we’ll have a spontaneous culture to always use for souring wort for natural acidification in the brewhouse and post fermentation. From there I have a few more ideas like using fruits harvested and mashed which then will start fermentation spontaneously. I’ve played around with this a little and know some distilleries doing natural fermentation with fruits before distilling the product. A coolship is always an entertaining idea so we’ll see where we go with this, but a Colorado spontaneous beer will be produced one day.

11. How has your exposure to wine making influenced your brewing?

I think it has greatly influenced the way I look at fermentation, the organisms involved, and the level of my involvement with those organisms. It has given me a great understanding of how fruits can be used in primary fermentation and the characteristics they bring. Also our use of oak barrels goes hand in hand with those of a winemaker and the understanding of palate development and blending to achieve a desired final blend. A developed palate and blending skills makes the difference between a good wine and an average wine. I also treat my barrels much as a winemaker would. I take them apart and inspect each one, fix them if needed. This gives a greater understanding of each barrel and the the influences a barrel will give.

12. Can you tell us something about the artwork you envision for your labels and promotion materials?

We have a few variations for the labels depending on the series of beers. The labels for the sours are the most artistic and I’m happy with they way they are coming along. Each label has unique typography being hand created which will make the labels stand out. I like the gracefulness a wine label has with its simplicity and elegance. We are trying to bring some of this into our labels as well. I would like to see our labels continue to change even having guest artists doing labels or series of labels.

13. There has been increased interest in sour ales, wild ales and spontaneous fermentation in American microbrewing. Do you think an affordable year-round wild ale is economically feasible?

I do, and its what I’m hoping to do with our American Petite Sour. As well as being able to always have a Brettanomyces beer available.

14. What are your favorite brewers and beers?

I have quite a few… It would be hard to list all them… plus so many I’m yet to try but know of…

15. Are there any collaborations with other brewers in the works?

We just did a Fort Collins Collaboration with all the breweries in Fort Collins getting together to brew one beer that will be served during American Craft Beer Week. Also a few months back we had a Super Saison Friends League brew which was a 12% Saison aged in some of our Chardonnay barrels and inoculated with 10 different strains of Brettanomyces.

Recently we have been talking with Epic Brewing Company in Salt Lake City about doing a Collaboration. So we’ll see if that happens. There are a lot of brewers I’d like to do collaborations with, so we’ll see if that starts to happen as we get going.

Thanks for giving me the opportunity to do an interview. I’ve followed your website since I was studying back in Edinburgh so it’s exciting for me to get to be featured in a post.

La Franche Bière artisanale de Franche Comté

While in France in April 2009, Chana and I visited La Franche, which is a tiny little beer brewery (!) in a tiny little village called La Ferte in the Jura region.

Walking in, we had no idea what to expect. We thought we would make the best of it by indicating a beer to try and perhaps buying a couple of bottles to take with us, getting out pretty quickly. There was a small group of people inside watching a video and a man and a woman behind the counter. The man turned out to be the brewer, and after an attempt with the woman, his student, we were thankful that the brewer’s English was good enough to describe his beers to us with decent detail. We chose to try the blonde ale, and when he poured them for us from the bar he told us that he was about to give a tour. Amazingly, one of the tour members happened to speak excellent English (turned out she’s a high school English teacher!) and was happy to translate for us as we went along.

The tour was fascinating. This guy started brewing in his garage and after awhile managed to wrangle some odds-and-ends equipment and some extra space which enabled him to start making larger quantities of beer. It’s not big at all…just 2 or 3 people working 4 or 5 days out of the month to make some beer. The brewer is a big fan of IPAs and other heavily hopped beers, which influence his own. The real treat, and the main reason we came, is that he has created a vin jaune based beer.

Vin Jaune, or “yellow wine,” is a heavily oxidized white wine specific to the Jura region of France. It is aged for 6 years until all sugars have fermented and much of the water has evaporated, leaving it dry and concentrated. It smells much like sherry but tastes like no other wine on earth. We have been able to obtain a bottle of it in Portland, but it is super expensive and only imported from one producer. So we came to experience (and buy) it straight from the source – the winemakers of the Jura themselves.

The ‘Une Fausse Blonde Au Vin Jaune’ beer is not only unorthodox because of the brewer’s attempt to impart the flavor of Vin Jaune to a beer but also because of the way it is done. The beer is not aged in vin jaune barrrels or soaked in vin jaune oak chips but 5% vin jaune is blended with their blond beer. After this step the beer is bottle conditioned without filtration.

Blending beer and wine or distilled beverages is not a common procedure, even among “extreme” brewers. In most cases, aging the beer in a barrel that  held the alcoholic beverage of choice (wine, whiskey, sherry) is the preferred method. Of course, such an approach is not possible in the case of alcoholic drinks that are not barrel aged such as gin, unless unorthodox steps are being taken such as in Rogue’s John John Juniper. For brewers who dislike the taste of (new) oak, but like to impart the flavor of another alcoholic beverage to their beer, using very old barrels or blending is the only option.

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.

Russian River Beatification

beatificationIs this possible to make a lambic in the United States? This depends on the definition of what constitutes a lambic (brewing process or location) but the ongoing attempt by Allagash to use the usual ingredients, a cool ship, and  real spontaneous fermentation could do it. In the meantime,  some of the beers made by Russian River are coming closer in terms of brewing process and taste.  Few, if any, American wild ales have come as close to the smell and taste of an actual Belgian Geuze as Russian River’s Beatification.

Beatification is a blend of two vintages of a base beer called “Sonambic,” which are further blended with “a couple of other orphan beers” to change the mouthfeel of barrel aged beers or enhance its acidity. Beatification was aged for 8 to 15 months in old Oak Barrels (at least 5 years according to Russian River’s website) which impart little wine or oak notes to the beer. Its “spontaneous” character lies in the wild yeasts and bacteria which inhabit the barrels.  This method comes a lot closer to traditional lambic brewing than just adding a lambic or Flanders Red culture to the beer. Like traditional Geuze, Beatification undergoes a secondary fermentation in the bottle, which, as all the Russian River wild ale bottles, feature restrained and beautiful labels.

Because we did not have an opportunity to try this until a family member from California visited us, the beer that we tasted may have benefited from further aging after it was purchased in 2008.

The following notes were taken on Thursday, August 27, 2009:

Batch 003. 750 ml. Poured into a Cantillon Geuze glass.

Upon uncorking — lots of carbonation, foam came over the lip of the bottle.

Appearance: When pouring, half a finger of head which dissipated quickly. Blond / yellow beer, opaque.

Smell: Smells like a traditional Geuze. Cannot recall any American beer that smells so much like a lambic/Geuze. Brett, citrus (lemon), wheat.

Taste: Very tart, with a smooth finish. One of the strongest lemon notes I have ever tasted in a beer. Wheat. Alcohol is not very noticeable. A slight grapefruit note develops as it gets warmer.

Mouthfeel: Light. Moderate carbonation (just the right amount). Some astringency.

Drinkability: Extremely drinkable. Perhaps it is a good thing that the price prevents excessive consumption! A perfect beer to drink outside in warm weather.

One difference between Beatification and Geuze lambic that I detected is the reduced complexity in taste. In this case I am wondering whether this should be considered a defect because the bone dry and lemon-like taste is exceptional.   There are more complex Russian River wild ales but Beatification simply blows them away.  There is something to be said for alcoholic beverages that simply feature flawless execution of a specific flavor. More than one reviewer has compared Beatification to a very dry, tart white wine.

Since this beer was so close in taste to a traditional Geuze it would be interesting to  use an analytical chemistry technique like chromatography on this beer to determine its chemical profile and compare it to traditional lambics and other wild ales.

After tasting Beatification there is no doubt in my mind that Americans can compete with the best traditional Lambic brewers if  instant gratification is suppressed and the temptation to sweeten the beer, the use of new oak , and excessive carbonation is discouraged. All these pitfalls have been avoided in Beatification.

Of all the wild ales that are currently available in the United States, Beatification ranks among the best.

Upon uncorking — lots of carbonation, foam came over the lip of the bottle

Appearance: When pouring, half a finger of head which dissapated quickly. Blond / yellow beer (rich in color), but opaque. Looks a little carbonated.

Smell: Smells like a gueze! Cannot recall any American beer that smells so much like a lambic/gueze. Bretts, citrus (lemon), wheat.

 

Taste: Tart, with a smooth finish. One of the strongest lemon notes ever tasted in a beer. Less complex than Belgian lambics, but it’s not a bad thing. Alcohol is not very noticeable. Gets more bitter as it gets warmer

Mouthfeel: Light/medium (medium on the light side). Moderate carbonation (just the right amount). Somewhat astringent.