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.

The domestication of beer

Traditional lambic brewers are among the few remaining producers of alchoholic beverages that  allow spontaneous fermentation and the unruly behavior of  bacteria and yeasts to influence their brews. Such practices have been increasingly rejected by modern brewers who want complete control and a consistent end product. This development is not the first step in the “domestication” of beer, as evidenced by the history of “gruit.” As Theodore Schick writes in “Beer and Gnosis: The Mead of Inspiration” (in the collection Beer and Philosophy: The Unexamined Beer Isn’t Worth Drinking):

In the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, many Europeans began to look askance at the lavish and hedonistic lifestyle of many church leaders. Their promotion of the highly inebriating gruit was emblematic of their decadence…So the movement toward hopped ale was in part an anti-drug movement. The passage of the German beer purity laws in 1516 which mandated the use of hops was a form of prohibition not unlike that passed by the US congress in 1919.

Because for hundreds of years all beers were brewed using spontaneous fermentation, there must have been beers that combined the sour character of the traditional lambic and the herbal characteristics of medieval gruit. A recent attempt to create such a beer is Old Odense Ale, a collaboration between Denmark’s Nørrebro Bryghus brewery and Delaware’s Dogfish Head.

The use of wild yeasts does not have to be confined to lambic beers. For example, in his book Grape vs. Grain Charles Bamforth writes:

It is often not realized that, while some bottled beer was shipped, by far, the bulk of the beer sold to India was in casks, for bottling locally. Hop bitter acids by no means kill all organisms, and the most prolific inhabitant of those casks bouncing on the ocean waves was Brettanomyces. The typical flavor notes produced by this organism are “barnyard” or “mouse pee.”

The author continues to write that, unlike the barnyard IPA’s of old, modern IPAs “happily, lack this touch of authenticity…..” But some traditional lambic brewers are experimenting with all malt brews and  fresh hops though. The best known available example is Cantillon’s Iris, which is made from 100% malted barley, 50% fresh hops (Styrian Goldings) and is “cold hopped” (dry hopped) before bottling. Because Iris does not contain wheat, this beer is not a lambic beer in the traditional sense of the word, but a spontaneously fermentented ale. Cantillon has even brewed an experimental concoction with fresh US Cascade hops. And in the United States, some innovating brewers are collaborating on “wild IPA” style beers.

Allagash lambic experiment with wild Maine yeasts

The beer blog Beervana published some interesting details on Portland, Maine, brewery Allagash and their quest to brew a lambic-style beer. What is truly fascinating is that Allagash does not just inoculate the wort with wild yeasts from the Zenne Valley in Belgium, but is experimenting with real local spontaneous fermentation:

There’s nothing sacrosanct about the Zenne Valley–wild yeasts should ferment beer anywhere, theoretically..But would Maine wild yeasts produce a tasty lambic? They did some research and discovered that except for the hottest months in the summer and the coldest months in the winter, it turns out that Portland, Maine’s weather matches up quite closely with Brussels’.

The brewer even made a substantial investment to build and install a real cool ship (“koelschip”) and consulted the traditional Brussels lambic brewery Cantillon. This seems to be shaping up to become the closest an American brewer has ever gotten to traditional lambic brewing.

Read the complete report on Beervana.