Posts Tagged ‘sour beer’

12 Beers of X-Mas: Noel de Calabaza

Saturday, January 10th, 2015

One of the few all-wild breweries in the United States, Jolly Pumpkin Artisan Ales in Dexter, Michigan ages every drop of beer in oak barrels. The process is labor intensive, and not just because it requires handling barrels that weigh upwards of 100 pounds (when empty!). Extensive blending is needed to get any consistency, a process made all the more difficult with short run offerings like the 2012 Noel de Calabaza I’m tasting tonight.

Jolly Pumpkin Noel de CalabazaThe Noel pours a deep mahogany brown, darker still due to the heavy haze. The creamy sandy brown head lasts and lasts. The aroma is subtle but complex – a delicate malty and fruity sweetness is composed of caramel, raisins and plums, and an earthy, barnyard brettanomyces funk peeks out from behind, growing as the beer warms.

The flavor is alternately sweet and funky. Toffee and caramel combine with plums and figs, with an herbal hop character holding its own. The earthy, almost sweaty wild yeast character tickles the sides of the tongue while the sweetness soothes the top. A light sour and a bit of a smokiness round out the taste. Just as complex but not quite as subtle as the nose, the flavor fades a bit towards the end, allowing the alcohol to come to the fore. The body remains full but due to the brett it finishes quite dry.

++Jolly Pumpkin Noel de Calabaza

4.3 (4-9-8-4-18)

Spotlight Week: Goose Island Beer Company

Thursday, January 14th, 2010

2010-01-14-giIf you want an inspirational story about a brewery that pulled itself up by its bootstraps, you need look no further than Goose Island Beer Company. In 1988, John Hall opened the first Goose Island Brewpub, at Clybourn and Sheffield on the north side of Chicago. Though essentially in Lincoln Park, the brewery is not all that far from Cabrini-Green, which at the time was easily the most unsafe part of the northside. Over the years the brewpub built a community of beer fans and simultaneously played an instrumental role in revitalizing the surrounding neighborhood.

By 1995, the brewpub had grown enough that Goose Island opened the brewery on Fulton Street. This is the facility that currently produces all the company’s bottled beers. They have since expanded further, opening a second brewpub on Clark Street, half a block from Wrigley Field. Each of the two brewpubs produces their own specialties and unique creations. After a deal with Widmer (wherein Goose Island brews are sold by Anheuser-Busch distributors) the beer is now available nationwide, and also in England. It seems the plan has paid off, for in the last three years they have grown from 37th largest brewery to 22nd.

2010-01-14-matildaGoose Island produces five year-round beers: 312 Urban Wheat Ale (one wonders what exactly “urban” means here), Honker’s Ale (a regular bitter), India Pale Ale, Nut Brown Ale (formerly the more inspired Hex Nut Brown), and Oatmeal Stout. They also brew a variety of seasonals (some with more interesting names) and their acclaimed special reserves. Among the most sought-after craft beers these days is their Bourbon County Stout, a bourbon-barrel aged imperial stout that sells for upwards of $5 per 12 ounce bottle. Tonight I will try three others of the brewmaster’s specials: the Belgians Matilda, Sofie, and Juliet.

Matilda used to be brewed with Brettanomyces wild yeast. It is my understanding that they now only bottle with that infernal bug. It pours the color of a persimmon, crystal clear despite warnings of “a sediment”. The lace-inducing off-white head is not nearly voluminous enough. Matilda has a delicate fruity nose: mostly raspberries, cherries, and honeydew. There is a little spicy aroma and some clean malt as well. Perhaps some roses in the background.

2010-01-14-sofieThe taste is spicy with yeast character. A noticeable alcohol warming supports the peppery flavor. There is some strange fruit and caramel. A little dustiness and that strange fruit are all I get from the Brett. A bit of hop bitterness seems present but is quickly gone. Tastes just a little flat. Officially it is “dry and quenching”, but I don’t find it either. There is a prominent sweetness that turns cloying, leaving a coating on the tongue accompanied by a lingering astringency. Don’t drink this one now; sit on your bottles for two or three years.

Twenty percent of Sofie has been aged in wine barrels of undetermined varietal on a bed of orange peels. This has been blended back with the unadulterated version to yield a barely hazy, barely yellow brew. A decent amount of creamy bright-white head leaves a thick lacing on the glass. The nose is of orange peel, almost to the point of smelling like Gojo. Actually, it has the exact aroma of fermented Mountain Dew (not that I know that at all).

The taste continues the citric bomb with a tart lemon flavor. At first that character makes it seems like a Berliner weisse, but it is not nearly acidic enough and much too sweet. The lemon yields to pepper and a malt flavor. The sweetness lasts throughout and lingers on. This is a highly regarded beer, and frankly I don’t understand why. The flavor is flat and the sweetness cloying. As my brother (who likes it) said, people must like Mountain Dew more than I.

2010-01-14-julietFinally we get to Juliet, an aptly-named sour, aged in wine barrels of indeterminate variety on blackberries (at one point they were using gooseberries). Juliet is an opalescent burnt orange with some white head. The nose is deep. Fruit dominates the first level, mostly pie cherries, dates, blackberries, kiwi, and raisins. Then comes a dusty, barnyard sweetness. Deeper yet is a rich balsamic vinegar character. A complicated and intriguing aroma.

The flavor is likewise complicated. Seriously fruity at first, the sour character soon comes out. Berries, pomegranate, and a little more exotic fruit are present. A lemon tart and balsamic vinegar sour add a rich complexity. Some caramel flavor attempts a malty coup but the acidity fights on. The flavor continues to develop on the tongue for several minutes, eventually resting as a latent astringency. The sweetness and acidity balance each other initially but they both linger a bit long. An otherworldly berry taste is really the star of this beer.

++Goose Island Juliet

4.3 (4-9-9-3-18)

+Goose Island Matilda

3.6 (3-8-7-3-15)

+/-Goose Island Sofie

3.2 (4-6-6-3-13)

Sour Week: Urthel/Two Brothers Moaten and Abbaye de Saint Bon-Chien

Monday, August 17th, 2009

Collaboration beers are all the rage these days: Avery and Russian River’s Collaboration Not Litigation Ale (a blend of beers both named “Salvation”), the Brooklyner-Schneider and Schneider-Brooklyner Hopfen Weisses (the latter of which I’ve rated), the new fruity and malty Van Twee from the minds of De Proef and Bell’s, as well as Flying Dog’s Collaborator Doppelbock, product of the Open Source Beer Project. I’m sure I’m missing scores of unique ones.

2009-08-17-moatenThe reason I mention this is that tonight the first beer I am trying is a collaboration brew from Two Brothers Brewing in Warrenville, Illinois, and the Urthel Brewery in Ruiselede, Belgium. Named Moaten (after the Flemish word for “friends”), this oak aged sour is brewed in the style of a west Flanders red.

The Moaten pours a lightly hazy rust color with some creamy off-white head. The nose is light and somewhat flat. A bit of caramel malt is evident but a dry, somewhat metallic character intervenes. I can detect hints of fruit, perhaps raspberries and oranges.

The taste is also flat but not as much so, with a flavor really representative of an American amber ale. Malt character is the strongest, toast and bread with some caramel. Some fruit is present, and some oak. Just the slightest hint of an acetic tart. Slightly cloying.

Not a bad beer, just not at all what the label tells me it will be. Anyway I had high hopes but low expectations for this one: both breweries are generally great but neither brews sours regularly.

Moaten is a beer that talks big but doesn’t quite deliver. Next up is a beer that makes no claims to style other than “Swiss ale de garde … aged in oak barrels”. However just one whiff and you know it’s a Flanders-style red.

One of the best non-Belgian sours I know of, the Abbaye de Saint Bon-Chien is brewed by Brasserie Des Franches-Montagnes (BFM) in Saignel├ęgier, Switzerland. This beer (named after the late brewery cat) is aged in wooden barrels that formerly held one of several wine varietals as well as a few used to age grappa, so the complexity should come naturally. My bottle is a vintage 2007.

2009-08-17-bon-chienA bit of creamy tan head sits atop the turbid, mahogany colored Bon-Chien. Not a lot of head but what is there lasts and leaves an artistic lacing. A rich aroma wafts out: fruit, wood, malt, funk, and sour. Cherries, raisins, and blackberries with a vanilla oak character. A light caramel malt sweetness balances an acidic, cider vinegar nose. Just a bit of sweat adds a funky interest. Great sweet and sour combination.

A dense and difficult flavor. This is a high compliment: the various tastes do not fight for attention, but they do alternately subdue and enhance each other. This beer requires contemplation. At first a sweet maltiness is paired with a significant bitterness. The bitterness is revealed to be an alcohol warming. The maltiness fades and is replaced by a cidery tart. The spicy and sour flavors bring out a strong fruitiness: red apples, cherries, and prunes and a hint of brandy and mulling spices. Some balsamic vinegar rounds out the sour taste. A lively carbonation, healthy tart, and restrained but definitive alcohol flavor.

A tour de force.

++Abbaye de Saint Bon-Chien

4.6 (4-9-10-4-19)

+/-Urthel/Two Brothers Moaten

3.2 (3-6-7-3-13)

P.S. Thank you Peggy Sue for knocking half my glass of the Bon-Chien all over the desk and keyboard. I literally tried lapping it up before I realized it wasn’t any good anymore. I had to get a new keyboard in the middle of writing my post. Seriously!

Sour Week: Brouwerij Verhaeghe

Saturday, August 15th, 2009

Tonight I will have three beers made by Brouwerij Verhaeghe in Vichte, Belgium. Verhaeghe is a great example of a west Flanders brewery, producing a number of what they call red-brown ales as well as a kriek, a pils, a few amber ales, and a Christmas beer. Tonight I will have the three sours they make that I can readily get a hold of: Echt Kriekenbier, Vichtenaar, and Duchesse de Bourgogne. Astute readers may remember that the Duchesse was the first sour I rated on this blog, as well as note that it is now the first beer I have tasted twice.

Brouwerij Verhaeghe

First up, the Echt Kriekenbier, which pours a ruby-tinted caramel amber with wisps of tan head. The nose has a delicate sweet and sour character. I notice cherries at first, then sweet malt and apple cider vinegar. A complex blend of wood, smoke, and blackberry jam makes this subtle aroma remarkably intriguing.

The sublime cherry flavor begins on the lips before the beer even enters the mouth. The balancing tart accentuates the fruit. Rich acidic and caramel malt body, a bit cidery. The cherry is supported and enhanced all the way back, remaining prominent even in the tart aftertaste. A serious kriek.

The Vichtenaar is an opalescent deep hazelnut brown with a thick and creamy tan head. It has a rich woody aroma with a strong vinegar character. The nose is also a little fruity (grapes or dates) and a little malty. Just a touch of bourbon.

This beer tastes like a strong brown aged in a balsamic vinegar cask. Rich malty toast and caramel is complimented by major woody and flavors and a mild acetic sour. Creamy and mouth filling but lively and with a lingering tart.

The Duchesse de Bourgogne is a lightly hazy dark ruby brown with a thin, long-lasting, layer of tan foam. A rich balsamic vinegar and acetic nose with significant fruit: raisins and dates but also kiwi and bubblegum. This beer has the thick aroma of an empty port barrel.

The Duchesse is relatively balanced but leans heavily towards sour. Some complexity comes from a rich oak character and fruit: raspberries, blackberries, and raisins. A robust cider vinegar sour and caramel malt sweet hold on for a bit before yielding to a fruity tart that lingers for quite a while.

+Echt Kriekenbier

4.0 (3-8-8-4-17)

+Vichtenaar

4.0 (5-7-7-5-16)

+Duchesse de Bourgogne

4.0 (3-8-8-4-17)

Sour Week: Liefmans Frambozen Bier

Wednesday, August 12th, 2009

From Brouwerij Liefmans in Oudenaarde, I’m having a bottle of Frambozen Bier.Liefmans Frambozen Bier The cork says this raspberry beer was bottled in 2004. Liefmans Frambozen is not a lambic. It, like other Flanders fruit beers, is made from a sour brown aged on raspberries.

The Frambozen Bier pours a hazy ruddy caramel. It has some creamy tan head but that dies relatively quickly. The nose is assertive and strong with raspberries. A bit of cherry and some cotton candy is present as well. If an odor can be syrupy then this one is. A light tart aroma and balsamic vinegar add complexity.

The taste is at first a rich tart fruitiness, much like a jam. The raspberries soon give way to a hearty balsamic sour. This fades to a slightly astringent malt character with notes of raspberry as well as kiwi and mango. There is a lingering sweet and sour character with hints of raspberry.

+Liefmans Frambozen Bier

3.8 (3-7-8-4-16)

A Sour Beer Primer

Sunday, August 9th, 2009

Modern beer is produced through fermentation by a pure culture of yeast. Brewing yeast is a strain of either Saccharomyces pastorianus (for lagers) or Saccharomyces cerevisiae (for ales), and its purity is constantly maintained. However this practice is only a few hundred years old, evolving alongside (and in a large part motivating) the study of microbiology.

Before the invention of the microscope the various fermentation microbes were indistinguishable. The yeasts and bacteria would form a mixed culture referred to simply as “Godisgood”. This cake would be repitched from batch to batch indefinitely, a method much like making homemade sourdough bread.

Brewing yeast (especially lager yeast) is prized because it ferments alcohol yet generates minimal byproducts. There are many other microorganisms (bacteria and wild yeasts) that do much the same work less cleanly. The vast majority of these are considered beer spoilers.

With the right species under the right conditions, a mixed fermentation of bacteria and yeast will produce something with more depth than any wine. The addition of strains of bacteria to beer adds a unique flavor: sour. This comes from organic acids, predominantly lactic acid (yes, like sour milk) and acetic acid (yes, like vinegar). If not handled properly sour beer will be worse than vinegar or sour milk, a lesson understood by many beginning homebrewers (from pouring their beer down the drain).

However, when made with style and grace a sour beer is simply divine. If you already appreciate the complexity found in the binary balance between malt and hops, imagine the possibilities afforded by the addition of this new dimension of flavor.

Certainly sour beer takes dedication to appreciate. Doesn’t all beer? If you were to try Pliny the Elder or some other ridiculously hoppy, ultra-bitter beer, without previous experience with IPAs, that too would seem undrinkable. Given the proper introduction, however, it is not just drinkable but delicious.

The most striking character of sour beer is its complexity. Certainly there is the strange balance between malt and acid and hops. Fruity character is accented by the acidity in the same way it is in a high quality wine (or an orange or grapefruit for that matter). But my favorite part of the complexity is the way the taste of a sour beer will change as it sits on your tongue. The organic acids will slowly neutralize after coming into contact with your mouth and saliva and different aspects of the beer will shine through at different times.

There are basically three types of sour beer: the weissbiers of Berlin, the brown and red ales of east and west Flanders, and the lambics and gueuzes of the Zenne (Senne) valley. Blending is common if not the rule for all of these styles, both to temper and accentuate the sourness.

Berliner weisse is a pale wheat style with a clean and crisp acidity that comes from lactic acid. It is usually brewed to 2.5 to 4 percent alcohol, making it a shankbier or “small beer”. Traditionally it is served with a sugar syrup that comes in two flavors: green is woodruff and red is raspberry.

Flanders red-brown ales have a strong fruity malt character and a balancing acidity. Unlike Berliner weisse the red-browns have a prominent acetic component in addition to the lactic sourness. This is stronger in the red ales of west Flanders, which are aged in oak. The east Flanders brown ales are aged in steel and have more dark malt complexity that makes up for the relatively restrained acidity.

Lambic is a style of beer that properly can be brewed only in spring and fall in the valley of the Zenne, a river that flows under downtown Brussels. This valley is home to a particular microbiocoenosis: the balance of various bacterias and wild yeasts is just right to produce the true champagne of beers. Lambic is fermented in wood casks, which produces two important effects. First, the microbiota can “hibernate” in the wood, something more and more important as the area around Brussels gets paved over. Second, all the carbon dioxide escapes through the wood, so unblended lambic is flat.

Lambic is almost never consumed straight anyway. There are three common preparations. Faro is lambic that has had Belgian candi sugar added. Gueuze is a bottled blend of old (two or three year) and new (six month) lambics. The sugars remaining in the younger beer ferment into carbon dioxide producing a sparkling beverage. The most common lambic preparation is the addition of fruit. Raspberries and cherries are the traditional candidates, with Shaarbeekse cherries being the real classic (Shaarbeek, former home of endless fields of cherry trees, is only a kilometer from downtown Brussels).

Sour beer must be savored with patience, but your dedication will be rewarded many times over with an intensity and depth beyond that of any other beverage. And that is why sour is my favorite kind of beer.

Finally Something Flemish

Sunday, January 4th, 2009

Duchesse de BourgogneI’m not going to hide my bias. Belgian beers are my favorites, and among them Flemish beers stand out as heroes among giants. I’m a sucker for anything funky: lambic and gueuze, Flanders reds and browns, saisons. The best beer I have ever tasted was a 1981 vintage Liefmanns Oud Bruin. So the fact that it has taken me this long to have one is insane.

From the Brouwerij Verhaeghe in Vichte I am trying the Duchesse de Bourgogne, named after Mary, Duchess of Burgundy. All beer is variable. Other than the very biggest guys breweries cannot recreate the exact brewing and fermentation situations, and even if they could, the raw materials are never quite the same. This variability is especially prevalent in a brewery that relies on wild yeast or one that does extensive barrel fermentation or aging. As is traditional in Flanders, Verhaeghe uses both these techniques. The Duchesse is the most variable beer I have had. Sometimes it is as flavorful and smooth as the best of them, and sometimes it just comes out a vinegary mess. Let’s see how this batch is.

The Duchesse pours an opal mahogany red-brown. The tan head, while somewhat wimpy, is creamy and long-lasting. The aroma is strong of acetic acid; this comes through as balsamic and cider vinegar. There is also a heavy oak vanilla character and significant fruitiness. Berries and rhubarb are complemented by mango, pineapple, and kiwi. There is a bit of a caramel note as well.

The flavor is overall quite balanced between the caramel malt sweetness and a cider vinegar pucker. Oak, green apples, and raspberries coddle the sourness and temper its potential for fury. The small amount of residual sugar lends a hand, coating the lips and roof of the mouth and enticing the tongue. This one is somewhat more bitter than I remember, lending a complexity but perhaps detracting from the lingering sourness. That’s the best part of sour beer, by the way. As the various organic acids are neutralized in the mouth the flavor takes on new and interesting dimensions. A sour beer isn’t done with your senses for many minutes after the sip. The Duchesse is very much like this, with a lingering character especially on the tip and back of the tongue. The oak and the caramel linger a bit as well, but not as long.

Certainly not the best bottle I’ve had of the Duchesse but a fine example of her.

+Duchesse de Bourgogne

4.0 (4-7-8-5-16)