Thursday, June 5, 2014

Telephone 28: Pucker Up, Buttercup

           Last weekend, I attended Upland’s Sour + Wild + Funk Beer Festival in Indianapolis. Normally, I’m not one for beer festivals; while the variety is wonderful, the crowds, lines, and drunkenness are not. Still, I can be beguiled when the conditions are right. And a beer festival that is small in size, has limited tickets, and focuses on sour beers is not to be missed, even by a curmudgeon like myself. Especially when many of the beers were made specifically for the festival! Sour beers have been growing exponentially in American craft beer over the last several years, thanks in part to perennial figures like New Belgium, Russian River, Allagash, and New Glarus, as well as more recent breweries like the Bruery, Jolly Pumpkin, Goose Island, and Crooked Stave. This growth means that many breweries are producing sour beers as special offerings or starting barrel programs intended to build their reserves of sour beer. Hence, as they might say, a festival of one’s own.
            Many of the usual suspects were at the festival. Upland, the host, has a well-established sour beer program, and had six of their fruit lambics available, along with a couple of other blended beers, although to be technical their lambics are neither spontaneously fermented nor are they from Belgium, so they are actually American wild ales. While they undoubtedly followed Belgian protocol—a lambic is a single, unblended batch of beer that is generally more aggressively sour and served uncarbonated, a gueuze is blend of one, two, and three year old lambic that is highly carbonated, and a fruit lambic is generally, like gueuze, a blend of multiple years and batches aged on fruit—a lambic, like champagne, is geographically (appellation) specific. I’m a critic, dear reader, so it is my job to point these things out to you. After all, if not me, then who? Anyway, many of the flavors in these beers were good, but they were sharp, young, and aggressive; they could have used more time in the bottle to come together. New Belgium, which is the biggest producer of sour beers in the United States, was also there. They age their sour beer in foeders—large wooden tuns—for multiple years before blending them to make their different individual beers. The two main beers that go into the foeders are Oscar, a darker ale, and Felix, a lighter colored ale. La Terrior, for example, is all Felix that is dry-hopped with Amarillo and Citra, while La Folie is mostly (but not all) Oscar. New Belgium also has the benefit of having Peter Bouckaert, who worked at Rodenbach before becoming NB’s Brewmaster. I was excited to try La Terrior, as I had never had it before, and it did not disappoint: it was fruity, dry, and earthy. Goose Island and Rodenbach were also in attendance, but since I am familiar with their offerings, I skipped over those tables. Sorry, but I was interested in the smaller breweries from Indiana that I hadn’t tried before. Thus, I thought it best to sup their wares.
            Amongst the Indiana breweries present, there were several that I had been to previously, but had not tried the specific beers they brought to the festival. Brugge brought Once In A Lifetime; if you are ever in Indianapolis, and would like some good Belgian beer, fries, and mussels, I can’t recommend them enough. Same with Flat 12; their Funk-A-File Dundee, which was the Walkabout Pale Ale fermented with Brettanomyces and aged in used Easley red wine barrels (made from Indiana oak!), was crisp and delicious. As well, there were a couple of breweries I had heard of but had not tried their beers. Foremost among these was DeStihl, which brought several selections from the Saint Dekkera Reserve collection, their spontaneously fermented unblended single barrel beer series. I tried the Kriek (cherry), which had good fruit flavor to balance the acidic, earthy flavors in the beer, and the Paw Paw, which was interesting but overly aggressive—it had a smoky enteric character that got in the way of other elements of the beer. Still, I’d he happy to try a few more of their beers to get a better sense of their offerings as a whole. After all, they are doing interesting things, and developing a good sour program takes years at best.
            The most interesting beers were from breweries I had not heard of before the festival. While Indianapolis and Indiana are not that far away from Dayton, the rapid growth in the number of breweries out there does make it difficult to keep track of them all! My favorite beer of the day was Tin Man’s Zero Out of Fifty. Zero began as a Belgian Pale Ale brewed with Centennial hops and fermented with Ardennes yeast; once fermentation was complete, Brettanomyces bruxellensis was added in the secondary and it was warm-conditioned for five weeks. The results were fantastic: the nose was minty and herbal with hints of grass and hay. There was a slight citrus flavor in the body—most likely the remnants of the Centennial hops with a touch of the Ardennes yeast—and earthy and cracker-like components in the finish, while the bright carbonation gave the beer a dry, peppery bite. All in all, Zero was fresh, bright, and balanced. It was a study in harmony and subtlety that was both restrained yet complex, and slowly unpacking the harmonious flavors was an exercise in deliciousness. Sorry if that sound smarmy, but I did go back to sample and re-sample this beer multiple times, so waxing poetic is appropriate. And nothing makes me wax poetic like good beer.
            When I asked Keenan Zarling, the Brewhouse Operations Manager from Tin Man, about the name, he had this to say: “prior to pitching the Brett in the beer, this was a fantastic Belgian Pale Ale. However, the addition of Brett (and the warm conditioning) drastically reduced (or at least changed) the Belgian yeast profile as well as the hop character. Some of my own personal bitterness (pun intended) came through when I was thinking up a name; what had started as a great BPA was now something ‘else’ and totally not to style. A BJCP tasting score for beer is typically out of 50, with it being very hard to make less than 8/50 if you are in the correct style category and made something potable. So logically, a ‘contaminated,’ warm conditioned, and ‘old’ BPA would not score very high, something like Zero Out Of Fifty. And it was a little tongue-in-cheek fun, too. Most breweries put a lot of energy into telling people how great X beer is, and why it’s a unique and wonderful experience. We decided to go a different route with the description and just trash-talk this contaminated BPA and entice people at the festival to come check it out and maybe have a chuckle about it.” Zarling was correct—there wasn’t much of the original BPA left in the beer I sampled. Still, I find it hard to imagine that it was better than the final product, which was exquisite. I guess I’ll just have to take his word for it.
            My favorite overall lineup was the four beers brought by Daredevil; they included blended primary fermentation versions of their Lift Off IPA and Vacation Kolsch, a blended secondary version of their Carnival Saison, and a soured version of the Vacation Kolsch with Lactobacillus. The first two beers were blends of the regular version of the beer with one fermented only with Brett; as brewer Michael Pearson describes, “For me, these experiments were about seeing how I could utilize an accessible Brett strain in primary to create something interesting and different. I tasted both the straight Brett Lift Off and Brett Vacation and then blended them to a ratio that I thought would allow the base beer to have a presence where anyone who’d had either would recognize them.” The Carnival Saison added Brett and lemongrass in the secondary to build a more complex, rounded beer, while the Vacation Kolsch soured a portion of the wort with Lactobacillus before blending it with already fermenting beer. Of the four, the Brett Lift Off IPA was the most interesting; it was dry and earthy, but still had some residual body. While it was young—Pearson told me the beer was about three weeks old—there was certainly elements of both versions that went into the beer. Compared to other Brett IPAs I’ve tried, this one combined Brett flavors with body in the beer along with the hop characteristics you’d expect in an IPA. Taken as a whole, it was a well-balanced and delicious combination.
            The festival as a whole was a delight, enough so that I’m even considering attending next year. For those of you that would like to find out more about sour beers, I’d recommend picking up either Jeff Sparrow’s WildBrews: Beer Beyond the Influence of Brewer’s Yeast, or Michael Tonsmeire’s soon to be released American Sour Beers. Both are geared more towards homebrewers, but there is a lot of pertinent information and history for the average beer drinker as well. Plus, reading about beer and brewing is always useful. Or you can let me know if you have any questions.
            Next time, some more beer.

No comments:

Post a Comment