Block 15 Turbulent Consequence Premiere Annee

turbulentWhile 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.

In December, the Portland Wild Ale Society will be visiting Block 15 to learn more about their spontaneous fermentation project. To be continued…

Health benefits of lambic beer

For a long time I have wanted to write a blog post on the (possible) health benefits of lambic beer. I am not sure if one could argue that lambic is healthy in terms of extending the average human lifespan (let alone the maximum human lifespan!), not to mention the risk of alcoholism, but there are a number of aspects about traditional lambic beer that compare favorably to most other beer styles.

1.  The most obvious characteristic of lambic beer is that it is the product of both yeast and bacterial fermentation. As a result, lambic beer is much more of a probiotic than most other beer styles and may contribute to healthy gut flora. In addition, if you believe that humans do best to adapt to a diet and lifestyle closer to our ancestors (such as adherents of the Paleo Diet), lambic beer is a more logical choice (or, at a minimum, the least harmful) than modern pasteurized and bacteria-deficient beers.

2. Another interesting characteristic of lambic beer is that it is typically fermented bone dry with little residual sugar (Cantillon beers are a good example). This does not make it an “ideal” drink for diabetes patients, but you can certainly do a lot worse by drinking beer styles that have a lot of residual sugars such as imperial stouts or barley wines.

3. Another interesting aspect about lambic beer is that is has relatively low amounts of hops. The phytoestrogens in hops have been identified as potent inhibitors of testosterone, which supposedly contributed to hops becoming dominant as the sole herb (at the exclusion of more, well, “sexually potent” herbs) among Protestant reformers. When we think of testosterone we usually tend to think of body builders and juvenile aggression but testosterone has a number of important physiological roles in the human body for both males and females. One interesting question is whether the tradition of contemporary lambic brewers to use oxidized hops makes a difference, too.

4. Lambic beers are typically lower in alcohol. Unless you are an American “wild ale” brewer who believes that “more is more,” or you are a lambic brewer called Boon, lambic beer usually has a modest alcohol percentage between 4.5% and 6%.  Alcohol is a strong diuretic and, like hops, has been associated with lower testosterone levels, too.

5. A number of lambic brewers (yet again, Cantillon) lean strongly towards the use or organic ingredients and abhor the use of artificial ingredients or processes.

Caveats and additional thoughts:

Clearly, this post is not the final word on the health aspects of lambic beer and some of these benefits may need to be further qualified or may turn out to be non-existent or only applicable to certain populations, genders, and age groups. It should be obvious that almost everything that I have said here applies to traditional lambics, not the pasteurized, sweetened beers that, unfortunately, use the same name. It should be rather obvious, too, that most of what is said here also applies to many American “wild ales,” provided alcohol and hops are kept at reasonable levels and added fruit is allowed to ferment to dryness.

Instead of thinking of lambic as a specific beer style we can also think of it as a framework to approach brewing in general. This opens up the possibility of reinventing many traditional beer styles and allowing elements of the lambic brewing process to play a role in these other kinds of beer. For example, the use of wild yeast to lower residual sugar in a beer or the addition of (wild) bacteria.

Most people do not drink beer for its health benefits, but it would be interesting to think about how to further improve the health aspects of lambic beer. What about using a different herb than hops to inhibit proliferation of undesirable bacteria and further enhance its health benefits (making a so called wild gruit)?  What about blending lambic with red grapes such as in Cantillon’s Saint Lamvinus, or blending it with wine or kombucha as some experimental brewers have recently done? It is conceivable that beer will always lose against red wine (of the “natural” variety that is) in terms of health benefits, a price that some beer drinkers will not mind paying. Then again, lambic drinkers often like wine too, so choosing the right proportions may be just what the doctor ordered (sic)…

The Commons Brewery Eidolon

One of the nice things about Portland’s The Commons Brewery is its emphasis on (low alcohol) farmhouse ales and sours. I recently visited their tasting room and enjoyed most of their offerings and would only classify their Berliner Weisse as a “work in progress” (not lactic enough). The beer that intrigued me the most was Eidolon, a limited release in the “Beetje Series” (referring to the nano-brewery that gave rise to The Commons Brewery). Eidolon is a collaborative sour farmhouse ale with meyer lemon juice and peel, jasmine green tea and flowers, and New Zealand hallertau  hops, matured in red wine barrels with two strains of brettanomyces. This beer has an ABV of 7.5%. and I tasted it on September 16, 2012.

Poured in a De Cam geuze glass, the beer has a deep golden/amber color, is surprisingly clear, and even a relatively vigorous pour only produced a little head, which dissipated quickly. The aroma is lactic and fruity with some sweetness. The lactic aroma is nicely complemented by a modest Brett-induced barnyard character. The taste initially reflects this sweet and sour aroma but there is a lot more going on here, most notably an unusual but pleasant earthy ‘dark’ licorice flavor (flowers?) that ends in a fairly long finish. I have a hard time characterizing this finish; it could be the tea, the hops, something else, or all of them. I am also reminded of drinking a good barrel-aged dry cider but did not notice much astringency. The beer has a medium but slightly sticky mouthfeel and very low carbonation. In fact, I would argue that the carbonation is really on the low side for any kind of beer style except unblended straight lambic. Perhaps the brewers wanted to err on the side of caution with the  two added strains of brettanomyces.

This was really a nice, and positively unusual, concoction. Using sour beers as a vehicle for botanicals opens a world of unlimited possibilities, provided it is executed with knowledge and skill. One thing that is hard to improve upon is the label (more information here). If the style and ingredients list would not have pulled me in, the beautiful label would have done it. I am definitely looking forward to tasting more (sour) brews by The Commons Brewery. And if you like going to the Upright tasting room, there is a good chance you will like going to the Commons tasting room, too.

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.