Anchorage Brewing Collaborations

between-the-staves-crooked-stave-labelThere is perhaps no better evidence of the viability of the craft beer movement in the United States than the fact that breweries that have barely established themselves are quick to identify like-minded breweries to produce collaborative brews. In this review I will briefly discuss three new Anchorage Brewing beers, two of them collaborations with other breweries. It has been awhile since I have surveyed new American wild ales and this will also help me understand the evolution of my own taste and the state of brewing with wild yeasts in the United States.

Arctic Soiree is a collaboration between Anchorage Brewing and Grassroots Brewing in Greensboro Bend, Vermont. This beer is fermented and aged in oak tanks with brettanomyces, lime juice, and hibiscus. This bottle is from Batch 1, 2013. Arctic Soiree is a hazy pinkish golden beer that leaves a thin head upon pouring that quickly disappears. There is a mild brett smell among crisp, slightly sweet, notes of grapefruit, hibiscus, and pickles. This beer is quite smooth on the tongue with medium carbonation. Slightly tart, lemony, noticeable brettanomyces funk, and a bitter, lingering, finish. While this beer is only 6% ABV and quite dry it feels somewhat heavy in taste, which makes it a slow sipper. To me this beer was just the sum of its parts and I think I would have preferred it with more lactic notes from bacteria in conjunction with the wild yeast. Tasting this beer also taught me that it becomes a lot easier to recognize an ingredient if you have brewed with it yourself. In recent years I have made a number of successful homebrews with hibiscus and it was not challenging to recognize the aroma and taste of it here. A similar thing has happened to me with brettanomyces yeast after splitting batches into Brett B. and Brett L.

I was quite excited to see “Between the Staves,” Anchorage’s collaboration with Crooked Stave. Crooked Stave’s head brewer and owner Chad Yakobson was an early reader of this blog with whom I exchanged a number of email messages and later I also interviewed him. Another reason to be excited is because this beer is a sour co-fermented by wild yeasts and bacteria — and aged in Cognac barrels. Aging beers in cognac barrels is relatively rare considering the fact that Cognac is a protected regional Brandy from France. Between the Staves was not the first sour aged in cognac barrels though. More than 5 years ago Cantillon released a lambic aged in Cognac barrels named Cantillon 50°N-4°E. Interestingly enough, like traditional lambic, Between the Staves was mostly in contact with wood during the fermentation process as it was fermented in oak foeders instead of the more common steel tanks. One of the biggest surprises for me was the appearance of the beer. There was no information on the label about the malt bill and I had just assumed it to be light or, at most, amber in color. Imagine my surprise when I poured a very dark beer with a brownish hue in the glass – almost cola like. Quite mysterious looking and impossible to see through, even if held against the light. There was little head or lacing persisting after pouring it. A concentrated tart aroma with cherries, nuts, and wood seemed a good match for the appearance of this beer. Unlike some of the brett beers reviewed here the presence of bacteria was quite pronounced and made for quite a sour beer. The mouthfeel was quite thick with medium carbonation. Malty/nutty, sour, balsamic, chocolate, some astringency from the oak and quite a lingering aftertaste. The beer gained a little more complexity as it warmed up and also started showing some sweeter notes. I have not much experience with cognac so I cannot say much about its contribution to the aroma and flavor of this beer. I found it all rather fascinating though. In the past I have expressed some reservations about sour dark beers but this brew just stays clear of the dark roasted character that often seems incompatible with sour beers. Clearly, the “gravitas” of this 7% ABV beer makes this a real sipper which reveals many of its secrets down the road. Do not poor in a narrow beer glass as I had mistakenly done before I corrected this. All in all, a fascinating beer made in the right way.

The most drinkable and refreshing of the three beers I am reviewing is definitely Anchorage’s “Rondy Brew,”  a 6% Saison with lemongrass and brett, fermented and aged in French oak wine tanks and (dry) hopped with Citra hops.  The beer poured a hazy yellow / light orange with quite a stable, fluffy, white head. The aroma is pretty much as expected with a tart fruit notes, well integrated crisp citrus hop aroma, mild brett character, and a little oak. The taste is really a nice interplay between the fruity bitter hops and tartness. There is some astringency from the oak but just enough to give it some added complexity without taking away from the refreshing nature of this beer. Medium mouthfeel and quite a bit of carbonation. Rondy Brew is so drinkable and perfect for the spring or summer.  This beer is definitely more than the sum of its parts and was quite a nice surprise for me as I am normally not into most saisons (due to the yeast), the newer fruit-like hop varieties, or using wild yeast without bacteria. Perhaps conducting the whole fermentation in oak barrels can just provide that little extra tartness that prevents this beer from just being another one of these “saison with brett” beers.

As much I increasingly want to focus on true spontaneously fermented beers, it was quite interesting to review a number of recent American wild ales to see how my taste and thinking has evolved. Seeing beers fermented with “brett” no longer holds the excitement for me that it used to have, although competently done these brews can still have a degree of complexity that is absent in most regular ales. Interestingly enough, now that it seems that any respectable American craft brewery  produces the (obligatory) wild ale or “sour” there is an emerging tendency among serious wild ale brewers to approximate more and more the process of traditional lambic brewing. Spontaneous fermentation is no longer as rare in American craft brewing as it used to be and even inoculated wild ales are fermented in “dirty” barrels with encouraging results. It is quite exciting to entertain the idea that spontaneous fermentation has a good chance of surviving regardless of the fate of Belgian lambic. One element that many American brewers are adding, the use of various botanicals in sour beers, is a development that may even hold promise for some of the more experimental Belgian lambic brewers.

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.).

Mikkeller Yeast Series: Brettanomyces

Admittedly, I was a little hesitant about this beer because Mikkeler seems to show little restraint in what it releases to the market. But this “educational” beer designed solely to showcase the Brettanomyces yeast was too tempting to leave untouched and I was not disappointed at all. The base for this beer (and all the others in the yeast series) is a strong pale ale, and it was brewed and bottled by Mikkeler at the Proef Brouwerij in Belgium.

Brettanomyces pours a dark orange / amber with a good two finger head. For an 8% beer I find the aroma quite crisp and restrained with notes of musty tropical fruit, green apple, and hops. I am not sure about the brettanomyces strain(s) used for this beer, but I suspect it may have been one of the milder strains (Claussenii?) – not of the barnyard, band-aid variety. The beer is mildly tart and has a nice European hop character to balance out the malt and yeast expression. Not terribly complex, but that is a good thing in this beer, I think. The finish is dry and pleasantly bitter. Not too cloying or sweet, inviting one to take another sip. Carbonation is quite high, which could be the result of the higher attenuation induced by the brett during bottle fermentation.

Brettanomyces is too strong to be an easy-drinking session beer. But considering the alcohol percentage, I found it quite smooth and light. Although this beer was designed to showcase the brettanomyces yeast, I think it would not have been nearly as refined without the generous amounts of hops. I can see how this beer could be disappointing to people who want more fireworks from the brett, but simply judged as a balanced beer, I think it is a good effort.

Anchorage brews with brettanomyces

When I ventured into the low-temperature walk-in beer section in my local Whole Foods recently, my eye caught no fewer than three bottles from Anchorage Brewing that all said “with brettanomyces:” a Saison (Love Buzz), a Wit Bier (Whiteout), and a double IPA (Bitter Monk). As a matter of fact, Anchorage Brewing aims to brew all barrel-aged, brettanomyces-influenced beers. Since I have let loose all kinds of brettanomyces on my own home brews, I was quite interested to experience the effect of on these different beer styles.

I first tried the Saison, which clocks in at no less than 8% alcohol and 40 IBU, which is not trivial for the style. While the label mentions rose hips, peppercorns,  fresh orange peels, and Pinot Noir barrel aging, I did not seem to get a lot of this. The beer pours a beautiful cloudy, dark orange and has pronounced notes of brettanomyces, grass, lemon and a faint biscuit sweetness. The hops definitely make their presence known and carry the beer towards a long, off-dry, bitter finish. As it warms up, the (sticky) sweetness becomes a little more pronounced, but the brett and hops keep it in check. This is not a session beer but I would not call it a sipper either. I was expecting a little more complexity and I could see people mistaking this for a Brett-enhanced IPA instead. Dialing down the alcohol and letting the herbs shine may lead to further improvement.

The next Anchorage beer I tried was Whiteout. Whiteout pours a very light cloudy yellow. The first thing that entered my mind when I smelled it was “lambic.” Whether it was the contribution of the lemony Sorachi Ace hops, the wheat, or some other fermentation product, the aroma evoked a good, earthy, Belgian Gueuze, with a hefty dose of barnyard and spice. This beer tastes as great as it smells; dry, crisp, minty, and tart with a long bitter finish. The coriander contributes a nice herbal note and the Chardonnay barrel aging adds some buttery smoothness. As the beer warms up, the Belgian yeast expresses itself without throwing around too many esters. Mouthfeel is on the lighter side and the beer is very effervescent. As a crisp 6.5% alcohol beer, this is a very drinkable beer.

The third beer I drank was their Brett-enhanced Belgian-style double IPA. I do not recall tasting a double IPA with secondary brettanomyces fermentation before so I was quite curious about this one. Bitter Monk pours an opaque dark orange and leaves quite a bit of lacing during consumption. As would be expected from a double IPA, the nose reveals major hops – plus some funk from the brett. I am not a big fan of  (American) citrus hop varieties but that is not the brewer’s fault. I also detect green apples, banana, and grassy notes. For a high gravity beer, the sweetness is not too oppressive and it seems that the brett consumed some additional sugar. The beer tastes relatively dry for the style and ends on a long bitter note. Carbonation is quite low but I tend to like it that way. For a double IPA this beer is quite drinkable, even crisp. It is not as complex as the Whiteout beer, or perhaps it is under the surface, as the 100 IBU hops ensure a beer dominated by hops. For someone who is not a big fan of the double IPA style, this is not bad at all.

So how does the brettanomyces contribute to these three beer styles? I am inclined to say: Brettanomyces giveth and Brettanomyces taketh away. It seemed that in the case of the Saison, something might have been lost. In the case of the white beer, it produced a stellar, fascinating beer. As for the Belgian double IPA, a hop bomb remains a hop bomb, but it seemed to confer a crisper, drier character and some unmistakable earthiness. So Whiteout is the clear winner for me. Of all three brews, it allowed the other ingredients and barrel-aging to shine. Yet again, it reinforced my preference to keep the alcohol down in such beers. And I may have to get some of these Sorachi Ace hops!