October 3, 2012

Lauren Salazar Interview on Embrace the Funk

Embrace the Funk scored an interview over the summer with Lauren Salazar, the blending mistress -- formally the "Sensory Specialist" -- of the Lips of Faith series at New Belgium Brewing. If you haven't read the interview, you should take the time to read her thoughts here. There are lots of good nuggets of information in the interview. She discusses how important quality control is and how much time and resources are dedicated to the QC process.

She also talks about how the sour program at New Belgium works. There are only two sour beers that make up the whole process: Felix and Oscar (as in, Felix and Oscar the Odd Couple). Felix is a pale beer. Oscar is a dark beer. Both are aged in huge foudres, which are just giant barrels that stand upright. Since each is made of wood, you get some different flavors out of each due to the lifeforms in the foudre, age, oxygen exposure, etc. Interestingly as well, both beers are lagers. That defies the usual thinking, at least from homebrewers, on sour beers that you want to make ales with lots of starches and long chain sugars to give brett and bacteria something to consume. I guess that proves you can make interesting and very sour beers without all the turbid mashes, unmalted grains and so on.

When I first read the beers were lagers, my first thought was that the justification for using lagers as the base recipes would be to turn out sour beers quicker. That doesn't seem to be the case, because as she points out, some of the blended beer in La Folie is four years old and it takes at least a year for a foudre to reach a point where it is ready for use. Alternately, Jolly Pumpkin brews ales but ferments them very dry so they only need 3-4 months in the barrel so they can churn out beer quickly without needing a massive barrel/foudre cellar like New Belgium. Although  not addressed in the article, I suspect the reason they use lagers as the base beers for their sour program is for consistency and versatility. Since they use those two beers for a variety of beers in different blends it helps to have repeatable results and clean lagers make it easier to reach that result. Is it "cheating"? I don't really think so. It's consistent with the other statements Salazar makes in the interview about the significance of quality control and making sure each beer is great. Using clean lagers makes that job easier. It's also extremely consistent with her attitude about her beers in the most controversial statement in the interview, which I will turn to now.

Lauren Salazar says about the Lips of Faith beers:

[Flash pasteurization] locks the blend that I produce into place. So when people ask how long they should store La Folie, I tell them we already stored it for you. It’s been in barrels for sometimes 4 years, you bought it so you deserve to drink it, we did all that for you.
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.
To summarize, her position is that they want the beer to taste in your glass the way it tasted and the way they wanted it to taste when they bottled. I've read a lot of people criticize this statement, usually on the basis that blended beers mature with time and develop new, interesting complexity through the process so there is a benefit to aging. Some, like Mike T. at http://wwww.themadfermentationist.com, shrewdly observed that blenders, especially gueuze blenders, are acutely aware the beers are aged and blend with the aging effect in mind. It should be pointed out that recently, Mike T. posted the results of a blending of his own and remarked that there may be some validity to her statements because he liked some of the blended beers early on but as it aged and the souring bacteria and brett went to work on the clean portions her liked the beers less. Certainly there's a defense of her position that they want La Folie and other beers to taste how they envisioned the beer and they don't want to worry about people getting varied results and opening bottles X years old and being disappointed by how it tastes.

Personally, I don't think the support and criticism are far apart at all. I agree with both but there is an obvious connection lost between the sides. The purpose of blending is to produce a particular result out of multiple beers. That purpose does not always have to be to produce a beer for aging. There may be a goal of creating a stable and uniform beer ready to drink today. That is certainly the goal of blending batches of regular, clean beers (at breweries large enough to blend in the packaging line). There seems to be little reason why the same concept cannot flow to sour beers. In fact, the blend both sweet and sour beers together and not produce varied results across kegs and bottles (not to mention risking exploding bottles) requires pasteurizing or filtering the sour portion to produce a stable product. It's definitely not a New Belgium-only concept. The same idea is shared by the Flanders Red and oud bruin producers who blend their sour and clean beers together, such as Liefman, Rodenbach, Verhaeghe and Petrus. It's not just Lindemans and Timmermans pasteurizing their sour beers. 

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