New Belgium puts its sour beer program on tour each year with its Sour Symposiums, offering a rare and direct insight into the history and mechanics of its sour beer program presented by Eric and Lauren Salazar. The focus of the event is La Folie and provides the opportunity to taste beer drawn from some of the individual foeders and get a taste (pun intended) of what makes the La Folie blend. Given the rarity of the event and the information gleaned I thought it was worth sharing my notes here. I'll touch on a few pieces of the history Eric and Lauren shared and then move on to discussing the La Folie blend, how Lauren thinks through the blend and then my tasting notes on the individual foeders.
In the beginning, in 1998, it was just seven barrels (not foeders, just regular ass barrels) which has grown into a massive space of foeders (and some barrels) especially with the expansion over the past few years. The barrels had been inoculated with various microorganisms but the character of their sour beers really developed after an account returned a keg of Fat Tire that had soured and they used some of this sour Fat Tire to further inoculate the beers. (This story is believable but I do wonder, just a little, whether this is some fanciful storytelling to create a nice link between New Belgium's core beers and the sour beers.)
The first bottling from the sour program was La Folie in 1999. The staff felt confident they would knock out the bottling and party afterwards. A hot tub was rented. Nobody got in the hot tub. Instead of an easy bottling session the staff was subjected to a complete nightmare. Everything seemed to go wrong. The bottling run was small to begin with but was further depleted due to problems packaging the beer. That first year La Folie went into a corked and caged 750ml champagne style bottle. The problem was that the corks they purchased were too big (likely designed for the mushroom-style Belgian bottles) and the corks were cracking the bottles. Yikes.
That kind of mistake seems so obvious in 2016 but looking back seventeen years ago there were very few people available to teach how to do these things and perhaps more importantly what not to do. They were learning by trial and error and most of what has become the pool of knowledge between Eric and Lauren was built by trial and error through the years. There were some times where people were able to teach important lessons. For example, when Lauren first experienced a pellicle her first impression was that this was not a good thing and spent some time stabbing the pellicles. Vinnie Cilurzo quickly set her straight when she brought up the mysterious film on her beers. So let's talk about some of the things they learned that helped develop their sour program.
The New Belgium Sour Program
I don't want to repeat too much of the basic info that's available about their sour program but just enough to provide a jumping off point to discuss some of the info I obtained that isn't floating around the intertubes and other media. New Belgium brews two beers for its sour program, Felix and Oscar. Felix is a pale lager while Oscar is a dark lager closely modeled on 1554. The beers are fermented with lager strains, centrifuged and then top up the foeders as necessary. The blended beers produced from these two base beers are blended out of the foeders, pasteurized and bottled.
New Belgium's sour beer program is unique in many ways, at least among American sour brewers. Their core use of foeders creates a different aging environment from most and their choice of base beers is also atypical. The overall process and choices they have made is a function of lessons learned over almost twenty years plus undoubtedly Bouckaert's experience at Rodenbach. Their attitude about secondary fermentation is also unique. While most sour brewers think about brett as driving flavor in sour beer, the Salazars look at brett primarily as a mechanism to prevent acetic acid. One has to imagine at least part of this attitude comes from using foeders that were often discards from the wine industry of various quality and the large surface of the beer in those vessels. But before discussing the foeders a little more let's go back and talk about those base beers.
The use of lagers as a base for sour beer certainly cuts against the common attitude that one wants a POF+ saccharomyces strain as a primary strain (POF+ = phenolic off flavor positive) because brett will take those phenols and make lots of fun spicy, earthy, barnyardy flavors out of them. The foeders create some of those flavors (and in some more than others) but much of New Belgium's sour beer character is something different from the expected barnyard blast (a good beer name). They get a lot of other flavors and more subdued phenolic compounds that allow them to stand out among a growing sea of sour beers. So then we turn to the foeders and how they affect the base beer. It was clear from tasting individual foeders and seeing Lauren's notes how different each foeder is although each receives the same base beer.
The foeders all have their own backstories and some came from some rough histories where most people would probably steer clear of a barrel with that kind of rap sheet. Eric and Lauren are patient and know how to make foeders loving environments. That loving environment clearly plays a role in the development of the beer inside and that's not just the foeder itself but where it resides in the brewery and how temperature and humidity in that exact location may play a role. It's not clear exactly how different the microorganisms within each foeder differs but the difference is likely not substantial given their use of good foeders to innoculate new foeders that enter the brewery. I also assume that part of what was a very obvious concern for acetic acid production has to do with the use of questionably treated foeders which may have adopted an unhealthy community of acetobacter in which brett is critical to keeping those jerks at bay.
While we're talking about the foeders it's worth sliding in this small but seemingly useful tidbit I picked up. Lauren came over to my wife and I late in the session and we chatted a little. Her voice was going out at the end and lots of people wanted to talk to her so I tried not to woo her to stay and talk to me about the many questions I had and just picked the one I thought was most useful. Eric had pointed out that during the 2013 expansion of the foeder inventory that they had figured out by trial and error that twenty percent was the magic volume of beer from good foeders to innoculate the incoming foeders. I asked her what misses they had experienced at other volumes. Her answer was that anything less than twenty percent led to too slow of a secondary fermentation and they ended up with oxidation (presumably that acetic acid) and any larger volume had no greater effect so it was just wasting good beer that could go out to customers.
Here's why I felt that small piece of information was so important:
1. Obviously for anybody trying to inoculate a new fermentation vessel has one of the best data points here in how much beer is best to make that vessel a good home. Even a normal WL or WY pitch may not be an ideal volume to protect the beer from negative effects of oxygen exposure, particularly if the beer is going into a barrel where the native population may be oxygen-loving.
2. For anybody running a solera it's a good basis for how much beer to leave behind in the solera when pulling beer. American Sour Beer points out that New Belgium sometimes draws to a far lower point in the foeders but if you're working on a solera that is a non-porous vessel (i.e. not wood) and you are not leaving behind trub with the next fill then it's probably a good volume to avoid oxidation issues.
3. It draws into question the typical homebrewing (and sometimes commercial brewing) concept of unloading a small amount of dregs into a beer to trigger that wonderful secondary fermentation. Certainly at a small level our oxygen exposure risks are less and in a less porous vessel the risk is further diminished but I count myself among the number of brewers who have seen a batch get oxidized and develop either oxidized flavor or acetic compounds from lazy pellicle formation. We should probably think carefully amount either creating starters or pitching a larger volume of dregs than a bottle or two into five gallons. (I know many are not so casual about sending in the troops but there are sources online perpetuating this casualness.)
Something to think about at least. I wish I had the opportunity to ask more about what went wrong for them than all the things that went right because that's where the most important lessons reside, at least in my opinion. Part of the reason why I blog is to catalog what went wrong for me so I can help others not make those same mistakes. But I wanted to be respectful of her time and health. I should point out that American Sour Beer speaks on this subject at points out in the New Belgium section that ten percent was the amount used. This seems to be a trial and error correction on New Belgium's part. I don't think the book is wrong for the time the information was given to Michael Tonsmeire but I promise this information came directly out of the mouths of Lauren and Eric. I think this is just a testament to how much they focus on learning from their trials and errors.
Let's then move along to talk about blending a little. I wish Lauren had talked a little more about her paradigm on blending. She gave the same flower analogy I believe she gave on one of the Sour Hour episodes that she starts with the middle of the flower--what the beer should be--and adds the beers from the different foeders like adding petals to the flower. She disclaims the analogy as girly but it makes sense. Blending beer, in my opinion, is just like building a recipe. You should start with what you want that beer to be and work backwards. I think her voice was starting to go at this point so she turned to encouraging us to taste and blend the foeder samples given to us. I don't have any mystic gems from her about blending so I'll just offer this picture of her notes on the final blend for 2015 La Folie. Note the smile and indifferent faces that describe her feelings on the beers.
Tasting the Foeders
This was awesome and honestly the main reason why I wanted to come to this event. The opportunity to break down a blended sour beer into its components and really understand the experience and mindset in blending the beer is truly incredible, especially when it comes to walking the path of somebody as knowledgeable and experienced as Lauren. We were only given four of the twenty-six foeders that go into the blend but they were clearly key components of the blend and could be identified as pieces of La Folie's character. Overall it was most surprising how much each foeder differed from one another. There was clearly some common ground in the base beer but the differences were apparent. Three of the four beers did feel incomplete like they needed the blend to become a complete beer. One was great on its own and I would happily buy that as a standalone beer. Unfortunately I don't think New Belgium makes any single releases aside from the Leopold barrel series.
These are my notes from the four foeder samples. I apologize that the notes are not as lengthy as I would have liked. I was trying to take notes on the beers while taking notes on the presentation and then after the presentation it got very loud and Lauren came over so I wanted to stop and talk to her.
Sure Thing #01 - Firm but soft sourness, recognizable part of La Folie acid character, slight vinegar note. Mild dark fruit flavor and aroma. Good base component for a blend.
Bill Weathers #32 - Moderate acidity and aroma; interesting and prominent blackberry flavor, cola and cocoa. Complex enough that it could (and should) be released on its own as a standalone beer.
Lion's Breath #10 - Mild acidity, typical brett funk character prominent, herbal/floral note. Recognizable within La Folie flavor profile. Complex and brett forward.
Short Round #21 - Most aggressive acidity of the four; tangy lactic acidity. Some brett funk aroma; large cola flavor. Balanced with Sure Thing creates good balance of complex acidity without sacrificing a firm acid profile.
My blend was:
- 30% Sure Thing
- 30% Bill Weathers
- 20% Lion's Breath
- 20% Short Round
Comparing my blend against La Folie it was clearly less complex although in fairness I had far fewer options. My blend was considerably less acidic but more brett forward with the blackberry note from Bill Weathers far more prominent in the blend. I liked my blend a little more than La Folie if only because I really enjoyed that blackberry character and wanted to restrain the acidity to let it shine through.
Good news, Clutch is making a return later this year and Lauren promises the sour portion will be larger for a greater sour profile. I'm really excited. Clutch is one of my favorite beers.
I cannot overemphasize how much the oak plays a role in the flavor profile of New Belgium's sour beers. They have a real sense of being lived in like the microbes have balanced out in the environment and developed their own distinct community. Gone is the aggressive and dominant sourness often found in younger sour beer programs (both pro and at home). Instead they have a softer acidity and more rounded brett character than I've only myself really found in my sour beers reaching three years of age or my lambic solera right around year four.