Brewers in Belgium pioneered what we now know as sour beers, or wild ales, hundreds of years ago, but spin-offs of these styles have just started to hit the American beer market in the last several years.
New Belgium helped make these styles approachable after building a huge fan base with its balanced amber ale Fat Tire, first brewed in June of 1991, and continuing to produce brews that the general population of beer drinkers would like. Now, with a sensory program, and barrel aging and blending projects, New Belgium has made sour beers like La Folie and Le Terroir sought after by beer geeks across the country.
Lauren Salazar, the lady brewer behind La Folie and the whole Lips of Faith series – who also started the brewery’s sensory program in 1999 – relies on a blending process that brewers in Belgium mastered decades ago to create their infamous sour beers. While on first impression blending may sound like cheating in a way – combining multiple beers to create one that is better than the sum of its parts and perhaps hiding flaws – this is not the case, as blending is an art in and of itself that goes far beyond the actual act of brewing beer.
Blending is like cooking in a way, combining complimentary, or sometimes contrasting, flavors to create a full product that is complex and interesting to the palate. When it comes to sour beers, barrel aging is key, as those barrels impart flavors that are impossible to achieve by simply brewing one beer. Blending multiple barrels together – whether it is different batches of that same beer or totally different beers – produces characteristics that are not achieved any other way, and most times are not replicable.
“Some barrels are just plain old sour bombs, which can void lots of flavor attributes from that barrel,” says Lauren Salazar, wood cellar manager and blender for New Belgium. “Just sour is boring and really one-sided. Choose a nice barrel with some soft [brettanomyces], a plumy coffee malt barrel, one with some cola notes – then you’re on to something.”
At New Belgium, Lauren and her team of sensory specialists use 64 foeders (massive wooden barrels) to produce large batches of La Folie and Le Terroir, blending to achieve complexity in those brands.
So, what does it actually mean to blend and create a version of the same beer each year? New Belgium starts their process eight months to a year out, tasting barrels and blending to keep the foeders on track. What is in these foeders? Two different base beers: Oscar, a dark base, and Felix, a light base that they age and acidify in barrels.
La Folie, says Salazar, is nothing but a blend of the Oscar, a dark lager, aged and acidified in foeders.
“There are approximately 28 foeders ranging from 25-220hl (hectoliters) that hold Oscar,” says Salazar. “We’ll taste through the barrels and begin the process of choosing the blend – 15% of Foeder #1, 25% of Foeder #16, 5% of Foeder 8, 35% of another, etc. Then we taste the blend, tweak it, and then make that vintage La Folie.”
Troy Casey, former brewer for AC Golden, spent time with Lauren and the New Belgium team, studying the process behind La Folie. Casey took his largely self-taught knowledge of barrel aging and blending to work with him at AC Golden, creating small batch beers in a tiny cellar – a venture now known as the Hidden Barrel Project. From his efforts, AC Golden began to bottle and distribute several sour beers: Apricot, Peche and Kriek.
Casey, who is leaving AC Golden to create his own brewery Casey Brewing & Blending in the Carbondale/Glenwood Springs area, does not have a huge amount of experience in the blending realm when you think about Belgian blenders who have largely had their knowledge passed down to them from prior generations.
New fruit trees take a long time to reach full production, but hey so do my beers.
“I’ve been blending over the last year or two and I’ve found where I want to spend my time; blending is natural,” says Casey. “Blending is fun because you add flavors together to make a beer that’s greater than the sum of its parts and you can’t get these flavors any other way. It will take a long time for me to call myself a blender, but I’m excited to get there and try a beer months down the road that’s much different than just these three barrels put together.”
Casey’s focus for his venture will be the post-brewing process. In fact, having a brewhouse of his own is not even on his mind. Casey will be contract-brewing wort from Roaring Fork Beer Company, a new brewery created by Chase Engel, formerly of Aspen Brewing Co. Ironically, Casey and Engel were unknowingly looking at the exact same property to found their businesses.
Casey will produce two different worts with the help of Engel: a Lambic and Saison. By only having two beers in his cellar he’ll have more opportunities to focus on blending to create unknown characteristics and to use local produce from small growers to make different varieties of the same beers.
“The focus is not sour because I think we can move past that as an industry – people like sour beers the way they like bitter beers,” says Casey. “When I went to Belgium early this year, I loved learning that lambic brewers and blenders consider the sour aspect of lambic and gueuze to be an unnecessary evil; to them a sour gueuze or lambic is an off-player.”
In Belgium, Casey found that blending helped control acidity. In America, brewers put beer in a barrel hoping it will be sour, but it’s the opposite in Belgium. A gueuze is sour, yes, but it is much more complex than that: Belgian brewers blend a young and old lambic together to cut some of the acidity that exists in the older lambic, allowing for other flavors to out-weigh the sourness.
Casey will follow this route by using mixed culture fermentation – everything will have the bacteria lactobacillus to some extent as well as some brettanomyces, but his beers will not necessarily be sour. They may be tart and dry, but won’t taste like what we have come to know as sour beer; they will be more of a gateway to the more acidic beers.
“People who like sours will like my beers because they will have acidity to them, but I’m making beers that people want to try without getting that acidity right away,” says Casey. “Ideally if I can make my flagship be a lambic, where someone who has never had an American sour doesn’t just pucker immediately, but thinks about the other flavors first, I could leave happy with that.”
Now that Casey has left AC Golden, he can focus on finding a property in the Roaring Fork area, a destination he fell in love with after his girlfriend moved up their for work last year.
“I could sell more beer with a tasting room in Denver, but this is where we want to start our family, and not to mention, we’re close to the best agriculture in the state,” says Casey.
Palisade and Hotchkiss are just a short drive from where Casey plans to set up his brewery, which will help him achieve his goal of being the only brewery that makes beer using 100 percent local ingredients.
AC Golden’s Colorado Native was brewed with all-Colorado ingredients and Casey is looking to go a step further.
“Being close to [fruit and vegetable] growers is important so I can build a relationship with them,” says Casey. “Brewers now can pick up the phone and make one call and talk to one person to get any ingredient from any part of the world. That’s not what I want to do. I want to know the person or family growing my barley, my wheat, my cherries, my hops. It’s more work but I have the passion to do it and doing so will lead to better beer.”
Casey will source his grains from Colorado Malting Company and has already built a strong rolodex of local growers. One grower in Hotchkiss is planting a large number of cherry trees specifically for Casey. These aren’t your average cherry trees, however, but are a darker and more flavorful varietal that Casey hopes will play well with his beers.
“He knows me and apparently trusts me,” laughs Casey. “I’m really looking forward to showcasing those cherries. In the next 5 to 7 years, my family will be handpicking them. New fruit trees take a long time to reach full production, but hey so do my beers.”
Once Casey finds his location, his opening date largely depends on his beer. A saison will only take a few months but his lambic will take around a year before he will be able to pour it in his taproom, which he plans to keep small to cultivate education surrounding his process. When production is in full force, Casey will distribute 750ml cork-and-cage bottles to the Front Range, but for now, it’s all about location.