Sunday, November 9, 2008
Talking to Myself
Hello, you "Lost Barrel" you. What does "Lost Barrel" mean to me? Well, as a professional American Craft Brewer, it refers to a wooden (French Oak for the most part) barrel, filled with beer, intentionally left to age and develop into something hopefully special; "Lost" if you will. I began working on these very traditional, typically sour "wild" beers several years ago, inspired by my love of the uncommon, if not rare sour brown or "Red" ales of the Flanders region of Belgium. Fine beers like "Duchess de Bourgogne" from the Brouwerij Verhaeghe, or what Rodenbach Grand Cru once was. Alas, this brewery (Rodenbach) was closed for many years and to my taste does not seem to live up to my perhaps inaccurate recollection. As a brewer, I had of course used many strains of saccharomyces, both cerevisiae and ovarum (ale and lager) but was intrigued by the potential of the broader spectrum that other yeast, and bacterial fermentations could provide. Most ancient food process was the result of a "happy accident" and many extraordinary foods and fermented beverages are the characterful fringe of what we consume today. Without a doubt, the "sour ales" were the result of a mistake, whether a "lost barrel" or otherwise, but their unique and unexpected flavors found an appreciative marketplace. Modern food process quite dangerously seeks to eradicate or "blandify" these flavors to achieve consistency and attractiveness to a lower common denominator, and generally the popular market supports this. Sour ales and beers fermented and aged with brettanomyces strains of yeast are generally outside of what most consumers of beer consider within normal parameters today. Yet it is their inherent natural "wildness" that makes them both fascinating, and for the adventurous palate, delicious and satisfying. This wild character tests both the drinker, and the brewer alike. Without a doubt "managing" a wild, or "natural" fermentation requires an uncanny ability from a brewer to maintain what is a living organism, and make sound judgements to guide and nurture this living thing towards a palatable, multidimensional and unique end. When one ponders this subject deeply, one finds an ever shifting balance of mysterious chaos and natural order, quite beautiful and intensely engaging. To achieve success embodies physical action, intuition and a subtle cooperation with the forces of nature. Generally the art and science of brewing is straightforward, controlling the brewing environment with cleanliness, proper sanitation, choice of material, material handling, managing healthy fermentations, all can contribute to a beer of high quality. However quite often it is the intangible, the intuitive that can make a quality beer a great one. Too often, brewers rely on one or the other to mediocre effect. Within the American Craft Movement, there is tremendous opportunity for the New World artisan brewer to start a legacy. We have only just begun.