The history of modern brewing can be described as the triumph of sanitation--keeping wild yeasts out of beer. The central achievements of the past 150 years do not involve flavor innovation but the mastery, through refrigeration, pasteurization, and the application of industrial chemicals, of yeast. The one way to ruin a good brewery was through lax standards and the introduction of infectious, unwanted yeasts. This is why the experiments at Allagash and Jolly Pumpkin are so remarkable. Not only are they not trying to keep wild yeasts out, they're actively encouraging them to wander in.
Last Tuesday, I had the opportunity to sample the lambic experiments* of these two breweries, and it was like witnessing a birth. This process is ancient, obscure, and onerous. To see it transplanted and revived in the US borders on miraculous.
Spontaneous fermentation is an ancient practice--yeast wasn't even discovered until the mid-1800s. By then breweries had more or less figured out that leaving inoculation to chance was unwise; they re-pitched by dumping dregs of one batch into the next. They effectively domesticated yeast without knowing it existed. Before that, they brewed a batch of wort and let it sit out. Some natural process unknown to the brewers--God perhaps, or magic--caused the liquid to ferment.
A few breweries still make beer this way, and until five years ago, they were all located in Belgium. These breweries have special facilities where they allow wort to cool, taking in the microflora from the countryside. The vessel in which the wort rests is called a "koelschip," and once the wort has spent a night there, it absorbs the final ingredients to turn it to beer. Brewers return the liquid to casks, where it sits for months or years, waiting while throngs of micro-organisms slowly turn the sugars into alcohol, acids, and other compounds (brief primer here) and create some of the most interesting beer in the world. Only a handful of traditional lambic breweries remain, and their annual production is like a rounding error for a larger brewery.
And yet Allagash and Jolly Pumpkin have taken up the old ways. Both have hewn to tradition, too: they use the appropriate amount of wheat in the grist (about a third), employ a turbid mash, use aged hops (to impart bacteria-inhibiting compounds but no bitterness), and both used a coolship. I visited Allagash in November 2008 and wrote about the brewing process here. Jolly Pumpkin's Ron Jeffries describes his process here. Given these similarities, the lambics we tried on Tuesday, including two Belgian examples, were differentiated principally by the wild, native buggies of the regions they were fermented: Maine, Michigan, and Belgium. And different they were!
The Allagash lambics are not commercially available. I begged and wheedled and managed to get brewer Jason Perkins to send me some samples. They almost certainly will be at some point--everyone was so impressed with their character and accomplishment I can't believe they won't get released. In some ways, lambics are more like wines than beer; they depend so much on factors beyond the brewer's control that vintages vary widely depending on when they were brewed. Some measure of consistency comes from blending, but what you mainly get from a lambic producer is a house character. Boon's is more lactic, Cantillon's drier. I suspect the general character we found in the Allagash beers will carry through on future vintages. The Jolly Pumpkin is commercially available, though you probably have to go to Ann Arbor to get a bottle.
The tasting notes are arranged in the order we tasted them. The tasting panel** consisted of Derek from Beer Around Town, his friend Josh Grgas, Sally, and Upright's Alex Ganum. My sense is that we generally shared similar experiences, though we related to the beers a little differently. I was very happy to have Alex on board--as a proxy brewer for Ron, Rob, or Jason, we couldn't have done a lot better. Geoff Phillips was kind enough to lend us a table at Bailey's to host the tasting, too. Here goes.
Jolly Pumpkin Lambicus Dexterius
A gueuze of lambics aged 4, 3 1/2 and 2 1/2 years. This was, by an order of magnitude, the most funky beer at the table. Bottled still, it poured out like apple juice. The nose was sharp and solventlike; imagine a bottle of nail polish. Sally, who is sensitive to oak, picked this up right away. Very dry, with a grape-skin pucker. As the beer sloshes around the mouth, it seems funky but not deadly; swallowing it, though, is like taking a hit of acetic acid from a chem lab beaker. Easily the most acidic beer I've ever tasted. We were all left a little shell-shocked afterward. My comment is that I hope the intensity can be adjusted through blending. Even for lambic freaks, this is likely a bridge too far. Sour-o-meter reading: 6.
Allagash Coolship Resurgam
A gueuze of 2-year, 18-month, and six-month lambic. A livelier beer, but not exactly effervescent. Right after we opened the bottle, I was picking up a sharp note in the sour nose that I think might have been butyric acid. With a moment of breathing, this vanished, leaving a peppery, lemony scent. It has a soft, dry palate that suggested wheat. I found it far less acidic--with the lemon, it was more on the tart side. We were all picking up a bit of hoppy bitterness on the palate, too. I know Allagash is in the process of aging their hops, but possibly they haven't been aged enough. (Though to tell you the truth, the mild hop bitterness did not clash with the beer--it was just less traditional.) My favorite gueuze is Frank Boon's, which is drier, sharper, and extremely effervescent. Allagash's is not yet as complex as that, but it is remarkable for a first draft, and makes me think it may one day ascend to that level. Given that it's a beer made with the wildest, untamed new world yeasts, I expected something a little more nasty--like the Jolly Pumpkin. Yet it was almost gentle. Sour-o-meter reading: 4.
Oud Beersel Gueuze
Typical for style, the Oud Beersel boasted champagne-like effervescence. I noticed a distinctive inner-tube aroma that could also be called skunk. A bit musty, cellarlike. The flavor, though, is much more approachable than either American example. It was the sweetest of the non-fruit lambics, but Alex was certain these were esters. We had a mini debate about whether it really was sweet or just tasted fruity. Alex brews with one of the driest yeasts available, so he should know; still, my tongue tells me what it tells me: sweet. The finish is light and refreshing. An uncomplicated gueuze--if such a thing exists. Sour-o-meter reading: 3.
I assume it's the same recipe as the cherry blend (see below), but I haven't found confirmation; though the blend was definitely aged on raspberries for three months. Even in the bottle, you could see the vivid red of this beer. It was fairly effervescent, and easily the prettiest beer of the afternoon. Reminiscent of Cascade's Apricot, the aroma was saturated with fresh raspberries. Interestingly, their flavor was quite subtle. Instead, it was a drier, more tart and more refreshing version of their regular gueuze. The body was quite thin--too thin for some of the tasters. I sensed some disappointment around the table that, after the splash of color and rich aroma, the beer lacked the intense flavor of raspberries. I thought it was quite stylish, though--so flashy to see and smell, but then coy and reserved on the tongue. It was my favorite of the night. Until we cracked the cherry lambic.... Sour-o-meter reading: 4.
A blend of 90% 2-year lambic with 10% six-month, then aged for three months with local Maine Montmorency tart cherries. Brewer Jason Perkins calls it "albino kriek," and it's easy to see why: the cherries give the beer almost no color. The nose carries a bit more cherry, but not a great deal. But then, in a mirror image of the Red, the flavor explodes with fruit. It pops with cherry--deep and peppery. The sour is softened a bit by the spiciness and pit bitterness of the fruit, but the cherry is softened by the lambic--its bright, fresh flavors smoothed and darkened. (There's a reason cherries are the go-to fruit with sour ales.) The body was a bit fuller than either of the other two Allagash beers. The table was unanimous in declaring this the afternoon's best beer. Sour-o-meter reading: 3.5.
We finished up the tasting with a visit back to Belgium. Like the Oud Beersel, Girardin's Gueuze was very lively, sending the cork up toward the ceiling. I was pleased to find the inner tube aroma again--an expression of Belgium's unique character. It was more lactic and more peppery than Oud Beersel, akin to a Berlinner Weisse in its sharpness and thin body. Not so much funky sourness, just a crisp, sharp, citric sourness. Sour-o-meter reading: 4.
It was a truly singular experience. I feel most indebted to Derek for sharing his Jolly Pumpkin, to Josh for sharing his Girardin, and to the folks at Allagash for sending me three precious bottles of their lambics.
*The word "lambic" is somewhat fraught. The most exclusive definition limits its application, like a wine appellation, to the Zenne Valley in Belgium. I've also heard people call beers "lambics" if they use wild yeasts--even ones pitched from a Wyeast starter. In my mind, any brewery that is willing to subject a turbid-mashed wort to a night's fresh air and adds no other yeasts has brewed a lambic, full stop. I am prepared to risk Belgian terrorists who dispute this use.
**The tasting panel was supposed to be bigger and include more bloggers. We had several cancellations, and by the time of the tasting, we hadn't had enough time to get the word out to other bloggers. I regret that I wasn't able to share it with more of you.
A peek at the brewery inside Brewers Union Local 180
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