A Sneak Peek at Hermitage’s Barrel-aged Boysenberry Sour

One the reasons I like to check out brewery tap rooms is that they often have little specials or little sneak peeks of upcoming attractions. Such was the case last Friday when I dropped by the Hermitage tap room.  Their Barrel-Aged Boysenberry Sour Ale will be released this coming Wednesday, December 17th and they’re having a big shindig in the tap room that evening to celebrate.  They’ve already bottled and kegged most of it. One bottle had a cosmetic flaw with the wax seal making it unfit for retail, so they were pouring a few samples around the tap room out if it and I snagged one.

Hermitage Brand Manager Peter Estaniel gave me the low down on how it was made.  “We brewed with 40% wheat, and aged it red and white wine barrels for about 6 months.  Both Lactobacillus and Brett (Brettanomyces) were introduced into the barrels, and the boysenberry fruit was added late in fermentation.”  Peter went on to tell me there’s plenty of excitement around the brewery on how it turned out.

After taking a sampling, I understand the excitement.  It’s got a bright, balanced complexity that isn’t muddled, and is an enjoyable sipper.  It’s not one of those bracing, puckering sours and the dank, barn-yard funkiness one normally gets with the Brett is way in the background which if you ask me is a good thing.  There’s a little wheat tang, a little oak in the mix that works well with the tart boysenberries.

If sours aren’t your thing, there’s plenty of other good brews at the Hermitage tap room right now. Such as Hermitage’s Cascade Type 45 Single Hop IPA, part of Hermitage’s single hop series.  The Cascade hops give this IPA plenty of piney characters with a little lemon, and I also picked up some tangerine.

Hangar 24’s Joe Wells Talks About the Science Behind Sours

Barrel-aged sour beers are all the rage these days.  Of course, sour beers have been around for centuries, long been brewed using traditional European techniques. But today, craft breweries are turning to scientific instruments to help them brew barrel-aged sours.  How have these new analytics changed the way these beers are brewed?  Is the art of brewing being replaced with technical data?  To explore how science is changing the way barrel-aged sours are brewed, I spoke with Joe Wells, who runs Hangar 24 Brewing’s Quality Assurance and Quality Control Laboratory.

Joe Wells attended Evergreen College where he used both a gas chromatograph and mass spectrometer to analyze the chemical composition of different beers. Evergreen College allows students to develop their own major.  While many claim to have majored in “Beer” during their college days, Joe Wells is one the few who’s actually done so.  After graduating with his self-designed Brewing Science major and a brief stint at a pharmaceutical firm, he was hired at Hangar 24 to run the brewery’s laboratory.

One of his latest projects involves Chandelle, a barrel-aged sour Hangar 24 just released.   “Sour beer is what made me want to work in a brewery,” says Wells.  “Creating a balanced and drinkable sour beer is equal parts art and science.”  Chandelle starts as blond ale brewed with malted and unmalted wheat, infused with 850 pounds of Golden Sweet apricots and poured into freshly used Sauvignon Blanc wine barrels.   The base beer is designed to have a large amount of very specific fermentable sugars to be consumed by an assortment of wild yeasts and bacteria added into the barrel. These organisms living inside the barrel slowly create their own signature flavor, producing acidity, funk, fruitiness and tart, sour flavors that give these beers their wonderfully unique and complex flavors.

For barrel-aged beers, Wells analyzes the pH and specific gravity.  “We check pH as well as measuring titratable acidity to get a better idea of acidic flavor,” he explains.  “We monitor gravity of the beer using a digital density meter, finding the maximum attenuation the wild biota will accomplish.”

Is there a particular reading he’s looking for? Not exactly.  The beer is brewed with a final pH and specific gravity in mind and then the brewery “lets time do what it does”.  The main thing Wells is looking for is a stable pH and specific gravity over a 1-2 month period.  “Wild yeast can stop for a period and then restart”, says Wells.  Bottling the beer too early can lead to over carbonated bottles or undeveloped flavors.  While Hangar 24 depends on critical measurements on their barrel-aged beers to help them determine when they are ready, there’s still no replacement for the brewer’s taste buds.  “Our most accurate, complex, and delicate analytic instrument is contained in our heads, and we sample and taste the beer as we go until it tells us what it wants to be,” states Wells. “Instrumentation won’t really tell you what it tastes like, or how it feels on your palate.”

Joe Wells also discussed with me the current cutting edge of brewing science, where breweries are delving deeper to analyze the biota within the barrel through recent developments in Polymerase Chain Reaction (PCR) technologies.  PCR equipment is perhaps best known for being used in crime labs to amplify a few strands of DNA to identify suspects.   As the technology has matured, PCR instrumentation which once cost a few hundred thousands dollars is now available for a tenth of that cost, putting it within the price range of the largest craft breweries. In the hands of a brewer, PCR determines what yeasts are active inside the barrel or what bacteria are present. The processes that create sour ales, mysterious unseen forces to brewers centuries ago are now captured in digital readouts giving further insight into what the final product might taste like.  Large craft breweries using PCR to track their brewing process include New Belgium, Boulevard Brewing, and Allagash. Given the substantial investment in Goose Island’s barrel-aging program since being acquired by Anheuser-Busch, it’s a pretty safe bet Goose Island uses PCR as well.

Given all the technological developments to analyze beer aging away in the barrel, will the day come when brewers simply rely on a bunch of sensors to determine when the beer is ready?  “I sure hope not,” laughed Wells when I asked him that.  “That would remove all the fun from this.

The Session #54: You say it’s sour like it’s a good thing

This month, Jon Abernathy of The Brew Site takes The Session into the surprisingly uncharted territory of sour beers.

I’ve brewed a couple sour ales. Problem is, they were not supposed to taste sour. Some unwanted bug landed into some of my recent home brews making them taste like somebody poured a bottle of vinegar into the carboy, a rather harsh reminder that successful brewing is a lot more about maintaining clinical sanitation practices than it is about creatively crafting a killer recipe. Sourness is something I try to keep out of my home brews.

Sourness also seems to have a bit of an image problem. Having sour grapes is not a good thing, and it generally not nice to tell someone to “go suck on a lemon”. We do not usually call our loved ones “vinegar” or “citric acid” and instead use words like “honey” and “sugar”. And so it must be no simple trick for brewers to harness the often unpleasant taste of sourness and turn it into something drinkable, even enjoyable, let alone convince paying customers to actually try it.

I hadn’t ventured into sour ale territory much until a few months ago when my wife and I went out with some friends to a sour ale tasting night at the Rose & Crown, a small pub shoe horned into a stone building just off the main drag in downtown Palo Alto, CA. All four of us ordered seven glasses, each of different sour ales and past them around for everyone to try. We enjoyed most of the selections, but curiously enough, each of us had a different favorite that was often the least favorite of someone else. Perhaps injecting sourness into a brew not only requires a difficult balancing act, but any brewer going to that trouble isn’t going to please everyone, no matter how skillfully done. But then, what do I know about sour ale since I generally avoid anything with the word “sour” in it.

So for this month’s Session, I decided to once again to brave the world of sour ales. The first one I tried was Ichtegam’s Grand Cru Flemish Red Ale I picked up at my local grocery store. Perhaps what drew me to this sour ale was that it came in a small bottle, so if I didn’t like it, I wouldn’t be pouring all that much of it down the drain. The good news is that didn’t happen, as I enjoyed the flavors of dried fruit, figs, a light malty toastiness, and only a light sourness which combined to produce an enjoyable brew. This was no flavor explosion, but a pleasant, easily quaffed beverage that would go well with any simple dinner. (Don’t ask me to get all culinary here and give you a bunch of foods to pair this with, as I would simply be making a bunch of wild guesses.)

Having survived that, it was time to move on to another one, and I courageously selected one that came in a larger bottle, Echt Kriekenbier from Belgium’s Brouwerij Verhaeghe, a Belgian ale aged in oak barrels flavored with cherries. Simply pouring this beer in the glass was worth the considerable price of the bottle, as this simple act created all sorts of great cherry aromas. As for the taste, there’s nothing really complicated about it. It’s mostly just lots of sour cherries and lots of oak, which is pretty good if you ask me. This was a great find.

So thanks to Jon Abernathy at The Brew Site and for further broadening my horizons to realize that sourness is not always a bad thing. Just as long as it doesn’t creep its way back in my home brews.