Have you ever heard the grand tale of Felix and Oscar? No, I’m not talking about the Academy Award nominated film The Odd Couple (though it is the inspiration for the names). I’m talking about the tale of the two base beers that are at the core of the New Belgium sour beer project. If you had joined me at the NBB Blending Symposium event last Wednesday, you would have heard said tale directly from the lips of the man that manages the program, Eric Salazar.
If you didn’t make it, you should be punching yourself in the beer belly right now and you should further torture yourself by not drinking a beer for the next month. Make it painful, you screwed up.
This event was the very first of it’s kind. It was powerfully educational. It was joyfully interactive. It was laid back and relaxing. You sat down, with an unbelievable and highly rare Leopold Bros peach whiskey barrel aged sour from NBB, and you listened. If you had a question, you asked – and it was answered. In the end, you played blend-master and walked away with a NBB growler full of a beer that you blended. All of this for $35. Shut the fffff…ront door!
Lets get back to Felix and Oscar. If you know The Odd Couple, you know that Felix is the neurotic, neat freak hypochondriac and Oscar is the laid-back, slob everyman. At NBB, Felix is the name of the lighter colored base beer and Oscar is the name of the darker one. Both are fermented initially with, I believe, Bohemian lager yeast. Before they are transferred into the wooden foeders, there is nothing abnormal about them. They aren’t sour, they aren’t bitter, they’re simple base beers, with great flavor.
Attendees had the chance to taste Oscar in its natural state as it was one of the 5 beers used in the on-site blending. It was, unsurprisingly, quite nice on its own. Eric even mentioned that he had been wanting to release the beer in its unencumbered brilliance but had yet to find the proper forum. Something tells me that it’s only a matter of time.
The most significant factor, we learned, in the creation of NBB’s sours is the wood. The bugs are in the wood and of course, the sour/funk comes from the bugs. Peter Bouckaert, formerly of Rodenbach, played the role of master and Eric, Lauren (NBB’s sensory expert/the one who ultimately chooses the blends that hit the market), and pretty much everyone else at NBB played the role of apprentice.
With training and experience, the crew came to understand the individual personalities of each of the foeders and barrels used in the program. Each one lends slightly different characteristics to the fluid within. Eric explained to us that the actual location of the vessels in proximity to rest of the brewery made a huge difference. If one vessel was closer to a heat source than others or received better circulation…these factors would play a significant role in the types of flavors that were imparted by those vessels.
Eric’s goal is to always have beer on the wood, to always be feeding the bugs. If he accomplishes this, there is nearly no maintenance that is required to the vessels. They will simply continue to funkify the beers for years and years to come. There are breweries in Belgium that have been operating in this fashion, with the same wooden vats for over 80 years.
Once beer and wood are united, it’s a lot of waiting and tasting and transferring and blending and waiting some more and constantly repeating the process until it seems right. Another key factor to understand is that the wood is literally the complete opposite of consistent. It’s alive and wild in more ways than one. No two infections will be the same, ever. The wood and bacterium are constantly evolving. This is why Lauren’s role exists. In order for NBB to create any modicum of consistency with their product, blending ratios must be created in a way that reproduces previous completed products such as La Folie or Kriek or Eric’s Ale. No two blend recipes are the same.
And that brings us back to blending, exactly what attendees got to do at the conclusion of the presentation. There were 4 firkins at the event, each with a slightly different version of Oscar in it. There was raw, unwooded Oscar and three different ages of wooded Oscar. La Folie made the 5th beer. There was only one rule, use some from each firkin so that no one would empty significantly quicker than the others.
If you wanted your blend to be light on the funk, you simply got heavy handed on the ratios of raw and young Oscar. Of course, the opposite was true for those shooting for a more tart concoction. DSR and I were in the latter group and got silly with the elder Oscars. In preparation for the final choice, each was sampled independently and experimentally blended on a minute scale. There weren’t any pipettes or graduated cylinders involved but it still felt like chemistry class and it was darn fun.
I’m sure there could have been a competition to see whose blend was superior, but realistically, considering the merit of each individual component, a bad blend was pretty much impossible. But, even more impossible, was walking out of The Stumbling Monk without a greater knowledge and appreciation for sour beers, New Belgium Brewing and the undeniable coolness of Eric Salazar.
My most heartfelt thanks goes out to NBB, Todd Gillman, Eric Salazar, The Stumbling Monk and Seattle Beer Week. Amazing event!