The four main ingredients in beer are water, barley, hops, and yeast. Those four things have allowed for the creation of a plethora of flavors. However, some people wanted different flavors or textures. Other folks had different crops available to them. Both of these things changed what they used in the beer. These changes are what led to the use of adjuncts in beer.
Simply put an adjunct is anything other than barley that contributes starch to the beer. More simply? Anything adding sugar that will get fermented by the yeast. The most common are corn, rice, wheat, oat, and rye. To find the dividing line of what is an adjunct we have to go back to 1516 when the Reinheitsgebot defined beer as water, hops, and barley. You can read one of my first posts to learn more about the Reinheitsgebot, but for now all you need to know is it set the precedent for what is, and is not, an adjunct. Let’s take a closer look at the big five.
I stopped by Rivertown Brewery earlier this week to talk about their new foeder. I ended up having a wandering conversation with co-owner Jason Roeper covering many topics about all things new for Rivertown.
Read on after the jump to learn what the hell a foeder is, what small batch sours you can expect to regret getting so little of, the various ways Rivertown is growing, and how they’ve dealt with a legal entanglement from a similarly named brewery!
I love sour beers, and I love homebrewing. Makes sense that I’d combine the two and brew some sour beers, right? It sounded so simple.
The third beer I ever brewed was a sour beer. I brewed it in the summer of 2011 and bottled it in February of 2013. I had almost no idea what I was doing. Over that time I’ve done many things: I brewed a bunch of other beers (sours included), read almost 100 books, my wife and I renovated our first house, we had a beautiful baby girl, and I learned many, many things about what to do and not to do while brewing sour beers. I just bottled my second sour (a sour blonde with Sauvignon Blanc grapes added while aging) and I figured this was about as good a time as any to put some of this stuff down on paper. It isn’t exhaustive or anything; just stuff that has been bouncing around in my head.
FYI: A much more comprehensive and knowledgeable brain dump on sours is at The Mad Fermentationist. That site has been the single most useful source of information regarding brewing sours that I have found.
1. Be patient
Brewing a sour is different than brewing almost anything else, at least regarding the time commitment. You’re looking at a year plus before you have something even remotely close to bottle. Leave your beer alone and don’t take gravity/tasting samples every week or even every month. You won’t be able to tell much of a difference between these samples if they’re too frequent, plus you introduce additional and vinegar-inducing oxygen. In the early stages, it’s probably going to taste horrible anyways, and you’re going to get freaked out. Just leave it alone. My rule now is to leave a new batch alone for six months before testing gravity and tasting. At that point, you should get a good idea as to what you’re getting into and what you’d like to add in terms of bottle dregs, fruit, oak, etc.
2. Keep your airlocks topped off
Oxygen allows acetobacter to turn beer into vinegar. You don’t want to find out that the beer you waited on for a year isn’t drinkable just because you did something silly like not keep your airlock full of fluid.
3. Commercial cultures are only a base to build upon
Wyeast and White Labs both carry some cultures which contain everything you need to brew a sour beer. Wyeast Lambic blend, for instance, contains a Belgian style ale strain, two Brettanomyces strains, a sherry strain, and all the other bacteria typically needed to brew sour beer are all included in one package. These cultures will create a perfectly acceptable sour beer, but one without a ton of complexity or variation. The fun in brewing sours is the use of bottle dregs. By adding the dregs of a few of your favorite sours during fermentation, you can add an “oomph” in terms of both additional sourness and complexity. With my first sour, I added dregs from pretty much everything under the sun. With my second, I maintained a tad bit more discipline and kept it to two: Cantillon Fou Foune and Cantillon Rose de Gambrinus. I liked the characteristics of both of those beers and wanted them, and only them, in mine.
4. Get a cycle going
A year is a long time, yes, but it seems like less if you know you don’t have to wait another year to bottle another batch. By brewing a new sour every 3-4 months, once that first year is over, you should have a pretty solid backlog of beers going. You also have the added bonus of being able to pitch a new batch onto the cake of a freshly-bottled batch to make things simpler/cheaper. I’m still working on this one.
5. Re-yeast at bottling
Traditional unblended lambics are mostly uncarbonated, but I don’t care for my sours this way (and I don’t brew traditional lambics anyways), so I carbonate mine. After at least a year of fermenting and aging, almost all, if not all, of the ale yeast initially pitched in the blend will be inactive, so you’re not going to get much regarding post-bottling carbonation without adding new yeast, even if you do add priming sugar. I’ve used wine or champagne yeast in the past because it’s cheap (about a $1 per pack), it doesn’t impart any flavor, and it can work in an acidic environment. I’ve used both Red Star Champagne Yeast and Lalvin EC-1118 with luck
Just a note: I don’t purport to be an expert on brewing sours or even claim to mostly know what I’m doing. I’m still learning all the time like any good homebrewer should. The world of homebrewing sours is still a very new thing, relative to homebrewing in general and there are, to quote an infamous U.S. Secretary of Defense, many “unknown uknowns”. Maybe the above will help at least one person getting into brewing sours, and that’s good enough for me.
Lambics are some what of an interesting style, mostly because of the funk taste but also the nature of the open air fermentation. Back in Belgium, back in the the old days, brewers would leave their vats of beer open and whatever floated by would settle into the beer. The region in Belgium famous for lambics was lucky enough to have some very special yeast floating through the air that gave it this distinctive funk. Of course they didn’t know about yeast and all that back then. Today those special stains of yeast are added in instead of letting them float on by, at least I hope they are. The other qualification for a lambic is a 30% wheat grain bill. Then they are often aged in barrels before bottling once in the bottle they receive a secondary fermentation to keep them going for years to come!
In fact the owners of Rivertown, Jason Roeper and Randy Schiltz, were home brewing lambic style beers for many years before starting RTB. One of Jason’s home brewed Lambic style beers won the Sam Adams Long Shot competition in 2009 (Boston Beer Company now owns that specific recipe) but the current one is very close. Once the brewery got up and running they made it a priority to keep the lambics rolling and have been releasing a yearly batch ever since. On top of that they’ve expanded their sours to include an old sour cherry porter, Ojos negros (a wild ale), and a gueuze (a blending of 2 vintages of lambic).
Beer: Lambic (2012)
Nice hazy amber brown color that revels a hint of gold when held up to light, actually quite a pretty brew. I didn’t get any head even off of a more aggressive pour. There were initially quite a few bubbles but they popped away quickly.
The wild, barn yard-esk, smell pairs well with this lipizzaner stallion thing that happens to be on PBS tonight. There are quite a few other small things I’m picking up like some kind of wood, I think it’s oak that they age it in, and of course some sourness.
The first sip of any sour always reminds me of Vincent Price’s line from Thriller “the funk of 40,000 years” which is, in my opinion, an almost perfect way to describe many sours. Though in this case it’s just the funk of 1 year, because that’s how long it was aged. Plenty of tart sourness that throws your tongue for a loop and makes your head shutter a bit. There is more of that oak wood flavor as well as some bread action and lemon zest.
The body is on the light side of medium and there is light carbonation.
One quick note on the label, if you notice it says 2012 on there, but wait… this just came out and it’s 2013, what’s the deal?? Well this beer was brewed in 2012, stashed in oak barrels to age, then bottled and distributed in 2013. I don’t love sours but I do really enjoy shaking up my palate with one of these every once in a while and I can fully appreciate the styles. Sadly many can’t and I hope that changes, it certainly seems to be changing across the craft beer scene. Sours are becoming more popular and produced more often across the country. The sweet thing about having Rivertown make so many nice sours is that they’re easy to get for us, this is currently available at the brewery and is, or will be soon, at stores around town. Another great thing with Rivertown in town is that sours age fantastically, so without further delay I present today’s review of last year’s lambic!
Beer: Lambic (2011)
Style, ABV, and Calories are the same
Pours a curious combo of orange brown and a bit of yellow, kind of like dark honey. Again very hazy but this time around it started with a nice white head but that quickly faded into a ring of tiny bubbles around the edge of the glass.
Picking up more citrus along with that barnyard, funk, and bread. Like eating a fresh biscuit while riding a horse in an orange grove.
Far less of that tart sour kick it to the palate like before. The year in the bottle has really mellowed this out. Still plenty of funky sour flavor along with some lemon citrus, and malt biscuit action.
Plenty of carbonation tickles my tongue while the medium body slides across it.
This is a much more preferable brew to me. Plenty of that funk but none of that initial shock as it hits your lip. Aging is really very beneficial to this beer and I strongly encourage folks to pick up at least 2 bottles, 1 for now and 1 for the cellar. Also may want to pick up 1 to trade. Now you may be saying “dang, I didn’t think ahead last year and didn’t buy 1 to agree. Woe is me!” luckily for you Belmont Party Supply in the Dayton planned ahead for just such an event last year and still have plenty of the 2011 left, hence the ugly vintage 2011 sticker on the bottle shown.
And if you want to go back even farther here is Josh’s review of Rivertown’s 2010 Lambic. I’d like to try one of those today to see what 3 years has done to it!
Many thanks to Randy Schiltz for helping me out with some facts, oh and for brewing this beer!
Fancy name for a fancy style of beer. The style is a blending of 2+ lambics of different vintages. In this case Rivertown blended a 1-year old lambic with a 3-year old lambic, which is slightly curious because Rivertown’s barely been open for 3 years. So this 3-year old lambic must be from their first batch or something like that, kinda cool. Something else before moving onto the beer is that Rivertown is spelling it geuze whereas everyone else spells it gueuze. Hopefully one of the guys from Rivertown will drop a comment about why they choose to spell it that way or if it’s just a typo on the packaging.
For the longest time, I was unnecessarily skeptical about buying Rivertown’s Lambic. I’ve found many of their beers hit-or-miss in the past, and dropping $15 or so on a hard to get right beer style that a brewery has never brewed commercially before didn’t sound like a great idea. Then the opinions, many from people whose opinion on beer I highly respect, started rolling in. These ranged from “good for a beer brewed in Cincinnati” (from those loath to believe that a non-boring, good-tasting beer can be brewed here) to just plain “good”. I didn’t hear any complaints about it at all, which might be the first, in my experience, for a local beer.
Then the Beer Advocate review came out. There had been a number of generally positive user reviews of Rivertown Lambic on the site, but until a recent issue of the magazine arrived at my door, the verdict was out on what the founders of Beer Advocate thought. To I think everyone’s, except the brewers and those who have tried it before’s, surprise, they scored it a remarkable 94/100. Seeing that, I knew I had to track down a bottle and ended up doing so, finding what has to be one of the last bottles in the Cincinnati-area still on the shelves.
The lambic pours a hazy, yet still bright, straw color. This is largely because it is (appropriately) unfiltered, so the yeast and other sediments never quite settle. Because it’s unfiltered, you also will want to take care to leave the “dregs” at the bottom of the bottle so as to avoid filling your glass with it. The head was a brilliant white, but was smaller than I’m used to seeing on a young lambic and it dissipated quite quickly.
The nose is that of your classic lambics: “funk”, citrus, oak, with a small bit of graininess and a touch of earthy must. The taste is tart, but not too sour yet. I’d like to see how puckering it is once it gets a few years on it, but at less than a year on the shelves, it still needs a little time to let the residual yeast keep working its magic in the bottle. Other than the tartness, the flavors are lemon zest and a bit of fruitiness, backed by an oakiness which helps dry out some of the sweetness than aging will take care of. The body is light, with medium-high crisp, refreshing carbonation that I was concerned wouldn’t be there since the head was so weak on the initial pour.
Overall, Rivertown Lambic far surpassed my expectations. Almost all of the issues I had with it, outside of the weak head, can be dealt with by hanging onto the bottle for a year or two. For a first release of its type from the brewery, this is a heck of a beer. While it obviously doesn’t measure up to Cantillon, Drie Fonteinen, etc., I wouldn’t expect it to. It does, however, beat out most other commonly available lambics at the same price point, which is a heck of a feat for a relatively new brewery. If you can still find the 2010 bottles or if you’d like to wait until 2011 ones are released, you need to give this local option a try if you’re a fan of sour/wild ales.
Wild and “sour” ales have been all the rage in the past year or so, with adventurous brewers adding Brettanomyces (one of the yeast strains that can help make a beer funky and tart) to every beer style under the sun. Between this lambic, Pestilence (review upcoming), and the few new sour beers (1, 2) that Rivertown will be releasing in the next year, it’s cool to see a local brewer jumping into the mix and trying their hands at some creative beers that go beyond the traditional to-the-style European-based beers that Cincinnati-area brewers seem so in love with. I, for one, will definitely be picking up anything new and exciting that Rivertown decides to release in the future.