Sour Notes: The story and people behind New Belgium’s funky beer

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A pitcher of Eric’s Ale at New Belgium’s 2015 Great American Beer Festival booth // Photo by Aaron Davidson

With 336 total entries at the 2015 Great American Beer Festival, the American-Style India Pale Ale category remained the event’s most competitive. One of the fastest-growing trends, however, is sour beer. In fact, this year’s GABF competition featured four categories for sours, each with various sub-categories for fruited and barrel-aged varieties.

While many American breweries have started to experiment with the funky and tart German and Belgian-style brews, which often require months to ferment and years to mature, New Belgium Brewery in Fort Collins, Colorado, has been making award-winning sour beers since their Sour Brown Ale La Folie first won a gold medal at the 1997 GABF in the Belgian Style Ales category (there wasn’t even a sour beer category at the time).

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Lauren Salazar // Photo by Aaron Davidson

New Belgium’s Wood Cellar and Specialty Brand Manager Lauren Salazar has been with the brewery for 18 years—since its sour program’s infancy. With a glass of New Belgium Brewery’s wood-aged, peach-spiked sour Eric’s Ale in hand and GABF beer samplers abuzz all around her, she recalled the early days when Brewmaster Peter Bouckaert first brought seven 60-gallon red-wine barrels back from California to start the brewery’s wood cellar.

“He told us, ‘They will be used for a grand experiment.’ When we started aging the sours, none of us really knew what would happen,” Salazar said.

As the New Belgium team, which also includes Lauren’s husband, Wood-Aged Beer Specialist and Brewer Eric Salazar, sampled those early results every few weeks, they “became amazing at describing really terrible things,” says Lauren. They would tell each other, “Don’t just say it’s crappy. Describe how it’s crappy. Is it getting better? We found joy and humor in it.”

Then one day a few months later, Lauren says they prepared their tasting note cards, sampled the aging beer and realized, “This does not suck that bad.” That’s when Bouckaert knew his experiment was working, and the Sour Brown Ale La Folie was soon to be born. Over the years, Lauren’s tasting notes have evolved to include phrases like “OMG,” “Yummy,” “Fruity,” and “WTF.”

Since starting with that first batch and seven barrels, New Belgium Brewery has produced 8,000 volume barrels of sour beers to date, including Le Terroir, which is a dry-hopped sour ale, Transatlantique Kriek, a Lambic fruit-style collaboration with Oud Beersel, and others. Perhaps what is most impressive about this long run of success is that the brewery has never re-inoculated a single time; they’re using the same cultures of souring bacteria and yeast they started with all those years ago.

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All of New Belgium’s sour beers begin with one of two base beers known as “Felix” and “Oscar” // Photo by Aaron Davidson

This past July, Lauren and Eric hosted a Sour Symposium in St. Paul and discussed their process for creating, blending and aging these beers. “Every sour brewer does it differently,” Lauren explained at the event. “Some create wort and sugar and inoculate the barrel with yeast, and then ferment the barrel’s contents.”

New Belgium, on the other hand, creates a beer—either a dark lager called Oscar or a light lager called Felix, depending on the blend they’re making—filters it, and puts it into a foeder (pronounced “FOOD-ers”), the giant French Oak barrels they use to age sours. The foeders “already contain our bugs, our zoo, the souring bacteria and our wild yeast,” Lauren said. “All we’re doing is feeding them clean sugar.”

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New Belgium foeders // Photo via newbelgium.com

As the beers age, a protective, fuzzy skin forms on top of them inside the vessels. This is called the pellicle, and it protects the beer from air and other contaminants. In the early days, Lauren didn’t know what it was and would walk around the foeders punching holes in it. She’s since learned, however, that it’s part of a cellular process that produces a sour beer’s desired flavors and effects.

New Belgium is still experimenting with sour styles today. In recent years, they’ve begun aging sours in barrels from Leopold Bros. distillery in Denver. The distillery first ages their fruited whiskey in the barrels with peaches, blackberries, apples or cherries. New Belgium receives the barrels the same day they are emptied and immediately fills them with acidified beer, using them to create and age rare and limited NBB Love offerings.

The success of New Belgium’s sour program has meant that it’s expanded far beyond its original size. In 2012’s Phase One expansion, they bought additional foeders to double their capacity and worked with Scottish and French coopers to make sure the barrels were ready for the job. In 2013’s Phase Two expansion, they purchased 32 more foeders from Sterling Vineyards in California to bring their total to 64 (the above time-lapse video shows a foeder being reconstructed at the brewery, click here for more photos of the process). Eric Salazar oversaw the restoration and rehydration of these foeders, each barrel requiring three weeks of attention and care, and saved them from becoming firewood.

It’s now been two years since those foeders were installed into the brewery’s wood cellar, also known as its Cache la Foeder, and the beers again inside are nearing maturation. Keep an eye on New Belgium in the coming months, as more sour beer is surely on the way.

Editor’s note: In the interest of full transparency, New Belgium Brewing provided travel and accommodations for a reporter and photographer from The Growler to attend the 2015 Great American Beer Festival. Interviews and photos used in this story were conducted while at the festival.

 
Brendan Kennealy About Brendan Kennealy

Brendan Kennealy is a writing and PR professional who lives and works in St. Paul. Find him on Twitter here: @extrapalemale.

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