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Thursday, December 08, 2016

The Spontaneous Files: Solera Brewery

I finish up my discussion of spontaneous fermentation with Solera Brewery, which sits on the hem of Mount Hood as it spreads out toward the Columbia Gorge. It is less than an hour and a half from downtown Portland, has one of the prettiest settings in the state, and consistently produces some of the best beer I've ever tasted--seriously--and yet still it remains a little-visited destination for beer fans. I'm often mystified by this, but all the more so since I've just come back from Hill Farmstead, a similar brewery that Bostonians and New Yorkers regularly trek to, with drives of 3.5 and 6.5 hours respectively. And, pretty as Northern Vermont is, nothing beats the view from Solera.

Well, it is a bit more rustic than Hill Farmstead, and it's a much smaller brewery. You can't visit and stock up (their beer is all draft) or enjoy a range of three dozen offerings on tap or in the bottle. You take what they're serving and, because brewer Jason Kahler follows the seasons, the taplist is as mutable as the whether outside the back of the pub. Unlike at Hill Farmstead, if there's a beer you really want to taste, you may have to wait awhile. But then, you'll never want for good beer, either.

Jason does all beer styles well, but his uncategorizable (but instantly recognizable) range of saisons and tart ales are the real show-stoppers. At one spring stop a couple years back--I think it was actually when I took that photo above--he had two saisons that both qualified as among the best I'd ever tasted. They were, like so many beers in this cohort, kissed by wildness. They weren't all the way tart (certainly not sour), and a casual fan might not even have noticed the wild yeasts that added a layer of crisp definition. But that wildness is his calling card--in fact it's even there in the name.

While he was working as a brewer for other places around Hood River, Kahler practiced a kind of wild brewing that is becoming more popular. In his home basement, he had different vessels (none wooden) filled with wild ales. He used these in blends and then topped off the partially-emptied barrels with fresh wort, keeping the colonies of wild microorganisms alive. This is the "solera" system of the brewery's name (though it's not quite like the more famous solera systems used to make sherry and vinegar). As a commercial brewer, he continues to embrace the wild side, though his preferred form of inoculation is fruit, not coolship.

A bottle of homebrewed solera beer
Kahler shared on my first visit.

Parkdale is in the heart of Oregon's tree-fruit growing region, and Kahler takes full advantage of the bounty. “I’d hover around two pounds per gallon as a good jumping off point,” he says, by way of explaining the process. “One thing to consider is the acidity of the fruit. That plays a big role. The more acidic it is, the more it comes through in the beer.”

Being local means he can form relationships with growers and get the fruit exactly like he wants it. “What’s great about that is he can let the fruit hang until I want it and he picks them without the stems on them. The only thing I want to get rid of from the fruit is the stem. I don’t cull the fruit. In fact, often I’ll get what they call ‘number 2s’ or higher. Those fruits will generally go to juicing or canning—they might have a blemish on them. They let them hang longer so the brix are very high. That’s important, flavor-wise, for aromatics.”

My impulse to talk to these breweries in the first place was an article for Travel Oregon in which I tried to elicit how the "terroir" of wild yeast might affect the beer. The only person who was willing to edge up to that description was Jason. "We don't have a language for these kinds of beer," he began. “You can get Brettanomyces from the laboratory and you can get Brett from the air. I love Brettanomyces, I love Lactobacillus, Pedio. They’re all there in the air; you don’t need to buy them. If you’re buying them from a lab, you’re really trying to control the process, you’re trying to drive the end result. You’re not embracing your terroir—which I’m a big fan of. You should just embrace what you have.”

Source: Solera Brewery

In my forthcoming homebrew book I have a chapter about how to inoculate with fruit, and Kahler was the one who conveyed that information. I don't want to reveal too much about that, but here are a couple tidbits. The valleys around Parkdale have substantially different elevations, and I wondered whether that affected how the fermentation went. It did. Solera brewers once ran an experiment where they tried inoculation with apples that were taken from close proximity but at different elevations and one of them (for whatever reason, the info about which one is not on my audio tape) didn't take off. That illustrates how hyper-local this kind of brewing is. If a different brewery were to use fruit from the Willamette Valley or east of the Cascades, they would find their fruit covered with different microorganisms (Or, at least, different proportions of them.)

One thing I've found in talking with these brewers is that they have a certain kind of Zen ease about this process. Many brewers do wonderful wild ales with pitched yeast, but they don't want the chaos of randomness in their brewhouse. In different ways, each of the brewers doing spontaneous fermentation shrugged it off. Here's how Kahler put it. "Getting back to philosophy," Kahler told me, "that’s something that you have to get over, your fear, if you’re going to try these beers. You can’t lose sleep over something like this.”

I'd even take it a step further. Having interviewed a number of brewers who make beer this way, I've found something else they all share: curiosity. This kind of brewing is not predictable. It's not reproducable, not consistent. It's certainly not speedy. In order to forgo those qualities--which are critical in most breweries--you have to take joy in the unpredictable. You have to find the prospect of turning your wort over to unknown forces a kind of delightful gamble. You will certainly find that nature has returned you something weird or gross from time to time--you can't prevent it. But sometimes it will also give you an unexpectedly sublime ale, something you didn't expect and couldn't even have imagined.  That is the promise of brewing spontaneously, and it takes a certain kind of person to pursue it.

John Hitt (L) and Jason Kahler (R), co-owners of
Solera Brewery. Source: The New School

Wednesday, December 07, 2016

Dancing at the Margins of Ignorance

Every job has its plusses and minuses. I usually joke that everything about writing is great except the salary, but there's actually another downside that freaks me out nearly as much. A reasonable working definition could be: "writing about things you don't understand." The next story is always something intriguing, something you'd like to explore further. That generally means wandering off into some subject on which you have tenuous grasp. Knowing, of course, that the successful outcome of this little foray is an article that will go out to many people who know more than you do on the subject. (Along with, thankfully, many who know less. Blessed are the uninitiated, for they do leave angry comments.)

We have come to a phase in the realm of beer where interest is highest in the business rather than the product. Thanks to eye-popping numbers, intervention by multinational corporations, rivalries and sniping, the business of selling beer now entertains us much as the drinking of it. Well, at least where blog posts are concerned.

This is all well and good except the part where I know nothing about it. I have spent many hours doing things that make me feel incompetent: trying to translate old foreign-language texts, slogging through technical science papers, navigating the absurd address in the UK (Hook Norton's address, for example, consists of "Brewery Lane" and nothing more), attempting to understand weissbier mashing regimes, but in no area was I more unprepared than business.

I have never worked a day in a business that had more than ten employees. I've been self-employed (several times), worked at universities (lots), and done odd jobs for small businesses (a long time ago). I studied religion and developed an active allergy to corporate life. None of that was a good preparation for writing about beer, a big part of which is always a story about business. If you refuse to engage the business elements of brewing, you are basically not covering beer because nothing is free of it in those sixteen delicious ounces of IPA we regularly hoist.

This came into sharp focus when I interviewed Nicole Fry recently for the Beervana Podcast. Nicole is a managing partner for First Beverage Group, a a company that invests in and advises beverage companies, and which has been involved in several of the recent major brewery acquisitions. She's one of the people at the center of the business side of things, and she probably knows more about how beer is made and sold in America than just about anyone. I hope I did an adequate job.

Fortunately, Patrick was on hand to shore up my knowledge--and yours. In addition to my discussion with Nicole, we talked about what reaching the 5,000-brewery threshold means and why certain beers are so damn scarce in some markets. In other words, another in our regular podcasts on the economics of beer. Give it a listen:

I'll probably give it another listen, too, because this is a subject I really need to get a handle on! As always, it's available on iTunes as well  as Soundcloud.

Tuesday, December 06, 2016

Signed Copies of the Beer Bible

For your holiday shopping, consider picking up a signed copy of The Beer Bible for that someone special. I ended up with a spare box of these, and am happy to share the bounty--while supplies last! Getting copies signed has been the hardest challenge for buyers, so you now have a nice opportunity to grab one while the grabbin's good.

Because these are coming directly from me, I can personalize the inscription. I will address it to the person you're giving it to (or yourself), and include a message. I have a standard message I use, but I'm happy to further personalize it if you give me some guidance.

Books are $20, and I'll send it in a flat rate box from the post office ($6.80). These things are super speedy, so there's plenty of time if you act in the next week or so. I'll have you send a check along with instructions about the inscription, and then I'll pop it in the mail. Email me to set it up: the_beerax(at)yahoo(dot)com.

Happy holidays--

Monday, December 05, 2016

Vignette #8, Agostino Arioli (Birrificio Italiano)

“This is okay for, we call it ‘meditation beers’—special brews, specialty beers. These beers are beers you drink with your senses more than with your brain; birra da meditazione. When you drink a meditation beer, you really think about it. This taste reminds me of flowers; this taste reminds me of the food my aunt used to prepare me.  So you’re really thinking about the beer.”

“In Italy we grow up where you can spend hours and hours on Saturday and Sunday discussing sauce—the spaghetti sauce or anything we are eating for lunch. The whole family and the relatives and parents and so on and we can discuss food for a long time. This is better; last time was worse. It’s overcooked, or it’s too rare. Really, we talk about food a lot; we really care about food. So this probably automatically require us to brew beers that can fit with our sense of what is pleasant, what is balanced.”

Arioli (center) when he visited Portland in 2015.
Photo by Giulio Marini.

Friday, December 02, 2016

Whom Indeed? Four People I'd Drink Beer With

 The beer blogosphere has had a long-running project called "The Session," in which a bunch of people post on the same topic. Bastard that I am, I've only one other time participated. But this month's question is too alluring to pass up. It comes from Stan, who asks:
If you could invite four people dead or alive to a beer dinner who would they be? What four beers would you serve?
It's not obvious to me whether the intention here is to do four beer people, or any four people. And though I do love beer people, I have to say this distinction matters--my top four beer folk wouldn't make my top hundred regular people. So let's deal with them separately.

Beery Types
This actually turns out to be harder than it seems because there are so many important figures whose contributions we cannot peer into history and see. I'd love to know more about the development of lagering in Bavaria, but we're not even sure about the century, never mind a key figure. So how about these:
  • Josef Groll. Perhaps the most famous brewer ever, Groll brewed the first batch of pilsner back in 1842. I'd love to have him walk me through the decisions he made to come up with that beer. But he's also a fascinating figure whom basically everyone on record--including his father!--said was a major bastard. He was run out of Plzen not very long after he got there. I'd love to see that famous charisma in action. Obviously we'd drink Natty Light so he could see how debased his invention has become.
  • Georges Lacambre. I'm actually not entirely sure his first name is Georges, for in all but one case I've discovered he was listed as "G." This is the man who wrote the 19th century survey of world (but especially Belgian) beer at the time. I would pump him for all the info he had, and so I'd arrange for a 43-course meal to keep him pinned down for seven hours. We'd drink American IPAs to blow his mind.
  • Anyone who made Danziger Jopenbier between the 17th and 19th centuries. Jopenbier was made to cosmic original gravities, with wild yeast, but was nevertheless barely fermented. Every description I've ever read makes it sound undrinkable. I would have one question: why? I'd make him drink jopenbier while he answered the question.
  • Rudi Ghequire. Rudi is the master brewer at Rodenbach, the one living brewer. I got to spend a couple hours with him, but owing to scheduling confusion, it was still a rush job. He is an exceptionally smart guy, but even more, one of the nicest men I've ever met. He is the anti-Groll. We would of course be drinking Rodenbach from the foeders at the brewery. Because, hey, it's a fantasy and why wouldn't we be there?

Non-Beery Types
This is even harder, though made somewhat easier by the stipulation that we drink beer. The Buddha I'd love to meet, but maybe not in that environment. So:
  • Samuel Beckett. I doubt he spent a lot of time drinking beer in Paris, but I bet the liquid passed his lips, copiously, earlier in life. I'd choose old Beckett, perhaps circa 1986--88, because he was by that time pulling toward the mortality that was always at the center of his fiction. He's the most talented writer I've read, but he's also one of the most fascinating figures. Had he never written a word, he'd be fun to spend a dinner with. Beer? I would not foist stout on a man who fled his home country. My guess is he'd prefer lager, cheap and commercial.
  • Joe Strummer. As we trot through the professions I wish I'd had, we come now to musician. Why Strummer? Come on--Joe Strummer. I'd love to meet him in a pub and chat over cask bitter. Many, many of them.
  • George Orwell. Oh, wait, are we back to writers again? My excuse: part of this game is not just reciting the most famous people (Einstein! Joan of Arc!) but coming up with people you could actually imagine carrying on a conversation with. Orwell was a giant in literature, but he was also deeply interested in politics, as am I. In the age of Donald Trump . . .  well. Am I right in remembering that he liked mild ale? The era is right. Let's say it's so: we drink milds.
  • Barack Obama. This would be a bit of a gamble, because he's a pretty famously reticent guy. I'd be depending on the beer and our shared affection for basketball to get him to open up. (I bet we could get a good ten minutes on Steph Curry.) I suspect that people never recognize the historical significance of most figures during their lifetimes--it's only after the myth-making of decades that their statures grow outsized. Obama will almost certainly be one of those figures. Meeting him now, at an unexpectedly ambiguous historical moment long before those decades have passed--this would be the moment for the perfect chat. We'd drink a selection of Oregon beers, and I would subtly try to improve his palate. He's beer-curious, but he's got a ways to go.
There are no women on this list and all but one are white. (The likelihood that my Jopenbier brewer turned out to be a black woman seem dubious.) This reflects badly on me and if I had a chance to do this for reals, I'd probably rectify it. But since we're conducting a parlor game, there you go--

Thursday, December 01, 2016

Does Belgium Have an "Intangible Cultural Heritage" of Beer? Does Anyone?

Yesterday, news came out that UNESCO had given Belgium a singular honor:
Citing Belgian beer's integral role in social and culinary life, UNESCO is putting the country's rich brewing scene (with nearly 1,500 styles) on its list representing the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity. Belgium's beer culture is one of 16 new additions that were announced Thursday.
The honor came with an accompanying video (see below), which helped flesh out the case--one that might have come straight from the Belgian tourist board. Perhaps you picked up on one tell of a certain kind of exaggeration in the quoted paragraph: "with nearly 1,500 styles of beer." That would indeed be a hell of an accomplishment!

I actually think UNESCO intuited something profound in Belgium's beer culture, but they didn't do a very good job of documenting it. Had they done so, they would have seen that a few other countries have a similar cultural status. Beer, almost uniquely among human activities, is a mirror of the culture that brews it. This was the great discovery I made researching The Beer Bible, and one I speak about whenever anyone invites me to do so. When you pick up a glass of beer from one of these countries in question (Belgium, Czech Republic, Germany, the UK), you can only understand it fully if you know the agriculture, history (including things like wars, famines, and rulers), drinking culture, laws, and ineffable qualities that seem to have no source. Of course, these manifest not just in the ingredients and final color, strength, and flavors of the beer, but the way it was made.

In the video, Senne's Yvan De Baets describes the four different types of fermentation found in Belgium, but he skips over the most interesting element--warm rooms. This is absolutely central to the production of Belgian ales of all types, and is a process used nowhere else (except the new world, where breweries make Belgian-style beers). The English practice of cask-conditioning, the Czech insistence on decoction, the German approach that is filtered through the restrictions of Reinheitsgebot--all these countries do something that looks totally bizarre when you compare it to other countries. And those practices are a kind of distilled version of the whole national tradition.

Perhaps the Belgians, living in a smaller country where cultural heritage is more evident nationwide, decided to pitch this idea first. (I have no idea what gave UNESCO the idea.) But they have no greater claim to the heritage than these other countries--though indeed they have enormous claim to it on its face. Even Julius Caesar noted that the Belgians brewed beer. (They were probably doing something offbeat even back then.) Walk into any cafe in Belgium, and it's hard not to observe something unique and pervasive happening there. So yes, Belgium deserves this. But so do at least three other countries.

Now, enjoy the film (it is pretty good).

Wednesday, November 30, 2016

Hill Farmstead in Photos

I will have to do a fair bit of work before I can give you a proper report on Hill Farmstead, but here's a sneak peak--a photo series on the snowy day I visited eight days ago in remote northern Vermont. Be sure to click the "read more" for more.

The original Hill farmstead


The original brewery, dating all the way back to 2010.

Erstwhile Portlander Vasilios Gletsos

Tuesday, November 29, 2016

Holiday Book-Signing Events Saturday and Sunday

As the incessant thrum of cheery music attests, 'tis the season. If you want to get all your holiday shopping done in one stop, let me suggest two group signings this weekend. Illustrious authors will be in attendance, books and signing pens in hand--and I will be there, too. Come pick up a personalized copy for that beer geek in your life.
Saturday, December 3, 5-7pm - Bazi Bierbrasserie
1522 SE 32nd, PDX

Present at this signing will be Jon Abernathy (Bend Beer), Niki Ganong (The Field Guide to Drinking in America), Brian Yaeger (Oregon Breweries), and Pete Dunlop (Portland Beer: Crafting the Road to Beervana).

Sunday, December 4, 2-5 pm - NWIPA
6350 SE Foster, PDX
At this edition we'll have a similar crew, with myself, Niki Ganong, Brian Yaeger, Jon Abernathy, Steven Shomler (Portland Beer Stories), Matt Wagner (The Tall Trees of Portland and art director for Gigantic Brewing label art), --and possibly more. 

Getcher books this weekend!

Monday, November 28, 2016

The Zoigl Launches

When Alan Taylor conceived of Zoiglhaus brewing, it wasn't for the name. In a remote part of Germany, a medieval tradition of communal brewing still hangs on in a few villages. There, locals own a single brewhouse to which they all have access. They go to the brewery, whip up a batch of beer, and take the wort to their homes to ferment. After fermentation, they hang a six-pointed star and invite people to their homes--temporarily restyled as homey pubs--and sell the beer to the public. This was a big part of the inspiration for Zoiglhaus, and this Friday Taylor is launching the first of his Zoigly initiatives. From the announcement:
While you can’t legally sell beer out of your home, you can do the next best thing:  fill up your carboy with freshly brewed wort at Zoiglhaus, take it and a fresh can of yeast home with you to ferment your own beer.  Add dry hops, extra flavorings, or leave it as is.  It’s up to you.  When the beer is done, you can share it with family or friends in the Zoigl spirit.

On December 2nd, Zoiglhaus will brew the first trial batch of ZPA, a hop-focused Pale Ale brewed with all-German ingredients.  The cooled and aerated wort from this brew will be available for purchase between 4 pm and 7 pm.  RSVPs are required, so please call us at 971-339-2374 or drop by the brewery to sign up for this event.
If you don't have a carboy, you can buy them at Zoiglhaus on Friday. The first 30 people to reserve will even get a free dose of Imperial yeast with the carboy. (I'm posting this a bit late, as usual, so that may not be in the cards.) The price of wort if you bring in a five-gallon carboy is $35, which is a pretty typical price for a batch of homebrew. (Five gallons gets you roughly two cases of beer.) Then, a month later:
On January 7th, Zoiglhaus will host the first Zoigl-Wort to Bierfest with a party in the Zoigl-Stube.  All of the participants are welcome to bring in samples of their brew to share with the Zoiglhaus brew staff (apparently they like tasting beer…) as well as the other home brewers.  Each participant will receive a commemorative glass and a free pint of the ZPA on the 7th.  Zoiglhaus is excited to see the creative ideas our fellow brewers come up with!  The People’s Choice will get a free 5 gallon fill of wort at the next Zoigl-Wort event.
I'll give his a shot (it will be a novel experience to begin with a properly-prepared wort), and I'm toying with either something involving fruit, dry hops, a saison yeast strain, or other curious additions. We shall see. Whether I attend the Jan 7 event will depend entirely on how this decision pans out. Seems like a new and fun wrinkle in the expanding tapestry that is Beervana.

Friday, November 25, 2016

The Spontaneous Files: Block 15 Brewing

If you ever have a chance to sit with Nick Arzner in Block 15’s new taproom, I highly recommend it. Over the summer I sat with him drinking pints of Gloria!, the new pilsner he’d just released, and literally every person who came in the front doors stopped to chat with him. He greeted them with smiles and warm handshakes and then they traded stories of each other’s families. Nick was born in Oregon and his father coached the South Albany High School swimming team—I had the sense that personal and family connections bound Nick to nearly everyone in Corvallis. My guess is that they enjoy coming to the pub because it’s an affirmation of a local kid done good. I also had the sense that they had absolutely no idea how good that kid had done, or that they were visiting a brewery considered by many to be Oregon’s best.

Block 15 is currently famous for Sticky Hands, its booming double IPA. A half-decade ago, people doted on its stouts with similar affection. I have also considered them one of the premier saison breweries, and I discussed Ville de Provisions in The Beer Bible as one of the few to successfully mesh the expressive flavors of farmhouse and wild yeasts. Less attention is placed on Nick’s spontaneously-fermented ales, but I will happily entertain the argument that they’re his most accomplished beers.

Nick has always found inspiration in European beers, and you find winks and nods to the old countries—but especially Belgium—throughout the Block 15 realm. When he opened a bistro around the corner from the original brewpub, he named it Les Caves—a reference to the pub that sits across the road from Brasserie Dupont. Early on, he released a Belgian pale ale called “Wandelpad,” which referenced a walking path next to the monastery at Westvleteren (the beer itself was an evocation of the monks’ far less famous pale ale). And if you know how the lambic beers around Brussels are made, you might get the reference when you learn his spontaneously-fermented beers are in a line called “Turbulent Consequences.” (Get it? No? Read on.)

Underneath the original brewpub is a honeycomb of smaller and larger chambers that constitute Block 15’s barrel room. On the door of one you’ll find a circle of wood—a barrel head—hand painted with the words “Time does not respect those that do without it.” This is another homage to a similar circle hanging in Cantillon (“Le temps ne respecte pas ce qui se fait sans lui”). Beyond it is the brewery’s coolship, which is both deeper and less wide than typical examples. “When we started this program, I thought we’d just try it and I didn’t expect much out of it,” Nick explained. Hedging his bets, he designed to be extra deep “so we could use it for open ferments” in the case that the spontaneous ferments didn’t pan out.

Fortunately for all, they did.

Unlike Trevor Rodgers at De Garde, who has developed a new mashing regime for his spontaneous ales, Block 15 goes through the traditional, laborious mashing process. “We do it with a nod to the classical beers in the sense of sweating our asses off with a turbid mash and throwing in aged hops, and letting our environment do the work.” The turbid mash is a throwback to a time when local Belgian jurisdictions taxed breweries based on the size of their mash tuns, creating an irresistible incentive to keep them as small as possible. In order to work around undersized mash tuns, breweries developed convoluted mashing systems that survive among the lambic makers—and a few Americans who prize tradition. (It also prepares a wort that will feed Brettanomcyes for months or years as the beer ages.) Turbid mash, Turbulent Consequences—now you see the reference.

Nick begins with cold water and goes through six steps of pulling off part of the mash, warming it, and returning it to the main mash. The whole ordeal takes six hours. His process of inoculation is similar to lambic-brewing, but differs in a couple ways. He lowers the temperature of the wort a bit before putting it in the coolship, and then instead of leaving it just overnight, he lets it rest for a full 24 hours. There’s a lot of mysticism associated with coolships and their placement, and I consider Block 15’s an asterisk to the whole oeuvre. Rather than elevating it and opening louvers to bring in the currents of the fresh breeze, Block 15’s coolship is down in the cellar, exposed to very little fresh air. I suppose it’s a testament to the cleanliness of the barrel room that this does not introduce any nasty microorganisms, but for whatever the reason, Nick gets gentle, balanced beer from his blend of bugs.

So far, he has largely released fruited versions of these beers, and as we stood next to the (empty) coolship, we sipped on a spontaneous peach beer he’d bottled. I found it wonderfully gentle and approachable. The acidity was restrained, but electrified the peaches, which seemed somehow more intense than a perfectly ripe, sun-warmed fruit ever could. Nevertheless, he surprised me by saying, “if I had to be really critical of the program, I wish it wasn’t so zingy. The more mature my palate gets, the more I like balanced acidity, and in the rest of our programs we can balance them. But I do allow this to express itself. It’s an expression of our, of our, of our…”—he struggled for the right word before ending, with a laugh, on “basement.”

When a brewery works with wild yeast and bacteria, blending becomes a pivotal skill. Different barrels produce different flavors, some fruity, some acidic, some woody, some even harsh. The best wild ales are a product of blending these different elements to create a complex and harmonious beer. “I used to do a lot with taking pH, gravity, but I do it all through sensory now. I don’t give a damn what the pH is or the gravity is; what I care about is: how does the beer taste, how does it smell, how does it feel?” Whether we’re talking about the Turbulent Consequence line or other wild beers, this is where Nick really shines. Blending is something like cooking, knowing how flavors will work together, and for Nick it appears instinctive. It probably also takes a bit of steely pragmatism: some of the spontaneous beer just isn’t good. Up to 20% of these beers don’t make the cut and end up in the drain. Such is the risk when you turn your wort over to nature.

We tend to think of spontaneous beers as products entirely of what happens in the coolship, but I’ve now heard from a couple people that there’s more to it than that. Frank Boon has his pilsner malt prepared to his own specifications. Nick doesn’t go that far, but like Boon he disputes that everything happens in the coolship. “That can’t be true. For our spontaneous ferment we use Rahr white wheat—that’s my wheat. If you use whatever—unmalted wheat—it’s different. That’s a difference right there, and it’s gotta come through in the end regardless of what’s going on down here [in the coolship]. So then, can you separate those things, the way I do my turbid mash, which is going to be different than the way anyone else does a turbid mash. How much of that translates to this barrel? Some, there’s got to be some.” I told him about Boon’s specially-malted pilsner malt and he agreed. “So if Boon were to come here and brew here and bring his pilsner malt and use his techniques, his beer wouldn’t taste the same.”

I suggested that he and Trevor Rogers at De Garde swap breweries for a day, preparing their wort the way they normally do, but fermenting in the opposite location. Would a wort prepared by Trevor in Corvallis taste like a De Garde beer, a Block 15 beer, or something else? A Block 15 wort inoculated in Tillamook? How much is the ingredients, the mash, or the wild yeast and bacteria? It would be a fascinating experiment—and perhaps one day they’ll run it.

In the meantime, watch Block 15’s website for announcements of the Turbulent Consequence line. Block 15 will release a blend of 18-month-old barrels conditioned with cranberries called The Bog on December 3rd.  They are an example of a growing number of spontaneous American ales, and they’re some of the best.

Photo of Block 15's "Respect" sign: The New School