John Gartner works the streets for New Belgium in Washington, DC, and like most of the people in this industry, he’s a great guy. And though John can be passionate when it comes to all things New Belgium, he’s not prone to hype. So when he calls to invite me out for “something very special”…he’s got my attention.
The problem was, this was an evening out with sour beers …and I’d be lying if I told you I was sure about that.
Once an outlier in American craft beer, many consider sour beers, which can be traced back to regions of Flanders, now to be the “new, next big thing.” Sours used to be the domain of an accomplished few, such as Russian River’s Vinnie Cilurzo, but they’ve become increasingly popular and more and more brewers are taking them on nowadays.
And “taking them on” is the operative word, because sours are brewed using volatile bacteria and can be unstable and unpredictable beasts. Brewing mistakes are costly and dangerous and months of work can “break bad” in the blink of an eye. Sours take very special brewers with unique sensibilities, and Lauren and Eric Salazar, who run New Belgium’s sours program, are two such people.
Lauren Salazar is New Belgium’s “Sensory Specialist & Brewer,” and she oversees the brewing of sours in Fort Collins. She and Eric Salazar, who heads the “Brewhouse & Cellar Operation,” are also experts in the blending of sours…something I knew absolutely nothing about. And discussing the blending of sours was one of the things they were all about when I joined them last week for a sold-out event at DC’s Black Squirrel.
As a newbie and far from a fan of sour beers, I was surrounded by an informed audience passionate about the style and clearly thrilled to be in the room with these leaders. Lauren and Eric then proceeded to guide everyone through New Belgium’s history with sours and it was fascinating. When brewmaster, Peter Bouckaert first came to New Belgium from Rodenbach, starting a sours program was on his “to-do” list. Lauren, who was there from its beginning, had never even tasted a sour. She told the crowded room that she was initially shocked by their taste and even after months of sampling them, she still found them, well, unpleasant…until one day, she tasted a sour that she “got” and everything changed for her from that point on. She suggested that her evolution is not unlike everyone’s and that with every day, more and more craft beer fans will “get” sours.
Eric Salazar is the guy who keeps the sours operation going and I had no clue as to how much work that involved. To hear his stories just about the maintenance of the foeders (enormous wood barrels used for aging and fermenting the sours) was mind-blowing. Unlike the steel vessels so commonly used in today’s brewing, foeders are as unpredictable as the brews they hold and they demand almost constant attention to ensure their integrity.
The evening ‘s drinking started comfortably with New Belgium’s classic Fat Tire Ale served up as a tease. But that was clearly just our “gateway beer.” We quickly moved on to La Folie, their original blended wood-conditioned beer that can rest in French Oak barrels between one and three years before bottling.
But maybe the highlight of the evening was our opportunity to learn how Lauren, Eric, and the New Belgium crew approach the blending process that’s so intrinsic to their sours. They’ve all these wood tanks holding their beers and they all have different characteristics…Some are earthy, some are incredibly sour, some are funky, and some are just weird – and all are groomed for their own uniqueness and used in different degrees in the final sour blend. And they just experiment, trying this with that, staying away from this one, going heavy with that one, until it just tastes right. And what ends up being right might surprise and amaze and that’s part of the fun of New Belgium’s sours.
So am I now a convert? I wouldn’t say that… but I’m definitely more interested. And I do have a new and tremendous respect for the art of brewing and blending sour beers, that’s for sure! I am now a big fan of Lauren and Eric Salazar, both artists in their own way and passionate about what they’re doing. It was a total blast learning and drinking with them.
Turns out my buddy John Gartner was right once again – the evening was definitely “something special.”