I have just returned from the World Beer Cup in Philly with my best haul of awards there to date as a head brewer and I still cannot still quite believe I pulled it off. We won the Gold with ‘Love among the Ruins’ and Silver for ‘Days of Creation’ in the barrel aged sour beer category. These are two iterations of the same project; our barrel aged sours. A friend of mine, Alex Troncoso, founder of the new Lost and Grounded brewery in Bristol, sent me a message after the win: “What an amazing achievement! It is not an easy competition to win a medal, this is simply phenomenal!”
For me, this pretty much sums it up. This is my fifth time judging at the WBC and the overall quality and number of applicants has increased dramatically. When I first started judging in the first round, it wasn’t unusual to be able to kick out at least a third of the entries because of faults. This year, whilst judging American sours, I remember sitting there being incredibly impressed by the quality of the beers and thinking that we would be very lucky to win anything.
Rewind back 5 years ago. Myself and Caolan Vaughan (now head brewer at Stone and Wood in Australia), who was my right hand man at the time, were busy trying to ramp up production and implement stringent QA systems to a good team who were not used to that way of working. Going into any brewery and increasing production and changing the working culture can be challenging to say the least! So, in order to relieve the stress and inject even more creativity, we decided, as a pet project, to do some barrel ageing in a small room at Thornbridge Hall. Caolan wanted to go down the route of big dark beer in wood. This resulted in the Heather Honey Stout – http://www.ratebeer.com/beer/thornbridge-hall-heather-honey-imperial-stout/186938/ and an Imperial Oatmeal Stout –http://www.ratebeer.com/beer/thornbridge-hall-imperial-oatmeal-stout/198462/. I fancied trying my hands at American-style sour beers, as I had always loved the Lambic and Oud Bruin styles, but was particularity impressed when I tasted Russian River’s sour beers. The balance and complexity of these beers was simply sublime.
There are two mantras which I have when it comes to barrel aged beer:
- The beer should be better than when it went into the barrel.
With barrel aged beers and in particular attempts at sours, this is obviously not always the case and consumers are expected to pay a high price for the resultant ‘beer’.
- We shouldn’t ask our customers to pay for our mistakes.
When I discussed the sour beers with my boss, we agreed that if we weren’t 100% happy about the final beer, we would ditch it, because I didn’t want anything sub-standard going out into trade. Give me the remit of producing a Wit beer, Weiss beer, Stout, Dunkel, Double IPA etc and I pretty much have it dialed in on the first brew. However, with barrel aged sour beers, I was extremely apprehensive of getting it right and more than aware I might make mess of it.
Over the next five years I produced three batches in all, including the winning beers. Batch 1, which we brewed and matured at the Hall, was packaged into 500ml bottles and labelled as ‘Sour Brown’. This beer was really well received and went down brilliantly. No-one else in the UK had really produced a successful American-style Sour Brown and it was a real leap forward. But personally, I felt there was scope for improvement, as by the time we had bottled it, I had learnt a huge amount about the process. Each time I learnt something new and changed something, I wrote it down, whether it be the EBU, the storage temperature, the timing and pitching rates of the bacteria and wild yeasts, how often we topped up the barrels, how much fruit, what type of fruit, how much residual extract to leave, the humidity of the room…the list of details that affect the final product is endless. Records for making barrel aged beers are so important as you don’t really get to know what the effect was of a subtle change until up to a year later, so we were fastidious about this.
I think what was really key though was the blending. Prior to packaging, we did numerous blends to get it right. There were some barrels which were really funky and I think on their own, they would have been picked out as having faults and only desirable by the real sour connoisseur. However, blended back, they really gave the overall beer an edge; they were like the magic dust sprinkled over the blend! We also blended back some barrels from the second batch which were a bit less sour, which reigned in the final blend and improved drinkability. It would be wrong to think I achieved this all by reading books and trial and error. I also had a lot of communication with Vinnie Cilurzo from Russian River, who really helped me out with so many of the questions I had. I think anyone who has had the pleasure of his company, or even just tasted his sour beer range, can vouch for the fact he is an inspiration.
Back to the World Beer Cup. After three days of judging, I decided to move on to check out Sierra Nevada’s new brewing facility, which was simply out of this world in every respect. To get back from Asheville, it was two flights back to NYC and I didn’t really want to travel back for the awards ceremony in Philly. Although I was hopeful we had maybe won an award, I didn’t really hold out too much hope owing to the sheer volume and quality of competition. I think there were entries from 1907 breweries from 55 countries this year and in the barrel aged sour beer category there were something like 120 entries. So to actually get the call from my old mate Caolan, while sat in the airport waiting to return to England, that we had won gold and silver in one of the toughest categories, just blew me away! I did have an inkling it was a good beer and sent a few bottles to friends a month before, who were all pretty damn good brewers, but had heard nothing back, so I was assuming that they were being polite by not saying anything! I also had a visiting Lambic blender comment when tasting one of the barrels that he thought the beer had gone too acetic. Although he didn’t brew a Flanders style, it still sowed a seed of doubt in my mind.
It’s pretty common as a craft brewer gets bigger and more successful that a certain crowd can criticise you for being no longer being craft or that your beers weren’t what they were. So you must forgive me for having a little chuckle to myself, knowing we cleaned up in the probably the hottest beer category for hipsters! We sold out of the first small bottling run of both beers with most going overseas, but we have bottled more of the same batches now so you can get your hands on it very soon.
Rob Lovatt, Head Brewer