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New Belgium Brewing’s Sour Symposium

Eric Salazar – Brewer (Center Left with the beard) and Lauren Salazar – Sensory Specialist (to the right of the firkins, with the pony tail).

I was fortunate enough to be able to attend New Belgium Brewing‘s Sour Symposium during PDX Beer Week.  This event featured several great beer dinners, barrel aging seminars, and the Sour Symposium.  Our hosts for the night were the local crew of New Belgium employees and Lauren and Eric Salazar from the “Mothership” in Ft. Collins.  In addition to being husband and wife, Eric is a brewer and Lauren is in charge of the brewery’s sensory program.  When it comes to the sour program, Lauren decides which foedres and in what quantities to blend the beer.  Eric does the blending.

New Belgium Brewing has been one of the leaders in the American sour movement.  Probably the most famous and longest running beer in their sour line is La Folie.  When Peter Bouckaert became New Belgium’s head brewer, he brought with him years of sour beer experience from his previous gig at Rodenbach (The king of Flemish Reds.)  This was one of the best parts of the Symposium: learning the history of how New Belgium started brewing Sours.

Eric Salazar and the New Belgium Foedres (Picture from New Belgium Brewing)

One day, Peter showed up with some wine barrels and had them filled with beer.  On a regular basis the team would sit down and taste the development of the beer.  According to Lauren Salazar, it took the tasters a long time to get what Peter was going for.  He wanted them to learn how the barrel was alive and how it affected the development of the beer over time through all the odd/bad tasting phases until the beer was ready.  Eventually, they started constructing larger foedres so they could seriously begin brewing sour beers.

New Belgium makes 2 sour beers, or rather 2 base beers that will be used in all of their sours: Oscar and Felix.  Oscar is the darker, more “moody” beer that will be used in La Folie while Felix is the lighter colored beer that will be used in beers such a La Terroir.  The beers are fermented out fully so that the beer going into the foedres is as dry as possible.  According to Lauren, they don’t want the beer to continue fermenting in the foedres, they want the beers to acidify.  Once you add too much sugar into the mix, things can get out of control with the various bacteria and wild bacteria that inhabit the oak of the foedres.  Interestingly enough, all the oak is French oak.  Apparently, American Oak is way too intense and takes forever to leach the wood character out of the barrels. The intense oak of the American variety also acts as a strong anti-microbial agent, which isn’t what you want when you’re trying to cultivate bacteria and wild yeast.  So, they use used French oak wine barrels that they reassemble into their foedres.  The French oak provides the perfect living space for all the bugs to grow and is just porous enough to allow just the right amount of oxygen through to the edges of the liquid.  Each foedre has its own personality and will develop the beer in slightly different ways.  It was amazing to hear the level of love Lauren and Eric have for their foedres and the amount of care they put into keeping their bugs happy and producing fantastic sour beer. Many of the foedres even have their own names.

When Lauren tastes through the foedres, she marks them into three categories (my apologies if I don’t remember the exact words): Use, blend, and wait.  The “wait” foedres aren’t ready or are in an off period and should be tested later.  The “blend” have interesting notes that will be added in small quanities.  The “use” are the ones that are dynamic and complex that will form the majority of the beer.  Another fun fact, the sour beers never get taken to New Belgium’s high-tech lab to be broken down into flavor components and such.  The beers are evaluated purely on human senses.  On the super rare occasion that Lauren encounters a sample that is wonderful and “perfect” on its own, they’ll package is solo as a “NBB Love” item.  Think of Rodenbach’s vintage beers.  A unique, one-time beer from a single foedre.

The second part of the Sour Symposium was a hands on blending exercise.  They brought 4 firkins that contained beer from 4 of the Oscar foedres: F02,F07, F08, and F14.  All of beers were of Use and Blend ratings.  We were given beer from each firkin plus some beer from a past blend of La Folie (this was used to add a bit of carbonation and mouthfeel).  We then got to mix the 5 beers and create our own custom blend!  Once we’d figured out what blend we liked, we gave them our recipe and they filled a growler with our custom blend to take home.  My final blend was: 16oz F02, 16oz F07, 16oz Fo8, 8oz F14, and 8oz of La Folie.  It created a very balanced and round sour.  I blended a little higher on the sour side, as I like mine with a bit of tart punch.  There were notes of vanilla, soft hints of wood, bracing acidity with a nice mellowing sweetness.  Truly a once in a lifetime beer!

This was sincerely one of the best beer events I’ve had the privilege of attending.  Lauren and Eric are wonderful ambassadors for New Belgium and their sour program.  The hands on blending and their educational slide show helped to demystify one of my favorite styles of beer.  If you ever see this event coming to your town (they’re taking it on the road), do whatever you can to free up the time to attend it.  You won’t be disappointed.

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