Sour beers are the new black in craft beer right now. Which is great, because sour beer is awesome and I love it.
We make some sours around NBB, which is also convenient for my love of the style. La Folie is our best known. Then there's Eric's Ale, Clutch, Le Terroir, Tart Lychee, Transatlantique Kriek and others. A host of sours from the lightly tart, to full blown tongue punchers, we try to keep up a variety. The problem is that every
year we can't make enough because these beers require long aging, it's what gives them their sour.
For those new to sour beer, or unfamiliar with the process, here is a very quick sour breakdown: We take finished (fully fermented) beer and put it into retired wine casks. We use retired (used) wine casks because they are a lot cheaper than new barrels, and we don't need, nor want, the oaky flavor that the new casks impart to the liquid. The beer and the French white oak of the barrels create a perfect environment for souring beers. The environment is dark, cool, rich in oxygen (the oxygen seeps in through the porous wood) and rich in alcohol (the beer is already fermented, remember). There is not a lot of things that can live in such an environment, but the stuff that can is awesome. A few kinds of wild yeasts and bacteria thrive here, they feast on the oxygen coming in, and as a by-product release sour acids to flavor the beer. Cool huh?
The only catch is that it takes a really long time for this natural process to happen. In the case of La Folie, it ages, on average, 3 years before we can package a ready product. So there is only so much per year. About 10 years ago in the mist of 75+ single barrels on racks we bought our first foudre ("foudre" is a Flemish word, it means huge oak barrel, I think). The picture on the right is a foudre. The foudre in the photo is an example of the largest size we currently have, holding 130 HL's of beer (a hectoliter is roughly 0.8 barrels, or 26.5 gallons (for perspective)). Up to 2011 year we had accumulated 16 foudres, ranging in size from the 130 HL, down to 60 HL, equaling a wood aging, sour beer program of 1800 total Hectoliters. That is a lot of sour beer. But remember, only some of this beer is ready on any given year, about a third, or 600 HL. This puts us in a bind for distribution because there is only so much, and the gaining popularity of sour beers has increased the demand beyond our supply. So we have decided to buy more foudres, expand the program, and make more sour beer for you (and me).
The wood cellar expansion project has been going since March of last year. Over that time we have been buying a couple foudres here and there, trying to get the needle moving. But in the words of a New Belgium co-worker close to the project "the used barrel market is dynamic." Which translates to "finding good, used barrels is a major pain in the ass." But recently we have hit pay-dirt, and some great, new (to us) barrels are on their way from France. And the new total foudre count has prompted some new construction. The needle is moving. We have transfered the can line, knocked out a wall and started re-doing the floor. Seven new foudres are on a boat (piles of staves and rings) and when they get here, and are assembled, our total foudre count will jump to 28. The range of sizes will also jump, from a little mini at 25 HL, all the way to 219 HL (that's one big barrel). Our total sour beer program will jump from 1800 HL to 3600 HL. But there is a catch here too. Remember how long the souring process takes? With the new foudres that timing doesn't change. Counting from when the expansion project is complete this June it will be at least two years before our sour beer numbers take a big leap. Which means the 2014 vintage La Folie (maybe). But the good news is that this project is happening, and underway, and that's very exciting. Get ready for more sour beers!
And if you get a chance to come by the brewery for a tour later this summer (like July or August) you should. The foudre area is going to be very cool and it will play an even bigger role in the tour route than it already does. You are going to want to see that. See you this summer!
And on that note, I'm out.