Craft Beer of the Week

18 Things I Learned at New Belgium's "Sour Symposium"

Last Week, Colorado's New Belgium Brewing Co. held what it dubbed the "Sour Symposium. Hosted at The Yard in Tempe, the $50 session included presentations from Eric Salazar, New Belgium's cellar master, and Lauren Salazar, the brewery's sensory specialist and beer-blender; a sampling of fancy meats and cheeses; and a lesson on blending sour beers, culminating in the opportunity to taste version's of La Folie, a sour red ale, from five different foeders.

That last part may sound like gibberish to the uninitiated, but for the beer geeks in attendance it was the highlight of the event. The sour beers that New Belgium puts into kegs and bottles are actually blends of many different versions of the same base brew that have been fermented in different foeders, or giant oaken barrels, populated by yeast and bacteria that produce sour, funky flavors. Each barrel creates a unique environment for the microflora, and the beers the little critters affect can have wildly different profiles. The chance to see just how different -- and to attempt to blend these base beers into a tasty whole -- was enlightening.

Also eye-opening was the presentation given by the two Salazars, which was filled with secret stories from the brewery, explanations of the process of making a sour beer and more. Here are the best things I learned from them.

  • Lauren Salazar is known today as one of the most knowledgeable people in the beer industry, but it wasn't always so. When she started with New Belgium 17 years ago, she had zero qualifications -- she was actually a geriatric nursing assistant.
  • Lauren's middle name is Woods, which I found funny and appropriate given the time she now spends working with wood-aging.

  • New Belgium Brewing Co. was founded in 1991, but didn't begin making sour ales until 1998. The sour program was a side project for the brewery, spearheaded by head brewer Peter Bouckaert, who came to New Belgium (the brewery) via Belgium (the country) and used to work for Brouwerij Rodenbach, a venerated brewer of Flemish-style sours.

  • On the first day of bottling sours, the brewers rented a hot tub because they thought the day would be a monumental party. It ended up the opposite: 17-plus hours of hard, horrible labor. Bottles exploded; tears were shed; one brewer almost lost a finger in some bottling equipment. No one stepped foot in the hot tub.

  • In 1999, Lauren says, nobody at New Belgium knew to be afraid of wild yeast. It would be years before brewers discovered that these kinds of bacteria could infest an entire brewery and ruin many batches of beer; before then, brewers were adding yeast strains willy nilly, with no thought to consequences.

  • When their sour ales first started hitting shelves and taps, New Belgium constantly got calls from bar owners asking what was wrong with the beers. The style and its particular flavors were just too new to American palates.

  • Every sour ale New Belgium produces is made with one of two base beers: Felix and Oscar. These brews are made using the same equipment as every other beer at the brewery; the difference is that after the brewing process is complete, the odd couple is sent to the wood cellar for a minimum two years of aging.

  • Despite characterful beers they turn out to be, Felix an Oscar are both lagers. The reason, Lauren says, is that all she wants the two beers do do is feed the microflora in the barrels. The bacteria and yeast provide the character to the finished product, and any other components from the base beers will oxidize during their long stay in the barrels and will affect the flavor.

  • The giant wooden foeders the brewery uses to make its sour ales are only made in France. They're mainly used by wineries and are only given up once all the character and flavor from the wood has been fully extracted. This makes them extremely rare and in high demand -- Lauren wouldn't reveal where New Belgium gets its stock for fear that some other brewery would swoop them.

  • The first foeders New Belgium purchased were 30 years old when. They arrived at the brewery in stacks of wooden staves and were constructed by five coopers.

  • These foeders are still in use, and house the original bacteria blend from the first batch of La Folie ever produced.

  • Hydration of foeders is messy business. Water flows through cracks until the wood absorbs all the water. The process can take some time -- foeders that arrived at New Belgium in December 2013 are just now becoming ready to use.

  • A foeder can take 3-4 years to become inoculated with yeast at the levels brewers want.

  • New Belgium houses all its foeders in a single room appropriately called the "Foeder Forest." The full capacity of this space is 64 foeders, or about 6,900 barrels of beer.

  • The first batch of La Folie, Lauren says, was so sour it could rip the enamel from your teeth. Now, she says, she's more mature and attempts to formulate the brewery's sours with more balance. "I try other breweries' sours and I go, 'Oh, I remember when I was like that!" she says. Balanced sour flavor comes with skill and, it seems, maturity.

  • Lauren tastes the beers aging inside the foeders daily and uses symbols to designate where the flavor's at. Her notebooks are riddled with drawn-in smiley faces, sideways faces, hearts, punctuation marks and more to indicate her feelings on a articular foeder's flavor. A heart plus a smiley face plus an exclamation point is the highest rating she can give. Beers with those symbols are called New Belgium Love, and they get kegged right away.

  • Lauren has names for all the foeders. There's foeder number one, called Sure Thing, which has produced the same flavor for more than a decade and has been in every La Folie blend. foeder 16 is known as Lady Marmalade; number 24 is Marzipan; 28 is Grape Ape. Soleil is so named because it's located near a window and is constantly being beaten on by the sun, which causes some weird flavors in its beers. Vader arrived at the brewery stained black and sweats off this stain like ink. Pixie Dust, ODB, Bill Withers and Baby are just some of the others.

  • This year's batch of La Folie is made with a blend of beer from 13 different foeders.

  • Zach Fowle is a BJCP-recognized beer judge and a Certified Cicerone. He works at World of Beer in Tempe.

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