Welcome to Liquid Lowdown, a column that will explore the strange, beautiful world of local drinks. Each entry will spotlight one craft liquid, made right here in metro Phoenix (or just beyond). Lowdowns will feature mostly beer, but we’ll also take detours into other alcoholic beverages. So snap open a can or thrum the cork from a bottleneck. Cheers. Let's get weird.
Name: Neonic (a series)
Style: Fruited sour
ABV: 5.1 percent
Brewery: The Shop Beer Co.
Address: 922 West First Street, Tempe
Hours: 11 a.m. to 10 p.m., Monday to Thursday; 11 a.m. to midnight, Friday; 10 a.m. to midnight, Saturday; 10 a.m. to 10 p.m., Sunday.
Lowdown: These days, beers with adjuncts like fruit, chocolate, and spices have become common. Gone are the times when a pie-inspired beer felt radical. And here, now, is a weird phase in the billion-armed evolution of American beer, where ordering a stout made to taste like a candy bar or a fruited sour is not only normal, but a risk. These beers can clobber you with sugar. They can tread on beer’s natural spirit with aggressive lactose, with a storm of spices.
But they can also be beautiful.
In Tempe, The Shop Beer Co. has been releasing a weekly fruited sour series in its tap room. This series, called Neonic, has become one of the 6-year-old brewery’s most sought-after projects, with crowds forming and cans selling out fast. On Saturdays, The Shop drops 100 Neonic cans and taps kegs to curious crowds and beer geek fanfare, the cans often selling out that day. If there are two flavors, the brewery will release 100 cans of each. Flavors use a sour base and integrate fruit in many ways, from puree to infusion, the goal being to re-create a nostalgic flavor in beer form.
Apple pie. Cherry limeade. Piña colada.
Cellarman Will Walthereson, who came over to The Shop from The Bruery in Placentia, California, captains Neonic. Walthereson brings prior experience marrying fruit with beer to The Shop. “Blend with purpose,” he says of his philosophy. “Don’t just add fruit to the beer.”
This means starting with an unusually potent Berliner weisse base, one quickly created through kettle souring, one with tang to counter fruit’s natural sweetness.
This means thinking beyond the neon globe of citrus, an easy, natural addition to beer. This means, when trying to conjure the flavor of a fruit within a beer, often taking the long way for the truest representation.
Though you can see motes of blueberry skin bobbing in the purple depths of a blueberry pie Neonic, those berries weren’t simply added and left to infuse, like a tea.
“There’s so many different types of blueberry that go into that to make it taste like blueberry,” says Dylan DeMiguel, who oversees the shop with co-owners Dave Arnce and head brewer Jason Calhoon. “You know, it’s like, strawberries — you think you know what strawberries taste like, but it’s so construed by sugar and candy and all these adjuncts that people use. It’s really hard to extract strawberry as a flavor.”
The artistry, Arnce says, comes from imagining how to recast fruit flavors. “Typically, it’s deconstructed,” he says. “If you’re going to re-create something nostalgic like a pie, you’re going to think of the flavors that are the most punchy. You’re going to think, ‘How do I blend that same punch into that beverage?' It’s not apples to apples.”
The brew crew at The Shop has these fruited sours down.
They range from swaggering to reserved. A piña colada Neonic pulses with intense brightness that calls to mind islands where the tropical drink is slurped. This Neonic is sugary and syrupy, like juice, and even has pulp.
Pie-inspired Neonics fall on the other end. Dropped on July 4, an apple pie version minimizes the apple’s slight bracing tang. This serves to spotlight the juice-packed fruit in a way like that of gooey pie filling. A touch of cinnamon conjures, in an indirect way, pie crust. A blueberry Neonic is even better, driving right at the heart of the cool berry, a true and honest showcase with the sweetness dialed down low.
And a passionfruit-lemonade Neonic dials the sugar, tang, and tropicality full. The peculiar electricity of the passionfruit is laced throughout rolling detonations of sweetness and tartness, making for a surprisingly complex fruited sour — one that rests a strong case for the existence of this often-botched style.
Arnce, who illustrated the vibrant-but-goofy Neonic cans, says that the passionfruit’s flavor better shine, because they used a “truckload.”
“We’re always trying to have fun with it,” Walthereson says, “and I think it shows in the beer.”
Endnotes: Neonic releases vary with the fruit seasons. The Shop has plans to release higher-ABV Neonics in the future. If you can't catch a release at the tap room on a Saturday, Neonic cans and draft pulls can often be yours a few days later. Call ahead to see.
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