Beer: Red Poppy Brewery: The Lost Abbey Style: Flanders Red Ale ABV: 5 percent
In Illa Brettanomyces Nos Fides reads an eight-foot sign hanging over the entrance to the barrel room of The Lost Abbey in San Marcos, Calif. It's a Latin phrase that, translated precisely, means "in this place we have faith in British fungus." Less literally, it means "in wild yeast we believe," which is a fitting mantra for one of the most celebrated brewers of sour ales in the U.S. Inside the barrels contained in that room, billions of yeast and bacteria cells are churning, changing the liquid inside to sought-after sours like Cable Car, Veritas and Duck Duck Gooze. Because Brettanomyces and other funky strains take so long to impart their most unique aspects onto a beer, many of these barrels won't see the light of day for years.
Some of them, however, are open now. It's Red Poppy season.
Red Poppy is The Lost Abbey's take on a style known as Flanders Red Ale or Flemish Red Ale, named for the Flanders region of Northern Belgium. These sour, crimson-hued brews were traditionally brewed in Flan-diddly-anders' western half, where they became known as "the Burgundy of Belgium" for their resemblance to strongly flavored red wine. The most striking characteristic of a Flemish Red, other than its pigment, is intense acidity developed through extended aging in oak barrels populated with wild bacteria. These critters can go to work on their house beers for up to two years, imparting striking acidity that, combined with intense dark fruit notes already present in the brew, create a flavor not unlike balsamic vinegar.
Red Poppy is made much the same way. A yearly release at the Abbey since 2006, the brew is made from a brown ale base (more on that in a second) fermented in French oak wine barrels for more than six months. Tart cherries are added in the barrel for additional fruit flavor and fermentable sugar. No flowers are harmed in the beer's making -- the name is an homage to the Golden Poppy, the state flower of California, and the Red Poppy that grows in fields of rouge in Flanders.
Before the barrels and bugs, Red Poppy's a simple ale known as Dawn Patrol Dark. Lost Abbey brewmaster Tomme Arthur created this mild brew while working at the Solana Beach location of the brewery/pizza place chain, Pizza Port, in response to endless requests from customers for Newcastle. Arthur didn't have anything like that well-known English brown on draft, so he created a sessionable brown ale the would-be Castle-stormers could respond to. His concoction, Dawn Patrol, is a mild ale both in alcohol (4.2 percent) and flavor, made from a blend of six malts and lightly hopped with Challenger and East Kent Goldings. A cool fermentation keeps yeast esters at bay, lending the brew a clean, malt-focused character that makes it a perfect base for experimentation with funky yeast strains.
The beer that comes out of those barrels after six months is anything but mild. Dark, syrupy cherry-red, the liquid's completely opaque and highlighted with effervescence. At its top, a crown of cocoa-colored froth sends notes of raspberry, balsamic, oak, and cherries drizzled with dark chocolate bouncing off the nostrils. This brilliant balance and complexity carries into the flavor, where dark tart cherries, chocolate syrup, vinous oak, and balsamic meld, depositing a moderate acetic character on the sides of the tongue, after a drying, snappy finish.
It's a habit of American brewers to let the acidity of their Flemish-style ales become so intense it feels like the enamel off your teeth is being rubbed off. In Red Poppy, however, it's perfect -- just tart enough to be attractive, but not so excessive as to turn you off. This, along with delightfully complex flavors, makes Red Poppy a joy to sip and ponder. It's undoubtedly one of the best examples of a Flanders Red in America. Grab one of the bottles popping up on shelves across the Valley and you, too, may find faith in British fungus.