Last month I headed into the city to the Tria Fermentation School to attend a "class" led by Rob Tod - Head Brewer of Allagash Brewing Company.
I signed up for the class late, so I was expecting standing room only, however, after mistiming the Philly traffic, I was the first to arrive a half-hour early. The "principal" Erin told me she had a cancellation, so I could pick any seat I wanted. Sweet. I decided to do something I never did in the normal school of my childhood -- sit up front, closest to the teacher.
Each row of tables had six place settings. Each setting had a paper placemat with the names of seven beers. An equal amount of wine glasses were arranged above each beer name. The beers I would taste that night were:
1) Chimay Grande Reserve 1996 Magnum (Belgium - 9.0%)
2) Allagash Four (Portland, ME - 10.0%)
3) Allagash Interlude (Portland, Me – 9.5%)
4) Cantillon Saint Lamvinus (Brussels, Belgium – 5.0%)
5) Drie Fonteinen Oude Kriek (Beersel, Belgium – 6.0%)
6) Allagash Straight “Lambic” Style (Portland, ME, ?%)
7) Allagash Framboise (Portland, ME, ?%)
More detail on those beers ahead.
Next to the collection of glasses was a plate of cheeses, nuts, and meats. Instead of bread, they had a cluster of Philly pretzels. Ha. All these goodies were served on an oval wooden board. For those curious, the cheeses were Spring Brook Tarentaise (Reading, VT – Cow-R) and Sottocenere Al Tartufo (Veneto, Italy – Cow-P).
The class slowly filled in as 6:30 arrived. I do not know many of the local beer personalities, but I did recognize a Sierra Nevada salesman, Patrick?, from the Life & Limb, Limb & Life event at Isaac Newtons the night before. A guy I did not recognize gestured at my Cantillon T-Shirt, muttered “nice” and mentioned that he just got back from there two days ago. I later found out that this was Tom Peters – owner of Monk’s Café. The classroom was loud with beer talk when a preppy dude with a wool sweater approached me and asked me how I was doing. Do I know you, I wondered? It took me several moments to realize this was Rob Tod. He didn’t seem nervous, but admitted to being a little unprepared.
The class was about sour beers, with the main event centered on the debut of Allagash’s own spontaneously fermented beer, however, Rob and his brewing posse just came back from Belgium a few days before, so he started with a focus on some of the Trappist breweries they visited. As he talked about his visit to St. Bernardus, Orval, and Chimay, Rob flipped through photos projected on the big screen at the front of the room. A pair of young sharply-dressed young women walked around the room pouring the first beer of our tasting – Chimay Grande Reserve 1996 Magnum. The beer had tons of sediment in it and smelled cidery and a little musty like an old basement. The taste reminded me a little bit of an apple slice that had sat out long enough to turn brown. I also picked up some caramel flavors. I wouldn’t have guessed it was thirteen years old – it held up pretty well! This bottle was from Tom Peters’ private stock.
After wrapping up the summary of his trip, Rob talked about how he got into brewing. He started this off by answering a question he is often asked – did he always drink good beer? To answer this he pulled up a photo of him standing on a car roof, no shirt, long hair held in place with a headband. And in his hand? A can of Bud! This got tons of laughs. Thankfully, Celis White opened his eyes to a world other than yellow fizz and Allagash was born. The first Allagash beer we tasted was Allagash Four, or as the Allagash brewers call it – “the FUCKING four” – since it is a bitch to make. The theme for this beer is the number 4 – four malts, four hops, and four yeast strains. After one yeast finishes, they add a form of sugar and a different yeast, giving the beer a unique complexity. The used to brew the beer with rock candy sugar, but switched to the cheaper table sugar after some careful experiments that confirmed no difference in flavor. They also use dark Belgian candi sugar syrup. In the boil they use molasses. In the mash they add dates that have been ground up and rolled in flour so they don’t stick.
The next beer was probably my favorite of the night – Allagash Interlude. It’s a sour ale aged on oak. I thought it was delicious. The beer was born out of a saison gone bad. They brewed a saison with Dupont’s temperamental yeast. As a side note, I heard about this yeast, so before brewing my Saison, I read Phil Markowski’s Farmhouse Ales book which claimed Dupont ferments their Saison up to 90 degrees F! So I disconnected myself from standard brewing practice and brewed mine up to that temperature in the middle of August --- and got about 80% attenuation. Ok, back to Rob’s story. Allagash’s brewers didn’t get full attenuation of their Saison and sort of gave up on it. A few days later after it had stopped bubbling, it suddenly started up again. Hey great, they thought! It’s not a loss after all. But when they tasted it, they realized a wild yeast had devoured the remaining sugars, giving the beer a wine-like tart flavor. It was so vinous that Rob consulted with a vintner friend and put half of the beer in used wine oak barrels. To make the final product, they blend the oaked and un-oaked beer and bottle it. Rob pointed out that the beer does not have a head since wild yeast consumes all the long chain sugars that add foam stability.
Our next beer was a 2007 Cantillon Saint Lamvinus. It’s an unblended lambic blended with merlot grapes. I must’ve really liked this beer because my note-taking was a little spotty. They used 300 grams of fruit per liter of lambic. That would be about twelve pounds of grapes for a five gallon batch! Quite a lot. Rob mentioned that Cantillon uses chains and steam to clean their used barrels, presumably to provide more oak flavor, but noted that lambic brewers don’t all agree about this method.
Our next lambic was Oud Kriek from Drie Fonteinen. This brewery is run by Armand De Belder – the son of a famous lambic blender. You may have heard, but this past May, a faulty thermostat ruined thousands of bottles of beer. With help from his brewer friends and with the clever idea of distilling some of the ruined beer and selling it as a spirit, he was able to resume brewery operations. The beer we tried that night was from first batch since the incident.
On to the Allagash lambics! First, the coolship. Allagash expanded on their brewery to build a room to house a large copper coolship to cool the lambic overnight. They told the township that they were building a shed to house lawn equipment, but wait, they installed stained glass windows. In their lawn shed? That got a lot of laughs. The pane of glass on the door is of an “A” for Allagash.
The first lambic we tried was the first batch of their straight unblended lambic. The medium-dark gold beer was still, tasted like smelly cheese and fruit, and finished with a harsh bitter aftertaste. It was a bit rough. Pretty interesting, but not for me. The beer is made by performing a decoction mash with lots of unmalted grains. I think Allagash has something of an obsession with the number four. That the wort was boiled for four hours explains the bitterness. They didn’t account for the loss from evaporation. They used four-year-old whole-leaf hops for the bittering which breaks down the alpha acids. After the boil, the beer is transferred to the coolship, the corner of which is a small screened-in area that strains out the hops. The wort is allowed to cool overnight. In the morning, it’s 70 degrees F. They move the beer to a mixing tank called a “horny tank” – I could be spelling it wrong. I believe it stays there for 24 hours before moving into oak barrels fitted with barrel-breathing bungs. The first batch took ten days to start, the second batch took seven, and the most recent batch started in three days. The bugs were settling in.
The second lambic we tried was Allagash’s fruit lambic made with raspberries. The beer was sour, cheesy, distinctly rosy/floral in taste with a slight aftertaste of raspberries. It had no head and was completely still. Again, very bitter. Rob did not know exactly where the fruit was from but was sure it was locally grown. Berries were added to a year and a half old lambic and allowed to sit for five months. Someone asked when the beer was bottled. Apparently earlier in the day, the head brewer pulled out a nail from the barrel used to grab samples and filled up the bottle from that! We were the first to try it. If you want to try the beer, the next place to try it is at the Night of the Great Thirst in Belgium in March.
I thought it was a great presentation and I really enjoyed the chance to taste the rare beers. Tria did a great job with organizing the class. The girls were very nice and the snacks were great! I look forward to going back there again.
Rob the Bud Drinker