Addendum (24 August 2014):
When I read the theme for September’s edition of The Session, it seemed an ideal occasion to share something I had written earlier this summer. September’s Session topic, My First Belgian, comes to us courtesy of Breandán and Elisa of Belgian Smaak, a blog dedicated to Belgian beer and chocolate.
While the piece below isn’t, technically, about the first Belgian beer I ever had––that honour goes to the several Tripels I mistook for Pilseners on my first night in Bruges in the early 1990s (hey, I was young)––it is, tangentially, about my first sour beer. Hopefully the piece will serve as encouragement for those who are still sitting on the fence about these intriguing beers.
* * *
To age a sour beer, or not to age it? How long will a sour beer keep?
Say you’re at your local bottle shop and standing in front of a shelf and spy a few Belgian sours that have been marked down. Should you buy them?
Recently I received a note from one of my readers asking questions along those lines. After re-reading my response, I thought that some of it might be useful for other readers. What follows is a slightly altered and expanded version of the response I sent XYZ, posted with his permission.
*Note: I employ the term “sour” in the broadest sense, without making distinctions between Flanders Red, Oud Bruin, Gueuze, Lambic, Gose, Berliner Weisse, or any sour that would fall vaguely under the rubric of “farmhouse ale” or North American wild ale. Though united by their sourness or tartness, the different processes associated with each style produce beers that are entirely unique. Not all of these beers are suitable for aging.
my local bottle shop has a deal on bacchus sour ale, $3.99/bottle, which they say is very low (they say it’s usually $8 a pop, the internet says it’s usually $6 a pop). these are probably at discount b/c they were bottled late fall 2011. tried a bottle, seemed tasty, but maybe i was in a good mood. how well does sour ale keep, is this a good deal or should i pass on buying more and go straight for the duchess or the petrus pale ale at $1-2 more a bottle? or should we destitute graduate students give up on the pretensions of one fine beer a week, and go for six shitty buds instead? which produces a better dissertation? which produces a faster dissertation? does that distinction matter?
As soon as I saw the word “dissertation,” I put two and two together – which, as I’m sure you know, equals five. Notes from Underneath the Weight of a Dissertation. I’ve been there.
Anyway, Bacchus: I haven’t actually had the Bacchus sour yet. As far as the price goes, it compares favourably with beers such as Duchesse de Bourgogne and Petrus. In terms of bottle age, I’d be inclined to take the chance––certain sour beers can be reliable candidates for cellaring. I don’t have much experience in this field myself, but I have laid down a few Gueuzes for the long term, and once managed to save up three different vintages of Goose Island’s Sofie for a vertical tasting. (Tasting notes here.) Incidentally, a few weeks back I had the pleasure of tasting two vintages of Choc’s Gose from their Signature series: a 2012 and a 2013. I hadn’t thought of Gose as a style that age would flatter, but the 2012 had developed fuller, more complex flavours and a more intense but nuanced sourness. How – or whether – these flavours will develop over the long term, though, is anybody’s guess.
Before I go any further, here’s a caveat and an anecdote. First off, the caveat: sour beers tend to be lower in ABV (alcohol percentage); typically, beers lower in alcohol won’t stand up to cellaring as well as, say, barley wines or imperial stouts. But even at their lightest – a Lambic or Gueuze, for example – sour beers are the product of an interesting cocktail of “domesticated” and “wild” yeast (most predominant being Brettanomyces), usually acting in concert with bacteria (such as Lactobacillus and Pediococcus) that would contribute otherwise undesirable aromas and flavours to other beer styles––acetic acid, or a lactic or citrusy tartness, for example. What’s interesting, though, is that different strains of Bettanomyces yeast and different kinds of bacteria will express themselves at varying stages of the aging process, adding nuances along the way. Introduce a bit of barrel aging, and you have a whole new layer of complexity. If you want a baseline for comparison with a “similar-but-different” variety of farmhouse beer, here’s an interesting article from Draft Magazine on aging Saisons.
And now for the anecdote. It was early spring and, like you, my dissertation held me firmly in its clutches. In need of a much-needed break, I went to the bottle shop with a close friend who was also in the process of expanding his appreciation of beer. Both of us had plenty of experience with wine and spirits, but we weren’t quite prepared for what awaited us in that small bottle of Gueuze on which we had just dropped northwards of twelve bucks. Man, it smelled rankly pungent. Bandaid! Old hay! Horse blanket! Barnyard! It even smelled vaguely like washed-rind cheese. And it tasted, well, sour. And somehow not quite right. At any rate, we didn’t taste much of the beer, for by the time we had smelled it, we were already plenty convinced that this bottle of beer had given up the ghost. Back we went to the bottle shop.
Why am I relating this anecdote? Well, the Gueuze in question was vintage-dated, and had a few years of age on it. The only thing I knew about these kinds of beers at the time is that they were supposed to develop with age. But bandaid and barnyard? I protested loudly, and demanded a refund. The folks at the counter suggested – very diplomatically, given the circumstances – that perhaps this was a style of beer that would take some getting used to. To no avail.
Eventually, though, I learned that Gueuzes and Lambics (and the various other sour beers I’ve tasted since) have their own distinct charm. But it took some time for me to appreciate these beers and their potential for aging.
So buy those Bacchus sours. Taste one now, and lay one down. If you have the extra cash, get the Duchesse and a Petrus and do a tasting with all three. If you had to pick one over the others – and I suppose the issue of choice is a component of your question – I’d go with the Duchesse, but only because it’s one of my favourite beers. If you’ve had the Duchesse already, the different beers that Petrus offers are, for the most part, excellent too. You can’t go wrong with Rodenbach’s Grand Cru either – even as a destitute grad student. Even better: splurge on a Rodenbach Vintage if your bottle shop carries it and crack it when you’re done your dissertation. And while you’re spending your hard-earned graduate stipend, don’t forget about some of the excellent producers of sour beers and farmhouse ales that have sprung up on this side of the pond, such as Crooked Stave, Stillwater Artisanal Ales, Jester King, Prairie Artisan Ales, and Jolly Pumpkin, just to name a few.
Which brings us to your final set of questions: the relationship between drinking fine beverages and finishing that dissertation. I don’t know what you’re writing about, but I’d be willing to wager that one Rodenbach Grand Cru in the fridge is worth far more than any number of Buds in your gullet. The Rodenbach might cost more than a flat of macro brew, but hey, that’s what being a pretentious grad student’s all about – assuming, of course, that you uphold certain pretenses. So drink the better beer when you can afford it. Doing so might not produce a better dissertation in the end, but chances are you’ll feel happier basking in the glow of an imperial stout buzz when your writing stalls than you’d feel after downing a 6er of Bud and trying to fill that blank page with sage thoughts.
Better versus faster: the only good dissertation is a done dissertation. I’m sure you’ve heard that before.
Related Tempest Articles:
Harvest Straw Bales in Schleswig-Holstein: Wiki Commons
Brockhaus and Efron Encyclopedic Dictionary: Wiki Commons
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