Brew it and they will drink.
Mixed-culture fermentation has a long history in North America stretching back to the days prior to Prohibition. Brewers with British roots arriving in the great port cities of the east fanned out across the continent, some of them continuing the tradition of tart, oak-aged stock ales. German immigrants also left their mark, not only in the form of Pabst, Coors, and Anheuser-Busch. In the late nineteenth century, Baltimore was a thriving center of Berliner Weisse production.
Alas, none of these tart and sour styles survived the assault of Prohibition, and it wasn’t until the 1990s that indigenous mixed-culture beers began to reappear, ever so cautiously at first. Michael Tonsmiere, author of American Sour Ales, credits Kinney Baughman of Cottonwood Grille and Brewery (North Carolina) with the first post-Prohibition sour beers –– beers that were, incidentally, the result of a fortuitous accident. By 1999, New Belgium had released La Folie under the stewardship of Peter Bouckaert, formerly of the venerable Brouwerij Rodenbach in Belgium. Right around the same time on the other side of the Rockies, Vinnie Cilurzo of Russian River Brewing Company had just acquired his first two Chardonnay barrels that would hold his first barrel-aged beer: the Brett-spiked Temptation. But tart and sour beers still constituted a mere trickle of the rising craft beer tide. As late as 2002, the Great American Beer Festival attracted but a handful of entrants upon introducing its first sour beer category: fifteen all told.
What a difference a decade-and-change makes. When Ron Jeffries founded Jolly Pumpkin in 2004, he was among the first of a generation of brewers to focus exclusively on mixed fermentation in conjunction with barrel-aging. Nowadays it wouldn’t be an understatement to say that sour beers and wild ales are nearly as popular among the craft beer cognoscenti as the ubiquitous American-style IPA, with breweries like Jester King and Crooked Stave having taken up positions alongside Jolly Pumpkin.
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For this first edition of the Sunday Sour Sessions, I dug into my consumable archives for a bottle from Jolly Pumpkin’s Baudelaire Beer series: the iO Saison brewed with rose hips, rose petals, and hibiscus. I first encountered this intriguing beer at the 2012 Great American Beer Festival, but it wasn’t until I visited the Jolly Pumpkin Café and Brewery in Ann Arbor this past August that I came across this rare gem again. The bottle’s back label declares that beer is “an art form that excites our senses and stirs our imagination.” Inspired by Baudelaire’s words –– “A breath of air from the wings of madness” –– the good brewers of Jolly Pumpkin resolved to follow their creative muse to “a romantic world, dimly lit by distant memory.” The result of their poetic inquiry is a whimsical beer that starts with the effervescence and crisp lime-pepper bitterness of a Saison, and ends as a delicately floral sour beer that will pair extremely well with most any season.
Substitute the dim lighting of distant memory for a dimly-lit room set for dinner, et voilà! A tolerably poetic backdrop that flatters this luminescent amber-orange beer with its billowing ivory foam cap blushing o-so-slightly pink: an intimation of the rose and hibiscus to come. Unlike so many beers in which the special ingredients either lurk in the shadows offstage or overpower the ensemble, the floral performers in this chamber orchestra play their solo pieces elegantly, leaving enough space for the wild yeast’s pineapple-mango fruit to register its presence with a firm clarity. The hibiscus tartness harmonizes well with a citrusy acidity that soars above the nutmeg-spiced honeyed malt notes, building to Saison-like lime-pepper crescendo before subsiding into mellow reminiscences of freshly-mown fields.
The bottle that inspired these musings bears a palimpsest-like date stamp that appears to read “02/16/2014.” Laced as it is with Brettanomyces, the dry and elegant iO Saison is a beer that you can lay down for a spell to see how it develops. I purchased my bottle in August and cellared it for six months. Drinking date: 01/24/2015.
Michael Tonsmeire, American Sour Beers: Innovative Techniques for Mixed Fermentations (Boulder, CO: Brewers Publications, 2014).
Related Tempest Articles
La Folie label: www.newbelgium.com
Jolly Pumpkin tap handles (Ann Arbor) and iO Saison label: photos by F.D. Hofer
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