Tuesday, March 22, 2016

The Gueuze Showdown: Je Suis Bruxelles!

After the tragic terrorist attacks that took place today in Brussels I had considered not posting this entry today as planned due to this post's relation to Belgium and its indigenous beer, Lambic. But instead decided to carry on and pay my respects to Belgium herself and the family and friends of the injured and deceased. Terrible and senseless violence that blows my damn mind, too scary out there sometimes. Je Suis Bruxelles!

-cartoon by artist Plantu as posted by newspaper Le Monde

Beer drinkers tend to judge beers before a drop of it even touches their glass, we are all guilty of it. Whether it's something world renowned like Cantillon Gueuze or something new that you may or may not like the branding of its hard not to judge a book by its cover. It can really be hard to be impartial when you finally get a hold of that white whale bottle you've been dying to taste for some time. For those reasons blind tastings, a key to the success of Brulosophy.com, of commercial beers helps remove the hype and branding of the beer and really just evaluate it for what's in the bottle. Not a novel idea of course, but something everyone should do from time to time with any style, the results just might surprise you.

I recently lined up a blind tasting for my buddies and I of some of my favorite Gueuze examples that I was able to procure. To add a little wrinkle to the tasting, and to prove just how shitty of a blender I am, I snuck in a bottle of a Lambic blend I did over a year ago. It had been a while since I had a bottle and wanted to see how it has aged but also to see if it I, or the other tasters, could pick it out as the odd bottle of the group and how it held up to the real experts.

From my visit to Brasserie Cantillon.
Gueuze, and Lambic in general, is one of the most fascinating beverages in the world. Depending on what brewery/blender the beer is from the Gueuze will vary based on many factors including terroir, blenders taste, among others, and yet from producer to producer each example is unmistakably Gueuze Lambic. You would think with a spontaneously fermented product, aged 1-3 years, then blended the end results would be totally unlike each other from blender to blender. Sure there are flavor nuances and differences between brewery/blenders offerings but with the methods used to brew and blend these beers it's amazing that they share such similarities. It's a real testament to the tradition and craft that these brewers/blenders are able to produce such beers of quality and consistency. Did my blend achieve that unmistakable Lambic character? Doubtful. Here are the contenders.
Ed's homebrew blend, Girardin 1882 Black Label, Boon Gueuze Mariage Parfait,
Tilquin Gueuze, Lindemans Cuvee Renee, Cantillon Gueuze 100% Bio

Some heavy hitters in the mix here with Cantillon, Tilquin, Girardin as some of my personal favorites, sadly couldn't find a Drie Fonteinen bottle. But also some readily available options with the Cuvée Renee and Mariage Parfait (higher alcohol % I know but still fits). I know I shouldn't be pulling favorites but I secretly hoped to like The Cuvée Renee the best because of it's availability and price point, or maybe I should have hoped to like my own better? All bottles were poured out for the tasting by a third party to ensure blindness, using mostly all the same glasses but unfortunately we were a little short. I was trying to keep all variables the same but we could only procure so many small tasting glasses. 

Here are some quick notes I took on the beers, blindly of course. 

A: Picked out as Ed's Homebrew blend immediately, ethyl acetate, tart but a sweetness in end cuts it. Clearly stands out...as not a blend by a classic Gueuze blender :(
B: Boring aroma, not very tart, very carbonated, champagne like. 
C: Beautiful funk, sweaty, dry, lightly tart, effervescent. Awesome. 
D: Cloudy, light funk, quite tart, effervescent, dry, acidic, peppery, lingering tartness. Very nice. 
E: Sweaty Brett funk, similar to C in aroma, hay, slight vinegar, acidic, dry and effervescent
F: Smells of crackery malt, boring Brett/fermentation aromatics, sweet, not very acidic. An otherwise snoozefest of a Gueuze.

Thanks to our independant pourer, can you tell she used to tend bar? Me neither :)

Palate fatigue really set in with this tasting, it might have been wise to cut the number of bottles in half because it felt like a lot of repeating characteristics and became tough to differentiate some of them. There were some clear standouts and clear losers right away. First of all it was incredibly easy for me to pick out my blend, it was the most "un-Gueuze like", especially when put on display side by side with against folks who grew up blending Lambic. It's still a good blend and is aging well but it cannot hold a candle to what the experts with years of experience can accomplish. My blend actually has some of the same Lambics these folks use in their blends and yet it is not like the others, even a little bit. Amazing what guys like Pierre Tilquin, Jean Van Roy, etc. can do. My blend all boils down to one bad blending component, when I was working on the blend I felt it helped add body and complexity but after some aging there is still an underlying sweetness in the finish that's very distracting. I do believe it can and will continue to change with time, but the lesson learned is if a component isn't great on its own keep it out of the blend. There are about 7-8 bottles left and they have been locked away and will not be touched again for at least a year, thinking I will only pop them once a year until they go.
The Coolship at Cantillion, an amazing place to visit.
Each of us ranked the beers on our own, which was really difficult to do actually and felt like splitting hairs due to palate fatigue, plus I had a toddler hanging on my leg. We took those rankings and averaged them to get a group "consensus". Most definitely a very small sample and most of us dont have more than a few Lambics per year so please dont consider us experts. We tried to guess which was which, a futile task really but I did accurately picked out the Cuvée Renee (something I drink on a regular basis) and the Girardin, likely dumb luck. Three of the four tasters (the fourth being me) actually ranked mine as the best, but that's likely because it stood out from the others, for the wrong reasons if you ask me, while the Belgians were consistent. The number indicates the ranking the taster assigned the beer, the lower total number the better, BOLD are my rankings.
  1. Ed's Lambic Blend: (1, 1, 1, 5) Total: 8
  2. Mariage Parfait: (2, 5, 4, 1Total: 12
  3. Cuvee Renee: (3, 2, 6, 2Total: 13
  4. Cantillion: (4, 2, 3, 6Total: 15
  5. Girardin: (6, 5, 4, 3Total: 18
  6. Tilquin: (5, 6, 3, 4Total: 18
The numbers are skewed it you ask me, mine was clearly not the best, I rated it a 5, but thems the numbers I guess. Its interesting to see how wildly different we ranked them, all but my blend received at least one last place vote. Probably has more to do with palate fatigue and lack of some folks experience with these beers but still interesting. I was very disappointed to see the Cantillion Gueuze 100% Bio as sample F, it was just so lifeless and boring when put up against the others. I actually enjoyed it less than my own blend, the other tasters rated mine higher as well. Bottle age varied greatly here and aside from my blend the Cantillon and the Tilquin were the youngest, something I think came into play with our impressions of them both. I will continue to buy and drink Tilquin and Cantillion of course, but in this lineup they didn't fair well. But it would have been nearly impossible for me to line up similarly aged bottles, and this was meant more as a learning experience and not a scientific one. Oh well, was a fun and eye opening learning experience for us all. When it was all said and done the dregs found their new home in one of my barrels, oh except for the dregs of my blend :)

Wednesday, March 2, 2016

The haze averse, why is everyone so butthurt?

One side is Tired Hands HopHands, the other is my clone. Juice cocktails the same.
There is a divide in the beer world that has been festering for some time now, it started small but is getting quite heated of late. On one side of that divide you have the New England style IPA fans (for lack of a better term)  who crave a cloudy beer, and on the other side you have the Anti-Haze camp who believe all beer must be bright. The answer has to be somewhere in between, I mean is there no common ground to be found? These two camps have been butting heads ever since the first Heady Topper was poured into a glass, then that D-Bag forgot to recycle. But now with so many breweries brewing and excelling at this style, Hill Farmstead, Tired Hands, Trillium, Treehouse, 2nd Story, Other Half to name a few I like, this debate is raging in a lot of beer circles. Even ending some friendships, actually no I made that part up, but people are swoll.

I will start with the New England IPA fans, of which I clearly am a member so grain of salt and everything. I really don't want to turn this into an East vs. West Coast thing but the delineation of the two "styles" or takes on IPA has been draw using the regions so I will continue with it. I'm not sure who started brewing these Hazy NE IPA's so I shouldn't speak for whoever that (genius) is, but I will anyway. The way these beers are constructed produce a beer with haze that I see as a necessary evil to achieve a certain character, which is fruity/tropical, lowly bitter and supremely drinkable...and yes, Hazy.

Oats for days brah! But wont it be murky? Lets fight!

Most of these beers include quite a bit of adjuncts in the mash, Oats/Wheat specifically, in some cases as high as 20+% of the grain bill. This is to achieve a silky, fuller bodied beer that gives the characteristic of fruit juice but also tend to make beers quite hazy. They are bittered on the very low end of the IPA spectrum to keep them drinkable. The majority of the hops are reserved for late boil/whirlpool additions as well as very high dry hopping rates, in the 2-3 LBs/BBL range. These beers are then finished with fruity, and sometimes low flocculating, English yeast strains that really ties it all together. These beers are then served unfiltered, without finings, and as fresh as you should serve all IPA's

When you combine the high percentages of adjuncts, long whirlpool (causing chill haze), high dry hopping rates, and a low flocculating yeast it's going to be hard to get away from the haze. In my own brewing I have hit these beers with gelatin and even after a month cold in the keg the haze remains. Fining these beers is something I do not like to do because if flocculating yeast cells can strip volatile oils then surely gelatin, or filtering, does as well. We work really hard to get those oils into our beer why then strip them out? But even I, and avid fan of these beers, think that there is a line that shouldn't be crossed. There is a difference between murky and hazy, at home I may pour myself a murky HopHands Clone but if on a commercial level I would likely clean it up a little. The protein, yeast and chill haze in the beer does add to the flavor, for better or worse, so there is a threshold that should be paid attention to.
She's a beaut, or maybe not?

I completely understand the plight of the Haze Averse, these beers can be pretty ugly from a classic beer perspective but some folks seem to be writing them off based on appearance alone. What's More, some are claiming the brewers of said beers are either rushing the product to market or somehow mishandling the fermentation creating a "Yeasty" or "Murky" beer. Now don't get me wrong, I am sure there are examples of this style that are yeasty and there most certainly are some that are very murky. But to make a blanket statement like that about a growing style is both closed minded and against the line of thinking that got craft beer to where it is today. Some of these very brewers put out bright beers sold alongside the hazy ones, so clearly the brewing acumen is there.

It is one thing to not like a style, we all have styles that we don't like or don't "get" (erhmm Black IPA, Black Saison, please stop mmmmkay?) but it seems both sides of this debate are clingy to their proverbial guns. If you go out and try, better yet brew, one of these beers and flat out dont like it, or just really can't get past the hazy appearance then that's totally fine. But lets try to refrain from claiming brewers don't know what they are doing just because you dont like it, the line outside of Tired Hands for can releases that sells out 300+ cases in a few hours seem to prove the market for haze is very demanding...clearly they know what they are doing.

An over the lin murky version of HopWards, this was 4 weeks cold in the keg
even after being hit with gelatin. I assure you that's not yeast.

Opinion rants are something I always said I would never do on this blog, yet here I am. A total sucker for controversy.