Monday, May 24, 2010

Battle of the News: La Folie v Enigma

On Tuesday I tried the New Belgium La Folie, a sour brown/red from the fancy-pants brewery in Colorado. Today, I try the sour brown from the fancy-pants brewery right down the street.

Allagash Cooling Ship - Empty
So what makes these beers sour? Well, any number of agents can work to sour a beer. The first of which is the "yeast" itself. Some sour beers use a "natural" or "wild" fermentation. In most cases, the beer is inoculated with tame bacteria (lactobacillus, pediococcus). In some cases it is inoculated with wild bacteria yeast (brettanomyces). And, in yet other cases, the windows are thrown open and, world-be-damned, whatever works, works.

Breweries like Jolly Pumpkin use a combination of all three; Allagash Brewery in Maine has the only cooling ship in the United States. What is a "cooling ship"? Well, after beer is boiled with hops and whatnot it is typically cooled to around 60 degrees and yeast is added. In the normal course, this happens very quickly - beer is siphoned out of the kettle, through a chiller of some sort, and into a (typically conical) fermenter. This process goes very quickly because, usually, you don't want beer sitting in the "bacterial danger zone" - between about 130 and 75 degrees - very long. The beer might get infected.

Allagash Cooling Ship - Full
A "cooling ship" is intended to infect the beer. Basically, the way it works is that beer is poured out of the kettle into what basically an over-sized cookie tray - it is very shallow and long with some width to it. The cooling ship is traditionally in an open room with windows on either side of the room, and it has no top to it, so that the most amount beer possible is exposed to the air. The beer is allowed to naturally cool to around 60 or 65 degrees or so (it takes about a day) and hopefully it picks up as many bugs (bacteria, not real bugs) as possible to aid the yeast in the fermentation process. So, that's what Allagash has. Neither New Glarus nor New Belgium use a cooling ship - I just thought it was a cool story, and the pictures are pretty neat, huh?

New Glarus and New Belgium, while I don't know for sure because breweries tend to be pretty secret about souring techniques, probably use some combination of the first two with a more controlled version of the third. In other words, they don't use cooling ships, but they do use oak barrels that are known to have active bacteria in them. Jolly Pumpkin does this as well.

After primary fermentation, the beer is left to age where the bacteria does its work, eventually calms down and the beer begins to mellow. If the young sour beer is unblended we typically call that a Geuze Lambic. Sometimes (usually) the beer is so sour that it is blended with progressively older agings (typically a fresh, 2 yr and 3yr) and we call that a Lambic Geuze. Lambics are often combined with fruit. If it's combined with raspberries you have a Framboise, if combined with Cherries you have a Kriek. Sometimes with Peach you have a Peche.

So, there you go - Belgian wild brewing in less than 500 words. Somewhere a brewer is crying.

New Glarus Enigma
BeerAdvocate (A-). RateBeer (99).
Appearance: 52 degrees; color deep, old amber; thick, dense white foamy head that clings steadfast
Aroma: malty with a slight fruity, cherry brightness; much more muted than expected; a bit musty
Flavor: cherry and oak with a dry finish and a strong, but subdued sourness; a quenching sourness in the finish
Body: medium bodied and soft with a clean finish
Drinkability: restrained and refined; the flavors are not nearly as "big" as La Folie which makes is more approachable and drinkable; reminds me of Duchesse and Monks Cafe
Summary: You know, it's super-sour beers like La Folie that all the beer snobs love; but, frankly, I'll take this, and Monks Cafe and Duchesse (two of Mrs. MBR's favorites, by the way) any day. I'm a fan of Rodenbach and their Grand Cru and this isn't quite that sour. La Folie is certainly in that direction and probably even more along the lines of a Cantillon Gueze even. But, where those are definitely of a certain strain - and, don't get me wrong, I love 'em - for a more frequent treat, I'm a fan of these more subdued sours. Indeed, New Glarus could make this seasonal or as one of their regulars and I would be very happy indeed - as one of the nice things about sours is that because they have that quenching attribute even with a pretty solid body like this one, you can drink them anytime of the year.


  1. Two small errors:
    Brettanomyces is wild yeast, not bacteria.
    Geuze is blended lambic, lambic is straight lambic.
    I'll agree that Enigma is way better than La Folie. Too me La Folie is an attempt to make Roddenbach Grand Cru, but when they make the beer in new barrels in Colorado, rather than hundred-some year old barrels in Belgium, the result is less complex and far to acetic. Enigma is a much more refined brew, made by a brewer who not only knows his way around sour beer but also seems to know the limits of making this style without access to barrels that predate industrialization.

  2. Just had the Enigma. I gotta say, I'm not seeing enough space between it and the Cherry Porter I sucked down all winter. It's not that it isn't enjoyable, it's just that.... for an Unplugged, I'd really appreciate a signature taste that stands apart.


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