Good news everyone! (said in a Professor Farnsworth voice). After a month off that included a wonderful vacation with my family I’ve got a great Q&A session with Lauren Salazar of New Belgium Brewing. Lauren is the “Sensory Specialist” for NB and is regarded by many people as not only one of the greatest judges/tasters/blenders in the USA, but in the world! Since I’m a huge fan of Oud Bruin and Sour Brown beers I have to admit I was geeking out talking to the person who blends/creates one of my favorite beers in the world: La Folie. I love this interview for a few reasons, but one of the biggest is the revealing look as to how in tune with and caring Lauren is with her products at New Belgium. She gave me some great advice to pass along to aspiring home brewers and dropped some information on a few new beers that will come out this year! So let’s get the fun started…
ETF- What was your sour beer epiphany moment?
Lauren- Mine was the Alexander Rodenbach. I remember drinking that with Chris Black at Falling Rock. We were just talking about the fact we acquired 7 sixty gallon barrels and my brew master Peter Bouckaert who use to be the brew master at Rodenbach. So we were there just drinking Alexander Rodenbach which was absolutely divine and I hadn’t really specifically gotten into sour beer yet… this was in 1997. I remember thinking “This…I love this beer”, but a few weeks later when we were tasting beers from those barrels for the first time I thought “This was not that.” So I remember it taking a good solid year for our barrels to start tasting anything like that Alexander. I distinctly remember that moment drinking Alexander Rodenbach and thinking how excited I was that we were actually about to make that beer, we had the brew master right there and I thought it would taste just like that! But what I didn’t realize then was it would take years to get there ha-ha.
When I heard they were going to quit making Alexander because of the agreement between Frank Boon and the Palm contingency it broke my heart. When I went to Belgium the first time they gave me Alexander Rodenbach glasses so every time I opened one I made this huge deal about having the glasses and it was this whole pomp and circumstance deal. So when I heard they weren’t going to make it anymore I called all the distributors and places here in Colorado to find out there were 20 cases or so…but then they told me there were 20 cases but someone is coming to get them. I said no I want them and they were like “You want 20 cases of beer? No we can give you 11 because this other person is coming to get them.” We went back and forth a bit before finally realizing it was Chris Black and I having this crazy war trying to get the last cases. So when we realized who was who… we called each other and laughed and laughed. We ended up sharing the lot.
The day I realized I was drinking the next to last one was a really sad day… but the next day I brought in the last bottle and set it on Peter Bouckaert’s desk. I figured he deserved it more than me.
ETF-When did you have the last bottle?
Lauren- Oh I think it was sometime in 2008.
ETF- You did better than I would’ve holding on to great beer that long.
Lauren- It was tough! I hid the bottles big time! When I would leave town I would look over at Eric and say “Look I am not kidding you… I don’t want to see these as empty bottles in the recycling when I come home.” Ha-ha!
ETF- You mentioned when New Belgium got the barrels there was a sour beer learning curve for you, but now you are the sensory specialist (which is a pretty rad title) for the program. What all do you get to do as the Sensory Specialist?
Lauren- Well my main job is to run the whole program. So I work in conjunction with the analytical, chemistry and microbiological labs to assure the consistency and quality of each production beer. We do microbiology checks all the way through from wort production to packaging and in the same we do chemical analysis. We also do sensory evaluation from knock out through packaging.
One of the biggest things is training the brewers, the cellarman and the packagers what true to brand and free of off flavors is for each beer through each step. It’s the concept of: If you move it, you taste it. So every single time the beer is moved from the knock out into the cellar, when we pitch yeast, 4 days after, pre-chiller, post filter, in the bright beer tank etc… The cellar guys release it to packaging, packaging accepts it from the cellar and they taste it.
We do tons of training, a lot of writing and descriptions during this process so everybody knows exactly what they should get when they pull a sample. It’s suppose to look like this, taste like this, smell like this, mouthfeel/body should be this… then there are some top things to know on what the samples cannot be. So if they find a discrepancy at any point they know what to do. It’s a lot of training, education and decision making skills to make the right calls all the time along with a humungous undertaking to do that.
We have around 20 cellarman, 9 brewers almost 70 packagers and we train them continuously. The cellarman and brewers get once a month training for 1 ½ hours, the packagers I come to all 4 of their shifts once a month and train those guys. The people up front we train them on gold standard…styles, style expectations, raw materials, the flavors that come from different raw materials, how to evaluate and judge beers. Their job is to give people great beer experiences. If you drive all the way from Michigan it better not be a mediocre Fat Tire, it better be the best damn Fat Tire you’ve ever tasted in your whole life! Because if it’s not… then why come all the way out here to get that?
ETF- Tell me about what you do with the sour beer program at New Belgium?
Lauren – My job as Sensory Specialist in the sour beer program is solely care-taking and blending. Basically I taste barrels constantly. What they need, what they want and what they are asking for and where the barrels ‘are at’. Seeing if the barrels need to be fed, if they are hot or cold, if the barrel is hungry, do they want to be made into a beer? That is just a lot of listening and understanding their needs then doing it. If we aren’t going to make a beer for a few months and the foudre is ready then I need to coax it or trick it into not being ready. So blending it with a younger beer and trying to squeeze out a couple more months and maybe a little more beer is kind of a balancing act that has nothing to do with how much ethyl isomerate or freulic acid it has.
It’s just being able to listen and knowing what you are going for, having that goal of blending and caring.
When I go out in the field or when I’m training one of the first things I do is talk about the history of sour beer and tell them all beer use to be sour. The problem with people saying they don’t like sour beer is when they think of beer they don’t think of sour. They think bitter, light, refreshing etc… but they don’t realize the historical merits of sour beer and how amazing the isolation of brewer’s yeast really was and how recent it was. I talk a lot about the Lambics, Geuzes, Oude Bruins, Berliner Weisses and all these fun old world sour beers and just why all beer was sour.Then I talk about the merits of sour and how much most people do like sour stuff like lemonade and how refreshing it is.
The thing about drinking sour beer is you just need to be open to it and you should never surprise somebody with one. I hate when I see people say “Try this” and they won’t say anything about the beer. So in the other person’s head they think “oh beer” and they are ready for one thing, but get another. So it can be really off putting to the person drinking that beer. It’s like they never really got a chance to decide if they like it.
If I came up to you and said try this beer, it’s called a Flanders Red. Its beer style from the Flanders region in Belgium and one of the oldest known beers styles that remains in production. Then I might say “Are you a fan of Granny Smith Apples? Do you like tart cherries and plums? Do you like cherry cola? Almonds?” So usually they say “Yes” and have checked all those boxes off. I hand them the glass and say “Look at it, swirl it around and smell it. What are the things you are thinking about? Now take a sip, it’s going to be really tart, but the same kind of tartness from a nice Granny Smith apple.” So when you do that, they love it. It’s a lose-lose situation when you say “Try this beer (hey watch this…it’ll be funny)” because it puts the person off and they may never like sour beers.
It’s just being able to listen and knowing what you are going for, having that goal of blending and caring.
ETF- You just told me how you describe some finished sour beers to people. Do those flavors come up during the creative recipe design process or is there a different recipe process?
Lauren- Well the Lips of Faith series is actually a hodge podge of people’s ideas and brewing wants. Things we’ve always wanted to make. Just the other day I was saying I want to make a Gratzer. I’d like to focus some attention next year to these slightly sour wheat beers. I think that sounds fun. It’s an old world varietal that’s been all but lost, there are a couple of breweries that still do it and do it well, but I just think it would be a fun style to make. Part of the process is the challenge… the challenge to make a great Berliner Weisse or Gratzer.
There are those beers like Oud Bruin that have a recipe, have a procedure and have a process so you kind of know where you are going and that’s one way to make a sour beer. But the other way is like when we made Eric’s Ale, Le Terroir or Tart Lychee. Eric and I would just sit back and taste the barrels saying things like “You know what would be awesome?, Doesn’t this taste like ____?”. When we started making Le Terroir I was telling Eric I had just smelled Amarillo hops for the first time and said “Don’t you think this hop smells just like Foudre #3? Peachy, mangos, awesome apricot and papaya notes.” I asked him if anyone had ever dry hopped a beer like this with hops like these and he said “Not that I know of.” So we grabbed some Amarillo hops, put them into a growler, threw some sour beer in there. 4 days later we racked it out and said “Well yep, you can definitely do that.” So sometimes that’s as complex as it gets.
ETF- Le Terroir was one of my favorites last year. Was that a blend or straight up?
Lauren- It was 100% Felix, the light sour beer and dry hops. It was the simplest thing in the world. We just taste all the Felix we have and make a blend with all base Felix to get the sour we were looking for and just dry hop. It’s pretty hefty on the dry hops though, we do 1 pound of Amarillo and a quarter pound of Citra per barrel. Then it’s a 4 day dry hop rest to let the alcohol do it’s job of leeching out all those amazing essential oils. Then we centrifuged it and called it good.
ETF- What temp do you guys dry hop at?
Lauren- That’s a great question…We bring it up so it’s about cellar temperature or a little cooler.
ETF- Given the popularity of Le Terroir, when will we get the chance to enjoy it again?
Lauren- Le Terroir shares the base sour beer (Felix) with Eric’s Ale, Kick and Tart Lychee. We are doing a major overhaul and expansion on the wood cellar. We had to empty and let all the Felix barrels dry out- so we washed them all out, inoculated with other barrels and filled a few weeks ago- saying that- we have about 1-2 years before we see anything with Felix as its base beer, let alone a huge production like Terroir (100% sour)- Eric’s is more likely (60% sour) but not for a while…
ETF-Is the grain bill on Felix pretty simple?
Lauren- Yeah it’s basically Biere de Mars without the spices. Pretty simple. Some oats, wheat, pale malt… and it’s a lager. The grains are less than half pale malt, about a third wheat, oats and some caramel 80. Both Felix and Oscar are lagers because the concept is you are just making a dark beer and a pale beer.
ETF- A question I see asked/debated/complained about almost weekly is “Why was La Folie changed from un-pasteurized 750ml cork caged bottles to pasteurized 22oz capped bottles?” Still to this day there are lots of rumors…. So can you set the record straight?
Lauren- Well most of those people would never be able to experience a La Folie if we were still doing corked. We were hand bottling this on a gravity filler. It was our first filler that we had sold to Cooper Smith and we would borrow it back from them.
So we would brew the beer, put it in a tank, throw some champagne yeast and get it ready to bottle. Then we would have to drag this big long hose all the way through the brewery to a place where we could package it. We had this single pneumatic, but really rudimentary, corker that was 1 bottle at a time. It was put the cork on, twist the cage, hand it to the next person who would rinse it, hand it off to dry it, hand it off to put a label on it, hand it off to put the government label on it, hand it off to put it in a box, then the next person would tape that box and the next person would move the box. So it was a 20 person operation for about 13 hours a day to make 20 hectoliters (approx 530 gallons) of beer. That ended up being 3 pallets of beer which is really nothing.
So as we started acquiring more barrels one day I said “Hey not for nothing, but I can make a ton of La Folie. You keep buying these barrels and I keep making this beer. I’m ready to make 100 hectoliters of La Folie, what the hell are we going to do? We physically can’t do this, we can’t have 4 days of this. Then I’ll be ready again in 6 months…are we going to keep doing this because it’s very inefficient.”
So not only that but the process with the gravity filler was causing so much air to get in the bottles. Sure we added yeast in, but when you would taste those C&C bottles (even if you bought 5 bottles like numbers 101, 102, 103, 104, 105) you might get 5 different flavors. All because of the oxygen and that cork. To the cork people that bottle says “cellar me” or “age me” and that was the worst thing you could do with those bottles because of the air. When you acidify with air you make vinegar. Lactobacillus is what everyone wants to taste, they want that really clean yogurt sour. Acetobactor is that vinegar taste. If you get oxygen permeatation with air, which is what corks do you will have vinegar. It won’t happen right away…if you keep it cold and stored right it’s probably ok. But people don’t store things right, they put them in their shoe closet or wife’s linen closet…their quote un-quote “Beer Cellar”. They put the bottle wherever and drag it out 3 or 4 years later saying “I had a 2002 La Folie and it wasn’t that great” and I’m left saying “Well in 2002 it was freaking amazing. Where did you store it?” They tell me the closet or wherever and say the cork didn’t even pop when it was opened.
But there were things at that point that got me really excited. One was the opportunity to make more and we had this brand new bottling line, They told me at first we were going to make 22oz bottles and I was kicking and screaming not wanting to do it. Then I saw that beautiful silk screen bottle and thought that was cool. Then I got to make that first 100 hectoliter batch of La Folie and we got to send to it places outside of Colorado. Before it was solely traded online since it was only sold in Colorado. So that very first shipment outside of Colorado was really exciting for me… to know everyone, within reason, who wanted to was getting the chance to drink it. It’s still the exact same process to make the beer, just a different package and more of it.
One thing to know too is the corking line we would’ve needed was 2 million dollars and we knew we didn’t have the money to spend on that. We wanted to buy more barrels and not spend the money on this corking line. We had to make a choice and we wanted more fermentors. Recently Kim (Jordan) asked me because we were thinking about putting in a corking line again and I was actually on the opposite, I didn’t want it. I knew saying that was crazy, but I loved opening bottles and I would rather someone drink New Belgium beer and store someone else’s beer.
I remember the first time at this person’s house and it was a random Tuesday night. They grabbed a 22oz Lips of Faith bottle popped it open and poured beer for everyone. Beer geeks were there and even people who had no idea what it was…but I remember thinking this is a freaking awesome day.
ETF- Well I think that definitely sets the record straight on what went on.
Lauren- Ya know, it was really pragmatic. “We can make more beer than we can package. What should we do? We have this line, so how do we make this line a little more special? Let’s silk screen the bottles.” When I look back on all that now… I was literally about to dump 80 hectoliters of La Folie and that would’ve been an absolute crime. So the alternative was absolutely fine.
ETF- Let me jump back to the Pasteurization for a second. The 22oz bottles are pasteurized so there are no viable “bugs” in those bottles.
Lauren- Yes it’s flash pasteurization. It’s a tiny stainless transfer pipe that gets heated to what’s called a “PU” (pasteurization unit) which is a time and temp. So it’s heated to that specific spot in the pipe as it (LaFolie) goes by, which is 100 hectoliters an hour. It’s set to the exact time and temperature that kills beer spoiling bacteria because we are bringing the beer into our stainless cellar. We do not want Brett, Lacto or Pedio in the stainless cellar so we pasteurize it on the way in.
Now it does have a side effect, but it’s a wonderful side effect. It locks the blend that I produce into place. So when people ask how long they should store La Folie, I tell them we already stored it for you. It’s been in barrels for sometimes 4 years, you bought it so you deserve to drink it, we did all that for you.
You know some people store beers like Geuze for a really long time and what they don’t realize is that blender painstakingly made that blend. The blender tasted all their barrels and said “This percentage of this barrel, this percentage of this one etc..”. That person brought all those together, tasted it and said “Perfect.” But 3 years later, who knows what it’s like if its not pasteurized. So when you pasteurize you can definitely lock in the blend, but it can also oxidize.
ETF- So just to make doubly sure all the home brewers know…there are no living bugs, funky, wild yeast etc… in a 22oz bottle of LaFolie.
Lauren- Correct, but we do bottle condition at the end.
ETF- But that’s with the house strain or a champagne strain right?
Lauren- Yep, it’s not Brettanomyces or anything like that. Just a little bit of a touch up for carbonation and oxygen scavenging.
ETF-Each year when you are going through the process to get LaFolie ready what steps are you taking and how long does it take to get the blend just right?
Lauren- It takes me all year to kind of shepherd the barrels into the right way. Basically I know what I’m making, when I’m going to make it and about how much I need to make so I’ve got all that in my head. So when I’m tasting barrels throughout the year I move them around…maybe take 20 hectoliters out of this one, put 10 into one and 10 into another. I move them around a lot because what I like to do instead of filling and emptying is move. We don’t empty, fill, rinse, re-inoculate. Our barrels are the same inoculants since 1997, we’ve basically just trained them in the way they smell, taste, and perform. We use them as “examples” for everybody else. So if somebody’s not acting right I’ll take a little out of that one and give it an example of a great beer, feed it with the base beer and then move on. I know it’s a weird approach, but it works.
ETF- Have you had any times where it seems a few are not acting right, so that delays your blend and then delays bottling?
Lauren- Oh yeah and I have no problem with that. Tart Lychee is a great example of that happening. It was suppose to come out 4 months before and I said “Nope, I’m not ready.” It was also a quantity thing. I had to let them know they could have it now, but less or wait and have what quantity they wanted.
Now with La Folie I’m always ready to make the bottled La Folie. That’s my biggest goal. I know how much bottled I’m making and when I’m making it; so that’s what I secure first. If there’s not enough of it for bottles I sacrifice kegs first, so there won’t be as many kegs at first… but I can make those throughout the year whenever I can. The bottle vintage is one bottled vintage only, I can make 3 different blends a year for the kegs.
ETF- What advice on starting a blending program would you offer to home brewers that are producing 5 or 10 gallon batches?
Lauren- The two biggest pieces would be patience and time. It seems like that’s a problem many home brewers have because they can see it and they want to taste it. So every time they taste it they are exposing it to oxygen which can cause Acetobactor. You are then running the risk of making vinegar.
Also, it just takes a lot of time. If you make something then rack it into the carboy with wood chips and add your yeast blend then write it on the calendar and don’t taste it for 3 months. When you do taste, figure out a great way of limiting the amount of oxygen that gets in there. So once you taste it make a decision: is it anywhere near ready? If not then it’s 3 more months. If something goes wrong then who cares? You need to learn to dump it and figure out where it went wrong. The second you taste vinegar it needs to be dumped because it’s not getting any better… this is not Kombucha.
ETF- What base beers would you recommend a brewer keep on hand to blend with?
Lauren- I just do a dark beer and a light beer. Use a neutral lager strain, something that will really dry it out because you don’t want residual sweetness, you want dry as a bone beer. You’re not really fermenting sugar, you’re acidifying alcohol. That’s a really important thing to get in your head. Also ferment your beer first so you make a beer, then acidify your beer. Once you get that down, then go crazy…do Geuzes or spontaneous fermentation. But you need to understand acidification first and then go with mixed.
But back to the base beer, I would say don’t get too fancy with your base beers. All those esters, all those wonderful nuances from the yeast , all those great spices… don’t put them in. The more things you have to get through (fermentation) the longer the process takes. If you want spice, dry hops or something like that you should blend or add those later…basically all that stuff comes after. All you need to do is make a dark beer and a light beer and keep them simple.
ETF- Oscar being the dark base….what’s in it?
Lauren- It’s basically 1554 with a little less black malt.
ETF- What are the chances of a Geuze release from New Belgium?
Lauren- It’s hard to say because you can make a “Geuze like” beer, but you can’t really make Lambics here…it’s kind of jerky to say you’re making Lambic because you can only make those in Lembeek. So really you can only make Geuzes there. It’s the micro flora that live in Lembeek that really make a Lambic a Lambic and a Geuze a Geuze. You can make things that are Lambic like, but for me they might as well call them something else….you might be going for a Lambic but you’re never going to get there. But Geuzes being 1 and 3 year blends…I don’t like that rigid time where it has to be 1 year plus 3 years. What if the 1 year is great but the 3 year sucks?
ETF- Speaking of time… What the oldest beer in your arsenal you can blend with?
Lauren- Well you could make an argument there is beer in the barrels from 1998 since its all the same inoculants and we just pull beer then feed it. I don’t do ages on my barrels, I rate them. I have what I call “Users, Blenders or Waiters”. The “Users” are ready to make beer, the “Blenders” are if you need to make more beer and “Waiters” are just that…they need some time so we wait. So my quality thing is I put a Smiley Face, Sideways Face or Frowny Face. So you might see a “User” with a smiley face and a “User” sideways face…the smiley face one gets used first. I know people want to make or think it’s more complicated than this…but I only have to talk to myself to know what I’m doing Ha-ha! When I’m doing the sensory analysis training is when I talk about butyric acid or things like that, but with the barrels I just need to tell myself what I think is happening and where I think we’re going.
ETF- Ph wise are they all about the same?
Lauren- Yeah I would say everyone is in the 3’s. I love SOUR beer, so if I make a straight sour beer you are going get 3.2 or 3. I put out a La Folie that was 2.8…which might’ve been a little much. The blends hover up near 4. Tart Lychee was around 4.5-4.6.
ETF- Speaking of Tart Lychee…I didn’t have the original batch, but I’ve heard people say the new batch wasn’t as sour as the GABF batch.
Lauren- That’s right… I changed it. The test beer was 100% sour and the new was a blend. I ended up doing the blend because the concept of Tart Lychee was suppose to be tart and then Lychee. With the 100% sour you couldn’t taste the Lychee because the sour drowned it out. So we decided to do a blend to see where it went. Then blends are fun because they are beginner sours and session sours which I love. I love drinking sour beer, but truthfully I’m not going to sit there and drink 4 Geuzes. But I will sit there and drink 4 ‘Eric’s Ales’. It’s fun to make both kinds though. When I made Le Terroir I did a blend with it and didn’t like it. That beer only sang when it was all sour and a ton of hops. If I blended anything into it, that beer was terrible. It needed all those hops and all sour beer. That beer was ridiculously expensive to make and nobody questioned me what-so-ever. When I saw the return on investment of that thing I was so glad it was in the black, but it wasn’t by much!
ETF- You guys got a lot of people talking and it sure had a ton of interest.
Lauren- Well really that’s what those beers are all about. That’s what La Folie is…a folly. We kind of took that and spun it into “What’s your folly?” because ours is beer.
ETF- Let’s talk for a second about the NB/Lost Abbey collaboration “Brett Beer”. Was Brett Beer pasteurized and can you give an idea on the Brett used?
Lauren- The Lost Abbey is fermented with bretta then filtered, not bottle conditioned. When I talk about pasteurization, I am talking about sour beers- locking a blend in and keeping our stainless cellar clean- this is a different process- we ferment with Brett, then filter the yeast out like other regular beers- we achieve a specific flavor profile and alcohol content and we’re done. The bretta used was a combination of ours and Lost Abbey’s bretta cultures.
ETF- Are there any new sour blends or other projects you are working on now you can tell me about?
Lauren- We just talked to Frank Boon and we will be doing Trans-Atlantic Kriek again which I could not be more excited about!
ETF-When would that hit store shelves?
Lauren- We think end of this year, depending on Frank Boon and when he can get the beer in a shipping container, customs, long haul truckers, you know- variables… but sooner than later!
These small barrels are our new peach, apple and blackberry whiskey barrels I just filled last week from Leopold Bros Distillery in Denver-love those guys- fun stuff in there! These were filled on the 16th of June and we will taste at 1, 2, 3 months.
ETF- There is so much awesome that could come out of that…. can you share what you filled with and whats gonna come of those beers?
Lauren- I’m pretty excited about them. Never done anything like this! We will probably pull, keg and carb right before GABF. Here is the filling doc:
1 x apple whiskey- Dunkelweiss with clove- touch of sour oscar right before keg fill
3 x apple whiskey- Sour Oscar
6 x peach whiskey- BDM w/bretta brux, lemon peel right before keg fill
5 x peach whiskey- Prickly Pear w/lacto- some sour felix right before keg fill
1 x blackberry whiskey- Vrienden– crazy bretta foudre #15 (FO-15)- innoc right at filling
1 x blackberry whiskey- 2 Home Plate Stout- 1.5ohlala- taste and decide on sour or no sour
Right now my biggest thing is the acquisition of all these barrels. We are going to have 7,000 hectoliters of beer in oak by the end of this year. I want to make La Folie, I want to make it great and I want to make more of it. I would love it if you could walk into every proper beer bar inAmerica and they had La Folie. There’s something you said about the scarcity and mystic of La Folie, but there’s also something to be said about if someone is in a bar and wants a La Folie…there it is.