An article by Noah Forrest
Most of the time it’s quite important for beers to remain consistent with every new batch. Customers know what they like, so constant change isn’t a good approach. And yet the craft-beer industry is largely about innovation, craftsmanship and experimentation. Good breweries and brewers need to keep up with the evolution of the industry. New brewing techniques, and re-imagined existing processes, are making beer that much more like wine. Like wine, there are elements beyond the brewmaster’s control. Terroir and climate, among other factors, cause each wine vintage to vary, just as certain beer styles are affected by yeasts, barrels, bacteria, infections, hop shortages, etc.
Alex — brewmaster for Les Trois Mousquetaires (LTM) — is in a constant state of development when it comes to the beers he brews. Last year was a huge one for him and the brewery, as its barrel program increased exponentially. They pumped out all kinds of barrel-aged beer, many fermented with wild yeast and inoculated with bacteria. Hop-forward offerings are also starting to become more prevalent at LTM, with several new IPAs having been released and more to come in 2016 (very shortly!).
As I mentioned above, the processes behind making certain types of beer can cause the end result to vary depending on the vintage. Barrels, and the live organisms living inside of them, can be unpredictable. This is why blending is often an integral aspect to making these products; it allows the brewer/blender to achieve similar results each time. Sometimes, however, vintages simply change because the brewer wants to improve upon their product. Maybe they want a beer to be dryer, or carry a different hop profile.
I spoke with Alex over email about three recent 2016 vintages: Oud Bruin, Saison Brett and American Barleywine.
A lot of the time I’m sure you want your products to remain the same in order to keep your customer base. However, if you don’t change and tweak your beers, you risk people getting bored. I’m curious of your thoughts on innovation versus consistency.
Consistency is very important for us because when a customer buys a product, it cannot and should not be a total surprise each time (or otherwise it needs to be advertised as such). If someone really loved Saison Brett last time, that person needs to be able to find the same flavor profile. But that doesn’t mean a beer can’t evolve a little bit. So with each blend, since I’m kind of a never-satisfied-always-learning-perfectionist-freak, I like to make little adjustments here and there, to make it better. Slightly less sour here, a little more hops there, a little less oats to make the malt profile cleaner, etc. But the flavor profile remains very close. It’s just fine tuning, really. That’s how evolution works, like each generation of gerbils becoming more and more adapted to their environment. Pretty much the same thing with beers, especially when it comes to barrel-aged blends. Can’t believe I just compared beer to gerbils.
Alex, you mentioned to me that these latest versions of “Oud Bruin” and “Saison Brett” were rather different from previous 2015 batches. I know that creating barrel-aged beers with microflora can carry a certain unpredictability. However, I’m curious to understand how much these external factors changed the end result versus how you purposely wanted these beers to change.
Well, it all begins with wort, obviously. Great beer starts with great wort. When designing a mash bill for a beer that will spend several months in oak barrels with a microflora of acidifying bacterias and brettanomyces yeasts, you need to give those critters something to feed on, but just enough. Too many malts, or malts that are too complex, can become rather unpleasant. Nor do you want to let the flora evolve in a bad way. Understanding flora is very important. And each barrel tends to develop differently. For 2016 Oud Bruin, we wanted to tune up the dark fruit notes (plums, cherries, figs) without adding actual fruits. So the malt bill was changed with a little bit more specialty dark malts. But most of the fruit flavours came from a new Belgian-style yeast that we tried for the first time. It actually came out more fruity than I imagined it, but it was a pleasant surprise. It was almost unbalanced when fresh, but I knew that brettanomyces were going to do their thing in there and balance everything so I was comfortable with these huge fruit notes. For Saison Brett, I wanted to tone down the sourness just a little bit in order to give it a cleaner profile and let the Saison side shine a little bit more. Also, the dry-hop was upgraded on purpose so the beer is different when you compare a fresh bottle with an aged one. You want hops and saison notes? Drink it fresh. You want complex brett notes? Drink it after six to seven months.
This will be LTM’s third release of your American Barleywine. My understanding is that each batch has been different from the last. Can you tell us about this beer’s transformation over the years, as well as the plans for its future? Maybe even spill the beans about the barrel-aged brett Barleywine that you are sitting on.
We always wanted our barleywine to be quite extreme and very, very hoppy. Bitterness from the hops and sweetness from the malts can play well together, especially in extreme, high ABV beers. The first time we brewed it, we had problems with the yeast (very long fermentation, under-attenuation) but it was still close to what we had in mind, just maybe a little bit too sweet. We never distribute a beer if we’re not a least 90 per cent satisfied with a recipe. With this one, that satisfaction limit was barely met, and I knew I had room for improving it. For the new batch, I was finally able to try a new yeast with more attenuative power and flavors that would complement the malt profile, especially when the hops would begin to flatten out after a few months of aging. I’m very happy with this year’s version, maybe 93 or 94 per cent satisfied. Still room for improvement, though. As for the barred-aged brett version, it’s still aging so I can’t really say a lot about it. But it’s close to being ready and I’m looking forward to blending it before the end of the year. What I’ve tasted so far from different barrels is amazing. Very complex flavor profile, different from anything else. So, yeah, I just might keep all the bottles for myself. Sorry.
Oud Bruin 2016
As usual, Alex makes me laugh and drool at the same time. So, let us get down to the tasting. This is the second time LTM has made Oud Bruin. Originally from the Flemish region of Belgium, this style of beer has a dark brown complexion, is aged in stainless steel tanks, is sour and can spend up to a year in the bottle before being released. LTM, though, takes a different approach: they age the beer in oak and give it a more pronounced microflora-inspired flavour profile.
Oud Bruin 2016 pours out a dark-brown colour with a restrained head atop a lively effervescent body. The aromas begin with a blast of fruity acidic notes that echo balsamic vinegar mixed with dark-roasted malts. Black cherries and brown sugar dance alongside lots of wine-soaked oak, adding a layer of vinousness that ties the whole thing together.
At first this is far dryer than the aromas let on. The acidic properties tear down any sugars that the nose foretold. There are loads of black cherries mixed with a toasted sugar malt base that adds some subtle caramel notes. The ascetic acids are kept well in check, with minimal vinegar flavours. Usually these Flanders ales are malty, but this example is bone dry, without any viscosity to be found. The finish isn’t particularly aggressive, but instead leaves you with a nice tannic acidic linger, with some fruity remnants.
As the beer warms and my palate adjusts to the acidic properties, the fruitiness comes along that much more, with layers of cherries, cranberries, an abundance of fresh strawberries — even tart and bitter orange peels make an appearance.
Last year’s batch was more much more brett focused, with a lot of dusty and funky components. This one is an amazing fruit bomb, and seems closer to style, but again far more crushable if compared to others. I loved both years, each with their own subtle but recognizable variations.
American Barleywine 2016
As I mentioned above, this is the third iteration of American Barleywine from LTM. It has been a yearly release that comes out in early spring. Previous batches have been on the sweeter side, so I’m curious how this new yeast will attenuate the malt base.
It pours out a beautiful chestnut-brown colour with lots of red highlights. The aroma is a mix of caramel sweetness, alongside zesty and herbal hops. There are some grapefruit and lemon components, which mix well with those big underlining cooked sugars. There is also a little star anise, and some pine.
Although being less hop forward than previous batches with regard to aromatics, it is much dryer than before. This is a good thing, as previous versions were a bit cloyingly sweet. There is also a heftier bitterness in the finish that lingers on your palate nicely.
It is exceptionally fruity, creating a balancing act between the hops and malt components. Strawberries and stone fruits flow from the grains while the citrusy hops add grapefruit and lemon. It finishes with a potent grassy pine element that lends juniper berries to the mix. The big silky body glides down your throat quite well, helping to guide the sweet maltiness through your palate. There are floral aromatics mixed in with all the fruit, and the pine and earthy grass starts coming out more when it warms.
I will say, however, that although this beer is better attenuated, and the finish carries a drying bitterness, I think I preferred the intense hop profile of previous batches. The restrained hop aromatics allow the caramel and cooked sugar essence to take over. More and more these days, my palate is drifting away from Barleywines in general. I will say, though, that I tried Alex’s bretted Barleywine straight from the barrel. When he blends that bad boy, I’ll be first in line!
Saison Brett 2016
I’ve had various batches of Saison Brett, but judging from Alex’s replies, this one might be a bit more of a variation on the usual flavour profile. Let’s taste it to find out.
This latest rendition pours out a bright glowing orange colour, with a beautiful white head resting on top. It carries a musty nose that throws a lot of fruit at you: peaches, guava and oranges in particular. There is some oak and wine as well, which are complemented by bretty dust phenolics and cobwebs, with less acidic aromatics than previous batches.
Just like the nose, this is exceptionally fruit forward, carrying loads of stone fruit, like peaches and apricots. It is still acidic, but less so than before, and carries instead a zesty tang, as if it were brewed with real fruit. The brett phenolics provide a nice drying character that counters the fruit bomb nicely, creating a great balance.
In many ways this beer is the same, but it’s also rather different from previous batches. The acidity is scaled down, and the musty phenols are there, but not as in-your-face. Instead we have an exceptionally fruity saison. It has been attenuated perfectly from the brettanomyces, which gives it the perfect fruity-to-dry ratio, while still carrying an ample body. The dry hop is coming through much more than previous iterations, with so much tropical fruit. The wine tannins and oak really help round everything out and the finish lingers, with a tangy citrus finish that echoes tropical fruit juice.
People who really loved the acidic kick of previous batches might not like this as much. It also doesn’t carry that Hill Farmstead Vermont microflora thing in quite the same way. However, in so many other ways, this shines extremely bright. This juicy yet dry element really works for me, and the hoppiness is a nice addition. This might be my favourite Saison Brett.
Being consistent while brewing beer is a necessity. Customers need to know what they are buying, and as Alex explained above, it can’t be a surprise every time they crack open the same beer. That being said, innovation and experimentation are also important, otherwise a brewery can’t grow — there must always be room for improvement. So it seems there needs to be a balance, and in my opinion, LTM is right on point. The above beers were all different from earlier batches, but still had the same overall flavour profile and general “essence” as their predecessors. Some people will prefer earlier batches and others will prefer these new bottles. I’d be surprised, however, if someone had an extreme aversion or an over-the-top love affair when compared to the others. And that’s how it should be. Great work as always, Alex.
An article by Noah Forrest
Photography by Noah Forrest