Conspiracy Under the Tarps: We Dig into the Origins of Barrelworks

The Best of the U.S. Meets the Best of Belgium
Firestone Walker’s David Walker (L) and Matt Brynildson (center)  share a lambic with Cantillon Brewer, Jean Van Roy (R)

It started with a chance encounter at Cantillon in May 2011.  Steve Shapiro (one of the two of us responsible for Beer By BART) visited the famed Brussels lambic brewery.  And he was delighted to run into Firestone Walker Brewmaster Matt Brynildson and a tall companion with a British accent.  Steve remembers that Jean Van Roy was astonished that he and Matt knew each other. That encounter was, however, Steve’s first introduction to Firestone Walker Brewing’s co-founder, David Walker. Steve remembers Matt whispering about Walker sipping one of the complex, acidic Cantillon beers. “Look, he’s smiling!”

Steve snapped a photo (above) as the three brewing legends enjoyed another lambic creation together.

Not long afterward, we ran into David Walker at San Francisco’s City Beer Store.  Curiously, he implied that he was the one interested in starting a sour program but facing resistance. It caught our attention. A few very nice sour “wood aged” beers from the brewery had already showed up here and there. What was going on?

David Walker, Jeffers Richardson, Jim Crooks
David Walker, Jeffers Richardson and Jim Crooks at the Firestone Walker Invitational beer fest, after the launch of Barrelworks

But eventually all was moot. We were delighted when we heard of plans for a sour fermentation facility called Barrelworks in Buellton, an hour and a half south of the main Firestone Walker location in Paso Robles, way down on the Central Coast.

We got to know Jim Crooks and Jeffers Richardson, the two who anchor the program, each with his own complicated and engrossing back story at Firestone Walker.  Still, the more we heard about their own stories and about Barrelworks, the more puzzled we were.  Had it really been a forbidden project when Walker sipped at Cantillon? The website hinted of drama, but was that just marketing hype? What was true?

So last summer we decided to track this down and take whatever time the story required.  The idea was that we would get the versions of the origin tale from various protagonists and show how differently they saw things.  We were delighted when Beer Advocate Magazine took our project on, and we dug in.

Curiously, each thing we looked into was deeper and more complex than the last. The secrets behind Barrelworks went all the way back to the unusual origins of Firestone Walker itself.  Matt Brynildson, Jim Crooks, Jeffers Richardson, Adam Firestone and David Walker all gave generously of their time and did deep dives into all kinds of tales that we reluctantly left aside as we sharpened our focus and fought to stay within the word count.  Our respect, friendship and appreciation for the people at Firestone Walker grew over the course of our investigation.

The story’s up now on the Beer Advocate website, and we hope you enjoy all of it.

“The problem was that it was getting harder and harder for Crooks to keep the burgeoning project secret. “It was like, this is Jim’s deal, and it was like, don’t tell Adam,” Firestone sighs, recalling his brewers’ increasingly ridiculous attempts to keep him in the dark. “‘Guys, I can see the barrels! They’re dribbling all over the floor. They smell like hell!’”

Alas, some of the weirdly wonderful or disputed details ended up on the cutting room floor as we trimmed the story down to article length. Thanks to Tom Griffin, who told about bringing the first second-hand bourbon barrels out to California, thus getting Matt Brynildson into the incredibly delicious Anniversary beer tradition that recently resulted in another must-not-miss example.  We hope to tell those tales another time.  Mike Hoffman told us how he lost the SLO production brewery, with many details that were eye-opening and fascinating but would have taken us far outside the original focus of the story.  Thanks to Ryan Sweeney from LA’s Surly Goat and related beer bars who told us about arriving at the Paso Robles pub one day and having a draft beer from that sour program that did not exist. There it was, on tap! We dropped another thread of the story that had to do with the unforeseen demand for 805, the popular mainstream blonde ale.   The rise of the Barrelworks program was mentioned as a soul-saving counterbalance to the monotony of producing so much 805. We kept scrapping quotes packed with astonishing insights in order to get the bones of the story in.

And we are excited for the next chapters and new beers coming from Firestone Walker. We’ll be bugging them about the progress of the Belgian sour project mentioned in the beginning of the article, and following their beers.

Jim-and-Foudres
Jim Crooks and one of his talented wooden foudres in the wood cellar at Barrelworks

So please check out our Feral Ones story in BeerAdvocate magazine.  And, as our editor Ben Keene reminds us, if you subscribe to BeerAdvocate, not only do you support beer journalism, but next time we write something there you will see it all gloriously laid out in a real glossy magazine you can touch, (perhaps with something akin to this issue’s historic Area 51 brewing images from Jeffers), a month before it ever goes up online.

– Gail and Steve

[photos by Steve Shapiro and/or Gail Ann Williams]



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Learning to make sour beers at home

Last night we were thrilled to attend the SF Homebrewers Guild monthly meeting to talk about sour beers!

Beer By BART’s Gail Ann Williams joined Steve Smith of the exciting new local yeast lab, GigaYeast, to talk about making sour beers. Here is her slide deck, for anybody who wants to give Lambic (or the outside of Belgium pseudo-Lambic) brewing a try, or to see how others are doing it.

If you’re less patient, there are some lovely artisan sour beers made in our area, and quite a few are served at wonderful pubs within walking distance of BART, as a matter of fact.

It’s Never Too Soon To Go Sour: Sour Beer Homebrewing

Explore Beer By BART; use our list of some of the San Francisco Bay Area’s best beer places with detailed transit info, so you can get out there to enjoy without driving.

Mikkeller Bar Opens in San Francisco

The long-anticipated Mikkeller Bar in San Francisco is finally opening for business…sort of.

Beginning this evening, July 12th, and continuing until their official — and very grand — opening on August 9th, the bar will be open limited hours, 5:00pm-2:00am with a less than full (albeit still impressive) beer menu and kitchen service. The highly anticipated Sour Room is still under construction, and will not open until August.

For those who are not currently lined up on the sidewalk on Mason Street, the new Mikkeller Bar results from a partnership between Chuck Stilphen (The Trappist, ØL Beercafe and Trappist Provisions in the East Bay) and Danish brewer Mikkel Borg Bjergsø (Mikkeller Beer). Bjergsø is widely known as a “gypsy brewer.” He has designed and marketed hundreds of beers, all of which were made for him at breweries around the world that are owned by others. He operates two bars back home in Copenhagen.

Mikkeller Bar SF - gray bldg
Last night’s soft preview

At 34 Mason, half a block north of Market Street near Powell BART station, (yes, it’s now listed on Beer By BART!) the brand new bar stands out as the newest and sleekest facade on a gritty block.  An elegant angular hop logo etched into the glass door and a window into the working kitchen leave no doubt that you have found the place.   The ground floor bar and casual restaurant features a sleek three-sided blonde wooden bar, seating approximately 30. Tables are arrayed throughout, seating another 75-80 beer seekers.

The 1907 building has rough interior brick walls, sleek wood and old-style light fixtures, giving it a warm feeling. The bottom floor will serve as a special events room and as the “sour” room.  The goal is to provide the best sour beers from around the world, starting in August. Mikkeller Bar will feature 40 drafts and 2 casks poured from a system dubbed the “Flux Capacitor” that allows beers to be served at three different temperatures, depending on their style. The tap system is designed to allow the carbon dioxide/nitrogen ratio of each tap to be individually adjusted assuring each beer pours perfectly.

Chuck and Mikkel plot the Mikkeller bar, last November
Chuck and Mikkel plot the Mikkeller bar, last November

The restaurant will specialize in smoked meats, sausages, charcuterie platters, and small plates such as Korean-style wings. Chef Michael O’Brian will preside over the kitchen. Most recently he led the food program at one of Washington, DC’s most respected beer bars, ChurchKey.

Most of the taps are already live, though the casks were not yet flowing last night when we got a super soft sneak preview. Expect to find a lot of Mikkeller beers, including four regulars featured at his Copenhagen Pubs —  a brown, a Pilsner, a wit and a sour beer — all re-named for the Tenderloin, the famous or infamous San Francisco neighborhood in which the new bar resides.

Last night the list was rich in imports, many from Belgium, and of course Mikkeller’s own, from all over. Others were sourced from all around the U.S., with a couple from Bay Area breweries rounding out the list.

Yes, you can go there right now.   Or you can wait for the grand opening weekend.

  • August 9, Grand Opening at 12 noon.  Expect awesome beers.
  • August 10, Beer Brunch at 11am, Spontan Art Show in the Tivoli Sour Room
  • August 11, Seven course beer dinner with Danish guest Chef Jakob Mielcke 

It appears that reservations will be taken on the bar’s web page, soon.  Keep an eye on http://www.mikkellerbar.com/events.html

Explore Beer By BART; use our list of some of the San Francisco Bay Area’s best beer places with detailed transit info, so you can get out there to enjoy without driving.

True Lambic: Sick beers and the magic of Cantillon

This is the spring when Jean Van Roy came to San Francisco, to pass along traditional sour beer making lore to the next generation of adventurous brewers at the 2011 Craft Brewers Conference.  Jean is the one man in the world who carries on an unbroken family lineage and training in the twin traditional crafts of brewing and blending spontaneously fermented beers in Brussels, once a brewing center of the Senne Valley in the heart of Belgium.  His grandfather’s elegant, tart, complex Cantillon beers nearly died off in obscurity when the industrial revolution’s cheap and inoffensive lagers swept the world.

Jean Van Roy of Cantillon
Jean Van Roy tells the story of Cantillon and Lambic tradition
Due to the dedication of his father and himself, Jean’s family brewery survived to a new era of recognition and demand. He and a small handful of fellow Lambic brewers and blenders went from obscure to revered with the help of friends including the late British beer writer Michael Jackson, the two siblings who created the Shelton Brothers company to import his beers into the US and a growing cadre of appreciative American brewers such as our local Vinnie Cilurzo of Russian River Brewing in Santa Rosa.  In return, we can thank Jean and his father for maintaining the tradition of their beers, and for a wide range of new tart, leathery, funky non-Belgian craft beer concoctions inspired by this ancient Belgian beer knowledge. The large hall was packed with attentive brewers, seeking information to help them participate in one of the most exciting trends in craft brewing.

The more you know about Lambic brewing, the more different it seems from other beer traditions. Modern ales usually take merely weeks to produce, after a very pure dose of specific beer yeast is added to start a typical vigorous fermentation. True Lambic beers will have a slow life-cycle closer to that of a wine fermentation.  Traditional Lambic breweries allow a hodge-podge of yeasts and local bacteria to blow in on the breezes to land in a vessel called a coolship, and later to live deep in the wood of fermentation barrels. Those strange “spontaneous” mixtures of microorganisms are totally responsible for fermenting and conditioning these beers at their own pace.

While aging, the mixed organisms form a strange-looking protective film over the surface of the beer, and then go though two summers of warmer temperatures where they become extremely weird, ropey and viscous throughout the entire barrel. This harmless but off-putting polysaccharide slime can pour with the consistency of oil or perhaps thin snot, so it is no surprise that this condition has come to be known as “sick” beer, or more specifically as the fat sickness, “la maladie de la graisse” in French.  For contemporary brewers who are embarking on a journey to make a beer inspired by the Lambic method, it’s comforting to know what strange things may happen along the way.

Cantillon's Jean Van Roy talks about sick beer

Jean comments about beer sickness and beer quality (30 seconds)

Jean Van Roy stated that he is not a “brewmaster” because he cannot master or dominate his beers.  He says he is a bit of a partner and a bit of a guide to his beers, using his knowledge of the peculiar paths these fermentations can take, passed along from his father and grandfather.  He helps the beers along.  This brings to mind some of the older words, like “alewife” from England (once used for women who brewed with undoubtedly mixed fermentations,  serving almost as midwives to deliver the beers of their day).   In using his experience to guide these great beers to fruition, Jean says that he is compelled “to follow my beer.”

The Van Roy family has faced several generations of adversity, ranging from a century-long decline of interest in Lambic in its native land and loss of many of their respected peers, to a dilution of meaning of their magical process and place-specific beer style.  While regional wine style names like “Champagne” are protected by having a legally enforced definition in Europe, traditional Lambic has not been so fortunate.  Some other Belgian companies filter and sweeten modern industrial products that can legally still be called Lambic.   As a result of the great new sour beer making explosion of recent years,  admiring brewers around the world are marketing their beers as “Lambic” or “Lambic Style.”

At the question portion of the conference session, Brian Hunt of Moonlight Brewing brought up this question of the Lambic appellation.  What should we call other contemporary beers, from outside the Senne valley, that were inspired by Lambic beer making traditions?   They could be named for their region, as Lambics were originally. They might be called “spontaneous,” Jean suggested.   Cantillon will be working on a new Lambic cellar in conjunction with the city of Brussels to honor the tradition and make long-aged beers available.  We can honor that resolve to save the authentic traditions by not calling our non-Belgian domestic beers “Lambic Style,” and by leaning on groups who present brewing competitions to change course and avoid the use of “Lambic” in category names.

Americans seem willing to call the related beers “sour,”  though that is often an exaggeration.  Jean wants his own finished beers to be complex and mellow.  Many people comment on the similarities between the true Lambics and fine aged dry wines.  There is a tartness, but there are layers of mysterious character that balance the acidity. Tasters search for analogies for the complex and compelling wood and animal aromas and flavors. “Wild” is used on labels sometimes in the US and other areas outside of Belgium, and not always when the fermentation is open to local organisms.  Sometimes the use of Brettanomyces yeast is noted on a label.  Those of us who seek new examples of these remarkable beers sometimes have to embrace beer-hunting and label scrutiny as an extension of our hobby.

caution - sour beers - a sign on a cooler
CAUTION: Special beers protected from accidental purchase at the Jug Shop in SF.

Now and then the scary sound of “sour” works to the advantage of the sour-seeking consumers. It is reassuring to see that people who might not yet appreciate these beers have been cautioned to leave them for those of us who already love them, and who would never pour them out or return them as “spoiled” in confusion.

We are already seeing Cantillon beers available less often locally, as the global interest in the wild and sour increases. One great moment of optimism in the CBC panel came when an audience member asked about building a coolship, prompting the panelists to all speak with great enthusiasm.  (You want a very large surface area on the cooling vessel, but it should not be so shallow as to make for a too sudden a cooling of the hot liquid.  Some of those ambient organisms in the cold night air only get “spontaneous” when their food source is still warm.)  We can only hope that this contemporary recognition of the importance of teaching the old ways will revive the craft in a deep way in the Brussels region, too.  It is clearly opening the rest of the world to experimentation.  Enough of us have fallen for these beers that Cantillon has a growing world wide audience, waiting for that the next batch that has made the journey through time, surviving seasons as a sick beer to heal, become even stronger and flourish.

Here’s a recording of Jean’s talk posted by Jay Brooks for your listening pleasure.   

Local notes:
The Craft Brewer’s Conference was a big week for local breweries, who did the region proud. Vinnie and Natalie Cilurzo, along with their Russian River brew crew, appeared to have boundless energy up to and through the week. Along with convening this panel, they hosted a pre-conference symposium at their own place, they prepared and bottled a special conference attendees’ brown sour ale made in conjunction with Sierra Nevada, and they held an event to announce that these two fine northern California breweries will undertake another sour collaboration to be released to the public.

Russian River
Natalie Cilurzo and a member of the Russian River brew crew pouring for industry colleagues in front of a wall of fish at the Academy of Sciences.

How to learn more: For San Francisco Bay Area sour beer learning, an afternoon at City Beer Store, Beer Revolution, The Trappist or La Trappe, all walkable from the BART or MUNI system, is a good way to begin or to continue your education, providing you can get the time and attention of the experienced bartenders there. Three or four people sharing a few bottles can put together an excellent flight to explore fine American and Belgian tart and funky flavors. Cantillon beers may not be not as easy to find in California as they were a few years ago, but the new craft beers from North America and elsewhere that they have inspired are also worth exploring. Ask your better beer bartender or bottle shopkeeper what’s new… and what’s ancient. For book-learning, seek out a copy of the excellent “Wild Brews” by Jeff Sparrow, which has insights for those who drink, brew or home-brew beers inspired by these traditions.

Explore Beer By BART; use our list of some of the San Francisco Bay Area’s best beer places with detailed transit info, so you can get out there to enjoy without driving.