Sonoma’s Vintage Sour Beer

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Barrel aging beer at Russian River Brewing.
Photo credit: Jenn Garbee

Vinnie Cilurzo recently more than doubled the size of his Russian River barrel-aging room, but he could still use more space. He needs to get started on next year’s vintage, but the syrupy currant-colored liquid filling dozens of Cabernet Sauvignon barrels in the Sonoma County production facility still requires a few more weeks of aging.

Finding enough space to house wine barrels for the duration of the aging process isn’t an uncommon bottleneck in winery production. Only Russian River Brewing Co. isn’t a winery.

“If it were up to me, I’d do all barrel-aged beers, but the IPAs are still the big seller,” Cilurzo says of the full-bodied, delicately nuanced sour ales that he makes in limited quantities at his Santa Rosa, Calif., brewery.

Those wine barrels are filled with sour ales, traditional Belgium-style ales that have been naturally fermented with brettanomyces, a wild yeast, and aged for several months in oak barrels (Cilurzo also makes nearly a dozen more classic bottle-fermented Belgium ales). Unlike the more typical IPAs (India Pale Ales) and American lagers, Belgium-style sours can be tricky to brew and require months of barrel aging. Due to that wild yeast, their success, much like wine, depends as much on environmental factors as the skill of the producer.

That production volatility and the additional time required for barrel aging means these beers are pricier than your average six-pack. A 750ml bottle can set you back as much as $15 — not exactly what American beer buyers are used to paying to fill their tailgate coolers.

“The higher price point is hard to get beer consumers used to,” Cilurzo says. “But the real problem is you’re dealing with the beer drinkers in this country who expect a beer to taste the same every time they buy it. Batch #2 of the Supplication tasted nothing like Batch #1 — it’s more like wine in that way, always different.”

Supplication, a brown ale that Cilurzo ages in Pinot Noir barrels with a generous amount of dried sour cherries, is one of four sour beers that Russian River releases each year (the wine stains inside the barrels lend a subtle fruitiness to the beer). Others include the Temptation, a blonde ale aged in Chardonnay barrels for approximately 12 months, and the Beatification, a 100% wild-yeast fermented ale housed in old barrels without any oak or wine flavor so that it can soak up more of the beer’s natural yeasty flavor. Consecration, a dark ale aged for six months in dried currant-filled Cabernet barrels, is the newest Belgian-style sour in Russian River Brewing’s lineup (it was released for the first time this year). Like wine, once the limited quantities of the 2008 vintage are gone, fans will have to wait until the next year to get their hands on more.

Challenging but worth it

Cilurzo grew up in Sonoma County, where his parents worked in the wine industry, but it wasn’t until he headed to Southern California after college that he got into professional brewing. After working as a brewer at the now-closed Blind Pig brewery in Temecula, Cilurzo returned home in 1997 to the head brewer position for Russian River Brewing Co., a small brewery that Korbel Champagne Cellars had recently opened. Although a trip to Belgium spurred his interest in Belgium-style ales — both bottled-conditioned and barrel-aged sours — even a large champagne house wasn’t interested in those more complex, wine-like styles. “They wanted IPAs like everyone else,” recalls Cilurzo, who started tinkering around with small batches of Belgium-style ales in his free time. It wasn’t until 2004, when Cilurzo and his wife, Natalie, purchased Russian River Brewing from Korbel that he was able to make sour beers — in limited quantities.

Vinnie Cilurzo

Vinnie Cilurzo in the brew room. Photo credit: Jenn Garbee

Even today, the sour beers are only 5% of the brewery’s annual production. The rest of Russian River’s lineup includes bottle-conditioned Belgian-style ales and the brewery’s popular double IPAs such as Pliny the Elder. The expense of housing the sour ales in wine barrels for months as well as the production expense for a tricky brew have limited his expansion.

But for Cilurzo, it’s worth the effort, particularly when it comes to finding just the right wine barrels. “If Natalie and I like the wine, we buy the barrels,” he says of the selection process. The more recently a barrel has been used to age a wine, the more it’ll impart a particular grape’s qualities to the beer. “For the Consecration, I went with all fresh barrels for the strongest wine character,” he says. “You’re going to get a tobacco, chocolate and currant flavor from the Cabernet Sauvignon barrels, so you want to complement that in the beer as you make it.” The result is a complex, high-alcohol (10.5% ABV) beer with a noticeably fruity tang that seems more deserving of a steak than a ballpark frank.

Unlike mass-produced American light lagers that rely on a precise production formula, “the sours are ready whenever the beer tells us it’s ready,” Cilurzo says. “One year, it’s 12 months aging, the next, it’s 18.” When the sour beers have finished aging, they are bottled conditioned an additional eight to 10 weeks. Like wine, these fruit-forward beers can even be cellared for several years (most beers begin to lose their fresh flavor after only a few months).

Brett alert

These beers get some of that wine-like flavor from the wild yeast. When properly used, brettanomyces (also known as brett) lends a complex, almost earthy, tang to an ale that defines the Belgian style of brewing. Brett also happens to have a rather sullied reputation among winemakers. In small quantities, the yeast can add desirable character to a wine, but winemakers generally avoid it because of its propensity to quickly spoil large quantities of wine.

Cilurzo is careful to sanitize the brewing equipment between batches so as not to contaminate his other beers, and he assures local winemakers there is not enough brett at his facility to cause a problem.  “You could probably open up a petri dish at a brewery in Belgium and catch the stuff, it’s so heavy in the air, but we’re too isolated in our production for that here.”

Even still, Cilurzo isn’t always a welcome guest at neighborhood winery potlucks. “One winemaker came in the brewery and told another winemaker, ‘Don’t touch anything!’ and then told him to wash his boots well afterwards,” recalls Cilurzo, grinning. “He refused to sell me wine barrels.”

Most of Cilurzo’s wine-making neighbors applaud his recycling of their wine barrels. As production has increased, he has graduated from relying solely on friends’ barrels destined for the recycle bin to purchasing many of his barrels. Those wineries that have done more than their share of barrel donating over the years get a little something in return. “There’s this one winery that has given us so many Pinot barrels over the years, I finally bought them a kegerator,” says Cilurzo, loading a keg onto his truck. “They just started picking their grapes and called to say it’s a little hot and dry over there, and could I bring over some beer?”

The beer? A Russian River India Pale Ale. “When you’re working, you just want something refreshing.” Cilurzo’s sours are meant for sipping – and savoring.

To find Russian River Brewing’s beers, visit www.russianriverbrewing.com

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