This past week Dan and I were invited to Insight Brewing’s pre-release tasting of the very first of their Brewmaster’s Secret Garden series of beers. Being a huge sour beer fan, I was very excited to see what they had in store for us! In the past year Insight has been pulling out the stops, with a big increase in production, consistency, and now more barrel aged beers. This can only be good for the Minnesota scene. Also word has just hit us that Insight will be the first Minnesota brewery to go fully solar powered via subscribing to a solar farm/garden out in my neck of the woods, Carver County. Pretty cool!
Sours have been rapidly increasing in popularity over the past few years, and are no longer the mysterious rare brew only sought out by a few die-hard Belgian beer fans. I noticed a ton of new sour beers from local and outstate at 2016’s beer festivals, and am finding a lot more on tap around the Twin Cities. While I don’t think they’ll be overtaking IPA for popularity any time soon, this is a new niche that is quickly filling up and intriguing new palates.
However, not all sours are created equal. Sours generally fall into three main categories.
- The first is kettle sours. These are based upon the old German Berliner Weisse style–wheat based, low alcohol, slightly soured in the kettle prior to boiling. Most of the sours in the Minnesota market are kettle sours, but lots of them are trying to increase complexity with fruit, spices, wood aging, etc. These have their place, but I find their lack of complexity makes me tire of them quickly. An exception would be the Noble Star series from Schells where they are taking this style to the next level.
- The second is brett beers. The addition of Brettanomyces (a “wild” yeast) will add unusual flavors to any base beer, often described as horse blanket, or funky. These vary based on strain of Brett, and addition of other souring bacteria. These can be tart, or not tart at all. Most of these available here in MN are based on Belgian saisons, with brett added for complexity. Depending who you ask, some beer geeks/experts will not categorize these as sours at all.
- The last is true Belgian style sours. Most of these are very complex, deriving flavors from a mix of wild yeasts, pediococcus, and lactic acid producing bacteria. Belgian lambics and geueze are the most “pure” of this style. These are usually aged at length (1-3 years) in oak barrels and are often blended together before bottling. I’ve had one fair example of this from Boom Island, but really no one else has been doing these in MN. Flanders Red or Brown ales are similar but tend to have more of the lactic tartness present. I’m starting to see a few breweries try this out, such as Forager in Rochester.
OK, so there’s your quick and overly simplified primer on sours! Now into the breech! When Insight hired on Ryan Mihm as their head brewer last April, they instantly received a ton of hard-earned sour beer experience. Ryan has had training at Allagash–one of the first (and best) producers of wild fermentation sour beers in America. Then he moved on to New Belgium–the first producer of the American Flanders style beer La Folie. With this history Ryan brings a lot of knowledge of multiple Belgian style sour ales and oak aging to this mix. I couldn’t be more excited!
For our first tasting we got to try the just-bottled first addition to the new Brewmaster’s Secret Garden line of beers: Funken City. This would fit category 2 above and is based on their Sunken City saison, which is then added to barrels for some extended aging. This version first spent some time in black cherry whiskey barrels, gaining some flavor and alcohol content, then was transferred to a previously used sour barrel from New Belgium to add some funk! During the process Ryan makes sure to taste from each barrel about every 3-4 weeks to monitor the beer and get a feel for when they will be ready. Insight has vowed to release these beers only when they are ready for market, even if they must bust deadlines. I respect that a lot. This first batch of sour beer produced only 840 bottles, so I’m proud to get to try one of them!
Aroma: I get a ton of strawberry and blackberry aroma off this. Some sweetness, followed by a barnyard funkiness. Some sourness that makes my mouth pucker even before I taste it.
Appearance: Light straw color with a slight haze to it. Very light whispy white head that fades quickly.
Flavor: Bright and fruity up front with flavors of cherry and strawberry seeds. Zippy but not overly sour. Slightly astringent on the tail end but the final taste is funk with grapefruit peel. Hint of lactic but more brett focused.
Overall: This tastes more like 6% than 8.3% ABV. Very fruity and complex with good saison base as a palette for the brett and lacto to play upon. Well balance and easy to drink. This would be stellar with some fresh scallops.
Moving into the back room we were able to ogle a spread of spirit and wine barrels filled with future releases of Insight sour beers. We were treated to a few tastes of an upcoming sour red ale from a mix different barrels. This one isn’t quite done (hopefully only a another couple of months to go) and it isn’t carbonated yet, so it’s hard to judge well. Each barrel had some unique flavor characteristics though: one had black cherry, earthy notes; another had more lactic flavors and some plum rind; and the last had more oak tannin with a very dry finish. These will likely be blended together before bottling to get the flavor profile that Ryan and Ilan are looking for in the final beer. I’m looking forward to it!
Overall I’m really excited to see Insight branching out into this somewhat uncharted territory in the Minnesota beer market. Ryan has the experience to make this potentially one of the best sour programs in the state and I hope they keep expanding it over the coming years!