Symposium. I like it. It's not a meet-the-brewer, it's not even a seminar, it's a symposium. I was going to make fun of the snootiness of that word, until I looked up the etymology: holy crap, in Latin it meant "drinking party", with Greek roots:
syn- "together" + posis "a drinking,"
Say what you will about Fat Tire -- go ahead, I dare you -- New Belgium has a boldness that you have to admire: hiring a brewmaster from Rodenbach, promoting bicycling with the Tour de Fat, and putting on Sour Beer Symposia and/or Drinking Parties around the country. The Symposium in Portland was headed by the husband and wife team of Eric and Lauren Salazar. Eric is a brewer at New Belgium, and Lauren is NB's Sensory Specialist, in charge of the blending program that produces the sour beers in the Lips of Faith Series.
The Symposium started off with an hour-long slide show about the brewery, including a virtual tour of the warehouse where they age beer in giant wooden casks called foeders. All the sour Lips of Faith beers are based on some combination of an Odd Couple of beers called Oscar and Felix. Oscar is a dark ale that has almost the same components of NB's 1554 Black Ale, minus the black malt; Felix is a lighter-colored strong Belgian. If you've had Eric's Ale or Le Terroir, those are 100% Felix beers, so you might get an idea of what Felix is about. The beers are fermented out to be pretty dry -- they don't want a lot of residual sugars in these beers.
New Belgium has some wooden barrels for aging beer, but their real workhorses are the foeders. When a new foeder arrives at the brewery, a certain amount of the wood inside is shaved off, but there may be some residual critters. Once filled with beer, they are inoculated with the house blend of... well, of what we aren't exactly sure. Lauren said that they started off with all the stuff that sounds like childhood diseases: pediococcus, brettanomyces, lactobacillus. But now she says that what's growing in those foeders is its own little world, and New Belgium doesn't care so much what it is, as how it is. When people asked her what was growing in the foeders, she said (I'm paraphrasing) "I don't know exactly, but it's a bunch of organisms that love where they're living".
And so the NB blending program doesn't rely on any microbial analysis, the blending is done entirely on sensory perception. Because there is no particular schedule to the Lips of Faith releases, the brewery has the luxury of waiting until they think they have something worth bottling before they pull it out of the casks. As the foeders are sampled, they are grouped into three rough categories: Users (ready to use), Blenders (ready to extend Users), and Waiters (not ready yet). Every now and then, a beer tastes so good out of the foeder that it is deemed suitable to be bottled without any blending. These are the beers that occasionally appear as "NBB Love" beers -- if you ever see a New Belgium beer with the word "Love" in its name, it's a single-barrel beer that you should not pass up.
Lauren boasted that she could train anyone to be on her sensory panel; that seemed overly idealistic to me so when I followed up with her by email she said "No one panelist is perfect, we all are going to be more or less sensitive to families of compounds (sulfurs, organic acids, esters, etc). Your panel is your strength and that strength comes from a number of trained and validated panelists that you know their strengths and weaknesses."
After the slide show and infomercial came the audience participation part of the Drinking Pa-, er, Symposium. New Belgium had brought five firkins to Saraveza, four of which contained beer from various foeders at the brewery; the fifth contained La Folie (an expertly blended sour -- the 2010 vintage if I remember correctly). Participants were given samples of the five beers -- in plastic cups, sorry Jim -- and asked to sample them and come up with a ratio that they would want to take home in a growler as their own personal blend.
For the record, in Portland our samples were from Foeders 2, 7, 8, and 14, plus La Folie of course. It was a little bit suboptimal in that the pure items were uncarbonated -- if you wanted a little fizz in your mix, you had to add in the La Folie training wheels. I've lost my notes on the different samples, but there was definitely a range of funk there, from sweet tart to "did you step in something?". At our table we were pretty much in agreement as to the nastiest beer -- not that it was totally irredeemable -- and that tended to occupy a smaller part in most of our blends. Interestingly, one of the NB marketing guys told me that the foeder we eschewed was the most popular in the earlier session. Where's my tasting panel?
I was pretty happy with the beer I took home, though like Jeff, I think that this blending thing is pretty difficult. My hat's off to people that do it for a living. My blend was 8 parts firkin 2, 18 parts firkin 7, 14 parts firkin 8, 16 parts firkin 14, and 8 parts La Folie. Needless to say, it was flat as a pancake, especially after riding home on the front rack of my bike. But tasty -- funky, and not too tart.
If you are a fan of sour beers, especially if you are a fan of La Folie or any of the New Belgium Lips of Faith beers, you should absolutely attend one of these Sour Beer Symposia if you get the chance.
Further reading: Here's an excellent long interview with Lauren on a blog called Embrace the Funk.