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Brewery Vivant brings the wood

Festival celebrates ‘risky’ sour beers that are aged in wooden containers.

September 11, 2015
| By Pat Evans |
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Brewery Vivant wood beers
Brian Kuszynski is the brewer in charge of Brewery Vivant’s production of wood-aged beer, which will be celebrated during a community festival on Saturday. Courtesy Brewery Vivant

When Jason Spaulding first tasted a gueuze, a type of beer from Belgium, he was not impressed. The beer’s potent sour taste made Spaulding wonder why anyone would want to drink sour beers.

Now, as Spaulding’s Brewery Vivant is set to host its fifth annual Wood Aged Beer Fest on Saturday, he’s thankful the Belgians were stubborn.

“My palate changed, and I started to explore. It can be fun to put sour back in beer,” Spaulding said. “In Belgium, they’re so stubborn, they never stopped. They’re the last culture to hang on to wood-aged beer with all these funky flavors that have been written off as off-flavors.”

The palates of craft beer drinkers continue to evolve. As a growing percentage of drinkers find they appreciate beers loaded with various malt, hop and yeast characteristics, brewers are returning to the roots of craft beer. While the hop-loaded India pale ales are still at the forefront of the movement, various historical lager styles and sour beers are on the rise.

Spaulding said wood-aged beers disappeared decades ago with the growing desire for a “clean” beer with a uniform taste.

“Breweries all used to brew in wood, but as stainless steel, sanitary practices and other technology came, they stopped,” he said. “The most sought-after beers were clean. No one had them 100-plus years ago. Now there are clean beers that don’t go sour and taste exactly the same every time.”

Now the craft movement has moved away from beers that all taste like light lagers, a trend that grew to massive popularity after Prohibition and still dominates the market today, made by huge companies such as Anhueser-Busch and MillerCoors.

Spaulding said the first brewer to really showcase what sour beers can be was Vinnie Cilurzo at Russian River Brewing Co. in California. With a winemaking background, Cilurzo knew how to make the beers work with the wood of barrels.

“He was producing all these beers that all of us brewers thought were wonderful and got us excited about what we could do to beer,” Spaulding said.

As Brewery Vivant has matured as a business, it has grown its wood-aged beer program. This year, the brewers had more than 100 barrels of beer sitting in a warehouse, made up of a variety of barrels including whiskey, mescal, and white and red wine barrels.

Once the beers are put in the barrels, they take on a host of flavors.

Whiskey-barrel-aged beers often pack huge whiskey notes and high alcohol content, such as Founders Brewing Co.’s Kentucky Breakfast Stout.

Wine barrels are often the perfect home for bacteria and yeasts — called “bugs” in the trade — such as Lactobacillus, Brettanomyces and Pediococcus, which make beers taste tart and sour.

Although whiskey barrels lose their characteristics after a use or two, once barrels are inoculated with the “bugs,” the barrels can be used until they start turning out bad beer.

Once the beer is in the barrels, it’s mostly unknown what will happen to the beer and there’s no telling when it will be perfect for drinking, so there’s a lot of tasting to make sure the beers don’t turn for the worse and end up tasting like dirty socks.

Some wood-aged beers end with a mouth-puckering punch, while others have a sweet dryness.

“It’s fun to see the creation of flavors and seeing what will happen,” Spaulding said. “You don’t really know. You can guide it, and maybe something turns out super-sour and awesome, and sometimes it doesn’t.

“It’s not without surprises.”

Brewery Vivant’s Wood Aged Beer Fest has sold out in the past and has proven wood-aged beers are a commodity in Grand Rapids. Last year’s event, however, took on sort of a street-party vibe, which was not what Spaulding and his staff intended.

“It was starting to go in a direction we didn’t want it to go,” Spaulding said, noting the beer took a back seat to the festivities. “There were people who came to the party who don’t really like wood-aged beer but because it sounded like fun to go to a street party.

“We want it to be more intimate — more special and about the beer.”

This year, the Wood Aged Beer Fest is back in the brewery’s parking lot. It will be split into two sessions of approximately 700 people each. Spaulding said the brewery has identified roughly 20 beers ready to be tapped for the event, including some favorites such as Paris, a sour beer released in cans early this summer that sold out in an afternoon. He said there will be five or six additional surprises.

Some beers that were started with the festival in mind may not be ready to drink on Saturday.

“If it’s not ready, we won’t put it out there; it’s hard to pin down when beers will be done,” he said. “It could be tapped in a few months instead.”

What this festival signifies for Brewery Vivant is a further dedication to its wood-aged beer program. While Michigan has Jolly Pumpkin — one of the nation’s leading all wood-aged breweries — aside from a few breweries such as New Holland Brewing and Bell’s Brewery that are experimenting with sour beers, it’s not a large segment of the state’s craft industry.

This summer, Brewery Vivant received a shipment of three foeders — large wooden containers once used to make cognac — from France. Spaulding said buying the foeders was a risk, but he said they look like they’re in good shape. “Hopefully all is well, but there is a little bit of a risk. It’s a big experiment,” he said. “You don’t launch into something like this with a monetary business plan in mind.”

Once ready to hold beer, Spaulding said the foeders will be inoculated with three different “bugs.”

“They’ll build their own character and change depending on what beer we put into them,” he said.

The foeders will be stored in a newly renovated room at the brewery. The “Wood Room” will help produce wood-aged beers in a larger volume. A few of them will be prepared for a commercial launch, Spaulding said. He hopes the first batch will be ready come spring.

With the increased use of “bugs” comes the risk of cross-contamination, which could ruin production of mainstay beers made in the main brewery, such as Triomphe.

“All the funk will stay over there,” Spaulding said. “It’s a little dangerous to sour, but we wouldn’t go forward if we didn’t think we could do it.”

To prevent cross-contamination, a hard-piped line will flow only into the room and back out if the beers have been sterile filtered. Brewers will wear bright white boots meant only for the Wood Room. Instead of canning the beers along with other distributed Brewery Vivant beers, a new bottling line was installed.

The bottles can hold more pressure than cans — a crucial factor in some sour beers that can re-ferment in packaging.

He said the expanded program will keep things fresh around the brewery because it’s what the brewers are passionate about.

“Whenever you have passionate people, that passion comes through,” Spaulding said. “They’re so excited about it, it comes through in the beer and people feel that.”

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