It will come as no surprise to know that the origins of sour beers came about by accident. The first sour beers were often poured down the brewery’s drain as “infected” beers. Brewery sanitation, back in that era, was hit or miss and sometimes wild yeasts, of the type that float around in the air we breathe all the time, would find their way into that lovely growth medium created by a warm kettle and a sugary liquid and proliferate faster than head lice in a country kindergarten. They were perceived as flawed and tainted…until that first person tasted one and said, “Hey, this is really kinda…good!” Or, because it was in Belgium, “Hey, das ist wirklich Art von…guten!“
Here in the US, we deliberately introduce Lactobacillus or Brettanomyces or other yeast/bacterial cultures into the beers for souring – although, lately, there is a big trend toward just using those wild yeasts – and the degree of resultant sourness is carefully monitored.
BUT…as Americans, we have this persistent gene that trips at the slightest stimulation; that gene that spawns the reasoning that goes like this: “If that much of this is good, more of this would be…even better!” We’re Americans and more than a few of us are of Texan stock and we fervently believe that you Go Big or Go Home. As with our “reinterpretation” (which evolved into something more like clubbing baby harp seals) of the original India Pale Ale – the classic English IPA – we have already started to take the idea of “sour ale” and turn it into another Arms Race like the Great IBU Scare of the 200os. More and more often, as the sour boom continues, I’m handed samples of ales that are, in many cases, nearly indistinguishable from drinking vinegars like Pok Pok Som or McClary Brothers. Drinking vinegars are interesting but not for everybody, which is not supposed to be the case with sour beers. No Belgian brewery ever brewed a sour ale with the idea that it would be too challenging for most people to enjoy. Even those Belgians with more assertive sour character are intended to please a known audience, not make them wince in pain. Or make salad dressing.
As always, I’m not going to name any names but I’ve tasted several sours that were so tart and unforgiving that drinking them was, after a few sips, a matter of grim determination.
As we get farther on down the road of American sour beer evolution, that thing that we found about the IPA is going to become even more obvious: Not every brewery should be making them.
Which brings me to Crux Fermentation Project.
Larry Sidor (L), partner and brewmaster in Crux, has been praised – deservedly – in this blog many times. During his stint as brewmaster for Deschutes Brewery, Larry was responsible for beers like The Dissident, The Abyss, The Stoic, Hop Trip, and dozens of others. That resume places him solidly in the very top-tier of American brewers, there with names like Sam Calagione, Wayne Wambles, Mitch Steele, Tomme Arthur, Adam Robbings, and maybe a dozen others. And what separates these people from lesser brewers is NOT technical expertise. Anybody with a brain and determination can amass technical beer knowledge. Hell, I might even be able to and you, bearing a normal brain, almost certainly could. But what sets these people apart is…judgment.
Judgment…knowing what’s good and what’s merely mediocre. What’s unique and what’s been Done To Death. Knowing what people like to drink. Knowing what’s ridiculous and what’s possible…Knowing, most importantly, When To Stop. The critical judgment involved with this beer is blending; taking the various lots of the ale – newer ones, that add spice and fruit, with older ones that carry the lovely wood and vanilla character – and combining them into something coherent, even symphonic. This ale is a virtual tapestry of the history of this beer at Crux and the balances are astonishing.
Crux Fermentation Project “Better Off Red” [BANISHED] is the best Flanders-style Red Ale being made in the US today. No, I have not tasted every single one but Flanders Reds are a style I avidly seek out and there are not, as of this writing, so many that I can’t find most of them. The other main Flanders style, Oud Bruin, (or Flanders Brown Ale) is even more scarce. I can make that bold-faced claim above with some confidence because I’ve worked at it. This is not to say that there are no Flanders Reds being made that are comparable. Several of them come from right around this region where I live. pFriem Family Brewers, of Hood River, Oregon, makes a fabulous Flanders Red that’s available in bottles (if you find it quickly, upon release), as does Engine House No. 9 – or E9 Brewing – located exactly 2.6 miles from my house. Those three are, in my book, among the top six or eight beers of this style being made anywhere in the country. And as we expand that list, several others from the West figure in: Logsdon Farmhouse Ales “Far West Vlaming” and “Cerasus”, Driftwood Brewery’s “Bird of Prey”, and The Lost Abbey “Red Poppy”. But, in each of those cases, there is a fundamental difference in character that, unlike many other beer styles, makes each Flanders Red as individual as fingerprints.
I call this 2016 Better Off Red the best because of one extremely important aspect of it that is equaled by none of the others and it is the one that is the very basis of every review written in this blog: drinkability. Is this beer enjoyable, balanced, logical, and welcoming enough to enable MOST people who buy it, whether they’re beer geeks or casual beer fans, to taste and enjoy it? The Pour Fool is NOT, at all, written to please beer geeks. If it occasionally does, fine, but this is written to allow Average Joes who love beer and wine and booze to find beverages that they can like and afford. And in that aspect, Better Off Red is the best of this style I’ve tasted yet.
BOR is sour – assertively and frankly sour – and the use of brettanomyces for fermentation (Crux told me that they used brettanomyces lambicus, a high-intensity sub-strain of brettanomyces bruxellensis that shows big aromas of sweaty horses and a general barnyard smell, with flavors of tart cherries and raspberries) adds a dimension of brett’s hallmark funky character – usually described as horse blanket or wet hay or something equally descriptive – that sound awful but is shockingly complementary in the context of the ales. Brett can also create sweet pineapple and stewed peach notes and both are subtly at work here. Malt, too, is a huge factor in Flanders ales, as the sour would be unbearable without the mitigating effect of a mellow, malty sweetness, especially when the sour is coupled with the use of assertive NW hops, as in Better Off Red. And the prominent note of something like…wine(?) comes from the full year aging in wet Oregon red wine barrels, imparting berry-drenched grape notes with a lovely, oak-derived viscosity and vanilla cast. The balance of all the elements is Perfect: upfront tart cherries; a boozy presentation of dried cranberries, fruitcake, and spices; a tantalizing intimation of that brett-driven funk; a lovely edge of fresh, resiny Northwest hops; a beautiful sour overlay that adroitly straddles the line between flattering and aggressive; and a wonderful, universally appealing blast of grains and fresh-baked bread and toast that suffuses the whole beer with a homey warmth and welcoming character that will resonate with your most timid, sour-challenged friend.
(One fascinating aspect of these brett ales is that the yeasts continue to work in the bottle, long after the beer is released, making it a real, legit cellaring process if you decide to further age them, often resulting in a beer that has very little to do with what was in there when the bottle was filled. I’ve done this before and still have bottles that are aging and the differences, for a geeky science-club kid as I was growing up, can be incredible fun.)
I’ve read reviews of this beer that were absolutely lukewarm and I’m not claiming that they’re wrong in what they say but, as with the entire subject of reviews, most of what you read is going to be a function of the tastes of the reviewer. I’m looking for balance, depth, complexity, and an integrated Whole. Many reviewers aren’t. So be it. To me, however, Crux’s 2016 Better Off Red is THE definitive American Flanders Red Ale and an ale that anyone who claims to be a knowledgeable beer fan MUST have as a part of their Beer Experience. 100 Points