“I can’t claim to know what Crux Fermentation [BANISHED] “In The Pocket” Barrel-Aged Rustic Saison will taste like in its three or six or nine month windows…but I’ve tried every example of Bretts that I could find and my semi-educated guess is that Crux “In The Pocket” is now, and will be even more so later, one of the best Brett ales made in the US.”
I’m just gonna put this here and you can call it whatever species of hyperbole you want but I wouldn’t say it if I wasn’t ready to own it…
Larry Sidor may just be the best brewer in the United States. And I suspect he could probably whup Europe’s ass, too, if he wanted.
I hear the muttering already: “Well, this Fool person is obviously an idiot! Better than Vinnie Cilurzo? Tomme Arthur? Sam Calagione? Wayne Wambles? Anthony Bourdain!?!”
(Oh, sorry…that last one isn’t a brewer, although, with all the declarative popping off about beer that he’s been doing for the past two years, you can understand how I’d get confused.)
But, yes…and no. I’m not going to suggest, on an every-beer basis, that Sidor is better than all those people. Just as good, sure. But, across the board? Historically? On many specific beers? Yeah. It’s almost a no-brainer. Just look at the resume:
At Deschutes: Built on John Harris’ creation of the core beers; legendary names like Mirror Pond and Black Butte and Obsidian…The Stoic, The Dissident, The Abyss, Hop Trip, Hop Henge, Inversion, Jubelale, Mirror Mirror, Red Chair…
At Crux Fermentation Project: Freakcake, Half Hitch, Tough Love, Cast Out, Doublecross, Lemondrop IPA(!), On The Fence; The [BANISHED] Barrel-Aged Series: Better Off Red, Snow Cave, Tough Love, Viognier Sour…
…and the best Porter you’ve never tasted yet, the new PCT Porter, which you will RUN out and find, if you have a lick of sense.
But the final proof, for me, was delivered last week by my Beer Pimps at FedEx, who lugged in a BIG, wine bottle-sized package from Crux, with a beer in it whose style I’ve come to approach the way I would a rattlesnake or a Cape buffalo or a Republican.
Brettanomyces – copied straight out of Wikipedia – “is a non-spore forming genus of yeast in the family Saccharomycetaceae, and is often colloquially referred to as “Brett”.” Brett is a maverick – and that joke is intentional – species of yeast that, as the kids say, “brings da Funk“. Beers fermented with Brettanomyces display the sort of aromas and flavors that cause many people to hurl when they open a past-dated carton of milk and take a whiff: “horse blanket“, “wet hay“, “cat piss“, “barn funk“, “rotten apples” – all common flavor descriptors in Brett ales. If you’re thinking, “Why the f*** would anybody deliberately choose to put something in a beer that smells like a wet dog and tastes like spoiled cider?“, well, ya have company. In the wine world, Brett is Public Enemy Numero Uno. I know a half-dozen winemakers in Santa Rosa, California, who are rabid Russian River Brewing fans but won’t set foot in their facility because they’re scared that some Brett spores will get onto their clothes and wind up back at the winery. Which would, effectively, close down the winery. And they’re correct to feel that way.
Here’s Brett: Congratulations, you just put a wild Appaloosa into your beer, Mr. Smarty-Pants, and you have only very limited control. Brett continues to grow and develop in the bottle. It can continue to change for a LONG damned time. And the Funk gets funkier and funkier; funkier than Sly and The Family Stone, if left alone long enough. This is what we call “live beer” and the term is quite literal. But many, many millions of beer geeks absolutely adore Brett ales, and I am very much one of those. There is just something…compelling about a Brett beer. It has layers, strata, shades and nuances. Whatever base ale you start with is going to get bent out of shape like your dog does when you look at him through a kaleidoscope. Sometimes…the result is a profound, wince-inducing, gag-evoking friggin’ mess. But sometimes….
Five years ago, you’d have had a hard time finding five Brett ales to do a tasting. Today, you might not even have to leave town. And the sad fact is that about 85% of ’em, are just flippin’ terrible. I would never write that about any of the breweries making them but, My God…is this the point at which American brewers run up against The Peter Principle, a management theory that says that “every employee will rise in the hierarchy through promotion until they reach the levels of their respective incompetence.“? I believe it might be. Most brewers should not try to make Brett ales because Brett ales take GREAT skill and even greater judgment.
Larry Sidor makes the best brett ales I’ve ever tasted.
Making a wild yeast ale requires JUDGMENT (caps intentional). Skill? Yes, but judgment is far more important. Knowing where in the yeast’s evolution is the proper place to get it into the bottle. Knowing if the Brett is going to turn out drinkable at all comes even before that. Modern laboratory techniques have tamed the Brett Beast a bit but it’s still a crap-shoot. And being able to extrapolate what will happen, six months or a year or longer after it goes into the bottle is maybe the slickest trick of all.
I can’t claim to know what Crux Fermentation [BANISHED] “In The Pocket” Barrel-Aged Rustic Saison will taste like in that three or six or nine month windows. There was never any chance that a Crux ale, sliding into my fridge, was going to stay there that long. And I can’t claim to have the sort of brewer’s judgment that will allow me to extrapolate about its future. But I have tasted every example of Bretts that I could find and my semi-educated guess is that In The Pocket is now and will be even moreso later, one of the best Brett ales made in the US.
“In The Pocket” is a jazz term; a blast from my own past, playing bad jazz in small bars in Washington, DC. It means “a tight groove“, firmly tucked into the rhythm and melodic flow and riding it. The hallmark virtue of everything Larry Sidor has ever brewed has been its uncompromising drinkability; that “in the pocket” rightness. That’s still in force in this rambunctious beast of an ale. The fact that it started life as a Saison makes the tiny miracle in this glass even more stunning. Saisons are lighter beers, usually, and a touch sweet and rustic. They’re uncontrived; the very beers that Belgians, most of whom homebrew, make in their kitchens and basements, with absolutely no audience ambitions except for their families and maybe a friend or three. They’re basic beers, made for enjoyment and only seldom for Art…but they take to the Brett treatment like a PDX hipster takes to Pabst Kale-a-rita. The two Brettanomyces strains used in this ale – B. Bruxellensis and B. Lambicus – chew up sugars like rabid dogs and the dry character produced by both drags this ale to another level of Saison appreciation. In one way, ITP sorta undoes the Saison style, subbing in the woodsy tree bark and bitter, peppery traits of Lambicus for the more overt tropical fruit, banana, and bubble gum notes of traditional Saison yeasts. The yellow apple and apricot flavors are traded for pear cider and baked apples. The baking spices that shout “Saison!” are now the wood notes, white pepper, sumac, and diluted malt vinegar. In The Pocket shoves a fine-edged, fruity, balanced structure straight into your face, overlaid with a definite and assertive level of brett funk that hits the notes of horse blanket and old hay and forest loam squarely on the nose.
No, as to that question in your head: this is not going to woo your IPA-Obsessed pal to go berserk over wild ales. It’s too “serious” and assertive for that. This is an ale for the experienced drinkers of beautifully-crafted Old World Brett beers that also pick up elements from the ambient yeasts and bacteria on the breweryfloors and walls. Crux may not be quite old enough to have developed that timeless layer of native yeasts on premises quite yet, but it doesn’t seem to have slowed down Sidor’s goal of producing an authentic homage to its Flanders/Belgian roots one bit. For the record, as with most Lambics, (the Belgian ales that constitute the Brett tradition’s origins) this is a blended ale: the “young” segment was fermented with both Bruxellensis and Lambicus and used unaged. The “elder“, as their website calls it, was made using a traditional Saison yeast and then refermented using Lambicus, that developed over its sixteen months in barrel.
That judgment I mentioned at the top is most crucial in how this ale is blended. Before it’s bottled and pushed out of the nest, to continue growing teeth and horns in its bottle, the final blend has to be near-perfect. It’s the last opportunity for the brewer to exercise his or her skill and palate on what will become the public product. It’s in this stage that Larry Sidor’s vast experience and deft hand figures in most strongly. This is a guy who simply doesn’t know how to make a bad beer…and, since I don’t work at Crux and have no first-hand knowledge, let me just say that, if he does make bad beers, they go down a drain or into a blend or get made into vinegar and no beer fan is ever put through being disappointed by Crux…and that, in itself, is maybe the most vital Judgment of all. 99 Points
I know of many, many breweries which put beers on tap that make me wince and gasp and think, “They put this out and put their name on it?!?” Working on a thing for weeks on end and then having to Get Real and say, “I can’t serve this” is the mark of a great brewer and a great brewery. Doctors, as the cliche goes, bury their mistakes. Bakers cover theirs with frosting. Politicians deny them. Brewers often pour them, anyway.
Not so with Crux. As they enter into the tail end of their fifth year in business, Crux continues to make a claim, with every new release, as one of America’s truly great breweries. They may occasionally seem to fly a bit under the radar, as they adamantly do not pander to the roving packs of HopHead IPA-only geekazoids whose lives revolve around Pals ‘N’ Beers and whose ratings drive both RateBeer and BeerAdvocate’s scores. They cover all the stylistic bases that Sidor’s eclectic background leads him to. If I were to read tomorrow that Larry had decided to do a series of Lithuanian kaimiškas, keptinis, or duminis ales, I wouldn’t be surprised…but I would damned sure drink the things because they’d be delicious.
In The Pocket was, I’m sure, absolutely NOT made as any sort of Statement. But it is one and the statement is that Crux Fermentation Project is the Real Deal and the next brewery that American Indie beer lovers simply cannot miss.