One of the most belabored cliches in American English is “Thinking Outside the Box“. Literal meaning: creative or original thinking. We all know what it means, basically, but trying to encapsulate it or describe it is frequently problematic and always highly debatable.
Bend, Oregon, is arguably the most OtB place within the wildly OtB region that is the Pacific Northwest. And within that tiny universe of inspired weirdness are some breweries that are bending the quotidian realities of beer and brewing with such off-hand grace that they make the Large Hadron Collider look like a bargain brand toaster.
Boneyard is busily rewriting the definition of “IPA”. Monkless is rethinking the boundaries of Belgian-style American ales. Deschutes…well, they threw out the box ages ago and now operate as a sort of stylistic incubator in which the renovation of established styles has few boundaries and zero sacred places. At The Ale Apothecary, Deschutes alum Paul Arney is embracing his inner daredevil with every new release, with results that range from absolutely brilliant to stunningly original.
But maybe the grand master of this Perverse Rejection of the Cube is Crux Fermentation Project, where former Deschutes brewmaster, Larry Sidor, and his gifted assistant brewmaster, Cam O’Connor, are busily turning old ideas on their heads and rejecting the basic premise that The Box exists at all.
Picture this: you build a long, flat trailer with watertight seams and take what’s called a spreader nozzle, attach it to a hose that’s pumping hot wort (the early, boiled grain stage of beer), and fill the thing – slowly!– allowing as much air as possible to get into the wort. What’s supposed to happen is for the beer to absorb the wild and native yeasts that are floating in air everywhere and let that very unpredictable yeast ferment the liquid.
This is done in winemaking and has been for centuries. It was, in the distant past, the only way wine was fermented, as native yeasts grow plentifully on grape skins and, in fact, on MOST fruit and vegetable skins. Boujolais Nouveau, for example, is ONLY fermented with native yeasts, albeit in a sealed carbon dioxide-rich environment, and that’s what gives it that distinctive flavor. Before commercially cultured yeasts were developed, wild yeast was it, if you hoped to produce alcohol. Tepache, the Mexican street refresher, is made with the yeasts on pineapple skins. I make tepache at home and it’s always like a cool little magic trick. In Europe, this open-topped fermenter method – called “Coolship” – (because the wort cools in it, not because it’s such a cool thing to do…which it is) is used widely and, again, used to be how all beer was fermented.
Crux’s “Gypsy Coolship” project – even beyond a name which conjures up “Acadian Driftwood”, one of my favorite tunes by The Band – is a ridiculously Cool idea and one that would require two brewers as savvy (read: “ballsy”) as Sidor and O’ Connor to even conceive, much less actually do it. The first edition of this stuff arrived from My FedEx Beer Pimp yesterday and is best described by two terms…
“brilliant” and “low-ambition“.
“Low ambition“? Well, with all of central Oregon to choose from, where did the Crux folks choose to use for the kick-off of this delightfully odd series?
Their own parking lot.
Actually, it was on their lawn but “parking lot” was funnier so I went with that. Regardless of how, uh, undermotivated that may seem, the first version was never going to be anything but a control in this series: If the beer tastes like this, from Here, what’s it going to taste like…Out There?
“Here” is…well, unbelievably good.
Crux Fermentation Project “Gypsy Coolship: Experiment #1” is a grisette-style ale. Grisette is a traditional Belgian type of low-alcohol ale that’s consumed mostly in hot weather but is great year-round and is happily making a comeback in the US. It’s origins trace back to the Belgian province -p Hainaut – from which, so Ancestry DNA tells me, 61% of my own DNA is derived. (Ya gotta love a region in which the main city shares the same name as the female pubic mound: “Mons”) It was brewed originally for the region’s coal miners, who came out of the ground, every day, hot and dusty and ready for a fuggen beer…or five. To avoid the ugly spectacle of drunken, grey-faced miners lurching across the pastoral countryside (this is where the original concept of “zombies” came from.) (I totally made that up that last bit but wouldn’t it be GREAT if it was true?!?), brewers developed the concept of “grisette“, which typically clocks in at about 3 – 4% alcohol. The Crux first-edition is a stately 3.7% ABV, which makes it imminently reasonable to think of sitting and just downing the entire 24 ounce bottle…and you WILL want to, if you like funky, complex beers at all.
Coolship “Our Front Yard” is one of the most approachable wild-fermented beers I’ve ever come across, either from the US or Belgium. It IS, by damnit, both tart and funky but avoids every one of those occasional excesses that show up in many sour/wild ales. The tartness is just that: Tart, NOT aggressively sour. You get an intimation of apple cider vinegar but leaning more to pears and citrus, which is underlaid with a lovely, aromatic stratum of wet-blanket, hay, and loamy earthiness that frames a hefty shot of quince and kiwi and gooseberry and wild herbs. It’s light as a baby’s breath but crammed with flavor; easily the most assertive 3%-ish ale I’ve ever come across. I PROMISE YOU, if you opened a bottle of this and didn’t know what the ABV was, you’d guess 6 to 7 percent. I guessed 6, before I read the label and was pole-axed to see that 3.7.
The texture even has a bit of body behind it. It does not come off as wimpy at all and has a gorgeous complexity and a lovely, wildflower-ish finish.
If you sign on for this Coolship Trip with the Cruxers, be prepared for the distinct possibility that these ales will NOT just be a bunch of similar ales with the sort of fine distinctions that only obsessive beer geeks can appreciate. The idea of differences in environment – which the French dubbed “terroir“, as those foppish dorks are wont to do – are very real and can be quite dramatic. I once tasted four German Rieslings, all made by the same winery and all from one large vineyard bloc, separated only by a huge “+” of fences, all of which were spontaneously fermented. The four wines were as different as four breeds of dogs.
The whole subject of wild/native fermentation is a science wonk’s dream: near-total unpredictability, vast differences in the aging process – even very short aging, as in weeks – and totally different levels of tart/sour and funk.
As I sit and taste through the parade of traditional ales and lagers that march across my desk every month, brilliant as some of them are, they eventually take on a creeping sameness. Crux Gypsy Coolship – the idea and this beer – is a blast of fresh air, fresh inspiration, and fresh flavors that blows the cobwebs off a crowded beer culture and promises SO many amazing discoveries, down those back roads of that verdant Brigadoon that is Oregon. 98 Points