Beer and wine aren't radically different--both are mildly alcoholic, social beverages that go well with meals--but the people who make them are. Wine makers are steely, artistic types who don't mind impressionistic results. They have some control over aggregate circumstances--where they plant their grapes, which kinds, how they tend them--but the end product comes from the sky. One becomes a wine maker knowing that her company's product will never be the same from one year to the next.
Brewers, of course, prize precision. Although they must contend with the natural environment, they are not controlled by it. They can easily adjust pH, IBUs, and malt bills to adjust for the changes mother nature throws at them.
In much the same way, beer drinkers like consistency. They know that a Pliny the Elder is going to have that insane, piney hop kick every time they buy a bottle. Wine-drinkers appear to love the hunt. They track vintages and wineries, and know that a bottle of Erath pinot from 2005 and 2006 won't taste the same--and which is better.
This is why I admire the annual experiments conducted by Matt Swihart and Ron Gansberg as they make their annual fruit beers. Like wine makers, both are dependent on the quality of the fruit, and neither can replicate beers year to year. Ron has the advantage of being able to select the finest cherry and apricot crops he can find; even still, his beers vary markedly year-to-year. (Two years ago, the Apricot was amazing, but last year, the Kriek was the big winner. I have yet to sample the current vintages.) Matt Swihart has even less control: he uses cherries grown in his own orchard. Like a wine-maker, fruit is destiny, and no two vintages will taste the same.
Last Thursday, Double Mountain debuted their new vintage and I scampered down to Belmont Station to have a pour. Matt is still tinkering with the recipe and process for Devil's Kriek, and in addition to the variance in cherries, the base beer was quite a bit different this year. The original kriek was based on Devil's Kitchen, a golden strong ale; this year, Matt made a brown ale base. The two strands of cherry beers brewed in Belgium are lambics, made on a pale base, and the red/brown beers of Flanders. (You can see it pretty clearly in the photo at right.) Beyond that, he also used about twice the amount of Bing cherries as he did last year.
Yet there's also the matter of the crop. Recall that last year the Northwest produced a record cherry crop, "producing one of the best crops of cherries I have ever seen in my decade as a gentleman farmer," as Matt said. This allowed them to leave the fruit on the tree longer, allowing them to ripen to more intense flavor, create more sugar, and darken the tannin-rich skins.
The combination of great fruit and the new brown ale recipe? Amazing. Darker malts work especially well with cherries. The combination of pit-bitterness and tannin from the skins pull out the nutty, chocolaty flavors from the dark malts. The cherry's flavors marry perfectly with wild-yeast sourness. Together, the deeper, more resonant malts and bright, sharp sour are a perfect combination. Other fruit works with soured ales, but there's a reason breweries come back to cherries. This year's batch of Devil's Kriek hits all these notes. The fruit is especially fresh and intense, and I imagine this will be a rare vintage. Matt sours Devil's Kriek with brettanomyces, but poured cold, the sour isn't particularly funky. As it warms, some of the barnyard aromas begin to emerge, and the sourness softens from bell-like sharpness into a more organic, funky sour.
(I would like to host a symposium some day where I put Matt, Ron, and Rob Tod on a panel together. Matt is a brett man, but eschews lactobacillus. Ron is lacto man, eschewing brett. And Rob is a spontaneous man, daring to dance with pediococcus and other bacteria and funk. All right gentlemen, discuss.)
I wasn't a huge fan of last year's batch, though it pained me to admit it. Of course, that's the nature of the beast. Some years, Matt will spend 14+ months growing fruit and brewing and aging beer only to make an average beer. On the other hand, some years will be like this, when those 14 months produce a world-class beer. The beer fan in me wishes he could figure out a way to make it predictable, but that's not the way with fruit beer. Like crops, some are better than others. We have to live in the moment and enjoy the bounty while it's available. Matt says this batch will be on tap at Double Mountain regularly, probably for the better part of a year. You can also find it at the Portland International Beerfest this weekend. Enjoy it while you can.