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Tuesday, July 14, 2009

Double Mountain Devil's Kriek

Beer is local. Or was, anyway, before industrialization. Styles emerged from available ingredients, local culture, weather, water--a host of circumstances. The Zenne Valley is reputed to be so hospitible to spontaneous fermentation because local fruit trees (now mostly gone) housed tasty wild yeasts. The monks of Abbaye Notre-Dame de Saint Remy brewed beer in the sixteenth century from barley and hops grown on abbey grounds. Bohemian pilsners and West Coast pale ales wouldn't be recognizeable without native hops. But then the industrial revolution made it possible for breweries to receive ingredients from thousands of miles away; its arrival meant the loss of indigenous styles and the homogenization of national brewing.

But now we are following our tracks backward, and that's what makes Double Mountain's Devil's Kriek experiment especially exciting. Made with cherries grown in brewer Matt Swihart's orchards, they return us to that time of specific locality. A kriek with Rainier cherries?--must be from the American Northwest. Ah, but the experiment also shows the drawbacks of depending on specific crops. Limiting yourself to a single orchard means living and dying by the vagaries of your fruit. Forget consistency; like wine, each year's kriek will exhibit the qualities of the cherries. Some will be better than others, and people who admire the product will admire this variability.

About seven thousand people showed up at Belmont Station on Friday to get a glass of the '09 vintage (made of '08 cherries), and I was among them. (The line was seriously insane, stretching out the door and down the sidewalk to the corner. Fortunately, we got there by 5:50 and beat the worst of the crowd.) Here's what I thought.

Devil's Kriek
Although I got the lowdown on the beer from Matt Swihart at Belmont Station--he was there handing out cherries from his orchard--he actually blogged about the brewing process on Friday.

"The base for our Krieks is a blend of three batches of a strong golden-colored beer, each fermented with a different yeast: our house ale yeast, which is of Belgian origin; our house Kölsch yeast; and the notorious wild yeast Brettanomyces. We’ve used Brettanomyces before, in the Red Devil, the IRB and in last year’s Devil’s Kriek. “Brett” contribues subtle fruitiness and barnyard character (think of smells in an old barn on a cold day) at low-level intensity and a horse blanket character (think of smells in a horse barn on a very hot day) at high intensity. Brett is also a component of many spontaneously-fermented French wines, as has legions of both fans and detractors in the winemaking world.

"Devil’s Kriek was held on the cherries for 9 months, then transferred and stored cool at 34F for the remaining 3 months. The Rainier Kriek sat on cherries for the entire 12 month process at cellar temperatures ranging from 50F to 75F. The warmer ferment on the fruit allowed the Brett to assert itself more fully, driving the acidity lower and kicking out a stronger wild-yeast character. We brewed 20 barrels of Devil’s Kriek in a regular fermenter, along with 3 barrels of Rainier Kriek in a mobile mini-fermenter that was originally in service as a yeast propagation tank at Widmer."

The beer is a massive 9%, similar to the sours Ron Gansberg brews--a decision I don't fully understand. Most of the Belgian sours, and particularly the fruit lambics, run about 5%. In my experience, this allows the more subtle and volatile essences of the fruit to express themselves. The force of flavor is in no way diminished in beers of even 4% or less; and unlike other elements of beer, sour doesn't depend on alcohol or malt. Of course, Gansberg's 2008 Apricot Ale had one of the most lush aromas I've ever encountered, and he uses a tripel as his base, so maybe I don't know what I'm talking about. (And wouldn't that be shocking?)

As you can see in the photo, Rainier Kriek drew very little color from the fruit; it's also a lot cloudier than the Devil's, which had a pinot-like clarity and depth of hue (though the color's all bing). Mostly the Rainier Kriek was characterized by sourness--if the cherries contributed anything, it was just at the threshold of identification. (This isn't too surprising--Rainier cherries are in no way assertive. They have a gentle cherry flavor but mostly a neutral sweetness. Cherries for people who don't like cherries.) The sour was lovely, though. I asked Matt what strain of brettanomyces he used and whether it was some kind of mild strain. (No.) Brett can get pretty funky, but not here. I found it gently sour and almost a little salty. Somehow it retained some residual sweetness, too, and the body was thicker than I expected from a brett-soured ale. A nice, quaffable beer, if such a thing can be said about a 9% sour ale. Call it a B+ on the patented rating scale.

The Devil's Kriek has a candy nose with an undercurrent of chocolate and almost no sour. The flavor is surprising; as in the nose there's almost no sourness. Instead the fruit contributes the beer's two main notes, a subdued cherry and a bitter, tannic note that I assume came from the pits. As it warms, the bitter note diminishes and a bit more of the cherry comes out. Appropriately, it's fairly dry and not at all cloying--the brettanomyces have taken care of any stray sugars that might have been floating around. I suppose you can intuit the size of the beer by the mouthfeel, but the alcohol isn't especially obvious.

"Not especially obvious" could be the three-word bullet for Devil's Kriek. It's a subtle, refined beer, and toward the end of the glass I was appreciating its wine-like character. But since I had the 2008 version in my head--I recall a tour-de-force of both sour and cherry intensity--I found it a bit underwhelming. Call it a B-.

Based on my discussions with Ron Gansberg, fruit is hard to work with. If you're not a tinkerer, forget it. My guess is that Matt is already adapting. He said he'll leave this year's fruit on the tree for a couple weeks longer so it ripens more. This should give the beer a more intense cherry flavor and allow him to take the fruit off sooner so it doesn't extract as much from the pits. But of course, that's if the fruit cooperates.

Still, I encourage everyone to track this beer down and have a glass. There aren't very many products like it in the world, and it's a rare treat to have a local brewer willing to put this much time and effort into any beer. Give it time--in a few years it could emerge as an Oregon classic. Plus, you need to fix it in your mind so that next year you have a basis for comparison.


  1. "…Gansberg's 2008 Apricot Ale had one of the most lush aromas I've ever encountered, and he uses a tripel as his base, so maybe…?" Looks like that sentence got cut off.

    I thought the Rainier was more than gently sour - on the Sour-o-meter, I'd put it just past 3 - and by far my favorite of the two; apparently the warmer ferment made a huge difference (and/or the gentler nature of the cherries didn't as effectively "tame the beast," so much the better).

    Having missed the '08 Devil's Kriek, I don't have that basis of reference, so I wasn't as "disappointed" with the '09 (I still enjoyed it a great deal), but I too would have preferred a stronger cherry presence and more sour.

    I'm in line with your ratings, but I might go up a notch or two in both categories (B for the Devil's, A for the Rainier).

    Also, the Cantillon Lou Pepe Framboise was wonderfully strong in both the raspberry and the sour; also one of my favorites.

    I don't remember BJ's Enfant Terrible being sweet, but it was noticably so… similar to Cascade's Gold Yeller, but sweeter.

    Can't wait to get back…

  2. Clarification on that last paragraph: "I don't remember BJ's Enfant Terrible being sweet last year, but it was noticably so a year later."


  3. Thanks, Anonimo. You're right, somehow a sentence got clipped there. I've fixed it.

  4. Jeff,

    I'm in the same boat, I thought last years kriek was much better, this years didn't quite seem ready yet, no real sourness to it minimal brett. The Rainier was a step up, but I recall last years kriek still having more sourness to it.

  5. I knew the Devils Kriek would not be sour when I heard the only wild yeast was Brett which does not really sour a beer. I believe last year they did in fact use a full blend of the wild yeasts needed to produce a real sour beer.

  6. @Samurai Artist: Different strains of Brett contribute different characteristics. Some strains, b. lambicus for instance, _will_ typically produce a mild but noticable tartness given enough time. Addition of Lactobacillus and Pediococcus (bacteria, not yeast) will generally result in a much more intensely sour character.

  7. thanks anonymous for pretty much repeating what I said. It will not sour a beer. I did leave out the fact that other factors are bacteria.

  8. @Samurai Artist. Not true on brett. Brett alone will make a beer sour. Brett produces acetic acid. In fact, studies from the wine world show that if you increase the amount of oxygen available to Brett (by using smaller barrels like those used by most brewers), you can dramatically increase the amount of acetic acid, which may explain why so many US produced sour beers have noticably higher levels of acetic acid and volatile acidity than their Belgian brethren (since many producers in Belgium use much larger barrels which decreases the amount of oxygen per gallon of beer). Also, newer barrels, like those used by many US brewers, contain more cellobiose which can potentially support higher populations of Brett, leading to higher levels of acetic acid. But even in an older barrel with lower amounts of oxygen, you will get acetic acid from brett.

    Additionally brett produces other volatile fatty acids, like isobutyric acid, which will enhance the sour character of a beer. Most of the really good research on brett has been done in the wine industry and I'd recommend looking at those sources for additional information.

    But bottom line: brett alone will produce a sour beer, as Anonymous stated.

  9. Average Bill, Anonymous said Brett will produce a 'mild but noticeable tartness' not make it sour. And that I totally agree upon. I said sour not tart. Maybe the debate here is on what is actually sour. Sure Brett can produce a little acid but I certainly would not call it sour and have never had or seen a sour beer made just with brett. And I have had many beers doused or completely fermented with brett.
    Point me to one sour beer that is made with just brett please.

  10. Samurai, I think you're on the losing end of this one. Example A is the Rainier Kriek we're discussing: it's quite clearly, if not aggressively, sour. Since brett produces acetic acid, it's hard to see how it isn't sour.

  11. Samurai artist says it's not sour, so it's not sour, OK? It's tart. What's wrong with you all!

    Very funny.

    I thought the Rainier Kriek was pretty sour. Tart, if you will, but sour as well. Maybe I just don't understand the difference. I need me some edumacation. My palate is dead.