Sour beers are complicated and definitely worth fussing over. The ecosystem inside each barrel and bottle is, for some, a wonderful world of delicious mystery. For the team behind Barrelworks, “Sour” Jim Crooks and “Barrel Meister” Jeffers Richardson, it’s a labor of complex and adventurous love. The LA Beer Bloggers group has been to Barrelworks on previous trips, but it’s been primarily a showcase of high level plans and before market tasting. This time around we sampled the new batch of Bretta Weisse with Cowbell, an extra funky version of Bretta blended into the commercially available version. We also tasted the explosively aromatic Sour Opal, which has one of the most ridiculously intoxicating bouquets I’ve smelled in a wild ale, and the yet to be released olallieberry SloAmbic.
Aside from tasting the future, this time around was all about sensory analysis and palate training. Acidity is traditionally measured in pH, but the Barrelworks team uses a different scale called TA or Total Acidity (also called “Titratable Acidity” or “Tactile Acidity”) which is more sensory. It measures how your tongue perceives acid and what that might do to your overall palate perception. “pH is a logarithmic scale so 3.5 and 3.6 is only a tenth off, but that is an noticable tactile difference and that’s why this [TA] is more important from a taste standpoint,” says Richardson, “Titratable Acidity or, in terms of slang, we can say, Tactile Acidity because, while it is something we measure quantitatively, it’s also something, as you experienced today, that we can measure in a sensory aspect. You were tasting it.”
“Jeffers Drops Acid Knowledge” was an educational trip through various food grade acids that are commonly found in sour and wild beers. The goal, to understand how Crooks and Richardson perceive TA and it starts…a gum-ball.
“Plug your nose and roll the gum-ball around in your mouth. What do you taste?” says Richardson, as he coaxes us to remove our sense of smell from the equation. Sweet, Citrus, Raw Sugar, Bitter all flavor descriptors used to describe what we were experiencing. Once our noses were unplugged, it became abundantly clear what flavor of gum-ball we were truly tasting, grapefruit. This exercise serve as calibration for what came next. The crew circled the tables with Firestone Walker only they weren’t decanting beer, but a clear liquid. Water? Yes, but diluted with food grade acid.
Acetic, citric, malic, and, most importantly, lactic acid are typically found our sour beers and their concentrations lead us through different palate sensations. We sampled concentrations of 4, 8, and 12 TA for acetic, citric, and lactic acids and then compared our findings to Barrelworks offerings. Malic acid is found in wine, berries, and as it turns out, salt & vinegar potato chips. Thanks for the knowledge bomb Jeffers! We didn’t sample this one as it’s typically added to beer via the addition of fruit, not through our wild bug friends.
The final stage of the exercise had us placing Lil’ Opal, Agrestic, and SLOambic on the TA scale estimating what the acidity might be. Thanks to the sensory training and calibration, the group’s estimates were either on or within 1 point of actual measurement. Not bad.
And Finally Balance
The purpose of this exercise touched on something that Richardson explained as Firestone Walker’s three B’s, “Barrels, Blending, and Balance.” The third aspect is perhaps the most important when it comes to Crook’s and Richardson’s philosophy at Barrelworks. “Balance should be something between the difference characteristics…it doesn’t mean it needs to be completely neutral,” Says Richardson, “Acidity is something we could overwhelm you with very easily and that’s not our goal. Our goal is to give you something that enhances or is a component of – supports the aspects of that particular beer.” Balance, in a Barrelworks beer, is definitely something you can taste. These beers layer complexity and benefit from slow enjoyment and analysis.
If you haven’t had a Barrelworks beer yet, get up to Buellton and change that. The tasting room, which is attached to the Firestone Walker pub, sports numerous taps pouring a wide array of wild beers. Bottle variations can be difficult to acquire, but well worth the wait if you happen to be standing in line for a release party.
Bretta Weisse, Sour Opal, and SloAmbic are slated for bottle releases soon so be on the look out for them in a Buellton, CA near you.
For more #LA2FW3 check out my coverage From The Barrel