Words & Photos - Matthew Curtis
It's difficult not to enjoy yourself on a tour of New Belgium Brewery, it's one of the most interesting and entertaining brewery tours you can do. The staff, who become part owners of the Northern Colorado brewery after 12 months of service, speak with an infectious enthusiasm and pour a broad range of both core and speciality beers on your way around. They even let you go down a slide. It's no wonder that tours book up months in advance.
There's a lot see on the tour, the gorgeous Abbey-esque brewhouse, the gargantuan two-thousand hectolitre tanks, filled to the brim with fermenting Fat Tire ale and a bottling line that resembles a giant's Scalextric set are a few highlights. One place inside America's third largest craft brewery though, has a majesty that's unlike anything you'll see on your average tour. A maze of towering, odd-shaped, French oak vessels that sit at the heart of New Belgium's expansive sour beer program. This is the Foeder Forest.
A foeder is a large oak vessel that's traditionally used in winemaking and New Belgium has imported its own tanks from France. They come in a range of sizes and typically hold up to around 200 hectolitres of souring beer. New Belgium now has 64 of these things, that's a lot of sour beer. They often arrive unassembled and once they're in place they have to be rehydrated so that the wood expands to form a seal. Once a foeder is ready for beer it's filled about twenty percent of the way with existing sour beer. This inoculates the wood with New Belgium's existing culture of bacteria and creates the terroir that's vital for its beers to gain the characteristics it desires.
Above the door that leads to the Foeder Forest are the words 'Cache la Foeder' which references the Cache la Poudre River that flows through the town of Fort Collins. Stepping through those doors is akin to Alice stepping through the looking glass. You're transported to a world of wood, the home of billions of microscopic organisms that quietly go about their business of souring beer. The terroir within each barrel almost seems to seep out of every pore. There's a magic happening here and it's as infectious as the beer loving bacteria within those tanks.
A stroll around the tanks reveals some of New Belgium’s idiosyncrasies. There are ex-bourbon casks, which get to become the new homes for foeder beers that are tasting particularly exceptional. The walls of the warehouse that houses the Foeder Forest has been turned into a climbing wall, which only further demonstrates that New Belgium is a brewery that likes to play as hard as it works. This is arguably the largest sour beer program in the United States but its size only serves to add to the feeling of wonderment being within it brings.
The beer at the core of New Belgium's sour range is La Folie, a Flanders inspired sour red ale that tastes like Rodenbach Grand Cru on steroids. This is no surprise, New Belgium's brewmaster Peter Bouckaert hails from Belgium and cut his teeth creating beer at Rodenbach. Like the aforementioned Grand Cru, La Folie is a blend of a 3-year and 1-year old base beer, affectionately referred to as 'Oscar' by the brewery. Before blending, beer is pulled from numerous foeders and carefully selected by master blender Lauren Salazar who ensures the quality and consistency in each batch. La Folie masterfully combines notes of raisin and cranberry, which sit on a base of intense lactic sourness. With time in the bottle this beer will gradually become more integrated and its flavours will mellow.
Another of New Belgium’s sour beers, the dry hopped Le Terroir is named in homage of the habitat that contributes to the creation of these beers. Pouring much more pale than La Folie, this beer has intense flavours of sour lemon, elderflower and a pine like bitterness that is once again followed by a pleasingly intense sourness that is characteristic of the beers that emerge from the Foeder Forest. It's exceptional and I don't feel that I'm exaggerating when I say that Le Terroir is comparable to the immaculate beers produced in Brussels by Brasserie Cantillon.
The trouble is, New Belgium is often maligned by the beer geek crowd, partly because of their size and partly because they're better known for producing accessible beers such as Ranger IPA and the ubiquitous Fat Tire. Thanks to the gradual expansion of its sour program new Belgium are now able to produce once limited beers such as La Folie year round. Does their accessibility and produ
ction scale make these beers any less wonderful? Of course not but I fear that the beer geek penchant for chasing the rarest, most exclusive beers means that they might be missing out on the wonderful products from this brewery. There's little doubt that New Belgium are producing some of the most accomplished sour beers in the world and thankfully on a scale that means you won't feel guilty about buying it by the case.