Midnight Sun Brewing’s Wild Adventure Series
Midnight Sun Brewing’s Wild Adventure Series
Words / James “Dr. Fermento” Roberts
I've been on a sour beer kick lately. I'm really smitten by the stuff. I wasn't always into this style of beer, it's one that grows on a beer lover, so I guess I'm gaining some weight with the style.
Sour beer isn't a mainstay in the brewing industry, but it's getting that way. Done right, it's time consuming, and expensive, and there are a myriad of different processes that yield different results and different flavors with a distinct sour bite that characterizes each example.
The first experience I had with a sour beer was years ago at a Humpy's beer dinner. I was unprepared to the point that I thought something was wrong with the beer and almost spit it out. The more seasoned beer lovers laughed at me and explained that it was appropriate, and I went back to nursing the beer, not sure what to make of it. I've come a long way, baby.
My palate is totally prepared for the new Midnight Sun Brewing Company AK Wild Adventure Series that is going to feature at least seven oak-aged sour beers that will be released over a two year period. Don't expect a schedule, it's all up to the beer.
"I can't tell you a lot about release dates," says Midnight Sun Beer Ambassador Darcy Kniefel. "We are letting the barrels tell us when the beer is ready." Indeed, a sampling program finds the brewers taking metered samples from each barrel to determine the beer's maturity and resulting release times. "They've been ranging anywhere from a year to two years in the barrel," she says.
This is where one of the "expenses" of producing long-aging and especially sour beers comes from. Barrels take space and are generally isolated from other fermenting products. Standard ales mature for a couple of weeks and a brewery is able to turn around a lot of beer as a result. Long aging beers —for up to two years in this series—hogs space and patience is key. It's easy to tell when a long-aging beer has been rushed.
The process for creating a sour beer varies, but often "bugs" like lacobacillis, pedeococis and brettanomyces are used to "infect" the beer, and these have to be meticulously isolated from other beers and the equipment used to produce them so the other beers don't "catch" the bug and become sour as well. Uncontrolled sour fermentation doesn't produce a good beer, so happenstance beers borne of mistakes are not welcome.
"Sours are not new up here," Kniefel says. "But it's not something other breweries do a lot of. We have to be mindful and take care of our other beers. The biggest challenge is scheduling and space, then there's the small things like bottling that take extreme caution. The bottling machine has to be completely disassembled and meticulously cleaned every time we produce a sour beer, although our sour beers are all fermented in oak away from the other beers we make."
Midnight Sun's building expansion provided space for a deep barrel aging program that's been going on for a long time. Although the brewery's had the space, it was last year that a formal barrel room was developed to feature the brooding, snoozing brews. "We wouldn't be able to do this without the oak room," Kniefel says. It was a year ago in January that we designated the space and called it 'Oakland.’ There's something really cool to be[ing] in there. You have to admit there's something special to stand there and drink a beer surrounded by that massive oak."
I've been in Oakland. I attended a private gig there and, although it's not open to the public, sometime in the future Midnight Sun hopes to host special events in there. Trust me, it's magic.
Although all of the Midnight Sun brewers love to take a walk on the wild side when it comes to making beer, brewer Shawn Jackson seems to be the guru. “Shawn is our primary sour guy. He likes the sours so much and he’s responsible for the entire barrel aging program,” Kniefel says.
Kniefel, like me, wasn't always a sour beer fan. "When I first started at Midnight Sun, I was all about the IPAs. I can't say I was afraid of sour beer, I just didn't know anything about it."
Certainly, the word "sour" doesn't seem to fit with beer, and our sensory set makes sure we remember that. "A bartender pushed it on me. He said, 'I want you to try something. Just take a sip, don't think about it, and take another sip, and tell me what you think.' When you have a new sensory experience like that it's really exciting. With sour beers, if you just open your palate and let the flavor overtake you, it's a really 'wow' experience," she says.
I discovered the first beer in the series—Rider, a sour pale lager—on a recent visit to Midnight Sun's Loft, the tasting room above the brewery. Like Kniefel's experience, a barkeep saw me on approach and said "hey Fermento, you've got to try this," as he shoved a sample in front of me. His elfish grin belied his intentions of fooling me into the unexpected. I sipped. I wrenched. I smiled. The second sip was even better. After a full serving, I reached into the to-go cooler and arm-loaded four 22-ounce bottles to the Fermentomobile for later enjoyment. Of course, I needed enough to experiment with on my own unsuspecting friends.
Rider pours hazy orange with a thick white topper built on ample carbonation. The tartness is the primary feature in the aroma, followed by the telltale essence of brettanomyces, both partially masking a sweet earthy essence and light malts. Expect a solid sour punch at first that's not off-putting, but certainly puckering and quenching. The brettanomyces pushes through right behind the sour smack, and all of it fades to reveal bitterness that's just beyond balancing, the same center sweetness revealed in the nose and a finish that thins appreciably and dries out nicely. At 8.7 percent alcohol by volume, a 22-ounce bottle commands some respect.
"We have one more just about ready," Kniefel says. "Sporter is the next release in the AK Wild Adventure Series. It's a sour porter. From there, we have a lambic and a Flanders red to name two more. Again, don't ask for a schedule, it's up to the barrels."
If you want to chase these eclectic beers, get after it: only 100 or so cases of 22-ounce bottles (12 per case) come out of each batch. “It has been and will continue to go fast,” Kniefel says. Rider’s on tap at the Loft until it runs out, and bottles are available at the better grog shops around town.
The beers in this series are great for immediate consumption and can be cellared for quite some time. The beer continues to mature in the bottle, so get some for now and store some to see how it changes over time. Either way, pucker up: Midnight Sun’s AK Wild Adventure Series beers are a walk on the wild side.