by Paul Deines
In Slate last year, Adrienne So took issue with the hop-centric predilections of the craft beer scene. Her complaint was that drinkers used to watery, mild lagers find the bitterness threshold for entry into craft to be too high. I felt this way out of college. Working at a now-defunct fitness camp near the Berkshires, I got my first taste of piney, citrusy, dry East Coast IPAs. They were too much for me then, which is too bad since this was 2006: I was probably drinking New England Brewing and Alchemist and couldn’t appreciate them.
But we all had this transition, didn’t we? You push through the “woo, that’s bitter!” phase and start to catch the aromatics the hop imparts. Consequently, I’m dubious about So’s assertion. Not to be doctrinaire, but I’m not sure you can consider yourself a lover of beer and not enjoy hoppy beers. It’s like claiming to be a movie buff but not liking comedies.
That said, I can understand this argument more when applied to sour ales. Although the use of wild yeast, open air fermentation, and blending of lambics date back centuries, popularity in the US is relatively recent. In fact, the buzz surrounding funky wild ales happening right now resembles the mania over IBUs a decade ago. Nevermind massive bitterness and grassy-citrus; today it’s all barnyard stank and “horse-blanket.” A few years ago, chic Belgian brewers like Cantillon and Drie Fonteinen could not move stock in America; now their sought-after products never see the shelves.
Problem is, a sizable group of beer drinkers don’t seem to like sours. I’m speaking anecdotally here: I do a fair amount of local beer trading, and I ask folks I connect with the types of styles they like so I can toss in some extra beers. Everyone says IPAs and Stouts. Some include Barleywines, Porters, Abbey Ales, or Saisons. If they mention sours, it’s more often than not to telling me not to include them. Equine sweat and vinegar, folks – who’s thirsty?
That said, I like a lot of things about sour beers. They’re often dry like brut champagne. They’re generally moderate in terms of alcohol. They integrate fruit in a way that’s not overly saccharine. Earlier this year I raved about La Terroir, a dry-hopped sour by New Belgium Brewing. I’ve had fine gueuzes and krieks from Cantillon, Drie Fonteinen, Tilquin, and Boon, but I never had a sour that made me crave more immediately. Until now. This past month, I had the first sour that I loved beyond measure. Like all wild ales, it’s pricey, but damn if I’ll never pass up an Apricot Ale from Cascade Brewing.
Cascade has produced sours in Portland, Oregon, since 1998 under the tutelage of Art Larrance, one of the fathers of modern craft brewing. With brewmaster Ron Gansberg (who started in wine and crossed over to beer in the 1980s), Larrance pioneered a uniquely American wild ale tradition, developing vintages in bourbon, wine and port barrels. Until about two weeks ago, Cascade sold their product online; then, the “legalities of sending beer across state lines” ended that. Suddenly, bottles began appearing in New York after a year-plus absence. As is often the case, everyone else’s misfortune was my windfall.
A blend of blond ales aged on oak for a year, the Apricot Ale looks like a gueuze, albeit with a darker, hazier, more orange amber. It’s sparkling effervescent and casts off the unripe apple sharpness one expects, but this funk is less abrasive than a traditional lambic. The nose is tempered not only with apricot, but also pear, banana and strawberry. It emits the sweet smell of candied dried fruit, and that candy carries over into the taste. You get that initial bracing tartness, but this immediately gives way to juicy passion fruit and lemon-drops. Still, the drink is wonderfully dry and refreshing, with medium body and a tantalizing savory note, like the salt on a margarita glass. All told, Cascade Apricot Ale is like liquid sweet-tart, playful and joyous. Be prepared, though: that sugary fruit boosts the ABV to a boozy 8.5%.
Anyway, just as I feel an aversion to hops can be overcome with a Two Hearted Ale or a Maine Lunch, the Apricot Ale is the perfect acclimating wild ale. It’s not cheap, and depending on where you are it may not come around that often, but if you see it I recommend you pony up.
APRICOT ALE (Cascade Brewing) – Well, you can’t order it online anymore, but it’s available in bottles and on tap throughout the year on a rotating basis. Cascade distributes along the West Coast and in New York, Massachusetts, Pennsylvania, the Carolinas and Florida.