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Cuvee de Fruit Beer?

Is it really already August? It feels like I just put my #5 session July blog to bed last week. Feels strange to be working on Session # 6. Today, we’ve been instructed to Blog about Fruit beers. YIPEE!!! I am sure most of you at home are saying.

Fruit beers, you either love them or hate them. Too often, these are not really good beers and back in the 90’s when I started brewing, fruit beers were all the rage. Everytime you visted a brewery, it seemed that somebody was a making a Raspberry something or other. I am so glad that trend went by the wayside. I can recall numerous brewpubs making base beers and then adding gallons of some sort of extract to make fruit flavored beer. Most of them Sucked. I know. I made one as well.

During the fruit beer explosion, I started snooping around trying to learn as much as I could about the production methods for Rodenbach and Lambics. Rodenbach had a beer called Alexander that was made with sour Cherry essence. It wasn’t my favorite of the three beers but it was still pretty damn good.

Sometime between 1996 and 1997, my mentor/boss at Cervecerias La Cruda, Troy Hojel acquired a rather exhausting disertation on the Acid Ales of Roselare (Rodenbach). It was an amazing body of work that detailed the production methods of Classic Rodenbach and Rodenbach Grand Cru. I spent hours each month reading and re reading this disertation. It inspired me to create the beer I am drinking now- Cuvee de Tomme.

I chose to open a bottle of the newest batch of Cuvee we released in May thus violating one of my last posts where I mentioned that I never drink beers such as Cuvee alone. But in the spirit of the session, I felt compelled to write about Cuvee de Tomme. Why, you ask? Well, it is perhaps the one beer amongst all others that I have created that has been written about the most. As such, it’s a known entity. It also has a pretty cool history that I felt like sharing as I am drinking this beer. So let’s travel back in time before we fast forward in the finish and I spill my drinking beer alone guts about how to make this beer.

In 1998, two monumental things happened enabling me to be bring Cuvee to life. First, I received a catalog in the mail which set my mind spinning. (And no, I was not at that time receiving Victoria Secret catalogs five times a year). I was flipping through the mail one day and a random catalog showed up. In this catalog were numerous fruits and vegetables. Many of the things in the catalog I could order locally but there was one line that caught my eye. It said “Fresh Frozen Sour Cherries.”

At that very moment, I began to devise a plan for those cherries. They would be part of my first Barrel Aged Belgian Style beer. The beer would bear my name (tongue and cheeky) and it would be a blend of old world barrel aging traditions and new world enthusiasm. Essentially, this is a fancy way of saying we would make it higher in alcohol.

Mind you, this was long before anyone started using the term “Imperial” to describe stronger versions of Traditional styles. As a side note here, I feel so very lucky that no one has ever described Cuvee de Tomme as an “Imperial Sour Red Ale. If they did, I might have to cue the Dark Side music from Star Wars.

Secondly, and equally as important as finding the right cherries, I developed a friendship with Mari Beth Raines. MB as she is known is a Micro Biologist specializing in yeast cultures. She is also a very knowledgeable homebrewer who had worked on her own methods of making Lambic at home. It was her understanding of Brettanomyces and early instruction that laid the groundwork for our Cuvee.

Now that I had the right type of fruit, the essential yeasts for secondary maturation and a pretty good idea of what I wanted to accomplish, I set out to brew the beer and got the project rolling.

The base beer would be known as The Mother of Beers. It was to be a Belgian Dark Strong Ale. The beer was fermented in stainless and then would be aged in oak. I really wanted to use French Oak but at the last minute, I acquired a bourbon barrel from Johnny O at Rock Bottom in San Diego. Every batch we have released so far has been aged in used Bourbon Barrels. We are now using a portion of French Oak in the aging of the 2007 Cuvee which will be released next year. This will be the first time we have used both Bourbon and French Oak

The Mother of All Beers was racked into the Bourbon Barrel and after that I topped up the barrel with three separate strains of Brettanomyces and some sour cherries. As this was an experiment, we made exactly one 55 gallon oak barrel of the original batch.

After filling, I did what any brewer of sour beer does, I waited. About 6 months into the process, I tasted the beer for the first time. It blew me away. I had no idea what to expect but from the first time I tasted it, I knew I was on to something. It had too much bourbon character for my tastes but there was an overwhelming Sour Cherry nose that I still marvel at each time I open bottles of Cuvee de Tomme. I am certain that we can buy cheaper Cherries but the smell is what keeps me paying through the proverbial nose and I don’t care.

In the fall of 2000, we took Cuvee de Tomme to the floor of the Great American Beer Festival and watched as consumers and brewers alike marveled at the depth of the beer. We even had consumers tell us they had taken samples over for Michael Jackson to taste. It was a sureal experience. On that Saturday, I earned my first solo GABF medal for the Cuvee in the Experimental Ale and Lager Category.

In January of 2001, we learned that Cuvee de Tomme had earned the Malt Advocate Domestic Beer of the Year Award. Man, that was some kind of honor. That fall, we sent the beer back to Denver and won another silver medal for the Cuvee. I’m still not sure how it was an experimental beer two years in a row because it had already been done before but I suppose that’s just semantics? Over the years, Cuvee has won numerous awards and continues to be one of the most desirable beers we make.

Now that I have the background information out of the way, let’s fast forward about how to make our Cuvee. First off, you have to have an ego maniac for a brewer. You can half ass this part if you like but it really helps if you have to butter his/her head each day before and after work in order that they might fit their dome through the door frame. If your brewer is successful in recreating this beer, they should be allowed to walk around arrogantly proclaiming their greatness. Lord knows I do. I also figure it’s my duty to share a little known secret that our door jams here in San Marcos are 2 inches wider than standard doors. I just got tired of having to rub Vaseline on my head each day.

Next, this brewer should have complete disregard for the “rules” of brewing. It helps a lot if they are ”fearless.” In Illa Brettanomyces Nos Fides it says over our barrel room these days. Loosely translated this means “In these wild yeasts we trust.” And over the years we have indeed put our trust in them. And we have been rewarded handsomly for our troubles.

By no means should your brewer even bother batch costing this beer. In actuality, they should not pay attention to yields, costs or even sell any of the beer. It will only make the beer less desirable. Is greatness expensive? Damn straight it is. Thank God life takes Visa! The grain bill on this beer is almost all imported malt and any brewer worth their salt wouldn’t consider cutting corners here.

Next, your brewer should select their 4 favorite sugar sources for brewing. In my case, this is malted barley, Dextrose, Raisins and let’s not forget since this is fruit beer day to throw in the sour cherries. You know the ones that cost $4 per pound and get shipped all the way from the East Coast!!!

Lastly, it helps if your brewer is elusive about the details of the beer. It’s like an enigma wrapped in an enigma shrouded in a side of mysteriousness. I’m not sure we have ever made the beer the same way twice. Probably just me being bored? Yet, I know that one of the best parts about brewing a beer like this is opening bottles of it in other places (like Belgium) and watching brewers inhale that first wave of Sour Cherries, dried leather and subtle barrel notes. Then, they take their first sip and the tart cherry flavor mixes with the vanilla and charred oak flavors. They swallow the liquid and a smile comes across their face. It is then and only then that they begin to ask the inevitable questions such as “how did you make this beer?”

So I tell them the same thing. Brew a HUGE Belgian Dark Strong Ale and when it’s done fermenting, throw all the remaining ingredients in a Bourbon Barrel and hope for the best. It’s pretty much what we do year in and out when it comes time to make Cuvee de Tomme.

There’s some serious vodoo going in in those barrels is all that I can say. I sold my soul to Lucifer himself years ago. It’s gonna suck when I leave this glorious world. I hear it’s hot in Hades. But, as long as I inhabit this earth, I am allowed to be proud of this Cuvee de Tomme I have created. Even if it is a damn fruit beer.

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