Brewing as Art
“The brewer’s art” is always shaped by economic reality—only an independently wealthy homebrewer could make beer without an eye on its cost and potential market. Brewpubs have more room to experiment than bottling microbreweries that must content with larger quantities, labeling and the like, but any commercial brewer, no matter how subversive, must win over a number of paying customers.
But it is surprising, the experimental beers that drinkers are glad to support. Nowhere is this clearer than in California, where a community of brewers has pushed artistic brewing to the edge, and their public has followed eagerly.
After a gap of a couple of years, Vinnie Cilurzo has reopened Russian River Brewing Co. in a new location, where he has resumed the bold brewing style that netted him a neck-load of GABF medals and the coveted Small Brewing Company and Small Brewing Company Brewmaster of the Year awards.
One priority is his barrel-aging program. “The brewpub has an eight-by-six window,” says Cilurzo, “and the first thing people see when they come in is wine barrels stacked four high.” The barrels contain a range of styles that take on added character from time in the wood; these beers, together with Russian River’s Belgian line-up, comprise forty percent of the brewpub’s sales.
Cilurzo, inoculates some beers with Brettanomyces, Lactobacillus or Pediococcus usually found only in Belgian lambic breweries. One beer, Sanctification (Russian River beers names tend toward the heavenly or hellish) is fermented entirely with Brettanomyces yeast, a trait it shares with a Mo Betta Bretta, a beer brewed in a collaboration between Tomme Arthur of Pizza Port and Peter Bouckaert of New Belgium.
Cilurzo has explored the triple IPA and found it had an enthusiastic following: “It was just for fun. It is actually softer and smoother than the double. At Toronado [in San Francisco], they went through four barrels in two and a half weeks of 11 percent, triple-hopped beer.”
He credits Sierra Nevada with another beer-as-art trend: harvest ales brewed with “wet hops” just off the vine.
“The hops are unkilned: it’s like the difference between cooking with fresh basic and dried basil. You have to use a lot more of the fresh hops, but it changes the profile of a hoppy beer to more minty or lemony. This style’s been under the radar, but a number of breweries are doing it every year, when hops are picked. It’s like beer’s Beaujolais Nouveau: draft only, limited quantity, and only a short life.”
One beer lover summarized the impuse to brew beers that might not fit into the business plan by asking “You mean, what’s to the left of Sierra Nevada?”
More accurately, the mainstream lagers satisfy the thirst of ninety percent of beer drinkers. Once Sierra Nevada Pale Ale, Samuel Adams Boston Lager or New Belgium Fat Tire has become the beer of choice for drinkers who want more flavor, how much room is left for beers that are gourmet, exotic, challenging or style-busting? The answer, it seems, is there’s a lot more room than we think.