In what I believe to be my final brewery visit of this year, I made the windy, rural trip to Gussignies, France. It is in this small corner of the world, one little brewery has been consistently pumping out quality for over 30 years.
Brasserie Au Baron is nestled into a fabulous brick structure alongside a creek with a nearby waterfall. The once little brewery is connected directly to the restaurant bearing the same name. Its one of those places that would be glorious to visit in the summer, sadly I was there in mid November; but, at any rate I was not going to miss the opportunity to visit this storied place. I say once little because they have just added 4 20hl fermentors, yay more Au Baron!
Au Baron is known primarily for their blonde/saison/bier de garde ‘Cuvée Des Jonquilles’. Shelton Brothers imports the liquid gold to the states and they have limited distribution around Europe; however, they exist for their local market as over 80% doesn’t leave France. While I wish I could easily source their beer when I am back in Australia, I respect and admire this decision to take care of their home market first. After all, this is really the spirit of Farmhouse brewing, isn’t it?
The Cuvée Des Jonquilles is a highly complex, bone dry, peppery and fruity beer. That being said, when you see it poured, it is immediately apparent that it is also very simple. From this, I don’t mean its common or lacks finesse; rather, its more similar to a table wine or loaf… utilising great materials mixed with experienced techniques to make something that is truly worth its value. If this doesn’t make sense to you, it may be a good idea to read some of my previous posts which talk about the value of restraint in brewing.
Before I visited the brewery, I had only ever tasted one of their beers. When I was at Jester King in October, I was lucky to share a bottle of Noblesse Oblige, the 4% collaboration beer between JK and Au Baron. It was the lightest beer I had ever seen, but wasn’t watery at all. I could tell their yeast was special, so I had to visit. Much to my delight, Au Baron makes a handful of other beers that I was able to try when I visited and they did’t disappoint. Notably, their Bier de Noel ‘Saison Saint Médard’, was incredible… I only had one bottle and immediately regretted not getting more. It was beautifully bready with a hue between amber and brown and what tasted like a modest mixture of seasonal spices that finished bone dry, encouraging you back to the bottle for a second taste.
However much I loved the Bier de Noel, it wasn’t the beer I was chasing… I wanted to know about the Jonquilles. So I spoke to Xavier about it most, and here is what I learned.
I’m going to make this short, their process isn’t too far deviated from others I have written about.
Firstly, its 100% pilsner malt. Good ingredients make good beer, hey. So if you want to make this, start with your saison Dupont base and forget about the specialty malts. Shoot for 7% (or lower like I would). Single infusion mash, anywhere from an hour to 2 hours. With how dry it is, I would suggest to start on the lower side and let your sparge raise the temp slightly to get some more alpha amylase action.
In the kettle add some hops early to keep the boil down, use a low AA% from the old world. Throughout the boil add what you like. This beer is not about bitterness, this is a beer for your yeast to shine, I would keep the hops below 20 IBU, less if you can. The yeast will add the pepper you want. Hour long boil, knock out around 22-25 C (72-77 F).
For fermentation, add a healthy dose of their yeast. Grow some up from their bottles if you can, if not… the saison Dupont strain will work well. Stray away from the Belle Saison styles or the cleaner French Saison strains (WY3711). Pitch your healthy yeast into your tank and set your jackets to 27-28 C (80-82 F). Let fermentation continue at this temperature for at least 5 days.
After a week, transfer your beer off most of its yeast into another container and garde that sucker. By this I mean, hold the beer at a cold temperature for an extended period. At Au Baron, the magic formula is around 6 C (42F) for at least 2 weeks. If this doesn’t make sense to you, split your batch, do a side by side test of your beers… one with the garde one without. You tell me which one is more complex at the end, I have a strong suspicion as to which one will taste better. I spoke about this process a lot and its reasons in the Brasserie Thiriez post; however, Daniel gardes around 12C for 3 weeks.
After its garde, mix in some priming sugar and some more yeast if necessary and package your beer. It is imperative that a beer like this is bottle conditioned, preferably on its side too. If you aren’t bottle conditioning your saisons or Belgian styles they are missing something. Not only does this help the beer achieve the mouthfeel you are looking for, it also promotes a tighter bead in your foam. Once packaged, let it sit warm 20-22C (68-71F) for at least a month. You need to view this step as part of the fermentation, not an ends to a mean.
After that, drink it. Easy. Serve at cellar temp 12-15C (53-59F) to really taste the yeast.
Easy does it
Time and time again, I am blown away by the simplicity surrounding making these beers and the complexity they end up with. Its the provenance that created them, their terroir. If you want to make a good meal, don’t buy your ingredients from a supermarket… and if you want to make a great saison, get your hands on good malt, better yeast and put your watch in the drawer, it will tell you when its ready.
Last week while visiting friends in the French Alps, I looked at my map and realised I was only a 30 minute drive from Switzerland. As an American, I am still working on getting my head around the proximity of many European countries and usually wouldn’t even fathom ‘popping into’ another country for the day to visit a brewery. But when I calculated the travel time (2 hours each way) and the brewery in question (Trois Dames), the idea didn’t seem outlandish, it was actually a no brainer.
Trois Dames is located in a small, maybe sleepy, town of Sainte-Croix in Switzerland. On the the train to there from Yverdon-Les-Bains you get some beautiful panoramic views of the Lac de Neuchâtel as the train climbs 600m (2000ft) up the Jura mountains. As you enter the town, you get a sense of the agricultural inclination of the area. Its a small town, of only about 5,000 people that makes a great setting for a brewery that prefers a little solitude while still being a little connected.
A short 5 minute walk from the station, the brewery stands as a collection of four buildings seen in the photo below. The main four story building houses the taproom on the ground floor and the solera in the basement while the added-on building (to the left with the red roof) behind contains the brewhouse, bottling line and fermentors. The other two structures are slightly hidden by the photo but one is for storage of packaged beer and the last, certainly most of interest for us is full of barrels, foudres and lots of sour beer.
I got there at lunch time and had a good chance to sit down with Luigi, one of the four man team at Trois Dames, to talk about their clean side fermentations. The brewery produces a solid range of American styles with some French influences. They brew on a 2 vessel Newlands Systems brewhouse with a nice, wide lauter tun you can see below. When we spoke about their process, it all sounded like good brewing practices one would expect from a quality brewery as theirs. Lower mash temps for more fermentable worts, 10-14 day fermentations followed by a short trip to the brite tank for clearing, reuse of clean yeast strains, both dry and liquid, four to five times and a nice big rotary-head filler for minimal oxygen pickup. I got to try a number of their beers but a standout was their new collaboration Berliner-Weisse with Storm&Anchor. Made with fresh pomegranate, it wasn’t the lactic acid bomb that you often get with kettle sours; instead, it had a light, refreshing tartness that made it reliably drinkable.
Mixed Fermentation and Sours
After lunch, Raphael and I got some time to talk about some of his projects that most interested me. It was interesting to hear how he started making mixed culture beers and how quickly the program has grown. Raphael’s interest was peaked by a friend’s apricot crop. It had a beautiful aroma and he immediately wanted to put some in his beer. So he mixed some of the fruit with one of his amber/brown beers and the result was reminiscent of an Oud Bruin. Its a good story but I’m not going to put it past Raphael that he had many other influences and forays into mixed fermentations. What I do know is that now, the program is growing at such a rate that he can no longer manage it himself and has hired a well known brewer in the industry to take over that side in mid October.
Their process combines the tested techniques of Spanish sherry makers and the Rare Barrel/ Crooked Stave model of transporting wort and fermenting at another location. I wouldn’t say there is a ‘Trois Dames’ method for their sours but I’ll give you an overview. Basically there are two different areas where they make their sour beer. The traditional solera is in the cellar under the house/big building while the rest of the foeders and other barrels are housed in a large wooden freestanding shed behind the production area.
The first area we visited was the solera in the basement. As you can see in the photo below, Raphael has a good amount of area to work with and it was nice and cool down there too. Raphael got the solera on the right side going by buying lambic from Belgium and proportionally mixing it with beer of his own. On the ground level he blended 2/3 Lambic with 1/3 house beer, the middle 1/2 and 1/2 and on the top, 1/3 Lambic to 2/3 house beer. It’s a very clever idea but I don’t know how one could buy hundreds of litres of lambic and resist drinking all of it! On the left side of the cellar is a much more eclectic bunch of barrels. From what I got, this side is for playing, you know mixing and matching. It doesn’t work like a traditional solera (empty from he bottom, fill from the top) rather a collection of barrels that can be used for various purposes. I didn’t get much information on them but it seems pretty clear that its a hodgepodge of sour beer. Now, on the other side of the wall on the left is a long corridor that runs the length of the whole room. In time, Raphael is installing a long coolship (similar to Russian River’s) so Trois Dames can start spontaneous fermentations, a really exciting step I know all of us can’t wait for!
The Sour Shed
After the solera Raphael took me to what I am going to lovingly call the Sour Shed. When we walked in, I realised that the place was much larger than I thought and Trois Dames is in the process of making a load of sour beer. Their process is both efficient and effective, normally working in the following manner. All of the wort for their sours comes from there brewhouse about 20 metres away. It gets pumped the distance into the stainless fermentors you can see in the third photo. These fermentors are jacketed so temperatures can be controlled during primary fermentations. The wort is fermented with commercial strains of brett and lacto or from the dregs out of one of the foudres. Raphael sometimes pitches wort directly into a partially filled foudre for its primary as well. Using the stainless he is able to crash before transferring to collect yeast and clear the beer a little before going into barrels (something Lauren Salazar is a proponent of). I do recall him saying there have been 100% stainless beers he has done but the majority goes into oak. When the time comes for a blend, Raphael has a multitude of options to choose from. With an idea in mind or possibly a barrel with great flavour, he moves beer proportionally into one of his blending tanks, tastes the blend, adds a little sugar and sends it to his sour packaging line. This whole process is very eclectic and lacks the structure you might find in other breweries who make sour beer. However, to me its a little more akin to one big solera crossed with the creativity of a home brewer. In one way the beer does not go through a linear progression from wort to packaging, instead gets moved around learning from its elders or uses the dregs of its elders to ferment. The net volume of the oak is in essence under constant development. On the other hand, Raphael’s lack of structure allows him to play a lot more. Having a collection of different barrels means he is not putting all of his eggs in one basket and instead promoting microbial diversity amongst his beers. All in all, I think they have a lot of fun playing around in there making different blends.
I have to encourage a visit to anyone who is interested in Trois Dames or their process. They are located in a beautiful part of the world and there is some great pizza across the street.
As always, if you have any more specific questions feel free to email or comment as I could be more helpful in their techniques at a one to one level.
I have to admit, when I first moved to northern Spain in February, I was disappointed. I had left sunny, late summer Sydney for a very cold rainy town of Santander. While the weather didn’t help, the beer was the worst. I mean I would happily take a Miller over a Mahou or Estrella, seriously. The main flavour evoked from any of their mainstream lagers is overwhelmingly corn… great. Im my mind, I had left the promised land and entered a desert.
Thankfully, I now realise that I had judged this place way too quickly. Thanks to the godsend of an independent bottle shop here, I have been able to get my hands on some of the small but growing Spanish craft beers. Naparbier in Pamplona shines brightly among them. A strong sense of local pride [okay very strong] in the Basque country, Barcelona and the province of León for instance have helped independent brewers immensely to produce and distribute a local product. They have a very young market; however, their support is remarkable.
In fact, I have come to learn that the Spanish have a pride for local products of all sorts. I’m not talking about the ‘local’ movement that seems to have thankfully taken in the US, UK and Australia. The Spanish have had this for years. Ask someone on the street about nearly any food and they will tell you where in the county it is made the best. Oh you want paella? You have to go to Valencia. Light bodied red wines? Rioja. The best sardines? Sañtona. You haven’t lived until you have had pinxos (the name for tapas in the north) from San Sebastián. Don’t bother with a sherry from outside of Jerez.
You could write volumes over the regionality of cuisines here. Its amazing to me not only how proud the residents are of their products but also how they delight in their neighbour’s success. I really respect their almost self constraint to do what they do and do it well while letting others succeed in their own specialty. It’s a mentality that harks back to not being a mile wide and an inch deep from the previous post.
The Spanish have a classificatory system called Denominación de Origen (DO) which protects certain foodstuff products providing a certification of quality and geographic origin of the countries finest producers. Unlike the French appellations, a DO certification extends beyond wine to a large number of high quality products with specific ingredients and identifiable characteristics derived from a veritable and identifiable source. The system benefits producers and consumers alike. Not only does it protect a region’s tradition or craft, it’s also a benchmark for quality for the consumer.
I love this system immensely. It has guided me to so many great foods and I have learnt the terroir of many of Spain’s finest regions. When you enjoy a food with a DO, you get product and soul, like a Farmhouse beer. One of my favourite DO finds through my musing was sidra from Asturias.
Before I came to Spain, I had been told in passing about the drink and tradition; however, it took me getting here to realise how ‘down my alley’ it was. Sidra is simply the Spanish word for cider; but, in Asturias, one of Spain’s northern provinces, sidra is the defining product of their region and their culture revolves around enjoying it. As a spontaneously fermented cider, sidra has a beautiful crisp dryness with a subtle tartness, so naturally I loved it and it much prefer it to the light lager option.
On my first visit to Gijon, the largest city in Asturias, I saw sidrerias everywhere. A sidreria is a bar where they serve sidra, which due to it’s serving process requires an experienced server. The thing that was strange is that outside of Asturias, I hadn’t seen one such place. It was weird, only a 1 hour drive away, the people of Santander in Cantabria couldn’t care less about sidra but a stone’s throw away was brick and mortar infrastructure to meet local demand. In fact when my wife and I visited one of the Lagares (literally a mill) to see the process we were told that over 90% of the sidra production in Asturias stays in Asturias. These are big productions for not a huge population, the Asturias simply love their product. Sidra from the region has its own DO board with an informational english website here.
After another trip to Gijon which included visiting an old, out of commission farmhouse lagare, I started to think about what I could take away from these producers for the benefit of Farmhouse brewing. With a spontaneous fermentation there is an obvious connection that I wanted to explore; however, I think we have greater lessons to lean from the DO of Asturian sidra which helps give this product its soul.
Process, Fermentation and Service
Sidra begins it’s life in regulated orchards in the hills and mountains across Asturias. Some lagares own their orchards while others purchase theirs from certified growers. It’s great, when you drive around the region you pass orchard after orchard whose fruits you can just tell end up as sidra. Asturians have been producing sidra for hundreds of years and while they have honed and modernised the process for production volume, it fantastically hasn’t changed much at all.
During harvest these trees get their apples shaken off of them and transported to the lagare. The farmers dump the apples out of the trucks into these huge collection troughs that end up looking like organised mounds of apples. These hills of fruit then get sprayed with heaps of water to propel them into concrete canals where the apples float the current towards the presses. As the fruit rides this stream they get a light and natural wash with the water that carries them. They then go into a little elevator which transports them to a sorting table where trained eyes pick out the bad apples.
Immediately after this the apples drop into a mill and get shredded and pumped to the presses. A the lagare I visited, Castañón, they used a modern cylindrical press to get the max out of their apples. From here, the must is pumped directly into their huge temperature controlled fermentors. That’s it. Producers rely on the natural yeasts and bacterias that lived on the skins of the apples for fermentation. They never add yeast or wash the apples with anything other than water, in fact they aren’t allowed to according to the DO.
Because of these natural yeasts, fermentation occurs over a few months meaning the first sidra of the season hits the market around the new year. During fermentation however, the producer samples each tank and occasionally blends more acidic ones with less acidic or a drier with a sweeter to achieve their house flavour. Also, the temperature control allows for a producer to encourage certain growth and compound production. This varies across producer but since they rely mainly on a mix of brettanomyces and saccharomyces they usually hover around the 18-high 20’s celsius mark.
When a tank has reached maturation and an appropriate level of dryness the producer will send the sidra to packaging. It is packaged still in a green bottle with a cork. Every producer in the region uses the exact same bottle so that they can be reused by any other producer for years. Castañón packages around 80% of their product into recycled bottles every year. Packaging doesn’t happen all at once for the whole year; instead, the matured sidra waits in its vessel until the producer needs more stock. So throughout the year you can notice slight differences from longer fermentation and maturation times as well as small differences in the residual carbonation levels from different packaging runs. While no secondary fermentation occurs in the bottle for carbonation, any beverage at atmospheric pressure still retains a small volume of CO2. The hotter a liquid gets, the more it will release of that small carbonation so a sidra packaged in the winter will have slightly more life than one packaged in the summer. This rule holds true for beer too. Ask any brewer, or better yet blender about atmospheric carbonation and they will tell you about this baseline carbonation which must be accounted for in bottle conditioning.
The generally flat product necessitates the specific serving procedure referenced before. Asturias like to drink their sidra with a little bit of vida (life) but to tease out this innate carbonation, the drink must be agitated enough to release it. Traditionally the drink is then served as pictured below, with a server pouring the drink from above his head and ‘catching’ it well below his waist.
The small pressure created by the substance hitting the lowered glass releases the CO2. Its awesome, the sidra turns a milky white and you have about a 5 second window to consume it before all that CO2 moves out of the substance. This means that you really end up taking shots of the stuff in about 100ml equivalents. When you are ready for your next drink, you call the server over, he pours again, you drink again and the process repeats all over the bar. When you watch this, you start to understand how so much of the stuff can be consumed in such a small regionality. The service and consumption of sidra is total pageantry.
From a brewing perspective however, I love the independence the drink is given. Year after year, these producers rely on their native yeasts and bacterias to produce their house flavour, similar to lambic brewers. They have found this respectful balance between making their product and at the same time letting it make itself.
At the bottom of each sidra bottle is a small yeast cake. While I would love to break out the microscope and see whats in it, its pretty easy to pick out a nice blend of brett, saccharomyces and lactic bacteria. If you are in NYC, you can head to 508 Gastrobrewery to try their saison, The Hop Whisperer, which uses sidra yeast from the same lagare I visited, Castañón. In the mean time however, I’m using some of it to help along my sourdough starter but Ill have to wait for the results of that.
I recently heard Jean Van Roy of Cantillon on the Brewing Network podcast, The Sour Hour (a fantastic resource btw) say that you can brew spontaneous beers anywhere in the world. While I knew this was the case, sidra is a great example of an entire tradition remarkably similar to lambic tradition that really stands to prove this.
While I do love this drink, I love even more the culture that surrounds it. From the respect with which it is made to the specialised bars, servers and drinking technique, sidra truly represents more than a drink. In protecting the production with the DO, the Spanish recognise and respect this culture. While there are a lot of differences between making sidra and making beer, Farmhouse brewers specifically can learn from the sense of soul evoked from sidra.
Firstly, it’s regionality. Sidra comes from a certain place. Not only are its ingredients local but also the yeast. While Farmhouse brewers generally have a dedication to local yeast, I really think we could do more to encourage local production of raw materials. Not every latitude is suited for hop or grain production, however we can at least dedicate to use the most local ingredients. If your local producers yield inferior product, we can try to work with them and support them anyway before turing to international producers. This is far harder to do than it sounds, but I am merely advocating a mentality shift that could lead to a raw material shift. Customers love it when brewers use their local coffee roaster for their stouts, or even if a local farmer picks up their grain instead if throwing it away. There are small choices brewers can make which pay homage to this idea. The further down the road you go, the more your beer is an actual product of a place.
Secondly, it’s service. This step of the process is often overlooked by brewers. What does it look like when a customer receives your beer? What glassware is it in? How is it poured? I don’t want brewers to start packing flat beer and dudes to learn to pour from over their head… that would probably result in a lot of spilled beer getting caught in the huge beards of craft beer bartenders. Instead, I do think we can learn from the event which is drinking sidra. It’s special not only because of what it is but also because of how it is served. For a brewer, we can look to the Belgians who strictly advocate for branded glasses not only for marketing but also for the specific designs of glassware which accentuate their beer. Look also to to lambics, poured carefully from their wicker baskets which help keep their yeast sediments squarely at the bottom of the bottle. These differences evoke a sense that the beverage is different.
For brewers, many of these things are out of the question due to their structure or current production demands. If that is the case for you, then think of it as a thought experiment. These Asturians have elevated their beloved drink to something which induces a real sense of place. They have produced a beverage which is greater than the sum of its parts. Every bottle contains not just fermented fruit juice but also the soul of it’s producer and its region. To me, and I would hypothesise the consumer too, its the latter which is farm more important.