Double Mountain Devil's Kriek

Beer is local. Or was, anyway, before industrialization. Styles emerged from available ingredients, local culture, weather, water--a host of circumstances. The Zenne Valley is reputed to be so hospitible to spontaneous fermentation because local fruit trees (now mostly gone) housed tasty wild yeasts. The monks of Abbaye Notre-Dame de Saint Remy brewed beer in the sixteenth century from barley and hops grown on abbey grounds. Bohemian pilsners and West Coast pale ales wouldn't be recognizeable without native hops. But then the industrial revolution made it possible for breweries to receive ingredients from thousands of miles away; its arrival meant the loss of indigenous styles and the homogenization of national brewing.

But now we are following our tracks backward, and that's what makes Double Mountain's Devil's Kriek experiment especially exciting. Made with cherries grown in brewer Matt Swihart's orchards, they return us to that time of specific locality. A kriek with Rainier cherries?--must be from the American Northwest. Ah, but the experiment also shows the drawbacks of depending on specific crops. Limiting yourself to a single orchard means living and dying by the vagaries of your fruit. Forget consistency; like wine, each year's kriek will exhibit the qualities of the cherries. Some will be better than others, and people who admire the product will admire this variability.

About seven thousand people showed up at Belmont Station on Friday to get a glass of the '09 vintage (made of '08 cherries), and I was among them. (The line was seriously insane, stretching out the door and down the sidewalk to the corner. Fortunately, we got there by 5:50 and beat the worst of the crowd.) Here's what I thought.

Devil's Kriek
Although I got the lowdown on the beer from Matt Swihart at Belmont Station--he was there handing out cherries from his orchard--he actually blogged about the brewing process on Friday.

"The base for our Krieks is a blend of three batches of a strong golden-colored beer, each fermented with a different yeast: our house ale yeast, which is of Belgian origin; our house Kölsch yeast; and the notorious wild yeast Brettanomyces. We’ve used Brettanomyces before, in the Red Devil, the IRB and in last year’s Devil’s Kriek. “Brett” contribues subtle fruitiness and barnyard character (think of smells in an old barn on a cold day) at low-level intensity and a horse blanket character (think of smells in a horse barn on a very hot day) at high intensity. Brett is also a component of many spontaneously-fermented French wines, as has legions of both fans and detractors in the winemaking world.

"Devil’s Kriek was held on the cherries for 9 months, then transferred and stored cool at 34F for the remaining 3 months. The Rainier Kriek sat on cherries for the entire 12 month process at cellar temperatures ranging from 50F to 75F. The warmer ferment on the fruit allowed the Brett to assert itself more fully, driving the acidity lower and kicking out a stronger wild-yeast character. We brewed 20 barrels of Devil’s Kriek in a regular fermenter, along with 3 barrels of Rainier Kriek in a mobile mini-fermenter that was originally in service as a yeast propagation tank at Widmer."

The beer is a massive 9%, similar to the sours Ron Gansberg brews--a decision I don't fully understand. Most of the Belgian sours, and particularly the fruit lambics, run about 5%. In my experience, this allows the more subtle and volatile essences of the fruit to express themselves. The force of flavor is in no way diminished in beers of even 4% or less; and unlike other elements of beer, sour doesn't depend on alcohol or malt. Of course, Gansberg's 2008 Apricot Ale had one of the most lush aromas I've ever encountered, and he uses a tripel as his base, so maybe I don't know what I'm talking about. (And wouldn't that be shocking?)

As you can see in the photo, Rainier Kriek drew very little color from the fruit; it's also a lot cloudier than the Devil's, which had a pinot-like clarity and depth of hue (though the color's all bing). Mostly the Rainier Kriek was characterized by sourness--if the cherries contributed anything, it was just at the threshold of identification. (This isn't too surprising--Rainier cherries are in no way assertive. They have a gentle cherry flavor but mostly a neutral sweetness. Cherries for people who don't like cherries.) The sour was lovely, though. I asked Matt what strain of brettanomyces he used and whether it was some kind of mild strain. (No.) Brett can get pretty funky, but not here. I found it gently sour and almost a little salty. Somehow it retained some residual sweetness, too, and the body was thicker than I expected from a brett-soured ale. A nice, quaffable beer, if such a thing can be said about a 9% sour ale. Call it a B+ on the patented rating scale.

The Devil's Kriek has a candy nose with an undercurrent of chocolate and almost no sour. The flavor is surprising; as in the nose there's almost no sourness. Instead the fruit contributes the beer's two main notes, a subdued cherry and a bitter, tannic note that I assume came from the pits. As it warms, the bitter note diminishes and a bit more of the cherry comes out. Appropriately, it's fairly dry and not at all cloying--the brettanomyces have taken care of any stray sugars that might have been floating around. I suppose you can intuit the size of the beer by the mouthfeel, but the alcohol isn't especially obvious.

"Not especially obvious" could be the three-word bullet for Devil's Kriek. It's a subtle, refined beer, and toward the end of the glass I was appreciating its wine-like character. But since I had the 2008 version in my head--I recall a tour-de-force of both sour and cherry intensity--I found it a bit underwhelming. Call it a B-.

Based on my discussions with Ron Gansberg, fruit is hard to work with. If you're not a tinkerer, forget it. My guess is that Matt is already adapting. He said he'll leave this year's fruit on the tree for a couple weeks longer so it ripens more. This should give the beer a more intense cherry flavor and allow him to take the fruit off sooner so it doesn't extract as much from the pits. But of course, that's if the fruit cooperates.

Still, I encourage everyone to track this beer down and have a glass. There aren't very many products like it in the world, and it's a rare treat to have a local brewer willing to put this much time and effort into any beer. Give it time--in a few years it could emerge as an Oregon classic. Plus, you need to fix it in your mind so that next year you have a basis for comparison.