When Brettanomcyes Sneak In
Earlier this year, I went out to the brewery to see the latest year-old Top Sail Imperial Porter come out of the barrels. As you know, every year, Full Sail puts a strong dark ale in barrels and lets them sit there a year; then they blend the barrels together and release them as Top Sail or Black Gold Imperial Stout. When I visited, they were tasting beer as it came out of the barrel, flagging any batches that had gone south. Barrels are not precise instruments, and in a certain percentage of them, something goes wrong. Anything that tasted a bit funky got this treatment:
But here's the thing. Brettanomyces work very slowly. I've been in three different barrel rooms where a brewer has discovered a cask that a resident colony, heretofore unbeknownst to the brewery, has begun souring the beer inside. It takes months for them to reproduce enough that they make their presence known. it's easy to miss them until they've affected the beer sufficiently. Their elusiveness is compounded in a process like Full Sail's, where all the barrels are blended together before bottling.
After my visit, Jamie Emmerson gave me a couple bottles of vintage beers from Full Sail's own cellar. One of the bottles was an '09 Black Gold, which I cracked last night. It's no secret where I'm headed. In 2009, one of those barrels had a bit of the wild culture going on--and after three years, it finally expressed itself. The bottle I had was still fairly mild--just a bit tart and vinous--but it was unmistakable. Indeed, the flavor was probably not far from the historic London porters of the 19th century. It had a certain refined quality to it that I quite enjoyed. Full Sail probably won't be excited to hear it, but that's what happens when you use old whisky barrels--sometimes they harbor wild things.
If anyone else has '09s laying around, I'd be interested to hear what they taste like.
PHOTO: DOCTOR ROSE