The Spontaneous Files: Block 15 Brewing

Other posts in the series: De Garde and Solera

If you ever have a chance to sit with Nick Arzner in Block 15’s new taproom, I highly recommend it. Over the summer I sat with him drinking pints of Gloria!, the new pilsner he’d just released, and literally every person who came in the front doors stopped to chat with him. He greeted them with smiles and warm handshakes and then they traded stories of each other’s families. Nick was born in Oregon and his father coached the South Albany High School swimming team—I had the sense that personal and family connections bound Nick to nearly everyone in Corvallis. My guess is that they enjoy coming to the pub because it’s an affirmation of a local kid done good. I also had the sense that they had absolutely no idea how good that kid had done, or that they were visiting a brewery considered by many to be Oregon’s best.

Block 15 is currently famous for Sticky Hands, its booming double IPA. A half-decade ago, people doted on its stouts with similar affection. I have also considered them one of the premier saison breweries, and I discussed Ville de Provisions in The Beer Bible as one of the few to successfully mesh the expressive flavors of farmhouse and wild yeasts. Less attention is placed on Nick’s spontaneously-fermented ales, but I will happily entertain the argument that they’re his most accomplished beers.

Nick has always found inspiration in European beers, and you find winks and nods to the old countries—but especially Belgium—throughout the Block 15 realm. When he opened a bistro around the corner from the original brewpub, he named it Les Caves—a reference to the pub that sits across the road from Brasserie Dupont. Early on, he released a Belgian pale ale called “Wandelpad,” which referenced a walking path next to the monastery at Westvleteren (the beer itself was an evocation of the monks’ far less famous pale ale). And if you know how the lambic beers around Brussels are made, you might get the reference when you learn his spontaneously-fermented beers are in a line called “Turbulent Consequences.” (Get it? No? Read on.)

Underneath the original brewpub is a honeycomb of smaller and larger chambers that constitute Block 15’s barrel room. On the door of one you’ll find a circle of wood—a barrel head—hand painted with the words “Time does not respect those that do without it.” This is another homage to a similar circle hanging in Cantillon (“Le temps ne respecte pas ce qui se fait sans lui”). Beyond it is the brewery’s coolship, which is both deeper and less wide than typical examples. “When we started this program, I thought we’d just try it and I didn’t expect much out of it,” Nick explained. Hedging his bets, he designed to be extra deep “so we could use it for open ferments” in the case that the spontaneous ferments didn’t pan out.

Fortunately for all, they did.

Unlike Trevor Rodgers at De Garde, who has developed a new mashing regime for his spontaneous ales, Block 15 goes through the traditional, laborious mashing process. “We do it with a nod to the classical beers in the sense of sweating our asses off with a turbid mash and throwing in aged hops, and letting our environment do the work.” The turbid mash is a throwback to a time when local Belgian jurisdictions taxed breweries based on the size of their mash tuns, creating an irresistible incentive to keep them as small as possible. In order to work around undersized mash tuns, breweries developed convoluted mashing systems that survive among the lambic makers—and a few Americans who prize tradition. (It also prepares a wort that will feed Brettanomcyes for months or years as the beer ages.) Turbid mash, Turbulent Consequences—now you see the reference.

Nick begins with cold water and goes through six steps of pulling off part of the mash, warming it, and returning it to the main mash. The whole ordeal takes six hours. His process of inoculation is similar to lambic-brewing, but differs in a couple ways. He lowers the temperature of the wort a bit before putting it in the coolship, and then instead of leaving it just overnight, he lets it rest for a full 24 hours. There’s a lot of mysticism associated with coolships and their placement, and I consider Block 15’s an asterisk to the whole oeuvre. Rather than elevating it and opening louvers to bring in the currents of the fresh breeze, Block 15’s coolship is down in the cellar, exposed to very little fresh air. I suppose it’s a testament to the cleanliness of the barrel room that this does not introduce any nasty microorganisms, but for whatever the reason, Nick gets gentle, balanced beer from his blend of bugs.

So far, he has largely released fruited versions of these beers, and as we stood next to the (empty) coolship, we sipped on a spontaneous peach beer he’d bottled. I found it wonderfully gentle and approachable. The acidity was restrained, but electrified the peaches, which seemed somehow more intense than a perfectly ripe, sun-warmed fruit ever could. Nevertheless, he surprised me by saying, “if I had to be really critical of the program, I wish it wasn’t so zingy. The more mature my palate gets, the more I like balanced acidity, and in the rest of our programs we can balance them. But I do allow this to express itself. It’s an expression of our, of our, of our…”—he struggled for the right word before ending, with a laugh, on “basement.”

When a brewery works with wild yeast and bacteria, blending becomes a pivotal skill. Different barrels produce different flavors, some fruity, some acidic, some woody, some even harsh. The best wild ales are a product of blending these different elements to create a complex and harmonious beer. “I used to do a lot with taking pH, gravity, but I do it all through sensory now. I don’t give a damn what the pH is or the gravity is; what I care about is: how does the beer taste, how does it smell, how does it feel?” Whether we’re talking about the Turbulent Consequence line or other wild beers, this is where Nick really shines. Blending is something like cooking, knowing how flavors will work together, and for Nick it appears instinctive. It probably also takes a bit of steely pragmatism: some of the spontaneous beer just isn’t good. Up to 20% of these beers don’t make the cut and end up in the drain. Such is the risk when you turn your wort over to nature.

We tend to think of spontaneous beers as products entirely of what happens in the coolship, but I’ve now heard from a couple people that there’s more to it than that. Frank Boon has his pilsner malt prepared to his own specifications. Nick doesn’t go that far, but like Boon he disputes that everything happens in the coolship. “That can’t be true. For our spontaneous ferment we use Rahr white wheat—that’s my wheat. If you use whatever—unmalted wheat—it’s different. That’s a difference right there, and it’s gotta come through in the end regardless of what’s going on down here [in the coolship]. So then, can you separate those things, the way I do my turbid mash, which is going to be different than the way anyone else does a turbid mash. How much of that translates to this barrel? Some, there’s got to be some.” I told him about Boon’s specially-malted pilsner malt and he agreed. “So if Boon were to come here and brew here and bring his pilsner malt and use his techniques, his beer wouldn’t taste the same.”

I suggested that he and Trevor Rogers at De Garde swap breweries for a day, preparing their wort the way they normally do, but fermenting in the opposite location. Would a wort prepared by Trevor in Corvallis taste like a De Garde beer, a Block 15 beer, or something else? A Block 15 wort inoculated in Tillamook? How much is the ingredients, the mash, or the wild yeast and bacteria? It would be a fascinating experiment—and perhaps one day they’ll run it.

In the meantime, watch Block 15’s website for announcements of the Turbulent Consequence line. Block 15 will release a blend of 18-month-old barrels conditioned with cranberries called The Bog on December 3rd.  They are an example of a growing number of spontaneous American ales, and they’re some of the best.

Photo of Block 15's "Respect" sign: The New School