Pucker-Up: Hopworks Resuscitating Sour Barrel Program

And that’s not all. Taking a moment away from a demanding production schedule and steady growth, the brewers at Hopworks Urban Brewery have recently begun experimenting with everything from wild yeasts and fruits to granola beer, and expanding the brewery’s barrel collection in the process. If you’re one of those who delighted in Hopworks’ 2010 creation–Piledriver, a melange of barrel-aged beers, wild yeasts and cherries that was a startlingly delicious first attempt at a sour beer–then you will be very pleased.

Piledriver was a sleeper hit when it debuted at 2010’s BikeToBeerFest and appeared a scant few more times before finally being released in super limited bottles in 2012, Willamette Week recently chose it as one of its best Oregon beers of 2012. Piledriver was a pet project of former Head Brewer Ben Love, who shortly thereafter left to co-found Gigantic Brewing. This led me to fear that HUB’s one-time foray into sour beers would be its last.

Fast forward 3 years, and new brewmaster Tom Bleigh and owner Christian Ettinger have become excited about the reemergence of fruit beers and experimentation with wild yeasts and different barrels. Longtime HUB brewer Matt Speckenbach showed me around the brewery’s barrel program and his own pet projects with wild yeasts that he hopes to develop into some spectacular new sour beers.

Out back in the brewery parking lot is the “Boat House,” a storage locker that holds about 14 barrels of slowly aging wild ales. Two different base beers are developing slowly–one a Flanders Red style and the other a Golden. Brewers gave these beers extra sugars for bacteria to chew on. Both use portions of wheat and very low hopping (hops stunt healthy wild yeast fermentation). Underneath another container, Matt “Speck” has stowed 6 plastic fermenters, each with a different wild yeast or bacteria and its own heat source to keep healthy in the cold boat house. As temperatures warm this summer, the tart and funky flavors will develop. Speck has kept the Brett strains separate to see how they develop in various single barrels of Golden.

Hopworks has moved its non-wild barrel-aging program tothe now abandoned offices of the neighboring roofing company,along with stacks of extra tallboy cans. The barrels here range from Jack Daniels to Heaven Hills. Bourbon Barrel-aged 2009 Noggin Floggin Barleywine ripens here, along with more recent batches of Army of Darkness, an imperial stout brewed for Brouwers Cafe. In a couple of barrels the imperial stout has been dosed with cocoa nibs, and in others, whole frozen raspberries. We sampled from each and both were tasting fantastic and appeared to be nearly ready for blending into a limited-edition chocolate raspberry imperial stout with notes of bourbon that will leave most savoring down to the last drop when it sees the light of day.

Meanwhile, Brewmaster Tom Bleigh and owner Christian Ettinger have been dreaming of non-wild and barrel-aged fruit beers of an unusual variety. Hopworks has long been interested in the classic German Radler combination of lemonade/lemon soda and lager; in fact, HUB was one of the first places I saw that served it. Last summer the blend of beer and tart sweet carbonated lemon started really to take off, and Hopworks, along with other brewers, actually kegged the blend and made it available on tap. The HUB team has not been content with just blending the two somewhat disparate products, and Tom has made it a side project to create his own fruit syrup to be blended to create a distinct Hopworks recipe. I got to sample from 3 different kegs of HUB’s award winning Kellerbier (an unfiltered version of the standard lager); each one was infused with a housemade fruit syrup–lemon, mango, and apricot–of which each had its own distinct and tasty flavors.

In the office, Christian Ettinger was excited to talk about a beer he is hoping to make for the upcoming Oregon Brewers Festival–a fruit cocktail. Who knew that the US Government actually has a standard to what can be called a fruit cocktail, and yes, I mean those cans of peaches, pineapples, and pears diced up in a sugar syrup you find at your local grocery store. Hopworks’ take on the diced fruit medley will be made up of 49% organic pureed fruit in the exact percentages the USDA requires for a proper fruit cocktail. Yes, there actually is a standard regulated blend, which is:

Peaches – 40%
Pears – 35%
Pineapple – 10%
Grapes – 10%
Cherries – 5%

The other 51% is the malt, barley, and hops, of which is just enough to qualify the concoction as a beer and not a cider or some other kind of fermented fruit cocktail.

Last but not least, you can expect a new beer for Earth Day, as Hopworks’ annual tradition continues with a granola beer brewed using real granola in the mash, along with cranberries and raisins.

Samurai Artist
Samurai Artist

Founder of The New School and most frequent contributor Ezra Johnson-Greenough has worked in the craft beer industry for almost 10 years, doing everything from illustrating beer labels to bartending at renowned beer bars and breweries like Belmont Station, Apex, Laurelwood and Upright Brewing. He has also had a hand in creating events like the Portland Fruit Beer Festival, Portland Beer Week, and the Brewing up Cocktails series. He is available for freelance consultation in marketing, events, graphic design and branding. Contact: SamuraiArtist@NewSchoolBeer.com