An Interview with Alesong Brewing & Blending

Alesong Brewing & Blending wins Gold at the 2016 GABF

Alesong Brewing & Blending wins Gold at the 2016 GABF (left to right: Doug and Brian Coombs and Matt van Wyk)

An Interview with Alesong Brewing & Blending by Aaron Brussat.

When a less than six month old Eugene brewery wins a gold medal at the most prestigious beer festival in the world, it’s kind of a big deal. Founders Matt van Wyk and brothers Brian and Doug Coombs sat down for an interview after it had sunk in for a couple days.


AB: Congratulations, I’m super stoked for you guys. I got chills when I heard Touch of Brett called at the awards ceremony.

MvW: So did we.

AB: What was that like?

BC: I’m kind of a stress case, so I’m sitting there on the edge of my seat. Bronze, then silver, and there’s no way we got gold. I was accepting defeat, and then I just jumped up and screamed profanities.

MvW: It’s so hard these days to win a GABF award, you just gotta all come together. You think, “if I just win a bronze,” you’ll feel so good that you were in the top three with such great beers. And if you don’t see bronze, it’s like, “that’s the one I was hoping I would get,” and then silver goes by and you’re like, “well, there’s no chance we could win gold, this brewery just started selling beer six months ago.”

DC: And [Chris Swersey, competition organizer and announcer] took a pause. Maybe he was just playing catch-up with a category before us, and there’s this five minute pause and it’s like, “come on!”

AB: So a lot of foot-tapping impatience, then a release.

DC: I almost blacked out for a minute. I don’t remember going on stage, but I remember the moment, going, “oh god, we won something!”

BC: I shed a few tears on the way down to the stage and then was like, “get yourself together, Brian.”

MvW: I actually missed my fistbump with Charlie, I was so excited.

DC: Now these guys are telling me I’m gonna be jaded because it was my first time and we won something.

AB: No kidding! What are you going to win next? It’s an interesting category—Brett Beer—there are a lot of components that can go into it. What is your thought process?

MvW: I’m going to let Brian answer that as our cellarmaster, after I say something about the competition itself. So when we make beers, we set out to make the greatest beer we can because 99.99% of everyone who tries the beer is not a GABF judge, they are a customer of ours. So then you set out to enter the competition and try to see the categories that are set forth that fit our beers. Certainly you can set out to make a beer that’s going to finish in a competition, but that’s probably not what you should do as a craft brewery that wants to run a great business.

DC: Plus it’s so hard to win anyway.

MvW: And this category of Brett Beer is so interesting. You gotta make sure you don’t overlap another category like Sour Wood and Barrel-aged Beer, or Mixed Culture – Brett. It was really hard to figure out exactly where it goes. You want to find something that hits the category standards, and more importantly, is harmonious. As a judge you think, “is this drinkable, would I want to have a whole glass of it, and does it fit the style guidelines?”

BC: When we were at Oakshire, we would pick our ten favorite beers on hand, study the style guidelines, and see where they fit. It’s rare to do it the other way around, to say, “I’ll make the style.” As far as Brett beer, Touch of Brett was the first inoculated beer we did in this facility. I wanted to get a feel for a couple different Brett strains, so we did some right off the bat. Touch of Brett wound up being 100% Brett. Lambicus. The next one, which we added muscat grape juice to and is coming out in November, was with 100% Brett. Drei. The purpose of those were A) let’s get some wood inoculated, B) let’s figure out exactly what flavor profiles we like, ‘cause then we can do blends of those cultures to really get our house Brett going. But it ended up being that the Lambicus beer was just tasting great, so that was the blend, and we dry-hopped it.

DC: And that was in some wine barrels that had only seen two vintages, so they were pretty oaky. We didn’t need to let it sit in there for a year.

MvW: And the Brett Beer category shouldn’t be dominated by oak. And the dry hopping was all Citra hops. Everything fell into place with Touch of Brett. As you can imagine, we can’t get every awesome new hop that we want because we are a new brewery. We were able to get Citra, which is great. I said, “let’s go, we’ll work with it.” I didn’t know how it was going to come out, but love how it played together and obviously the judges did too.

AB: How would you describe it to somebody?

BC: … Delicious

AB: Well now you can just say that and hold up your medal.

MvW: When we went to bottle it, I thought there were so many juicy flavors. When you primary ferment with Brett you get different yeast character than when you secondary for long amounts of time.

BC: With Lambicus, people are always like “tart cherry,” but I never got that. It’s way more tropical fruit, pineapple.

MvW: I tasted orange juice at first, and I think part of that could be the Citra dry-hop. SO orangey, tropical fruit, pineapple—and a lot of that comes from the fermentation. And it’s totally dry like a saison should be. A little barrel character. It all comes together, nice and drinkable.

BC: And it’s bottle conditioned, so it’s got nice effervescence, little bubbles.

DC: That was our first bottling run, and we were scrambling. It was a little nuts—there were some sugar mixing issues; we were worried that some were going to carbonate and others weren’t.

BC: We built these stillage boxes for laying the bottles on their side to bottle condition. We filled it about halfway up and it started bulging out like it was gonna break apart. So that day was a cluster. It was the first time using any of our equipment, and we had family volunteers.

MvW: So we had the stresses of opening a new business, of brewing our first batches of beer, packaging it, hoping it would be carbonated, and then we came up with a beer we really love. It was our favorite of the ones we released…uh, they’re all delicious…and the judges thought so too. It’s a sigh of relief.

DC: Our initial instinct was validated. It’s hard when you’re talking to friends and brewers, because of course they’re going to tell you it’s great. So to have it blind and come out on top is pretty awesome for us.

AB: You put a lot of effort into that beer, it must feel like your baby now.

MvW: Yeah, one of them.

DC: There’s a lot of babies out there…

MvW: This is just our most awarded baby. It’s not our favorite, no no no.

BC: The first test was whether anybody showed up at our release party; does anybody in Eugene care? And on a 104-degree day, we had 300 people. That makes those late nights and long hours validating.

AB: A lot of breweries have a sour/wild program as an offshoot. At GABF I noticed lots of breweries with one sour beer, seemingly to please a certain type of customer. But they’re not always great, or way too sour. Would you go into more depth with your process of making wild beers, since that is a major focus of your operation?

MvW: Lots of people have great barrel programs, but it’s often a small percentage of their volume. Take Avery, for example. Same way with any size brewery. A small brewpub may only have one or two wine barrels, and that’s it. They gotta make their flagship and keep customers happy. But when you have people dedicated to making sour/wild beer, it’ll be better. Companies like Deschutes and Firestone Walker have large barrel programs, and they have dedicated people and lots of beer to blend. Sometimes you end up dumping beer, or not being able to use certain beer in blends. In my opinion, we’re at an advantage because we’ve got all these barrels. When you have one barrel and say, “welp, it’s kinda sour,” or, “there’s a little acetic acid,” there’s no changing it if you don’t have anything to blend.

BC: Oakshire has a rad barrel program, but at the end of the day you have to get Watershed in a can; that’s the moneymaker. It’s a late night or a weekend you can come in and do a barrel project. So our main goal was to dedicate our time to this. We’re brewing twice a month, so the rest of the time in here is barrel maintenance. Instead of buying a brewhouse and big packaging equipment, we can buy steamers and focus on barrel care and monitoring everything.

AB: This is your job now.

BC: You mentioned sour beer being too sour. That’s something I see a lot of and don’t enjoy. I associate that with how IPAs were several years ago. Some people go that way with sour beer. You read on Untappd, people review a sour beer like, “this isn’t tartness X, it’s not as sour as this other one.” It’s a tendency to want it as sour as humanly possible; that’s not what we’re going for.

MvW: We try to be influenced by the wine world. If a wine has too many tannins or is too acidic, it kills your palate. We want our beer to reflect those same nuances.

AB (to BC): You worked at King Estate for a while. I was talking to another brewer about his barrel program and he was telling me about how there’s some barrels that take a while to come around and some just never make the cut. Does that happen in the wine world?

BC: Most definitely. King Estate was big enough that if a barrel didn’t make the cut it would just get blended into their 50,000 gallon tank of Acrobat, so one barrel wouldn’t really turn the needle too much. But their higher end blends, it’s very much picking out the barrels with like, the most tannin structure. But it’s more the case in beer where we’re dealing with live organisms, whereas in wine you’re just dealing with oxidation and oak pickup. For beer, in some barrels the bacteria will be happy and cruising right along and in other barrels it won’t be.

AB: So you’ve got that happening now?

BC: Now everything’s kinda going the same, but when you get to second and third fills of barrels is when they can really start to diverge. Each barrel will start to have its own character, but right now it’s very much first fills…

DC: We have seen that a little with the Tangled Up in Blueberry, where there were three barrels that were ready to go, and there are still five barrels out there that were not. They are just developing and hopefully they develop into something that we’re excited about and serve; but there’s always a possibility that they don’t.

AB: Right now you’re developing a house culture, flavor, character. So next year’s Touch of Brett probably wont’ taste like this year’s.

MvW: If we ever make it again—we will make more dry-hopped Brett beers.
DC: And they’ll be different; the winery’s vintage is different even if it’s from the same vine, the same barrel.

AB: And you’re also moving across the hills to Lorane.

MvW: Yeah, out there we’re going to play with spontaneous fermentation.

AB: Have you done any spontaneous tests out there?

MvW: No. We’ve played a little here with a small, open-topped fermentor, but it’s not really spontaneous.

BC: And we just did a spontaneous beer on grape must.

MvW: How quickly I forget. Well, it wasn’t open to the air, but it was open to the fruit.

BC: We didn’t pitch any yeast, but it’s not like a coolship; we pitched cold wort onto pinot noir must. And one more anecdote on Touch of Brett and bottle conditioning. We tried a bottle every day for a week to get the flavor profile and see how the carbonation’s forming. The first bottle I popped, 12 hours later, was fully carbonated, but it tasted awful, the epitome of diacetyl and acetaldehyde. I thought, “oh no, the beer sucks!”

AB: You caught the yeast with its pants down.

DC: The timing on GABF was good on that perspective because the bottles had three months to clean up those green flavors.

MvW: We almost considered sending our beer warm because we knew it was still maturing.

AB: So what’s coming out next?

MvW: We have a bottle release on November 19 here at the brewery, noon to 6. Four beers. Rhino Suit is a bourbon barrel-aged imperial milk stout. Shake Your Tree is a mixed-culture sour beer aged on peaches from Detering Orchards here in the area. Saison du Vin is a Brett saison bottle conditioned with muscat grape juice from Sarver Winery. That may be something we continue: a yearly release of a wine juice conditioned farmhouse ale. It would be our celebration of another great year, kind of mimicking the flavors in Champagne. The last beer is a non barrel-aged beer, or what we call our ‘instant gratification’ beer: a Belgian quad called Four Brothers. And because we’re barrel-aging beer and doing four releases a year, we’ve already got beer in barrels for our February release, and are thinking about next May and August and November. We can’t just come in and go, “what should we release this afternoon?”

AB: Do you have plans to do any gueuze-like blends?

MvW: We just did a lambic-inspired wort; not a turbid mash or spontaneous ferment, though. As we get out in the country we’ll make more beers like that. I’m starting to see a few breweries who are inspired by Lambic beers—Beachwood and Casey—where you can taste some of those flavors. I’m inspired by that, but it’ll take years before we see that to fruition.

BC: But year one is in the barrel.


Meet the Alesong Brewing & Blending Team
Thursday, October 27th 6 – 830pm

Imperial Bottle Shop & Taproom
3090 SE Division St, Portland, Oregon 97202

You’ll have the chance to taste 5 of their delicious beers on tap, including:

– Blackberry Gose
– Harvest Ale (farmhouse ale with pumpkin & Autumn spices)
– Touch of Brett (dry-hopped farmhouse aged in pinot barrels
– Tangled up in Blueberry (tart, Belgian-style ale w/blueberries)
– Hop Farm (hop-forward ale w/ brettanomyces)

We’ll have a special deal on an Alesong 5-beer sampler tray, and all beers will be available by the glass as well.

About Alesong: We approach brewing like a musician composing a song. Each beer begins with an inspiration: from nature, food, or an unforgettable experience. Production is patient, personal and reflective; the vision evolves until it is brought to life in the glass. Like the song, each beer is our expression, but the enjoyment and interpretation is yours. Cheers!

Aaron Brussat
Aaron Brussat

Aaron Brussat is a complex living organism with an interest in all things fermented. He started writing about and working in the beer industry in 2010. His experience stems primarily from spending six years at The Bier Stein as a beer steward, homebrewing since 2005, and passing the BJCP and Certified Cicerone exams. Highlights along the way include numerous collaborations with local brewers, curating beer dinners at The Bier Stein, and traveling to Belgium, Netherlands, Germany, Czech Republic, Peru, and New Zealand (as well as many parts of the U.S.) for a chance to drink beer at the source.