Let me start this off with a shameless plug. We are proud to have been chosen by Hudson Valley Magazine for the “Best Sour Beer” in the Hudson Valley for 2015. They picked “Indigenous,” our American Wild Ale that is spontaneously soured and fermented with Seyval Blanc grape skins grown by Whitecliff Vineyards in Gardiner, NY. It’s a beer we are very proud of, and since we just brewed batch #2 of this beautiful baby, it seems like a good time to talk about why we think the Hudson Valley is the perfect place to create this kind of unique and complex beer.
Do you remember that guy from Bear-Flavored Ales who wrote that article about The Brewery at Bacchus? Do you remember how he called us the Most Interesting Brewery in New York That You’ve Never Heard Of? In May of last year, he wrote another great article asking the question Where Are All the New York Wild Ales? He wanted to know why every brewery, it seemed, kept making the same beers. He was asking why there weren’t more farmhouse ales coming along with NYS’s Farm Brewery Act and the explosion of little breweries, like our own here at The Brewery at Bacchus, placed in idyllic, rural environments, like our own here in New Paltz. As beer drinkers, we’ve been asking a lot of the same questions. As brewers, we owe our modest success to creating beers that step outside the traditional brewpub offerings. We brew an IPA (check out why we think ours is still stepping outside the box), but right now we have a table beer, a farmhouse ale, a dry-hopped sour, and a dark sour available, all of which are the result of a mixed culture fermentation, wholly or in part, with our “house sour culture,” which we’ve been developing for over a year and which is a complex blend of yeasts and bacteria taken from all over the place.
While all of our beers have a wild side (we blended 5% of our sour brettanomyces beer into our last IPA to brighten up the hop character), Indigenous is a different animal, but I think it serves as a more extreme example of our brewing philosophy, one that has its roots in mixed-culture fermentation (check out our Kombucha for more on that) and that believes that contamination from “wild yeasts” is a boogieman that has no place in the brewhouse.
To make Indigenous, we drove to Whitecliff Vineyards in Gardiner where they had just finished pressing the juice from a harvest of Seyval Blanc grapes. Outside, backdropped by the wineries eponymous cliff, was a ripe pile of these spent skins soaking in the sun. Allow a moment of sentimentalism here: It was beautiful. We don’t enjoy the same scenery during our brewday, so being out under the vast Hudson Valley sky at the foot of one of the most amazing cliff faces ever, I felt more in touch with la terroir (it’s still the best word for what we mean here) than I ever have in the 150 square foot room that is The Brewery at Bacchus. So, we scooped about 100 pounds of these skins to big plastic bags and drove them 15 minutes to our brewery where we were in the middle of brewing Indigenous’s wort.
A bottle of 2015 Indigenous in 2016 grape skins
120 gallons of boiling, unhopped wort made from pilsner malt and raw wheat was waiting for us as we arrived. We had cleaned and sanitized our mash tun to serve as an open fermenter and we transferred the wort at around 100F onto the freshly scooped skins. We pitched our house sour culture, the resident blend of yeast and bacteria that creates our sour ales, and left it to ferment in the brewery.
We borrow a lot from the world of viniculture and winemaking in the production of Indigenous: we ferment it “on the skins” (see: Maceration) at a higher temperature for tannins and color (think Cabernet-like reds), we rely, at least in part, on the complexity contributed by the yeast and bacteria living on the grape skins (and on the bees that we had to shoo away from the pile), we delicately “punch down” the skins as they float to the top of the fermenter to help extract flavor and minimize oxygen, and we age in oak to allow for flavors to fully develop. We like to think of Indigenous as standing somewhere between traditional Lambic-style beer and wine and we like to think of it as a modern, local way of creating beer that the Senne Valley as been making for a long time.
There’s stories about how Lambic beer, the forefather of any “wild ale,” developed because the Senne Valley was full of cherry orchards. The yeasts that were present on the fruit permeated the air and inoculated the beer these breweries left exposed. Better wines are made this way (see: Natural Wine) as are better ciders (Basque ciders in particular, but also innovative American producers like Millstone). The Hudson Valley hosts a beautiful array of farms, orchards, vineyards, and other “indigenous” sources for the production of these kind of beers.
New York is on the verge of an amazing agricultural revolution: we’re making incredible food made from the produce and meats of local farms, we’re making better and better wine with the grapes of each harvest, we’re distilling more spirits, and pressing more cider. The surge in the popularity in beer and the emergence of more and more smaller breweries comes at a moment when the landscape couldn’t be more fertile. But while new breweries open, they seem to be looking for the same ingredients to make the same beers. So while we’re a little excited that NY is growing more hops, we’re more interested in when the orchards are pressing cider or picking cherries, or when fruit farms are picking raspberries or blueberries, or when the herb farms are picking lemon verbena and fresh rosemary, or, when the vineyards around here are pressing their grapes.