Thursday, April 5, 2012

Collaboration, McKenzie’s Irma Tasting

This bottle came from the five gallons of wort that Nathan and I took home from our brew day with Ryan Michaels and Gerard Olson at McKenzie’s Brew House in late 2010. The rest of the batch of Irma was sold at the brew pub as Irma (stainless steel fermented) and Irma Extra (soured, barrel aged). In addition to the White Labs Saison II pitched at the brewery, we added the dregs from a couple of the spectacular sour beers that we were given from McKenzie’s cellar.

Since then Gerard has opened up his own brewpub, Forest & Main in Ambler, PA, where he is brewing a wide variety of American saisons. For example, Saison a l'Ancienne: "Brewed with barley grown and malted in Southeastern Pennsylvania by our own maltster, fermented partially with wild indigenous yeasts, this farmhouse ale reflects our regional terroir more than any beer currently on the market." Hard to say no to that.

I think the best Belgian beers are the ones that have flavors that you can’t quite identify, even when you brewed the beer. Irma was a simple recipe, but the aroma and flavor have notes of wood, spice, and other flavors that I can’t put my finger on. A combination of malt, hops, and yeast (cultured and otherwise) can give a wide range of surprising flavors given enough time.

Irma, with the apple brandy barrel we got from McKenzie's in the background.
McKenzie’s-Fermentationist-DesJardin Irma

Appearance – In my wide Tripel Karmeliet tulip the beer appears dark amber, almost red. Clear, like most sour beers. The thin white head lasts for a few minutes, but is quickly reduced to a thin wispy covering.

Smell – Lambic funk, damp basement, boozy oak, cooked apples, and slight floral/perfume. It is a soft aroma, but with lots of complexity.

Taste – The flavor has many of the same elements as the aroma, but the Munich malt adds a great bready malt flavor in addition. The beer is dry, but the saison yeast we used for primary fermentation prevents it from being thin. It is amazing how much the beer tastes like it was aged in an apple brandy barrel even though it never touched wood. As it warms I even get a hint of licorice.

Mouthfeel – Moderate carbonation. Could be a couple notches higher, especially if we really wanted to call this one a saison. There is some body there, but not much.

Drinkability & Notes – Terrific beer, lots of complexity, but not aggressively sour/funky/dry or otherwise difficult to drink. I would put this up against the better bottles of Fantôme's highly variable saisons (which have been too few and far between lately). Sad I haven’t had a chance to try the versions fermented at the brewery, but the reviews on BeerAdvocate have been pretty positive. It would be interesting to see how ours compares, hopefully I can find an excuse to get back to Philly soon (I need to make it to Forest & Main as well).


Michael Thorpe said...

I'd be happy to share a bottle of the Irma Extra with you. I've got one left and am local.

The Mad Fermentationist (Mike) said...

Done! Happy to share our version and anything else from the cellar you'd like to open. Shoot me an email and we'll figure out when.

Glossolalia said...

"I think the best Belgian beers are the ones that have flavors that you can’t quite identify, even when you brewed the beer."

Hear, hear!

Tyler said...

Hey, just wondering if you knew the alleged origins of the Saison II strain. Is it Brasserie Blaugies like some are claiming? Sounds like it worked real well, though, and since Wyeast discontinued 3726, I might have to give this one a shot.

The Mad Fermentationist (Mike) said...

From what I have read, the strain is supposed to be a second isolate from Dupont. I have heard that WY3726 is supposed to be from Blaugies. In the end the character of the yeast on your system is what matters, no way to control for a brewery's fermentors and other terroir.

Brian said...

Do you think one of the Lambic blends would work well in this one, maybe in the secondary to keep from overpowering the base beer?

The Mad Fermentationist (Mike) said...

I think a primary fermentation with Saison II, followed by either Wyeast Lambic or Roeselare Blend (or bottle dregs from another sour beer) would be perfectly fine. The results will not be exactly the same, but it will still make an excellent beer.

Brian said...

That's what I was thinking exactly. Thanks and glad to hear yours turned out so well.

Ben said...

Have you ever tried a Consecration or La Folie clone before? I know NB and RR both do a lot of blending, so it'd be tough to get an exact clone from one 5gal batch. However, couldn't you (or me, I suppose) just make 3-4 identical clones and then do some mini blending between them?

The Mad Fermentationist (Mike) said...

You certainly could make a batch inspired by any commercial beer, but even with blending getting it exactly right would be tough. Even given the exact malt/hop bill, it would be tough to mimic their process exactly. Both breweries execute clean fermentations to start, but then only put clear beer in the barrels (filtered or centrifuged). Getting the microbes from Russian River isn’t tough, they are in the bottles, but they do a staggered pitch. La Folie (and all the New Belgium sours) are currently pasteurized, although they are bottle conditioned with a clean yeast after the bugs are killed. The differences in barrels, and temperature are hard to mimic as well.

What I am saying, is certainly try to make an “inspired by” version of your favorite beer, but don’t feel bad if it isn’t exact. Blending is a great way to go to help dial something in, but there is a big difference between four fermentors and having 30 foeders to pick and choose from as New Belgium does. Honestly, I recently got to try 4 vintages of Consecration side-by-side and there was a considerable variation… and man was that batch 001 great!

Ben said...

Holy crap. How'd you accomplish that? My local bottle shop had a vintage bottle release recently and I paid an exorbitant amount for a 2009 Consecration. Still trying to figure out the best occassion in which to open it up.

The Mad Fermentationist (Mike) said...

The 001 was mine, I'd just been waiting for a good excuse to open it. A friend of a friend still on bottles from the first release of Beatification, I drank my lone bottle of PH1 five years ago and I still think it is the best sour I have tasted.

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