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The allure of sour

Over the last several years, as the number of craft breweries has grown in the US, and the number of available beers has proliferated, we’ve seen a lot of IPAs come on the market.  And for good reason: America, in general, grows the best hops in the entire world (although you can get some pretty nice hops from Australia too).  The hops grown in America, particularly the Pacific Northwest, are capable of producing some amazing flavors, including grapefruit, orange, berry, peach, pineapple, and just about any other magical fruit flavor you can imagine.  The primary appealing attribute of hoppy beers are their intensity.  I’m often amazed at the intensity of hop aroma as I’m standing by our bar, as glasses of Hayburner or Galaxy Red or Deep Cut are passed in front of me.  

The downfall of these hoppy beers, however, tends to be their unsustainability.  We wrote about this over a year before we opened the brewery in fact: it is very difficult to acquire substantial amounts of prized hops.  (For this very reason, we need to purposefully limit production of our double IPA Deep Cut.)  

I should qualify this statement as well: it may be possible to make enough IPA, except for the fact that hops, and hoppy beer, are so damned expensive.  Hops are being sold and traded on forums for 2x their normal market price.  A technique that enhances hop aroma in IPAs is dry hopping, which is basically dumping hops right into the finished beer.  It works well, but the hops suck up a lot of beer, ruining yields, driving up cost.  

People have wondered for a long time: what could unseat IPAs as the next hot trend in craft beer?  The response was nearly always: sour.  Of course it makes sense: the same trend that would attract beer drinkers to intense (not sweet) bitter flavors would also attract them to (not sweet) sour flavors.  

This thought has raised a few doubts for us. First, the dimensions of sour are a bit more unilateral than that of hoppy.  Sour doesn’t taste very much like fruit, it tends to taste more like, well, acid: usually lactic, sometimes acetic (and hopefully never like butyric).  The amount of sourness in beers can be tweaked up or down, just as bitterness can be tweaked up or down in an IPA, but it’s difficult to get layered dimensions of flavor in sour beers without some other contributor: wild yeast, fruit, hops, etc.

Sour beers are also much more difficult to produce well.  Sour beers often require patience, as beers age and mature, which many newer breweries just don’t have the time for.  Not only that, but there is inherent risk in exposing an otherwise “normal” brewery to wild yeast and bacteria.  Wild yeast and bacteria are known to be incredibly difficult to eliminate once they’ve found a hiding place in equipment (believe us - we’ve seen it happen).  It’s one thing to add a sour beer to your portfolio of beers; it’s another thing entirely to have to make only sours because that’s all your brewery is capable of making since you can’t eliminate the contamination.  

And so, I think it’s very unlikely that America will embrace sour beers as much as they’ve embraced IPAs; there just won’t be enough good ones to get people to switch over.

That being said – right now, we are becoming increasingly excited about the prospect of brewing wild and sour beers.  We’ve just began to experiment.  We brewed a Chocolate Gose for the Brewer’s Invitational festival – which was a very experimental beer, and not just because it was tart; we were trying to combine sour, salty and sweet in a single beer.  We loved how the Bidwell Wild experiment turned out – not just for the character of the beer itself, but the fact that the fermentation took place using native Western New York organisms.  We’re looking forward to brewing it again and aging it in wine barrels this time.  We’re pitched some of that culture into our 2016 Farm to Pint beer that we called Niagara Wild (as it incorporated local malt and hops from Niagara Malt); again, this was an extremely experimental beer where we were really guessing and hoping how things would go as opposed to having a high degree of confidence.  It still turned out tart, complex, and pretty tasty for a beer this young.  Finally, we just released Squeezer about a month ago, which is a dry-hopped kettle soured beer, and we think it turned out pretty nice: tart, fruity, super refreshing.

Niagara Wild

The thing that’s exciting about sour beers is that they are just a whole different ballgame when it comes to the art and science of brewing.   You almost need to learn the principles of brewing over again to understand what will work and what won’t.  I always thought that we’d be great at brewing sour beers because of the biology involved – remember, this is what we did before we brewed.  But I’m also excited about the artisanal aspect of tasting, blending, tweaking, waiting for the perfect moment when the beer is ready to be blended and served.  

I can’t say we are going to brew a lot of sour beers in the future – but I do expect you’ll see more of them in the future from us.  We hope you’re as excited as we are.

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TAP New York and brewery expansion rundown

So, you may have heard a bit about this already, but we thought we'd quickly document the events of the past weekend on our blog for posterity's sake.  

We were excited to go to TAP New York because we knew that it's one of the best brewfests held in NY State, and it did not disappoint.  First of all, the festival was extremely well organized, from the staff setting up and breaking down, to the water rinse and dump buckets at each station, to the free food, which is always a plus.  Second, I spent all day on Saturday tasting beers from around the state and had a ton of really, really good beer, ranging from sours, to IPAs, to flavored cream ales and stouts.  Highlights (in no particular order) were beers from Good Nature (love these guys to death), Rare Form, Spider Bite, Prison City (amazing), Stoneyard, Sloop, The North Brewery (thanks Kyle!), Nedloh, and Common Roots, to name just a few.  

We awoke on Sunday to find we had won a silver medal in the New York State Strong IPA category for our Deep Cut Double IPA.  Needless to say, we were flying high from this accomplishment by the time we got to the festival on Sunday morning.  But, as I wrote to our team in the morning: "They have not handed out best brewery awards yet, although I would be very surprised if we won anything - the competition is tight, and there is a lot of good beer being served here."

Before the award....

So, of course we were delighted, and grateful, and shocked, and humbled, at being awarded the F.X. Matt Memorial Best Craft Brewery in New York State Cup on Sunday.  Never saw it coming.  We are so appreciative of all of our customers and consumers for this award and so proud to bring this award back to Buffalo.  We aim to prove that Buffalo is capable of making great beer, and we think this certainly pushes things in the right direction.  

On the heels of this announcement, our presentation in front of ECIDA on Wednesday prompted us to make another announcement, which seemed timely: we are expanding the brewery.  We expect to add 10 new tanks and a canning line  to the brewery in the next several months.  The additional capacity should triple our output over the next several years, and the canning line will expand the number of places where you can purchase our beer.  More details will come on the expansion later, when the time is right.

We'll let you read about the news below via all the nice folks that dedicated some time and space for us.  Thanks again Buffalo, and New York State.  We aim to make you proud.

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Introducing: Clearburner

Tired of those murky, chicken-broth-looking IPAs? Look no further, as Big Ditch has innovated an amazing technique to take American IPAs to the next level.

Introducing: Clearburner.

"This beer has all the powerful hop aroma and flavor you've come to expect from our IPAs, without the hop haze, or distracting orange color, or off putting head retention you'll find in a lesser IPA," stated head brewer Corey Catalano. "Not only will you want to enjoy this beer with dinner or while out with friends, we find this beer so refreshing that we think it works well during and after exercise, and even after you've just finished brushing your teeth!" Mr. Catalano exclaimed.

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The Bidwell Wild Experiment.

Over a year before we opened our brewery, we had a chance to perform a homebrew demo at the Elmwood-Bidwell Farmer’s Market, so that we might do a little promotion regarding our to-be-open brewery, as well as provide some education to market-goers about the brewing process.

We detailed the concept for the beer we brewed in a blog post called “Latest and Greatest” that was published on August 27, 2013.  My guess is that not many of you read it, since you had no idea who the heck we were at that time.  

Well, let’s just say the words written back then are a bit more relevant now.  

Here are the details:

“August 3.  I am really, really excited about this.  We did a brewing demo on a beautiful Saturday morning at the Elmwood-Bidwell Famer’s Market… we wanted to brew something simple.  Usually it takes 6-7 hours for us to brew a beer – the market is only open for 4-5.  Since we’re uber-specific about our setup, and we didn’t have access to everything we needed (for example – cold water to cool the wort), we decided to do a partial mash brew (some grains, some malt extract.)  And, if the beer didn’t turn out great, who cares right?  Well, we decided if we’re not gonna care - we’re really not gonna care.  So, instead of trying to bloop a single up the middle - we swung for the fences. 

We collected about 5-6 pounds of ripe, bruised fruit from the farmers that didn’t need it – then used it as a source of wild yeast to kickstart a fermentation.  Wild yeast (brettanomyces) typically lives on fruit, and plants, and naturally in our environment, and works similarly to brewer’s yeast (saccharomyces), but tends to yield a taste that is much different and more complex than typical flavors achieved from brewer’s yeast.  To be honest, I thought there would be equal chances the beer a) wouldn’t ferment or do anything b) would turn into a vinegary, diaper bomb or c) maybe be a bit drinkable after a long, long time. 

Well, after two days, we got a nice looking pellicle on top of the beer – which means that Western New York brettanomyces wild yeast has found its way into the beer!  After about a week, enough yeast had grown to start a furious fermentation.  I tasted the beer a week after that and it was tasting like a young red wine with a lot of funk taste thrown by the brett.  We’re gonna let it sit for a few more months (at least) and see what happens.  We’ll be back at EBFM on Sept. 21st to brew the same beer.  We hope to blend them down the road and serve it to the farmers that provided the fruit (and yeast!) next year… or three years down the road if it takes that long to mature.”

We wound up using nine different types of fruit (peaches, blueberries, blackberries, gooseberries, raspberries, pears, nectarines, plums, and grapes) in the beer.  Here is what the beer looked like after just a few days:

We tasted the two batches that were brewed about every 3 to 6 months.  It took about one year to complete primary fermentation.  At that time, the beer had a lot of character, quite fruity and funky, but still tasted sort of young, without a lot of depth.  More specifically, the first batch we brewed (on August 3rd) had very strong brett/funk character, while the second (On September 21st) was much more acidic/lactic in character.

After another year however, the lactobacillus went to work, adding quite a bit of acidity to the beer, and the beer became very close to what it is today: quite sour, very fruity, almost vinous, with a mild underlying funk.  

We aged it another 6 months in the fermenters to see if it changed (which it didn’t), then blended the two batches and bottled them, then bottle conditioned the beer for two more months.  

And, as of Saturday, April 9th at 12pm – an experiment that we never thought would work – the first beer sold (to our knowledge) with native yeast and bacteria purposefully collected from Western New York – will go on sale.  

The name is – of course! – Bidwell Wild.  WNY Wild Ale.

Photo via Kevin Wise

Photo via Kevin Wise

Photo via Kevin Wise

Photo via Kevin Wise

A few details about the beer.

1) This is a wild and sour ale.  For those that have not had one of these beers before, they are often characterized by the following terms: horsey, leathery, cheesy, acidity.  This beer is not an IPA.  It is certainly not a lager.  It is a very complex beer with a number of unique flavors.  It is much more like a wine than a beer.  If you come to our brewery to taste this beer, be ready for this.

2) This is an experiment.  We’re not going to sit here and say that this is the best wild ale that’s ever been brewed.  That being said, it’s an experiment gone right.  This is a complex and tasty beer, meant to be savored and sipped.  We think those of you who enjoy wild ales will enjoy this beer.

3) The biggest problem with this experiment is that we never thought it would actually work.  If we actually thought this beer might turn out good someday, we would have brewed more for sure.  But, alas, we did not.  We only brewed 8 gallons of it.

And, so, we have a very, very limited amount of this beer.  When it goes on sale on April 9th, we will have exactly 50 x 16 oz bottles for sale.  The bottles will sell for $16 each.  We will also crack open several additional bottles of this beer to serve 1 oz pours, so more can at least taste the experiment.  Expect there to be about 150 x 1 oz pours.  We’ll sell those for $1 each.  Of course, we don’t know for sure, but due to the limited availability and uniqueness of this beer, we expect the entire batch to go fast – so try to get here early on that Saturday if you want to taste or purchase one of these samples/bottles. 

We are very, very proud of this beer.  It has existed longer than the brewery has been open!  We hope you enjoy it.  Here’s to continued beer progress in Buffalo!  And thanks so much to the farmers at the Bidwell Market who donated the fruit (and microorganisms) that made this beer possible!

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What we learned from the New England beer scene (in 3 days)

The New England craft beer scene has become legendary and is leading the charge in redefining craft beer in America.  It seems like every year, a new brewery opens up in the New England area that resets all expectations about the possibilities and demand for craft beer, particularly hoppy beers.  In particular, Vermont and Maine (first and sixth respectively in the country in breweries per capita) have collected a number of breweries with almost legendary status.  The most notable of these breweries is The Alchemist in Waterbury, VT, who’s double IPA Heady Topper, which sells in a 16 oz can, was known as the best beer in the world for several years.  A close second is Hill Farmstead in Greensboro, VT, who was voted best brewery in the world by Ratebeer.com in 2015. 

Hill Farmstead brewery.  Do they make beer here, or much, much more?

Hill Farmstead brewery.  Do they just make beer here, or much, much, more?

These breweries and beers are known for impeccable quality; but also, the beers have been known to be extremely rare, with distribution limited to the brewers’ state, and in some cases only the brewery itself.  With that in mind, we wondered: what are these breweries doing to make themselves so successful?  Is the quality as great as others claim, or is this hype at least partially caused by rarity?  With these questions in mind, we (Corey and Matt) drove through Massachusetts, Maine and Vermont this past November to experience as many of these small and successful breweries as we could.

We had a fairly well organized plan when we left Buffalo of the places we wanted to go and the breweries we wanted to visit.  But we also kept it fairly flexible and took advice from friends, fellow beer lovers, and even Twitter on places to go.  So, occasionally we mixed things up and drove out of the way to reach someplace we were told we had to visit.

One thing to note about this trip.  While we did bring back as much beer as we could find (and afford), the primary purpose of this trip was not to “score” beers for share or trade.  We were here to try beers, meet and talk to people, and experience these breweries.  Therefore, we didn’t visit breweries like Alchemist, Lawson's, or Trillium, which have excellent beers, but don’t offer much in the way of tours or tasting rooms.  Luckily, we did get to try beers from at least the first two breweries, and we still had a lot of excellent beers, and experiences, along the way.  

The breweries we visited were:
Tree House
Jack’s Abby
Night Shift
Maine Beer
Bissell Brothers
Allagash (well, not really – they were closed)
Foundation
Austin Street
Oxbow
Hill Farmstead
Fiddlehead
Prohibition Pig (followed by dinner at Blackback Pub)
Zero Gravity

That’s 13 breweries, 1,500 miles, in 3 days, and I’m sure we could have seen more if we had more time.  So if you’re reading this, and you’re like “how come they didn’t go to my favorite brewery”?  We just did not have enough time, as much as we would have liked to.  Hey, we’ve got beer to brew over here!

Now, we’re not going to go into details about which breweries were doing what, and which beers we loved, and which beers we liked a bit less.  We consider all of these breweries to be colleagues of ours, and therefore we wish them all the best.  So, we’ll keep the learnings fairly general. 

First of all, we probably had about 70 different beers between all of these breweries, and had very little (maybe one or two at most) we’d consider to be bad, or just generally to our disliking.  That is to say, these breweries were all making good to world-class beer.  
Some highlights:

  • Jack’s Abby makes pretty much great everything, from fruited lagers, to rauchbiers, to hoppy IPLs, to sours.  They were extremely impressive.
  • Maine has a “Fresh Beer” sign that lights up outside their brewery.  How cool is that?
All the freshness

All the freshness

  • We thought that Hayburner and Another One by Maine are the same beer in many ways.  And, they are also totally different in others.
  • Bissell Brothers are rock stars.  We loved their beer, we loved their artwork, we loved their glasses, and we loved their bathroom wallpapered in old recipes and business plans.  They were selling cans out of their brewery as they were coming off of the canning line.  You could purchase beer that was literally minutes old.  How cool is that?
Man, this looks tasty.

Man, this looks tasty.

  • Allagash was closed for a private party!  We tweeted them that we would wash their dishes if they let us in for a few samples… they did not reply.
  • It was hard to find cans of anything, anywhere.  We would have brought more beer back if we had gone Tuesday or Wednesday.  Maybe next time? 
  • The staff at the Blackback Pub was super friendly.  And the can of Focal Banger that Corey had there was super good.  Although he did get a few stares when he asked for a glass with his can.

Perhaps the biggest learning was that we didn’t think that the beer being made in New England was mind-blowingly better than some (not all, but some) of the beer being made around our area.  We did think the beer culture was very evolved versus what it is in Buffalo though.  Everywhere we went, you could tell that people were enthralled with beer, loved discussing their favorites, loved discussing subtle flavors they could taste in the beer they were drinking, loved discussing breweries they thought were underrated, or overrated, or properly rated for that matter.  Remember though that New England has at least a 15 year craft beer head start over Buffalo.  But, you can also clearly see that Buffalo is doing a good job of catching up, and quick.

I strongly advise anyone reading this blog to make a trip like this to New England.  Yes, to immerse yourself in a world-class beer culture, and of course, to drink some fantastic beers.  But, even more so, to earn an even larger appreciation for the kind of beer culture being constructed right in your backyard.  We continue to be excited to be a part of it, here in Buffalo, NY.

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