Eric Salazar: New Belgium’s Maestro of Sour

Eric Salazar of New Belgium Brewing Company

I first toured New Belgium Brewing Company in 2002 or 2003. At the time it still consisted only of what they now call Brewhouse #1. It was a small concern on the cusp of becoming the national brewery that it is now. When I drove past the brewery last year during GABF I was stunned by the size of the place. The small building that was once the entire brewery is now surrounded by what seem like acres of warehouse and cellaring structures. It’s huge.

That first visit was also my introduction New Belgium’s line of sour beers. It was probably my introduction to sour beers period. At the end of the tour we were given the choice between a sampler paddle of the six mainline beers or three funky beers; Frambozen, Transatlantique Kriek, and La Folie. I chose the latter. How could I not? The tour guide had mentioned something about “old cheese” as we overlooked the foudre.

Tasting through the flight, I was blown away. I wasn’t sure what to think. My palate was hit with an assortment of flavors that I had never experienced in beer. These beers were tart, earthy, and fruity. And yes, there was old cheese. I picked up a bottle of La Folie at the brewery and a six pack of Frambozen at the grocery store on the way out of town.

The brains and tongues behind these zesty beers are the two-person team of Eric and Lauren Salazar. Eric mans the cellars and Lauren is the blender-in-chief. I had the opportunity share a sour beer (or three) with Eric at the Happy Gnome during a recent visit to the Twin Cities. What follows is the full transcript of our half-hour interview.

A meeting of minds…or something.

During the interview we make reference to “Felix” and “Oscar.” It might be helpful to know who these characters are. The entire line of New Belgium sour beers is built on two base beers. Felix is a light beer. Oscar is a dark beer, basically 1554 with a touch less roast. Both are fermented with lager yeast before going into the foudres for acidification by the house culture of bacteria.

I first met you at the GABF in 2007 when you had presumably made Eric’s Ale for the first time.

No, we had a few batches before that that we released in kegs. That was the first bottled batch.

You were pimping it hard at the booth.

I bet I was. Sounds like me.

To start with, give me your path. You started at New Belgium in…

I started at New Belgium in 1995. I was an art student at the time in Fort Collins. I got a job at the brewery through some friends. Now of course, at 22 years old what’s a better job to have than at a brewery, especially New Belgium Brewing Company? New Belgium in those days, and it still is, was very nurturing. They’ll take anybody who wants to really make their own path. Whatever direction you want to go in you’ll be allowed to do it, but you’ll also be given all the tools to do it. So I’m a classic example of that. I started out in packaging. I was making what I considered not a lot of money, but enough money for a 22 year old guy in college. And I was working a lot of hours. I mean we worked long-hour days. We worked very hard, you know. Packaging. Hot conditions. The little train station we were in in those days, it wasn’t temperature controlled. There weren’t a whole lot of creature comforts. But we loved it. We loved what we were doing. We loved the beer that we were producing. We loved the company that we worked for. I think I was employee number 20 at that time. We’re up to 500 employees now. So, you know, I recognized the opportunity and recognized that New Belgium was a company that was going somewhere. I knew I was going to be a part of it. Not only that, I was doing something that I loved and something that was new to me. I did a lot of research. I did a lot of study. I asked a lot of questions. I made my way through the company. Within a year I was in the cellar, cold side brewing. And then within four years of that I was in the brewhouse. So I did that for a bunch of years. I was a brewer for a bunch of years. Peter Bouckaert (New Belgium’s Brewmaster) had come to the brewery in 1996, just one year after I started.  He immediately was like, “Okay, let’s start a sour program.” Of course that’s what I was interested in. Everybody at New Belgium loved sours. We loved that Belgian tradition of lambic beers. We loved the flavor profile of anything Belgian in those days, but we didn’t know how to make sour beers. It was something that traditional brewers have known for generations in Belgium, but you have to be…

It was kind of this esoteric thing here.

Yeah, in those days it was really kind of weird for us to even be doing Belgian-type beers or Belgian-style beers. So I made sure that I was next to Peter Bouckaert as much as I could be as we were developing this sour beer program and wood beer program. I would do anything, no matter how menial, to be a part of that. And even still to this day it’s still a matter of just doing the work. It’s still a matter of hauling around hoses. It’s a matter of setting everything up right. It’s a matter of knowing how much of each barrel goes into the blend. It’s still the same job that it was. And I think that’s what I like about my job nowadays is that I’m still doing the job in the manner that I learned how to be a brewer and a cellar person.

So you are now mostly in the cellar?

I am mostly in the wood cellar. I care for the foudres. I care for the beer in the foudres. Tasting, blending. Lauren Salazar, our main blender, our sensory specialist, I work closely with her. We work together to do these beers.

What got you interested in sour beers to begin with? Particularly since back in the day that would have been this weird, unheard-of thing.

New Belgium has always tried to bring everything they could to their employees. I mean we’re kind of one big family. We drink beer together. We travel together. We go to Belgium. New Belgium has a program where if you work there five years you get to go to Belgium and tour from bar to bar and brewery to brewery. You get a handle on the beer culture of Belgium. That’s essentially what we’re all about, you know. When [New Belgium founder] Jeff [Lebesch] went to Belgium the first time and came back with this idea of making this brewery, it was the culture he fell in love with. It was the essence of that brewing culture in Belgium that started New Belgium Brewing Company. So this is something that’s been a really important part of our culture since day one. So, you know, having been a part of that, having been with New Belgium from the early days, always trying new stuff and always drinking beers that we didn’t necessarily know how to make or even plan on making, that’s how I learned about sour beers. That’s what brought me to it. And when Peter started there I just made sure that I was part of it as much as I could.

How huge was that to get Peter Bouckaert, the Brewmaster of Rodenbach?

It was big. Yeah. It was big. I don’t know how the specifics of that worked, but it was really a big deal to us at New Belgium. We were blown away. And he was excited I think. From his standpoint, he was doing something new. There was no precedent for a brewery basically swallowing up the Belgian traditions and becoming that. And I think the fact that he came to us, came from Belgium and moved his whole life here, says a lot about what we were doing in those days. He was impressed with it, you know. And he wanted to take it further. He probably saw it as chance at a new thing, something that was going on. And I don’t think he was very popular for it at the time, to put it bluntly. He wasn’t very popular in Belgium for it at the time. Of course he’s Peter Bouckaert and he’s a very charismatic figure and he has lots of friends there, so I think eventually they started to realize – the Belgian brewers – that we’re bringing their culture and their beers. We’re not just copying them. We’re emulating them, yes, but we were also part of a revolution that brought the knowledge of those beers to the United States. Before that I don’t think there was much going on as far as the general public and their knowledge of Belgian beers. And so we tried to bring that to the general public. And of course we brought to it our own love and what we liked in beer. We weren’t necessarily trying to bring it to the people more than we were just trying to have good beer ourselves, you know. There were a lot of brewers here and a lot of people trying to do something different and that was our niche. And I think we did it well. We did it better after Peter Bouckaert came, for sure.

Eric chats with Kristen England of Pour Decisions Brewing Company

So let me ask you some specific questions about your sour program that you oversee.

Yeah, I’m part of it. Lauren Salazar and myself are the team that takes care of the entire cellar. I do a lot of the physical stuff. I do tasting with Lauren. She of course is the sensory person that runs the blending. I do all of the physical blending and care of the barrels. We’re a two-part team.

So one of the things that is interesting to me is that there are basically just two beers that form the basis for all of the sour program; Oscar and Felix. Why just two beers?

In the early days we tried many things. We had a lot of experiments going on. We would put fruit in beer. We would make different types of beer.  And we would age it in these barrels, but what we would come out with was this basic sour profile. So the conclusion we came to, and this is the type of thing that comes with trial and error, was that why put so many resources, why put so much time and thought into something that’s going to come down to just being a sour beer. Find the basics. Focus on those basics, and then use those basics as components in sour beers later on. So the way that developed with La Folie was that we had barrels that were developing well. They weren’t necessarily the barrels that we designed, but they just kind of came into being because of the bacteria. We blended those barrels together and then we tasted those barrels. Then we blended those barrels together. Then we blended those barrels together into large foudres and we just came up with this one beer. What we found was rather than trying to design the beer from the get-go and then sour it, you might as well take that beer and then blend it later. It really is a much easier process. It’s also a much more detailed process in terms of flavor profiling. Let’s use Tart Lychee as an example. So that is a beer that’s almost 50% strong golden. It has lychee juice, and then it has the sour portion, the Felix, added into it. Now if you think about yourself as a scientist in a lab and you’re mixing things, you know, and you’re using a little bit of this and a little bit of that and a little bit of something else, you can taste it right there. Rather than having to wait all that time to let the thing develop, you have all the components, you mix them right there, and then you taste them. So we found that only having two basics you can do that in the end. It’s much easier.

What struck me when thinking about that is that it’s really about the fermentation.

It’s about the aging process. It’s about the acidification of that beer. Yeah, exactly. So we can control that aging process and we can control that acidification without having to worry about whatever components are going to go into that beer in the future. And really that’s another part of this. We have this sour beer. It takes two years to age and develop. We don’t know what we’re going to develop two years from now. You know? Lauren comes up with lychee juice. Let’s put that in a beer. So we have already soured beer. We try it out. It worked out well. Who knows what’s going to happen in the future. Eric’s Ale worked out the same way with peach. The Le Terroir, which is the dry-hopped Felix, really you couldn’t have done that without knowing what the sour beer tasted like first, without knowing what you had to begin with. Then you dry hop it and you say, “Hey, that’s pretty good.” You know. When Lauren developed that beer, Le Terroir, I was kind of like, “I don’t know. That’s kind of weird. You want to dry hop a sour beer?” I was like, “I’ll do it. I’ll do it. No problem.” And so I did it and I had to eat my words. It was great. It actually was a really awesome beer. It’s an awesome beer. And I was like, “Okay, you’re right. You’re right.” She thought about it and she had it in her mind, but we really couldn’t have tested it out and tried it and proved it without having that sour beer already worked out, already processed and alive and running.

You reuse yeast. You have your own blend – it’s a multi-strain blend. Talk about how that came about.

It’s mostly really a bacterial soup, for lack of a better way of putting it. We have a lot of terms in this type of product that don’t sound real appealing, but you kind of say to yourself, “but in a good way.” So bacterial soup is the term I’ll use. It’s lactobacillus. Maybe a little bit of pediococcus. And probably some brettanomyces and wild yeasts in there, but for the most part it’s lactobacillus. Now in the early days what we did is – and this was Peter Bouckaert’s design – we blended those small barrels, only a few, and we put whatever we wanted into them. We put our cherry beer. We put some lactobacillus in some. We would put different types of yeast and we would just let those barrels develop. And we had a meeting on Thursdays where we would taste beers from Belgium and we would taste the barrels. And in the early days, I’ll be frank, for a long time they sucked. They would kind of start to develop and then they would go south. We learned a lot about the “sick phase” of barrels. In order to get to heaven you’ve got to go through hell, I guess the saying goes. So as these beers developed we would taste them and then we would also taste the beers we were going for; Liefmans, Rodenbach, and any lambics. We would discuss those beers and we would discuss what we had. Well, when the beers started to get better – the barrels that would get better were obvious and the ones that weren’t working out so well were obvious as well – we would get rid of those barrels [that weren’t getting better] and then we blended the barrels that were good and we’d let those age for a little while. Then we’d have the same discussions, the same parallel discussions with the traditional Belgian beers and what we were coming up with. And we’d have open conversations about what we were looking for. What we were looking for developed over time. It wasn’t necessarily like we were going for one thing from the get-go. But as we were doing this and as we figured out what we had and what we were capable of doing, that idea came about. Then we purchased some large-scale foudres. I think our first four were the 60-hectoliter fouders that we have. We still have those foudres, one of which is foudre 1 that we call “Sure Thing.” It has been a part of every single La Folie blend since we bought it. We bought that one in 1999 I believe. 1999 or 2000. That one barrel has been a part of every single La Folie, so it’s steeped deep with the flavor profiles and bacteria that we want. So same situation [with the foudres]. We’d blend those barrels together and as those barrels developed, we would develop what we wanted. And even still to this day, since 1998 when we put out the first one until now, sixteen years, I mean it’s still developing. It’s still a process. It still is about Lauren and I sitting down and sipping all the barrels, talking about it, talking about what we think about each barrel specifically. And each barrel can have its own personality. There are a lot of factors there. What time period of its development is it in? Where is the barrel sitting in the room? Is it in front of a window? Is it near the other door? How big is it? The smaller the barrel the larger the ratio of liquid to wood there is. A lot of little factors there. It’s all about us sitting down and tasting it. We’re still doing the same thing to this day as we always have done before.

So as you’re tasting each one of these barrels does that flavor that comes out of each one, that particular acidification profile, determine what you end up doing with that beer?  Whether it ends up in a blend of La Folie or goes into one of the Love releases? Whether you add lychee to it or something else?

So I’ll break that question down into a few different parts. Love is specifically a single barrel that we decide the moment that we taste it that it’s good enough to be Love. Now if that doesn’t happen, and it will [happen] because we have a lot of good barrels in there, but if that doesn’t happen, it doesn’t happen. If we didn’t have a Love barrel, we don’t mind. That’s fine. Love is really something that we’ll put out a little at a time. With the Peach Love that we are drinking today, that’s a barrel that we decided was good enough and then we put it into a peach whiskey barrel. We recently, this past year, April of 2012, we purchased and installed seven 225-hectoliter barrels. Now we knew full well that we had to inoculate those barrels. The best beer to inoculate those barrels with, of course, is the best beer that we have. Right? So we kind of let it be known that this year’s production of sour beer was going to be diminished a little bit because we knew that we were going to take this best beer. So there’s the decision right there. This beer is really good. Of course we want it to be part of this blend, but we also want it to carry us into the future with these new barrels. So last year that was a pretty heavy-duty decision. It was like okay, we need to produce this much La Folie. We want to have as much Felix for whatever, Tart Lychee or Kick or whatever we’re producing. We want to have as much of that as possible. But we also want to make sure that we’re taking care of these new barrels and that we have something for the future, especially when we’re expanding on this program. So within a year we already have sour beer being produced in these large barrels that have never before been used for sour beer or beer at all. They were wine barrels before that. They’re 30 years old. And they’re working out. So we know that we made the right decision by giving up some of our best beer to inoculate those new barrels. We still were able to produce a fair amount of La Folie. But now we know that we’ll see more in the future because those barrels are working out. We expanded our capacity, you know. All the right decisions were made.

What are you looking for in the blend?

Well, La Folie. We know as we’re tasting them that we have a lot of barrels to choose from, so we know that we can build it as a profile. If we have something that’s really tart, maybe kind of a citric tart, something that’s really sharp, maybe not very complex but still has a nice tartness to it, then we can balance it out with something that’s maybe a little bit younger or maybe something that hasn’t quite developed the…I hate to put it like that…but hasn’t quite gone as far in its sourness and its acidification process as this other one. We can rely on the two beers to balance each other. So we’ll get something that’s maybe a little bit sweeter, a little more malty and pair it up with this very sharp, very pointed sour beer. But then other flavor components can be cherry pit, even along the same lines as a plum skin. These are things that we like to discuss. So we’re looking for balance. We’re looking for these different flavor components that will play off of each other and balance each other out without being too overpowering. Now a lot of people would say that when they taste La Folie it’s going to be really sour, but what goes into that is a lot more than just sour. You could just make it sour and it would all be one sided. You won’t have that balance and I don’t think it will be as popular a beer. So maybe it is sour, but there are a lot more subtle nuances going on there then you would think about if you just tasted sour beer. With something that’s going into a blend, you have to consider the fruit. If it’s a fruit you have to consider the other bit that you’re blending it with. Kick is an example. Kim and Dick, Kim Jordan and Dick Cantwell, that was their baby. That was the thing that they blended, that they put together. They wanted a pumpkin beer, but they wanted a sour beer. It took them a few iterations to get that right. But they did it just like that. They took a little bit of this beer and a little bit of that beer and they blended it together until they felt like they had the right flavor profile. That’s nothing you can do on paper. You can’t just make that up as you go along. There’s no numbers that take care of that. You have to taste it. It has to be a physical process. It has to be on the spot. It depends on what you’re looking for with that, with the blending of non-sour beers with sour beers. Every beer is different.

So beer nerds love to age beer. I’m going to tell you my first experience with my first bottle of La Folie. I didn’t intentionally age it, but it sat in my basement for a while. And by the time I opened it, it was straight-up vinegar. One thing that really made me happy though was that the next time I visited the brewery I told them that story and they gave me a sixpack of 1554. But the first thing the guy asked me was, “Did you try and age that?” So just for the sake of people who get a sour beer and feel they want to age it, talk a little bit about that.

Well, I feel like sour beers in general…I mean on a basic level the pH is low enough that they can be considered bomb-proof at certain points. That being said, you know, the beer is already two years old. It’s already been aged. We’ve already tasted that two-year-old beer and specifically decided on that blend. So really, you know, the beer is ready to go when it’s ready to go. Aging is up to you. It’s interesting to age beer and then taste it across the board and do a flight. Go from 2002 to say 2012. Can we do that? Does anybody keep their beers that long? I think they do. Some people do. I don’t know how they do it, because I always end up coming home at 2 am with a bunch of friends and drinking that beer. But there’s also how you keep it, you know. The temperature has to be right. With those cork and cage bottles, if they’re sitting upright they have a tendency to dry out. That cork can dry out. You can get a lot of oxygen through there, even if you don’t recognize it when you open it. It still may be a little pressurized, but it can go through ebbs and flows of drying depending on the season and what not. So it’s tough because you don’t know where people are keeping their bottles. And it’s hard to say whether you should age that, because what’s your storage area like? Is it your garage? Is it 100 degrees out there? Is it your basement? Is it humidity controlled? So I like to say “drink that beer.” When you get it, just drink it. It’s already two years old. We aged it. We blended it. If you want to do that though, treat it right. Lay it on its side. Take care of the cork. Keep that temperature even and low.

When you’re tasting sour beers – and again this is going to differ from style to style – but if you could kind of generalize, what is it when you taste a sour beer that makes you say, “This is a great beer.”

Balance. Yeah, balance. I like to have many components and not just one. If it’s too far to one side then it’s no fun. It has to have many flavor components and it has to have balance in those flavor components. If you’re going for something one way or the other then fine, you can flavor it that way. But if is takes over and it tends not to let anything else through, then that’s no fun. You know, you have to have that balance. I think that’s true even if it is a sour beer. And people generally, depending on their threshold of sour, might be like, “Wow, that’s kicking my ass right now.” But if they taste further they’ll find that we’ve taken the time to balance that out. We’ve done this or that. We’ve thought about what that beer is going to be. We’ve thought about what we want this beer to be. Now with Eric’s Ale that was a big deal. I was looking for that peach to come out, but I didn’t want a peach flavor. I wanted peach to be the aroma. And I wanted when you put that beer up to your mouth that you more sense it on your nose than you sense it on your tongue. It was still part of the profile, but it was a component that wasn’t necessarily obvious right away. It was about balance.

What are the components you’re trying to balance?

In? Name a beer.

La Folie. A lot of people know that beer so let’s do that.

With La Folie, like I said, we’re looking for sour. We’re looking for something that’s going to offset that sour; a little maltiness. We found that in these barrels and with Oscar aging that we always get a little cherry component. It’s weird because there’s no cherries added anywhere in the process. There’s always this cherry component. And if it’s a tart cherry, a cola component is never a bad thing. I mean there are just these little details that I don’t expect anybody to actually sense or even focus on, or even say the words “cherry pit” or “plum skin,” but I still want it to be there. I still want it to be a part of the flavor profile. Again balance. It may be one of the most sour beers in the United States, but I challenge anybody tasting it to be, “Oh. What is this little tiny thing? What is this sweetness? There’s an acidic portion of this, but then there’s a fruit sugar I can’t quite put my finger on.” And that’s fun. Right? That’s interesting. That keeps it interesting for all of us.

I gave La Folie to a wine sommelier that I work with frequently and she drank it the whole rest of the night.

That’s great. That’s an ultra-compliment. That’s really cool. Right on.

So, you started out as an art student. I’m curious, because my background is in the arts, what was your medium?

I’m a painter.

Do you still do it?

Oh yes. Very much so. I love water color. I love mixing colors. I love it when there are almost so many colors that you can’t really see them all unless you look closely. So I’m lucky enough to have a job where I’m not necessarily doing that exact thing, but I still am doing that thing in a sort of a way. I’m blending these beers just like I would be blending colors.

You just led into my question. How do the arts play into making beer?

Just like that. I’m still allowed to be that artist that I always wanted to be. I didn’t necessarily know when I was younger that brewing would be my calling, but there it is. It plays perfectly with what I’ve always done my whole life, and that’s being a painter and being an artist.