Food & Drink

Guardian of sour beers at New Belgium Brewing

Envy the barrels in New Belgium Brewing’s cellar. Their lives are spent being fed with beer, and all they must do in exchange is turn said beers sour.

If I’m guilty of personifying, so be it. Lauren Salazar, blender and wood cellar manager at the Fort Collins, Colo., brewery, is guilty of it, too. It’s her job to feed these humongous barrels, called foeders (pronounced “FOOD-ers”), and she has a name for each one.

There’s the brewery’s first, Sure Thing, which can always be counted on to turn beer sour. Then there’s Cherry Go-Lightly, which imbues beers with cherry and almond flavors. And O.D.B, Dirt McGirt contributes funky notes commonly derived from Brettanomyces, a wild yeast. Like the deceased rapper for whom the foeder is named, the beer aged in Dirt McGirt can be intense on its own but adds complexity to a blend.

It is Salazar’s job to routinely taste these developing beers from the foeders to determine when they will be ready to blend and in what proportions. While some sour beers are made by pitching wild yeast or bacteria into the beer, this isn’t the case at New Belgium. They usually fill these foeders with one of two non-sour base beers – Oscar, a dark lager, or Felix, a pale one – and then let the yeast and bacteria that are already in the wood do the work.

But not all of those foeders work at the same pace. If they are being particularly troublesome, Salazar might have to move some already-soured beer in to get things moving.

“Some are happy where they are, but others – especially if they’re new – it takes them a while to find their way,” said Salazar. “Everybody kind of takes on their own personality.”

Salazar has come to intimately know these foeders since joining the brewery in 1998. At the time, the brewery had just a few small barrels. Now, 64 foeders are packed into the brewery’s wood cellar, where they stretch to the ceiling.

Sour beer is a catch-all term that can refer to any number of styles, like Lambic, Gose, Geuze, Berliner Weisse, Flanders brown and Flanders red ales. And though these styles differ in intensity and flavor profile, sour beers on the whole have trended up in recent years.

For drinkers unaccustomed to mouth-puckering beers, Salazar suggests trying samples at better beer bars and keeping an open mind.

“You have to redefine your definition of beer,” she said. “What you think beer is just doesn’t apply anymore. Do you like cherry pie? Do you like lemonade? Granny Smith apples? Chances are there’s a sour beer for you.”

Salazar has visited Charlotte a handful of times, including last year when New Belgium partnered with NoDa Brewing to create Funkaversary, a beer commemorating the 10-year anniversary of Brawley’s Beverage. The beer blended New Belgium’s Felix with fresh and Chardonnay barrel-aged Monk’s Trunks from NoDa Brewing.

“Charlotte is just such an awesome brewing community,” Salazar said. “I just feel like it’s an extended part of the brewing family.”