Liquid Diet: Maine Beer Company’s Sour Funky Ale

Hoppy, tart, and tannic. The indescribable beer that took over three years to make.

Maine Beer Co.

Maine Beer Company’s Barrrel Program 1, which took over three years to make. Photo courtesy of Maine Beer Co.

It would be a bit of an understatement to say that Maine Beer Company has a thing for hops. Opened in 2009 by brothers Dan and David Kleban, the Freeport brewery has carved out its reputation with hop-loaded elixirs like Lunch, a West Coast IPA that’s been compared to Russian River’s Pliny the Elder.  But in 2011, Dan decided to go in a new direction. He acquired three French oak barrels from Pinot Noir producer, Siduri, out of Santa Rosa, California, with the intention of making a barrel-aged saison. Not only would he eventually end up with a completely different beer, but the interminable experiment would take over three years to materialize into something he was willing to relinquish.

After fermenting in stainless steel tanks for months, Kleban decided—like he would so many times throughout the process—to change tactics, inoculating the brew with wild yeast and a blend of bacteria (Belgian ale strains, sherry strains, brettanomyces, pediococcus, and lactobacillus).

“This beer goes back quite a ways,” says Kleban. “I originally brewed a saison in stainless steel, changed it to a wild ale, then transferred that beer to barrels for aging. It truly was an “experiment” in every sense of the word since I primarily mess around with hoppy American-style beers. After 12 months we tasted the three barrels and we really liked one of them, but the other two definitely needed more time. That’s how barrels act. They tell you when they’re ready.”

The Klebans bottled the contents of the mature barrel and sold it out of their taproom under the moniker, “Thank You Allan,” in deference to the law partner (Dan’s chosen profession prior to making beer) who introduced Dan to craft beer in the early-aughts.

Dan kept close tabs on the other two barrels, fascinated by the beer’s continually evolving character. He also placed a batch of unfermented Peeper pale ale in the now-empty vessel and doused it with brettanomyces, a type of wild yeast known for producing pineapple flavors and earthy, leathery aromas.

After eight more months, the Klebans once again taste-tested the results. “That Peeper with brett turned out really nice, but it wasn’t very tart,  just very Brett-y,” says Dan. “You know, that funky, horsey brett character. The other two barrels had a nice sourness, so we combined the two beers and created this really cool blend.”

The sour amalgamation was bottled the day after Christmas in 2012, and has been bottle-aging ever since. Maine Beer Company has given this grand experiment the somber title of, “Barrel Program 1,” something which seems more conducive to a lab report. And although the label describes it as a blonde sour ale, Dan admits, “it’s not necessarily a sour beer.”

“I have a hard time likening this to anything else I’ve tried,” says Dan. “There’s a lot of great wild beer producers in this country and I’ve tasted a ton of them. We have one right down the road from us in Allagash that makes awesome barrel-aged, sour, and wild beers. But there are so many elements that went into this that I have a hard time likening it to anything in particular. It’s very light in color. It’s dry and crisp. It has distinct notes of red wine, fruit tannin, and vanilla from the oak. It’s naturally carbonated, so it has a nice prickly, effervescence to it. And because we use Peeper in it, there’s definitely some hoppiness. This was my first foray into any sort of barrel-fermenation and aging and the results are just very, very interesting.”

Maine Beer Company produced exactly 599 500ml bottles of their Barrel Program 1, all of which will be sold from their tasting room starting on April 4. There are no limits on the amount sold per customer, so Dan anticipates selling out over the weekend. In a nutshell, this might be the time to take a road trip to Portland.

$15 500 ml bottle. April 5, 12 p.m. – 7 p.m. and April 6, 12 p.m. – 5 p.m., 525 US Route One Freeport, Maine; info: 207-221-5711 or mainebeercompany.com.

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