Tuesday, August 7, 2012

Ithaca - Brute Golden Sour Ale Review

Brewery: Ithaca (NY)
Style: Sour Beer / Wild Ale
ABV: 7.5 %
Grade: A-

Ithaca's Brute has a secret. If you've had any other American sours — perhaps something from Jolly Pumpkin, or any of the classic sours from Russian River — this beer will seem familiar to you, and really, you can drink it without knowing any of technical background stuff I am going to go into, because I am a homebrewer with a blog and that's what I do. So before that, let's talk about how great of a beer Brute is.

So if all that you're interested in is a great sour beer — a sour beer with a bouquet of Brett fragrances and funk — Brute is great. Oak saturates the aroma right along with the funk, creating that earthy, woody, dried-out character you will only really find in an oak-aged sour beer. (Of course, some will say it reminds them of wine, and that's even more appropriate here, but I can only see it if you totally ignore the sourness and Brett funk.) The sourness is firm and refreshing, with a tart fruitiness suggesting green apples and lemon, but as sours go, it's not particularly aggressive, or unique. There's none of the weird earthy sour-funk you'll find in some Belgian-sourced sours, for example — just tart, clean sourness, of the most refreshing kind. Brett-conjured fruit flavors give a suggestion of sweetness, something tangy and tropical, and really seal the deal on Brute's drinkable, thirst-quenching nature.

Carbonation isn't over-the-top, but still bold enough to really give this a champagne-like effervescence, with a head that lingers and lingers. There are certainly more complex sours out there, beers with more depth, but ignoring that for a moment, Brute seems so alive every moment you're drinking it. It's got all the bubbly and fizz that draws people to champagne, with a similar profile and a much more interesting flavor. And, in fact, Ithaca uses a few strains of champagne yeast to bottle condition this, so the comparison becomes even more apt. I can't really tell if the champagne yeast adds much of its own — I'm no expert on what flavors champagne yeast imparts — but it certainly seems to play well with the Brett. Brute is well-balanced for a sour, accessible and yet missing nothing. It's straightforward, but since it's so approachable and flawless, it earns that simplicity. And anyway, I've never had a champagne half this complex or interesting. Note to self: save a bottle of Brute for New Year's Eve.

And now here's the secret. Ready? Brute is a fake sour. It is not soured the way those others beers — Jolly Pumpkin, Russian River, Belgian lambics, and countless others — are soured. Most beers are soured with bacteria, primarily lactobacillus and pediococcus, which work with Brettanomyces to create that sour funk over months and years. Brute is a yeast-only beer — regular brewer's yeast, Brett, and champagne yeast. Brett only really creates funk, itself; so where does the sour come from? Acidulated malt, which is just a base grain sprayed with lactic acid. And lactic acid is what you're tasting when you taste "sour," more or less. So, Brute is cheating a little bit: it's starting with the acid rather than having microorganisms create it the natural way. And that's fine — acid malt is just another's brewer's tool. I mention all this merely as a tidbit of interesting information, but of course, it does explain why Brute is somewhat less complex than other sours. Just adding acid malt to the brew cannot achieve the same complexity as aging for years with all those bugs chomping away. On the other hand, look at Brute as a Brett-aged beer (like Orval) that has some bonus sourness, and it becomes a whole new triumph. Brute may not be among the best sours, but it is definitely an exceptional beer.

Availability:  750 ml bottle. The rumor seems to be that Ithaca may not ever make Brute again since their head brewer left for Peekskill Brewery. However, the last time I was at the brewery, they indicated that they still have a bunch of barrels full of the stuff from the last brewing session, so there should be at least one more release, probably sometime in 2012.

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