One Barrel Brewing is building a dedicated sour beer program in its basement at 2001 Atwood Ave.
Sour beers are riding a wave of popularity, and now One Barrel Brewing in Madison is entering the field. Over the summer, the nano-brewery on Atwood Avenue started offering an occasional sour on draught. The response from patrons has been so enthusiastic that One Barrel is establishing a dedicated sour beer program.
Dan Sherman, head brewer at One Barrel, says he's committed to making sure the brewery offers at least one sour on tap all the time, for the foreseeable future. While that might not be big news for larger brewpubs and breweries, it's impressive given that One Barrel makes beer in such small batches, and its regulars have come to accept that demand exceeds supply for many of their favorites.
Multiple Wisconsin brewers are building their capacity to produce sours. New Glarus Brewing has installed a fruit cave (complete with coolship) in its original Riverside Brewery, while Levi Funk of Funk Factory Geuzeria announced he is establishing a facility on Madison's south side. Other breweries around the state have jumped into the field as well, with O'so Brewing in Plover and Central Waters Brewing in Amherst among the most committed.
When making sour beer, Sherman encourages wild yeast to infect the brew by opening the fermenter to the air inside One Barrel for about 24 hours. He then transfers it into oak barrels and finishes the process with brewers' yeast. "The way we do it is close to traditions in how lambics are made, but we change it up with different colors and different backgrounds for the beer, and in ways someone from Belgium might scoff at," he explains. "We're just pushing the limit with one-barrel batches to see how far we can go."
Each of those batches will fill up to three 10-gallon oak barrels, which are sourced from Old Sugar Distillery and originally contained brandy or whiskey. "It depends on the beer and the finish we are going for," says Sherman about which barrel he uses for a given beer.
The barrel-aging is done in the basement of the 110-year-old building at 2001 Atwood Ave. that's home to One Barrel. This process usually runs up to six months. "Sours take a long time," notes Sherman.
One Barrel started serving lambic-style beers on a regular basis in September. Its initial offering was Greg Hull, a beer named for a steady customer who Sherman credits for pestering him constantly about brewing a sour. "He kept asking and I kept saying no," explains Sherman, "but then I started doing some research and experimenting, and it's become a lot of fun." The beer debuted at a release party on September 18 that doubled as a birthday celebration for Hull.
Sherman's recipe for Greg Hull included 20 pounds of raspberries purchased at the Dane County Farmers' Market, which were pureed and added to the fermenting beer. It was aged in brandy barrels for six months before getting tapped. The beer has since sold out, but might return in the future.
Falcor, a beer made with blackberries and aged in whiskey barrels, is currently on tap. It's cloudy brown, tart and fruity, with some strength to be aware of at 7.2% ABV. Sherman and One Barrel owner Peter Gentry consider themselves to be children of the '80s, and named the brew after Falkor, the furry, floppy-eared luckdragon in The NeverEnding Story.
The next sour waiting to be tapped at One Barrel is Atreyu, which is likewise named for a character from the iconic fantasy tale. It's an amber made with apricots, and finishes at 8% ABV. Another sour recently on tap and set to return in the future is Childlike Empress, also a Neverending Story reference, which is made with Door County cherries and is 6.5% ABV. Both are aged in Old Sugar whiskey barrels. Sherman isn't saying exactly what else is tucked away in more than a dozen oak barrels in the basement beneath the bar, but other sours are in the works.
"We make small batches so we can do whatever the hell we want," notes Sherman. "We make things that other people don’t, and we use every opportunity to have our own take on things."
One Barrel's sours are sold in goblets for $6.50, with select ones available in growlers for $20 (refill).
Given that 10 gallons of beer doesn't last long at the One Barrel, Sherman says he'll juggle the sour line-up constantly based on what is ready to serve, how many barrels remain of a given beer, and what he thinks will go over well following whatever was just on tap. His plan is that this rotation of lambic-style brews will mean there is always one sour available. "We're staggering the aging to keep ahead of the game as much as we can," Sherman says.
Of the two sours tapped in September, the raspberries in Greg Hull stood out as sharp and flavorful, while the blackberries in Falcor seemed to get lost in the heavier maltiness of its base beer. Neither was aggressively sour, and they may not fulfill expectations for hardcore enthusiasts of the style. No other brewery in Madison is really doing what One Barrel is with sours at this point, though, and there could be a great one aging right now.
I'm not rushing to judgment on these early sours. They're fun, they add to One Barrel's ever-changing portfolio of brews, and I'm looking forward to seeing what else emerges from deep in that old building's basement.