New Belgium's Wood Cellar Manager Lauren Salazar on Blending Sour Beer

We talk blending and the future of beer with New Belgium Brewing Company's Lauren Salazar. New Belgium

Lauren Salazar, New Belgium Brewing Company's wood cellar manager, just moved to Colorado to ski. Now she's a beer expert managing the barrels full of New Belgium's coveted sour beers. We asked her a bit about the beer-blending process and what she's learned along the way.

Here's what she had to say.

How do you go about determining the blends for the New Belgium beers?

People ask how you become a blender or how I know when and what to blend. I remember asking that same question to Peter Bouckaert back in 2000 and he simply said, "You just know ,there is no telling, just knowing." At the time I was frustrated, I remember wondering why he had to be so mysterious. Peter Bouckaert came to NBB from Rodenbach in Belgium. He is the reason we have barrels and began creating sour beers in 1998, he knows everything there is to know about barrels, bugs and blending, so why wouldn't he just tell me I wondered? He was the type of mentor that never answered questions straight, instead he would ask you the exact question back, make you try to answer, dig deeper, do the work, take the time.

So, I took the time and got to know our barrels and the liquid in them. I began to correlate flavor development and time—if Foeder #1 (sure thing) starts to produce cherry cola flavors with a tough of tart, in about 3 months she'll be the star of the blend, but don't keep her waiting, after 4 it's too late. When #9 (cherry go-lightly) starts to hint at benzaldehyde (almond), then she'll be a great blender in about 4 months, but doesn't mind hanging around and souring for another 3 months. You never stop blending. We have 32 foeders full of souring beer (and 32 more almost ready for their first fill!), each of them on their own time table.

It's the blender's job to keep everyone happy and healthy and on your timetable. This required moving liquid around, topping up and updating the plan continuously. Once I feel like I have the right amount of the right liquid, I get everyone else looped in—we'll need to transfer and blend, get tanks ready, packaging materials and schedules.

I'll choose the day to blend. All of that is the real work. The actual blend itself is simple joy. I'll take samples of all the barrels with Oscar (dark base beer that makes La Folie), put them in front of us (Eric [Salazar, New Belgium's Wood Aged Beer Specialist] always blends with me). We'll taste through the entire set. I'll designate each of them: Users (simply SOUR and delicious!), Blenders (nice sour notes with other interesting flavors: malt, wild yeast, fruit esters, etc.) and Waiters (just that, not ready).

I'll put the Users in the front row, the Blenders on the second, and dump the Waiters. We'll taste back through the Users and decide how many we'll need to produce the sour base of the beer, then choose a few blenders to create complexity. I like to think of each blend as a flower—like a daisy. The middle portion of the flower is the sour base. If I only choose those barrels, the beer would be sour indeed, but one-sided. It's the Blenders that make the petals of the flower. They create complexity. One petal is a nice caramel, chocolate malt note. Another brings cherry pits, plums and sour grapes. The next is wild from Brettanomyces, clovey, funky, slight damp forest floor, just a touch. Maybe another with heavy notes of pineapple, green apple, pears and strawberries.

A good blender knows how to add on layers without forgetting the main thing. Another analogy I think about when blending is coloring. You have 64 crayons (and 64 foeders, coincidence?!?), they are available for you to use, but if you use them all on top of each other, you just end up with brown.

Tell us a bit about the expansion of the wood-aging program at New Belgium.

It has been a continuous expansion since Peter walked in with the first 7 wine barrels. Back then they just seemed to appear, a few new ones every few weeks, then 10 more, then a few more, then one day there was 80 of them. Then Peter said he found four 60hl foeders. Those 4 turned into 10 with 6 more 130hl foeders, then someone told me about 6 more 130hl being sold by Bonny Doon, then the big ones—six refurbished 220hl beauties, ooh la la. Then the motherlode: someone told Peter there were EIGHTY 100hl foeders at a winery in Napa, he and Eric took the next plane. They came back with 32 more. We have room to fit 4 to 5 more and then we are literally out of room, no more. Right now we have 64 foeders, in all they'll hold about 8000hl of gorgeous sour beer. It's just fun to write that: 8000hl of beer to bring to the world. I guess that'll be the extent of the barrels here at the Mothership. But then there's always Asheville :).

Can you tell us more about any of the barrels you use?

For the most part they're all French oak, but we also have the unbelievable privilege to receive all of Leopold Brothers Distillery's fruited whiskey barrels: Blackberry, Cherry, Apple and Peach Whiskey barrels. We use those to lay sour beers down to extract those fruit whiskey, oak and char notes—they are so fun!!

What new beers are in the works?

We brought in the 32 new foeders to produce our sour blender series on more of a regular basis. We'll be producing Tart Lychee and Eric's Ale, maybe more Clutch. Working on other sour blends, those beers that are less aggressively sour, your sour session beers.

What do you think is next in terms of what can be done with wood-aged beers?

Just about anything can be wood aged. We have been doing lots of collaborative blends with other breweries. They send us some barrel aged beers and we taste and blend with barrels (sometimes up to 4 blends so far) to find something altogether different. Each brewery has its 'house flavor' and this is such a fun way of finding the next new flavor or level of complexity.

What are the risks?

Of barrel-aging, not much until you add wild yeast and/or souring bacteria. At that point, you really have stepped up the risks. It's like going from the penny slots to the big kids tables in Vegas. You just gotta hedge your bets. You need two dedicated parts programs (hoses, clamps, tanks, etc). You must have a robust microbiological and sensory program and you must never get lazy. I think Fat Tire would be wonderful with a little brett, but that's not true to brand. :)

What breweries do you look to for inspiration?

Armand, Gert, Frank, the lambic makers will always be such a source of inspiration. I went back last year and was humbled all over again. The new kids on the block: Jay at Rare Barrel is making solid amazing sours! Cory at Side Project (Perennial Artisans) is such a badass. Also everything from Cascade is just stunning. Will from Cambridge of course. Allagash, Russian River, Lost Abbey—they are still tops. One underrated sour powerhouse is Andy at Avery, he is an amazing brewer and really one of the best humans you'll meet, too.

How did you find your way to New Belgium in the first place?

Same as everyone at the time. Moved to Colorado to ski, worked at a mountain, migrated to Fort Collins, met people who worked at New Belgium, got a job. I was hired as an assistant. I was both of the co-founders assistants at one time, then the Production Assistant, then worked my way into the QA Lab. Awesome luck and great friends is how this all came to be. I am so grateful every day. We all still work here, I just celebrated Eric and Melisse's 18th anniversary this week and Jenn's 20th a few weeks ago, wow, time flies when you're having fun making beer!

Was there an 'aha' moment with craft beer for you?

Being at New Belgium back in the late 90s we all just wanted to make it work. We wanted this fantasy workplace be our reality forever. Everyone really gave it their all. There was so much opportunity to create and grow. I bought my first sensory science book, I was reading the first chapter and thought, I have found my place.

Where do you think the American craft beer scene is headed in the next decade or two?

Well, we've dug up just about every old world varietal and breathed life back into all of them. We have fruited, spiced, bretted, soured, whiskey barreled, double hopped, and took the gluten out of beer. I think we are good, I think now everyone needs dig deep in quality. Making crazy beers is fun, but I dare you to make them 6 times in a row. We owe it to our friends and fans to strive for quality, sometimes even above creativity (gasp). With so many breweries popping up, the experience is lacking a bit and the fun wild side is tempting. It's great you make a killer sour, now go for a lager. But really, I couldn't be happier to be in such great company in the sour beer world.