Clay Keel, chief brewing officer at 42 North, loves sour beer.
At the beginning of our interview, the first thing he did was pour a sample of the brewery's latest barrel-aged sour beer, Wanderer, the 6 percent ABV (alcohol by volume) Belgian Blonde aged for 12 months in Chardonnay barrels that previously held Blackbird Cider Works’ cider.
It tasted of hay, lemon, graham-cracker crust, a light earthiness and, of course, oak. It was not overly sour; it was a tart and refreshing introduction to the main reason Keel and the crew at 42 North have opened 42 Below: their love of sour beer.
I asked Keel, “Why open a barrel house?” He nodded, admitting that it was a fair question, and gave me a multi-fold response.
It certainly wasn’t to increase profitability. These barrel-aged beers require a lot of care and attention, and special equipment, not to mention months of aging and careful blending before a product can be bottled (by hand, of course) and sold.
Even at the higher prices for a bottle of these beers, the return on investment isn’t exactly obvious. The barrel house itself isn’t open to the public, so it is not as though it will provide a destination for folks to come check out.
“It’s the beer we love to drink, so it’s the beer we want to make,” Keel said, with a shrug.
Considering the variety of ingredients and recipes implemented at 42 North, the beer is anything but boring.
But barrel-aged beer provides a new challenge, and if done right, it results in a complex drink that can delight the palate even more than the brewery's standard lineup.
42 Below will house barrel-aged sour beers, as well as non-sour barrel-aged beers like bourbon barrel-aged versions of its Red Army Imperial stout.
The other main reason is that it fits with the environment. East Aurora is home to many artisans, Keel explained, and 42 North wanted to follow in that tradition.
The brewery's partners could have easily spent the money to expand distribution outward, selling cans to Rochester and other cities, for instance.
Instead, they built a custom facility mere yards from the brewery proper, and will cart finished beer over to the barrel house carefully, 350 gallons at a time, where it will sit for months in barrels before ready.
And what does Keel say to those who say they don’t like sour beers?
“Saying you don’t like sour beer is like saying you don’t like ales," he said. "There is really a whole world of different sour beers out there. We want to educate everyone on why we like them so much.”
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