J was too wiped-out to join me Tuesday night, so I headed to the Madison Craft Beer Week event hosted by Merchant on my own. It was the one that I was most looking forward to, since it featured sour beers from New Belgium Brewing Company. Alas, I’m sorry to report that I found it to be quite disappointing overall.
First, the details. The MCBW guide described the occasion as follows: “New Belgium Sour Blend Tap Takeover And ‘Presentasting’ w/ … Assistant Brewmaster Eric Salazar of New Belgium Brewery; he will be doing a presentation at 9:00pm on New Belgium sour blends. $25 for two hours of open taps from 8:30-10:30, or pay as you go and stay for the presentation.” The open taps option sounded a little pricey, since my interest was in quality not quantity. Before I headed out, though, I spotted this fantastic overview of a similar event held in Washington, DC recently. (Shout out to Russ Beck of The Beer Circle blog for the super post.) Since this was along the lines of the Flemish Red Ale “blend-your-own” that I missed out on during last year’s Craft Beer Week, I was excited to attend the Merchant event and decided in advance to shell out the $25 in support of the sour brew night.
Unfortunately, things did not live up to my expectations. Upon my arrival at 8:30 pm, Merchant was filled with folks finishing their dinners, most of whom appeared to have no interest in (or perhaps even awareness of) Madison Craft Beer Week. A sweet bartender was a bit clueless about the event’s details; he sold me my $25 wristband and served me up the sour of my choice, though. Like the DC event, the taps featured three different ages of barrel-conditioned beers — young, mid, and old versions of “Oscar” — that represent exemplars of the many different barrels of various ages from which the New Belgium brewers select to blend their signature sour, La Folie.
When a family of four emptied their seats at the bar, I snagged one and settled in. A little before 9 pm, I had finished my young Oscar (see The Beer Circle review for Beck’s tasting notes) and wanted to try the mid, but got shot down: it turns out that the bartender had served up the sours before the appointed hour, so they wouldn’t be serving any more until the presentation was underway. Okaaaaay … you do know that the advertisements say open taps starting at 8:30 pm, right? Why promote Sour Blend Tap Takeover starting at 8:30 if the featured sour beers are going to unavailable at the outset? I also saw some wristband-free folks leave when they were told they couldn’t order the sour beers a la carte until at least 10:30 pm. The offered rationale was to make sure that everyone who’d paid the $25 could get the sours, which made sense except for the fact that not many folks appeared to have bought wristbands and fewer still looked to be there for the sours.
When the presentation got underway, the acoustics were abysmal and the slideshow was invisible from many locations. I wandered away from my bar seat, and what I managed to see and hear was interesting, but I wish I could’ve heard more. The three sours were circulated starting with the youngest so that we could experience the particular characteristics of each. I didn’t think any were very drinkable on their own; with this beer style, the brewmasters marry the best characteristics of various ages of the beer to come up with a synergistic final product that’s better than the sum of its parts. Those of us drinking the sours sipped our three tasters and then took our best shot at mixing them. Not surprisingly, with no experience and only three beers to work with, my blend was not particularly successful.
When I gave up on my feeble attempts at creating a decent sour, I switched to New Belgium’s Somersault, a completely different style of beer. The sweet bartender’s coworker, a more aloof fellow, reused my dirty glass for the new pour. Excuse me? At a specialty beer tasting, at an establishment that prides itself on the care it takes with its craft cocktails, I was shocked. I would have preferred to not have the dregs of my failed sour blend mingling with my Somersault, but by then I was too bummed out by the whole night to bother asking for a fresh one. (He was at least good at keeping my water glass filled.)
Worst sin of all, though, was that — unlike the similar DC event that I have been constantly referring to — there was no La Folie on hand. What?! The three versions of Oscar on tap are not normally sold anywhere; they are simply examples of the kinds of ingredients that make up La Folie. I was glad to have the chance to sample them, but I expected to get at least a taste of the real thing. It would be like going to a “presentasting” with a pastry chef about the science of cake baking and getting to taste the flour, sugar, and butter, then getting to mix and taste batter yourself with the few ingredients on hand, but never getting to taste an actual cake made by the professional that reflected all the additional ingredients and the chef’s extensive expertise (not to mention baking in an oven). This was, in the end, the most disappointing aspect of the night.
Needless to say, I left with no plans to return to Merchant in the near future, though I am definitely more curious than ever to try La Folie.