Beer Man

New Belgium will subvert with Snapshot, its subtle new sour ale for the masses

New Belgium Brewing has always represented a dichotomy.

The Fort Collins company is the nation's third-largest craft brewer, and yet it has held on to the independent-minded ethos of a garage-bound start-up. Its flagship, Fat Tire, is often seen as an entry-level example of a craft beer, and yet it is brewed under the most rigorous quality-control standards in the industry. And over the years, New Belgium has managed to be one of the most ground-breaking, even subversive, breweries in the nation, while making products that appeal to the largest number of people.

So it's no surprise that New Belgium's next beer, due out this month, fits the mold.

See also: New Belgium intensifies its sour beer program by doubling the size of its foeder forest

Snapshot Wheat will be brewed with Lactobacillus, a bacteria that is used to add sour flavors to a style of Belgian-style beers that are challenging for many people to drink. But this isn't some one-off specialty beer brewed for the high end of the market or a part of the brewery's Lips of Faith series, which often includes strange or unusual ingredients. Snapshot will be a year-round offering sold in six-packs.

Which is why New Belgium has toned the sour flavors down to a mere tartness; the brewers will do that by blending a base beer -- an unfiltered wheat made with Cascade hops, coriander and grains of paradise -- with a Lactobacillus-fermented version.

The result will be a "sour for the people," says New Belgium spokesman Bryan Simpson. "It will be really approachable. It will bring people to the fold and make them curious and want to learn more." As for the level of sourness, he adds: "On a scale of one to ten, this will be closer to a two or a three, as opposed to La Folie, which is a nine of a ten."

It will also be one of the first sour ales brewed and packaged for wide distribution: New Belgium plans to release the beer in 12- and 22-ounce bottles throughout its 35-state distribution network during the last week in January (just before the Super Bowl).

And in early February, the brewery will begin canning Snapshot as well, and including it in a new mixed twelve-pack, New Belgium's first with cans.

When that happens, Snapshot will also become one of the only sour beers in the nation to be packaged in a can -- although the brewery is playing down that angle. "We thought it would be fun to have something different and surprising in a can, but we are dipping our toes in the water there," Simpson explains. "We aren't taking it to market as the first sour in a can."

Sour and wild ales, traditionally brewed in Belgium with yeasts like Brettanomyces and bacteria like Lactobacillus, are becoming more and more popular in the United States thanks, in part, to large craft brewers like New Belgium, which pioneered the style here in the 1990s; New Belgium recently doubled the size of its program.

But Snapshot will provide the brewery with some challenges, since beers brewed with wild yeast and bacteria have the potential to infect the tanks, tubes and barrels that they are brewed in. Typically, New Belgium ages its sour beers in wooden barrels and then bottles them on a separate system. In this case, New Belgium will improvise.

"Right now, we do not have a dedicated vessel for souring in the brewhouse, so we are improvising by using an existing fermenter in our regular cellar to carry out the souring," says New Belgium brewer Drew Bombard in an e-mail. "After it sours, we then soft-pipe -- keep in mind everything else in our brewery is hard-piped, with the exception of the wood cellar -- the sour wort back to the brewhouse for finishing before sending it back into the cellar, where we pitch yeast and ferment.

"In the future, our brewhouse will have a dedicated tank, automation and hard-piping to carry out this process," he adds.

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Jonathan Shikes is a Denver native who writes about business and beer for Westword.
Contact: Jonathan Shikes