Walk into any store with a good craft beer selection these days and you’re likely to find a shelf of brews priced anywhere from $15 to $30 per bottle. It’s easy to be intimidated by this shelf, to be afraid of making the wrong selection. At those prices, picking up a beer you don’t like can be a costly mistake.
Such was the dilemma I faced last week at one of my favorite beer stores, Social Wines in South Boston. The store dedicates an entire room to unique brews, and many of them are pricey. Just as with expensive wine or spirits, high-priced beers tend to be limited. Crafting them is labor-intensive. Knowing the amount of work that goes into a beer doesn’t guarantee you’ll like it, however.
After some deliberation, I settled on a 375-ml bottle of 3 Fonteinen (that’s the name of the brewery) Intense Red Oude Kriek for $21.95. 3 Fonteinen Intense Red is a kriek, a style that can be summarized as sour beer flavored with cherries. Krieks fall under the broader category of lambics, spontaneously fermented beers traditionally brewed in and around Brussels.
Before a full understanding of yeast and bacterial cultures in brewing was developed, some sourness in beer was typical. With the advent of advanced brewing techniques in the 20th century, beer could be transported and stored more reliably. But the spontaneous brewing of lambics persisted in localized areas.
Lambics undergo two typical fermentation stages; the first lasts three to six months and produces mostly ethanol. The second stage produces mostly acids and can last up to two years. The resulting beers are tart, funky, complex, and dependent on the organisms from the local environment. A lambic is aged in oak barrels for 12 to 18 months, then transferred into new casks. To make a kriek, cherries are introduced into the beer, and the sugar from the fruit brings the dormant yeast and bacteria back to life. The longer the fruit remains in the cask with the beer, the drier it gets.
My bottle of 3 Fonteinen Intense Red pours blood red into a tulip glass. An intensely sour aroma fills the air immediately after the beer is poured; you can smell the sour, as well as some oak must, from several feet away.
The first sip is refreshing and light on the tongue, a swirl of cherries and raspberries melting away to an earthy, dry finish. Take a few more swigs, though, and the tartness of the beer can be fatiguing. There are nontraditional lambics on the market containing added sugars and syrup, and those tend to be quite sweet. 3 Fonteinen proudly states on the bottle that no additives are used here. Despite the addition of cherries this beer is not sweet.
If you like sour beers, 3 Fonteinen Intense Red is a refreshing sipper at 5 percent alcohol by volume. For the average palate, the acidity present in lambics and other sours takes some getting used to, and that brings up the issue of price raised earlier. Spending $20 or more on a single bottle of beer is not a small commitment. If you’re looking to dip your toe into sour beers, try the mild sourness of a Berliner Weisse (Dogfish Head’s Festina Peche is affordable and readily available) before investing in a more expensive bottle. Those of you who have delved into sours before will appreciate the complexity of this one.
Top local breweries
Several New England breweries feature prominently on the latest list of the top 50 US craft breweries (based on sales volume) released by the Brewers Association.
Boston Beer (No.1), Harpoon (No. 12), Shipyard (No. 14), and Long Trail (No. 22) all made the list. And for the first time, Narragansett cracked the list of top 50 overall breweries in the country, checking in at No. 49.
We’re getting more interactive at 99 Bottles. Each week, with your help, I’ll sample a new brew. If you’d like to participate in the tasting, pick up that week’s beer, log into Twitter, and tag your tweets with #99Bottles. This week’s brew is Oude Gueuze Tilquin à L’Ancienne, a fine example of a traditional Belgian style. The tasting will start at 8 p.m. on Wednesday. Cheers.