Interview with New Belgium’s Lauren Salazar

| March 15th, 2013 | 1 comment


While Lauren Salazar was in Las Vegas for several of the New Belgium events in town, I was given a chance to sit down with her and discuss New Belgium’s creative process and some of their upcoming projects.

La Folie has become one of my favorite beers and being able to sit down and talk with the blender who makes La Folie was awesome. I’m really looking forward to all of the new beers that we discussed, as well as New Belgium’s expansion.

Hooked on Hops: You’re known for being the wood cellar manager at New Belgium and blending sour beers, like La Folie. What are some non-sour beers that you enjoy drinking?

Lauren Salazar: I’m a crazy stout fan! Anything dark, malty, huge; that’s my thing. Old Rasputin, Big Bad Baptist, I love anything huge and big.

HOH: What involvement do you get in New Belgium’s other projects?

LS: I’m in charge of the Lips of Faith program, I started that in 2003 and I was the head of the sensory program for 12 years, but I just stepped away from that. I started the sensory program in 1999, and I just left about 6 months ago. I also do a lot of educational programs. So I do mentor programs at New Belgium, and I do a lot of educational programs for sales and distributors.

HOH: With the second brewery opening up in Asheville, is that going to allow for Ft Collins to expand the adventurous beers that they make, like the Lips of Faith series?

LS: I think that we’re pretty adventurous right now! I think that what Asheville is, is for us to be able to distribute smarter and more sustainably, to where if you buy a Fat Tire in South Carolina, Georgia, or Florida, it would come from North Carolina, rather than coming all the way from Colorado.

So I’m sure they’re going to do their own special thing there, and hopefully we don’t do the same kinds of things. Like our wood cellar is huge and…

HOH: To say the least!

LS: Well this is the fun bomb drop that I haven’t told another human being yet: we just purchased thirty-two more foudres two days ago.

HOH: What does that bring your capacity to now?

LS: A little under nine thousand hectoliters in wood. We just purchased those and they’re still in Napa, we just went to inspect those two days ago and now they are under contract right this minute. You’re the first person to know. I’ve been wanting to tell somebody!

So, will Asheville make us do weirder things, or more adventurous things? I don’t think so. Right now if you look at what we are doing next, our next Lips of Faith beer is a yuzu Berliner weisse. So we are doing all stainless, 2,000 HL of a lactobacillus delbrueckii acidification. I don’t think anyone has ever done that before! So, and then just for fun, we are putting yuzu fruit in it. I think that we bought the yuzu, we knew we were going to use it, and we decided that this was just a beautiful place for it. I think that Peter Bouckaert tasted it and then wanted to do it, but do it on this funny, massive scale, just to see if we could.

HOH: What kind of challenges does that bring when you are making a beer in that large of a capacity and considering that you have this bacteria that needs to act in just the right way, plus add the fruit elements in as well?

LS: It is the biggest crapshoot that you have ever seen! Being the manager of that series and knowing that we need to make 2,000 HL of this, we have so far tested this at 40HL; so now, we are going to go from 40 HL? We call that Lips of Faith. It is an absolute leap of faith that we think that we can do this. And there’s no more test batches. We are just going to do it, because it’s fun. It’s going to be scary as shit that we are going to put that much bacteria into our stainless cellar, and that is something that is going to keep us up at night for a while!

HOH: Is that the first time that you’re putting bacteria into stainless?

LS: No. We’ve done some small test brews into there, but we normally have stainless tanks in the wood cellar, and everything bretta and lacto that we do in the wood cellar, we do into stainless. But those tanks are only 220 HL and 130 HL, so we just decided that we believe in our cleaning and process systems.

HOH: And pasteurizing on the way to the bright tanks?

LS: Oh yeah! The key is that we clean and clean and clean. I’m sure that lacto Fat Tire would be delicious, but let’s just not do that, it would be a terrible thing!

HOH: In another interview with Focus on the Beer, you were quoted as saying: “Brettanomyces aside, New Belgium beers are great up to about a year, and are not meant to be cellared.”

LS: True

HOH: So that being said, the Brettanomyces beers, how do you feel about those ones, like Peach Porch Lounger or the Lost Abbey collaboration?

LS: Those things are up to your interpretation. I say “cellar at your own taste.” Me, I love Bretta at around 6-8 months. You know, if you’re going to do a million cells per milliliter, I think that that is beautiful, 6-8 months is my preference. Now, that being said, some people love those wildly advanced Brettanomyces characteristics. That’s not my bag, but I also think that some people don’t even realize that that’s the thing that they love. If they love brand new shower curtain, then that’s great. I think that if you are into moth balls, then that’s totally your thing. It’s one of these fun things can be this little science experiment where you buy three bottles and drink one now, and in one and four months, and you get to figure out and learn what is meant by Bretta development. Because Bretta isn’t like zero to ten. It’s not none, some, a lot. It goes from nice, fruity, musty pineapple, and kind of a sweaty barnyard, into plastic, clove, green chloroseptic throat spray, and moth ball, so it’s really up to you to just decide what you like, and it is in the matrix of the beer. I think that light based beers and Bretta have a much more predominate Bretta taste, whereas when you have dark malt based beers, with all the maillard reactions, the Bretta weaves through it and with the oxidation in it, and makes an amazing, and I think much more interesting, complex notes.

HOH: The Lost Abbey Brett Beer wasn’t bottle conditioned, correct?

LS: It was not.

HOH: Is that the same with all the brett beers?

LS: No, and that was the first one that we did that way. We actually fermented it with Bretta, so that was a fun experiment because normally it’s “choose your own adventure,” and that was our adventure. We decided that we fermented it and we decided that this is the amount of Brettanomyces that we like and we filtered the beer at that point and now the Brettanomyces is no longer viable and now you are stuck in what I think is a beautiful, pineapple, kind of sweaty, and you know, a little bit of that funk, and I think it is a very approachable Bretta. We didn’t bottle condition with it because it was our own adventure. It was a Bretta love affair between Tomme and Peter, and it was really about them and not about me, or you, or anybody else.

HOH: I saw a label online for a beer coming out this year called Pluot. In addition to having this bizarre fruit that I’ve never heard of..

LS: It’s a apricots and plum.

HOH: The bottle says that it is “fermented with a wild Belgian yeast strain.”

LS: Yes, Bretta. So this one was the weirdest beer that we’ve ever made. We did Paardebloem. Paardebloem means dandelion in Flemish. We took some sour beer, we did a mixed culture of Brettanomyces, and we did a Belgian beer bittered with dandelion, and we took the three of them, blended these guys together, then we took and basically went cone to cone with the yeast. So the yeast that we got was part Belgian, part Brettanomyces, part lacto-wild-crazy-everything and pitched it into Pluot. I have no idea what is going to happen. We took these three knowns, these three really crazy knowns, and threw them together. They are coming out together, Paardebloem and Pluot. We have one that we know for reals, that we know what is going to happen, and then another that we have no stupid idea what is going to happen with this! It was all to make the fruit shine, and to have these bizarre, I can’t put my finger on it things.

HOH: How does an idea like that come together?

LS: Well, we were kind of laughing at the absolute ridiculousness of how hard it was to make Paardebloem, and we were like, of all this effort, what now? So we decided, let’s do a cone to cone transfer into Pluot, because I think this is going to be really fun. And with Lips of Faith, it’s where we can be as adventurous as we want to. Working at New Belgium, there is such a wide range of where we are. We make perfectly consistent, reproducible, repeatable beers that are technically perfect, and then we have these beers that we really don’t know what it is going to happen and it’s just sort of a fun playground. There’s science and art, safe and dangerous, it’s just fun.

HOH: I love Peter’s explanation of what a craft brewer is, talking about beers like La Folie, or the other Lips of Faith beers, you guys do it because you want to. You don’t know whether you’re going to make money off of it, you don’t know whether it’s going to turn out good or not, it’s just the passion you have for it.

LS: La Folie means “a foolish financial endeavor.” And I think that the more that you calculate things like that, it just is not authentic, and people can tell. People can smell a phony sell a mile away. If you go to try and sell something like that, nobody wants to buy it. But if you offer something that you are just as curious, if you’re like “I want to know what happens!” then people are like “I do too!” Everybody wants to take that trip with you, and everybody is wondering. And nothing crazy terrible has happened, yet. There’s been a couple times where we think “huh, that didn’t work.” So now we instead do it this way, turn it upside down, add these five other things, and shake it, and see what happens; and then we’re like “well that’s good!”

Peter’s famous quote is the Belgian Reinheitsgebot, and that is that you only need three ingredients to make beer and that’s knowledge, creativity, and experience. That’s all you’re supposed to bring to it, those are the only three things that you are allowed to add to a beer, and that means a lot. With knowledge, you don’t do the same stupid thing twice, but you try something else, and then you have some fun with it.

HOH: Do you ever get pushback from customers who maybe don’t have as adventurous of a spirit as you, and they try one of your beers?

LS: Sure, that’s the best! We have a beer called Cocoa Molé, and I’ve had people come up to me and say, “I want to talk to you about a beer,” and I say “is it Cocoa Molé?” And the next thing out of their mouth is either it’s the best beer that they have ever had, or it’s the worst beer that they’ve ever had! Within the Lips of Faith line, I think that polarizing beers are the most fun. I don’t want to make them every time, but we have a beer coming out called Coconut Curry Hefeweizen, people are going to fist fight over that beer! Someone is going to say “this is the best beer that I’ve ever had,” and someone else is going to think “you are the craziest person that I have ever seen.” It’s going to be weird, and it’s going to make people have conversations about the beer that they’re drinking. And if that’s what happens, that you are like, “oh hi, here I am awake, actually engaged in the beer that I’m drinking,” then super!

HOH: Is that going to be a wide release?

LS: It’s a Lips of Faith, so it’s going to be everywhere. It’s from a home brewer in town, Remi Bonnart, he was the 2010 home brewer of the year. It’s his interpretation of Charlie Papazian’s recipe. So, it’s an interpretation of an interpretation. It was crazy when Charlie did it, crazy! This was like 25 years ago, nobody made anything like that when he made it. It’s going to be this hilarious thing, I want to be at the bar every single time that somebody gets it for the first time. I’m going to be like (throws arms in the air) “you hate it!” Or “you love it!” It’s going to be great!

HOH: New Belgium posted on Instagram that you guys made a bratwurst beer on the pilot system.

LS: We made a sausage beer, and it was amazing! We have a food truck that came to the brewery, and they had brats and stuff. So Lindsey, who is the head of sensory now, and I brought the beer out, because it has fennel, and caraway, and all these really crazy, over the top spices. We went and got a plain brat, fries, and drank this beer with it and it was unbelievable.

We just did it for fun, it was Matty Smooth, who did Hoppy Bock, Matt Gilliland and Christian Holbrook are the creators of that series, and he just did that beer, I think he made like two kegs of it.

HOH: With beers like La Folie, or other sour beers, do you ever find that people who aren’t really beer drinkers will gravitate towards these beers? I have two wine drinking friends who don’t drink beer, but I gave them La Folie and they absolutely loved it. I gave them Transatlantique Kriek and they loved that too.

LS: I think that there is something about the tannic acids, and there’s something about the qualities of grape, and what happens with lactobacillus and pediococcus, the lactic and malic acids, and all these things are very similar and comforting. And it’s the glass, it’s the presentation, the pomp and circumstance, and it’s just this thing that is refreshing. It really gets your salivary glands and digestive system thinking it’s the same experience.

And I think that what is great is that beer can be sweet, it can be sour, it can be bitter, and even darker beers can be sort of savory. Whatever it is that you like in the world, we got it, we can do that. So when you say that you don’t like beer, that’s not valid, that’s not even a complete sentence. Saying “I don’t like beer” doesn’t make sense. “So what, you don’t like sweet things? Oh you do? Well here’s a New Glarus Wisconsin Red. It’s very sweet, and a tiny bit tart, you’re going to love it. Oh you like that? Yeah you do, of course you do!”

Whatever it is, you have to start by asking the right questions. When somebody says they don’t like beer, just start asking the right questions, and then find the right beer for them. And don’t try to be a “I told you so,” don’t try to scare people, surprise people with a beer, or attack them with a crazy style. Whatever makes people comfortable and sparks that thing for them, that’s what you’re trying to find. It’s such a great challenge, to find the perfect beer for the perfect person. When you find a beer for a person who doesn’t like beer, it’s like when a vegetarian eats bacon again for the first time and everybody is like “yes!”

HOH: With few exceptions, La Folie is primarily your only reoccurring sour beer. Have you thought about continually making another sour beer again and again?

LS: I will make La Terroir again this year. I will make it again, I don’t know how much I’ll make, and I don’t know when it’ll come out yet, because the barrels have not told me. I have my hops bought and I know it will be around September, and it will be a citra and amarillo dry-hopped sour.

We’ll make everything again, I know we will. I really think that if people liked it, then there’s just no reason not to. But the tough part is that we always want to be making something else. We always want to create our next thing, but everyone’s like “I want you to make Eric’s Ale again!” And I would love to make Eric’s Ale again, but if we do that, then it takes all the Felix, the light sour base beer. But we are making La Terroir because I want to make another 100% sour beer. We’ve been making a lot of blends that are 40%, or 10% with Clutch, or Kick, and those are great. I love entry level sours, or what I call “poundable sours,” I love them! But I also think that we have to constantly fill the pipeline for people who really love sours.

HOH: You brought up Felix, and last year you mentioned that all the Felix foudres were drained out and that there won’t be another Felix based beer for another year or two.

LS: Well we don’t ever drain. When we make a Felix beer and we drain a foudre, we then will fill it back up again, but now it’s not sour. So when I made Tart Lychee last year I took every drop of Felix out of the cellar. And we filled them all back up with Felix, but when that happened, none of them were sour. So I’m just now coming back from that. I’ve done little tiny things here and there, I like to make little one-offs, but I haven’t bounced back from Tart Lychee because in the meantime, we’ve doubled our wood cellar.

It’s funny that when you look at our cellar and see like 45 foudres, people say “I’m sorry, why don’t we have sour beer?” For every one of those foudres that we got new, what we do is taste all the barrels and we find the best one and use that to inoculate the new barrel. We don’t reinoculate, and we don’t ever use new bacteria or wild yeast, or grow them up. What we do is we bring them from the other barrels and we train the new foudres with the old foudres. Last year I could’ve made 2,000 HL worth of sour beer, but instead we gave them to the new barrels and trained them with the new bacteria and fed them beer. So now we have 35 not so sour foudres. So now everybody is learning how to play well with each other and do good things, but it’s slow. I have people asking me “is there any way that you can speed this process up?” And I’m like “Sure, we can crank the heat up to 90 in here!” And they say “OK!” and then I need to clarify that I was being sarcastic, because that would be a terrible thing.

The thing is: sour beer makes sour beer when sour beer wants to make sour beer. You just have to be methodical and careful. So now with these 32 new foudres, we can do 1 of 2 things: I can put all of them online, and we might not have sour beer for a few years. Or instead, we will do four at a time and slowly bring these things online because I don’t want to not have sour beer for a few years, it’s too hard! And nobody would believe me when theres like 65 barrels full of beer in there.

HOH: How did Tart Lychee come about?

LS: I tasted lychee, and it was one of those things were I was like “I want to make a beer out of this immediately!” What we did was put lychee puree into a carboy and filled it up with some sour beer. Smashed up cinnamon sticks and threw it in there for a while and when we tasted it, we were like “yep, that’s good, lets do that!”

HOH: Any plans to remake that one?

LS: To be honest, that’s my favorite beer because it is so, so drinkable. I love sour beer, but Tart Lychee is one of those things where I could have four of those. It’s such a fun thing to have a session sour beer, it’s awesome. It’s the lychee fruit, it’s the star of the show. I swear, you can make anything with lychee fruit and you’re gonna love it. When I had it, I loved it, and wanted to have it all the time!

HOH: Last year New Belgium purchased some whiskey barrels that you used to age beer in, like NBB Love aged in apple whiskey barrels that’s gonna be at Aces & Ales this week. Are there any plans to expand on aging beers in smaller, used spirits barrels, or is your focus primarily on large foudres?

LS: For a while I had sole rights to all of Todd Leopold’s fruit whiskey barrels, the peach, apple, and blackberry whiskey barrels, and I just can’t use them all. So after every brewer in the world sent me hate mail, I decided that we would only take the blackberry whiskey barrels. I think that for what we do, I can make all kinds of fun stuff. I like to focus just on Blackberry Oscar Love. So it’s one foudre of sour Oscar into blackberry whiskey barrels, and six months later it comes out and I find that the flavors of the char, the blackberry, that lovely vanilla, and then the weird granny smith apple, plum, cherry, that kind of melange, that’s it for me! So I’ve tried all the other ones, and I tried putting Biere De Mars into a peach whiskey barrel, and that was fun, and you name it, I’ve put it in a barrel. But so has everybody else. I mean, that’s kind of the name of the game right? I put this thing into a barrel! I just think that that’s fun, but when you find something that actually works, that’s better!

HOH: With Lips of Faith, you will bring back older styles of beer, or even make your own styles of beer. Looking forward to the future, what are some emerging styles that you are excited about?

LS: Gratzer! I want to make a gratzer. I mean all the throwback styles, I want to make a gruit, and, we’ve made all these, a gruit, a gose, I’ve made several goses. I love goses, the delicate balance of what salt brings to the sweet malt, and the sour. I want to do the sea salts of the world, using salt from the different oceans of the world into different goses.

I want to make a gratzer, which is a lightly smoked, wheat sour beer. And gruits, I love gruits. Cambridge Brewing company does amazing gruits, and I want to do one too. I love being able to just make your own mix of bittering herbs and… poisonous things? I think that’s exciting! I think gratzer is one of the most exciting things right now. I know a couple breweries that have made them, and they’re excellent. I’m not really a smokey beer person, I don’t really like rauchbiers, but when it’s one tiny aspect of a beer, it’s really amazing!