Gods & Demons: Saltfire Brewing's Foeder Program
I'm not going to lie to you, I had hoped and planned to be the first brewer in Utah to bring a foeder into their brewery and the first to release a foeder-aged beer. The large wooden vats with a funny Dutch name have captivated my imagination since I first learned about them a decade ago. So it is with no small amount of jealousy that I tell you somebody beat me to it. While other locals, notably Epic Brewing, have done releases of beers aged in foeders in facilities out of state, Saltfire Brewing is that avarice-inducing somebody and the owner of the very first foeder actually in Utah.
Opening in South Salt Lake in 2018, Saltfire Brewing has been releasing a steady stream of interesting beers since, including several barrel-aged products. In fact, including wood vessels was part of the plan from the very beginning. “What we wanted to do with Saltfire was move heavily into the oak side of brewing,” says Owner Ryan Miller. “But time and resources at the start, we really just needed to get the clean beer program going and get some income there.” And barrels, not foeders, would play a significant role in making a name for the brewery in its first year. Barrel-aged baltic porters and stouts were available the first Winter after opening and were followed by even more interesting products. A favorite of mine was the sotol-barrel aged gose ale infused with real lime, another release of which should be coming in 2021.
The brewery and even its attached taproom are filled with stacks of the casks that produce these unique projects and the brewing team has shown no interest in slowing down. Saltfire brought in their first 20HL foeder in 2019, a second 30HL model this Fall and just released their first beer from the program this past October. The Mobius Trip Prickly Pear, a golden ale made with the bright pink fruit from the prickly pear cactus, is officially the first foeder-aged beer produced entirely in Utah. “I want to be the best brewer and craftsman I can possibly be,” says Saltfire Head Brewer Mike Dymowski. “To have as much a foot in the novelty, the exploration and discovery that is modern American brewing but never lose the deep tie to that deep rich history of brewing.”
For the uninitiated who have been waiting for an explanation of what I'm talking about, a foeder (pronounced 'food-er,' or if you prefer French, spelled foudre and pronounced 'food-ruh') is a large wooden 'tank' (pictured at right), usually made from oak and produced similarly to a cask/barrel, but much larger. Casks are often around 50 gallons with particularly large examples growing to triple that, where foeders can have gallon capacities ranging into the thousands. Foeders also are often stood upright and set in place permanently for continual use where casks are almost always mobile and often temporary. These are rough rules and the lines between the two do blur of course, so the main difference is better explained in how they are used.
Casks are most commonly used in beer to add flavors of what inhabited the cask previously, be it wine, whiskey, other spirits, or even food products like maple syrup. Both casks and foeders are used in the wine industry to add the flavor of the wood, the tannin content and complex flavor notes from the oak being integral to certain styles. But uniquely in beer, foeders are most commonly used as vessel for sour fermentation, the wood providing the perfect media for a host of microflora to inhabit. Over the course of months or even years, this cocktail of microbes does its work, producing varied organic flavor compounds and an array of different acids.
When done correctly and with a careful hand, the results are often considered some of the finest beers in the world and coveted by beer nerds everywhere. This is the realm that Saltfire is entering, joining the ranks of famous Belgian sour-ale brewers like Rodenbach and Drie Fonteinin along with modern American examples like Crooked Stave, Jester King and Cascade. They plan to use the foeders in the solera method Miller explains, saying “The great thing about having these foeders is we have 20-30 bbls of beer we can draw off to blend into other beers. We'll only pull off 8-10 bbls at a time and then recharge it with fresh beer.” By never completely emptying the foeders, they allow the base beer and the microflora to develop continuously and every release benefits from that increased depth of flavor. But the results of that process aren't always consistent. Dymowski puts it well when he says, “One of the fun things about conditioning a beer in wood is that the brewer is no longer in control. Time and wood are your ultimate gods and demons.” It's exactly this ephemeral nature that makes these beers so difficult to make and so highly sought after.
So far, Saltfire has only released one beer from this program, but the process has worked out well. The base beer for Mobius Trip Prickly Pear was a golden ale conventionally fermented in stainless steel tanks with conventional brewer's yeast. After attenuating there, it was transferred into the 20HL foeder where the microflora began their work. Six months on the wood, being soured by a house blend of lactic-acid-producing bacterial cultures and the team deemed it ready for the next stage. It was then racked on top of the prickly pear in another stainless tank where it re-fermented and matured for another five months before release. Given that this release took almost a year to produce, the foeder was refilled immediately with fresh golden ale, maintaining the solera aspect of the process for future batches and keeping the program going.
The resulting beer is a beautiful bright reddish pink color with a thin white head and lively carbonation. The aroma is rich and fruity with notes of watermelon, yogurt and cherry candy. The flavor continues the complex sweet-and-sour profile with strong flavors of strawberry and watermelon, pronounced lactic acidity and a candy-sugar sweetness. The sourness is puckering, but not bracing and doesn't overwhelm the other flavors. As it warms, hints of green melon, clove and raspberry emerge as well. For a first effort, this beer is phenomenally good, and while it's already sold out or nearly so, I'm writing this to get everyone as excited as I am about future foeder releases.
The second foeder is already filled with a different base beer fermented with a saison-style yeast and different blend of microbes that lean more on brettanomyces-family yeasts. What that batch is destined for though, hasn't been decided yet. While the program was designed to take advantage of the wealth of local fruit available in Utah, every release deserves its own chance to define its destiny. “I think we're going to take each beer on a beer-by-beer basis,” says Dymowski. “And we make time to taste it, talk about the beer itself, 'does this lend itself to fruit? What kind of fruit? Does it lend itself to hops? Is it perfect as is? What is the best thing for the beer.” So whether dryhopped, left alone without adjuncts, or loaded with the local fruit the Saltfire team spend hundreds of hours processing and freezing every season, each beer will be unique. And the program itself will continue to expand. “We'd like to get a couple more foeders,” says Miller, laughing. “When that happens? When it makes sense.” So what will the future hold for Saltfire's foeder program? Only time and wood will tell.