Love Beer: 5 Generations of Rodney's Solera
By: Charlie Cummings - 2nd Shift Quality Control Supervisor Published:
We're having a vertical tasting of 5 generations of Rodney's Solera today in Cafe 306, our employee break room. Rodney's Solera is a very small batch Wild Ale we have been making since 2010 in oak barrels inhabited by a nice mixture of microflora. We aged our Belgian Pale Ale (and now Hoppy Belgian Blonde) in these barrels, kegging off about 80% of the beer when it was ready and putting in fresh beer on top of the remaining 20%, repeating the process over and over. This is a version of the Solera process used by the Sherry producers of Spain and a few other wine and beer producers from the professional and homebrew realms across the world. I'll explain more about this unique process, but first a (somewhat lengthy) rundown of how we got to this point where we can have 5 different incarnations of this beer on draft next to eachother to taste. It's a story of how you develop a small sour beer program in minimal spare time, without ever really planning it out.
Back shortly after I started working at Harpoon in 2006, there were only 2 oak barrels sitting near our old racking area. At the Boston brewery, we now have about 20 of the 50 gal barrels - still a tiny amount of beer, but enough to create specialty beers to sell to beer bars and festivals, as well as pouring at the brewery. Anyway, one of these original barrels contained Munich Dark (now Harpoon Dark) that had been fermented with Belgian yeast and then dosed with Brettanomyces (a wild yeast.) At some point, blackberries from Greg Moon's backyard had been dumped in. A few kegs had gone to a festival and the rest of the barrel forgotten about for quite a while. One night we decided to taste it in the lab. The beer was insanely sour - almost undrinkable. But it had an incredible aroma - somewhat lambic-y and definitely worth saving. We were only able to get 1 keg out of it, which we figured we'd blend with something. The barrel was junk, the staves fell apart like dominoes from the top half not having contact with liquid for so long. That keg was eventually added to a new bourbon barrel of our Irish Red. We called it Wild Hibernian. That beer was OK, but not really something to get excited about. For the hell of it, I added a pitcher of it to a different oak barrel of 2008 Baltic Porter. After a year of aging, the resulting "Balticomyces" had a really pleasant funk character to it, not to mention being about 12% ABV. At that point we knew we had a good strain of "house" funk. A partial keg of Balticomyces still survives at the brewery and we bust it out from time to time for special occasions.
The Solera thing came about when we threw a pitcher of Balticomyces into a barrel of Belgian Pale Ale. Improbably, when Kevin Youkilis was tasting specialty beers for an event of his at the brewery, he picked this barrel as the one he wanted to have poured for the event. We internally dubbed it "Youk Juice" and after it was kegged, we refilled the barrel again with BPA. But when I came back from a week's vacation, the bung was on the floor next to the barrel, which had been exposed to air for an unknown amount of time. I tasted it and realized to my extreme frustration that the beer had to be dumped. When too much oxygen contacts the surface of aging beer, it creates acetic acid and acetaldehyde - a brutal combination that smells like vinegar and nail polish. Just like that, this great little project we had going was gone! I couldn't even rinse the strong odor out of the barrel so I junked that too.
We had to take another crack at it, using yet another pitcher of Balticomyces as a seed for a new barrel of BPA, and this was the first Rodney's Solera. After some months, we decided to keg 40 gallons off but leave 10 in there and add back fresh conditioning BPA to make a type of Solera. By the 3rd generation, we seeded another barrel with some of the first, so we would have more of the beer to sell. The 2 barrels taste different, but we always use a blend of both in each keg we make. So that's the saga of Rodney's Solera. Figured it would be interesting to some who might either be involved in barrel aging themselves, or into drinking these sour or wild beers.
If you're wondering who Rodney is, he is a total character. A really funny and odd guy we used to have working in our maintenance department. Without going into it, he was someone that was talked about more than most after he had moved on from the brewery, and definitely worth naming a beer after.
If you're wondering what a Solera is, strictly speaking it is a series of oak barrels of different stages, filled with wine (or beer) of different average ages. The oldest barrels are partially packaged from and then topped up with wine from the next oldest barrels, which are in turn topped up from the next oldest barrels, etc. It goes on this way so that after it has been going for years, there is always at least a small amount of the earliest wine present in the all wine that gets packaged. We are doing a version of this, but ours differs from the way the Sherry producers do it in that we only have 1 "stage" (the barrels contain the same average age beer at a given time.) Maybe some day, we'll expand it to different stages. At the very least, we are going to keep this up as long as we can with the current barrels. If you want to know more about Solera methods, I recommend Wikipedia and the blog Will Meyers from Cambridge Brewing Co. wrote on the subject a few years ago. I'm sure there's a ton of other info online as well from people who've experimented at work or at home with the Solera idea, to say nothing of the wealth of material written on sour and wild ales in general.
We haven't yet tried to figure out the exact cocktail of critters we have making this beer for us by looking at it under a microscope, but we may soon. At any rate, it is more interesting I think to just see what happens over time to the character of the beer, while always making sure never to use any of the same equipment to transfer or keg it as we do for any of our regular production beers, avoiding any chance of cross-contamination.
We also have other "wild ales" in barrels with different strains of funk, including Uncle Fester, Cab-Beret and Chocolate Stout with Brett, although I've never done a vertical tasting of more than 2 vintages at a time of any of these. I hope this has been of at least some interest to you if you've gotten this far into reading about our Rodney's Solera. Here are some quick first impression tasting notes:
Rodney's Solera I (Kegged 1/28/11) - Smooth all around with some sourness but mostly ripe fruit in the nose with not much earthy Brett character
Rodney's Solera II (Kegged 5/12/11) - A sharper pallet than the first one, more bitter and sour but still relatively mellow. Cherry and apricot fruit leather aroma with just a hint of earthiness. Hazier appearance than the rest
Rodney's Solera III (Kegged 11/3/11) - It has a lot of red-wine-like nose to it, in terms of the fruitiness. Seemingly less bitter and sour than the second one
Rodney's Solera IV (Kegged 11/2/12) - Has the wine fruit but also more barnyard Brett aroma. A nice sour/bitter combination on the finish, almost like alcoholic grapefruit juice with an interesting nose. This one had the longest residency time in the barrels
Rodney's Solera V (Kegged 6/19/13) - Much lighter in color. More regular Belgian yeast character still prominent along with the funk, but more aggressively sour than any of the others. The sourness for the most part seems to have increased over time in these barrels. The base beer for this was hoppier and that still shows through some, along with an apple-y aroma which isn't prominent in the earlier generations. I was hoping to not have any favorites among this flight and that seems to be the way it turned out. They're all interesting, and none of them seems less tasty than the others. If you happen to see Rodney's Solera pouring somewhere, try it and see what you think.