Beer Baron: Finally, sours for the people from Funk Factory

Three years into Levi Funk’s sour beer experiment, the beer world knows about his Funk Factory Geuzeria, and Madison is just starting to figure it out.

For a short spell early this month, nearly six months after the Funk Factory taproom opened on June 23, all eight of the draft lines were pouring Funk’s beers.

This is a far cry from a brewpub filling eight taps with, say, a brown ale, a blonde ale, an amber, a stout and four IPAs. Those beers take perhaps two weeks to make, from grain through stainless steel to glass.

But inside Funk Factory’s home on Madison’s South Side, Funk uses traditional methods that require at least three months to produce each batch of beer. So having eight of those in line is both an achievement — his goal was four Funk Factory beers at a time — and an opportunity.

While Funk Factory is well known by intense devotees of sour beer — Good Beer Hunting recently called it “one of the most-watched breweries in the States” — Funk is looking to spread the sour gospel to more locals.

“I think we’re still trying to let Madison know that we exist, but I think the experiment of, ‘Can a sour taproom work in Madison?’ is going well,” Funk said.

When Funk began aging beer in his own place in early 2015, buzz about Funk Factory was already building based on the Geuzeria’s first releases, made in partnership with O’so Brewing. These beers were true lambic-style beers, spontaneously fermented and aged for 18-24 months in used wine barrels, then aged again with fruit. Bottles of beers such as Bosbes (blueberries), Framrood (raspberries) or Door Kriek (cherries), were sold online and picked up during events at O’so or, more recently at Funk Factory.

Some newer iterations of Funk Factory’s lambics — or, as American producers have begun calling them, Methode Traditionnelle beers — are available at the taproom, in 375-milliliter bottles that must be drunk on site at a cost of $18-$30 a pop. In this case, time certainly is money.

Obviously it doesn’t work for Funk Factory to have a taproom moving significant amounts of that kind of beer, so the new flagship is a beer called Meerts, which rhymes with “hurts.” Funk describes Meerts a “baby brother” to the lambics, also with fruited variants.

“It’s not going to be as intense flavor, and you’re not going to have a crazy complex beer that you have to sit and dissect,” he said. “It’s more a casual drinker. Someone who’s never had a sour beer and comes down (to the taproom) and has a Cherry Meerts and they’ll hopefully enjoy it.”

Meerts is born as a wort — that’s unfermented beer — in another brewery, most recently primarily Octopi Brewing in Waunakee, because Funk Factory does not have brewing equipment and no plans to add any. Back at the barrel warehouse, the wort is put in one of three 1,000-gallon wooden vessels known as foeders.

The wood is key, because it’s where the microorganisms — primarily yeast and bacteria — that ferment the beer live between batches. When the wort hits the wood, the bugs come out and begin eating its sugars, imparting alcohol, carbonation and Meerts’ host of sour, funky and fruity flavors.

These bugs are not as efficient at fermentation as lab-cultured yeast, so the tradeoff with all those delightful flavors is a lot of waiting — three months for a typical batch of Meerts.

For the fruit variants, the beer is moved from the foeders to separate tanks to mingle with their chosen fruits for three to six weeks, fermenting some of those fresh sugars along the way. Funk so far has made big batches of cherry, cranberry, peach-pluot, blackberry and mango-passionfruit and a couple of smaller, more experimental batches. He says a Kiwi Meerts is in the works.

Making more beer that still represents what Funk Factory is about is more than just good business for Funk, who’s an economist by day. He sees it as outreach to his neighbors who may have heard about Funk Factory but not been able to taste any of its beer.

“You need to have a connection with your local community, and to my fault I’ve never had product up until now that I’ve been able to even connect to Madison,” Funk said.

Now the Meerts is flowing. Here’s a closer look at my — and Funk’s — favorite version.

Cherry Meerts

Style: Though Funk lists it on Untappd as a fruited lambic, he says Meerts is a revival of an archaic variant of lambic made in Belgium many years ago.

Brewed by: Funk Factory Geuzeria, 1602 Gilson St., Madison.

What it’s like: The closest analogue to Cherry Meerts I can come up with is a fruited Berliner weisse, but that sells this beer way short. It really does have hints of actual lambic’s flavors and complexity, with the volume turned down. “It’s meant to be an entry point into sour beer and mixed fermentation,” Funk said.

Where, how much: You may see a bottle here or there at a local shop, but for the most part you’ll need to go to the source. At Funk Factory, pints of Meerts are a reasonable $5 ($6 for fruited variants), with 6-ounce pours available for $3 for wider sampling. Take-home 750-milliliter bottles are $10-$12.

The beer: The lightly effervescent Cherry Meerts pours a brilliant, clear rose hue with an acidic-sweet aroma of tart cherries and a little woodiness reminiscent of a cherry pit. A sip reveals that assertive acid from the aroma to be deceptive, as this Meerts is pleasantly and only moderately tart. The mixed fermentation and fruit provide nearly all the flavor here; if you can pick up traditional malt and hop character, your palate is sharper than mine. Instead, there’s an almond-like woodiness and just a touch of funk. Overall it’s not particularly sweet, but a tart, sugary note lingers well into the dry, refreshing finish. While it’s nowhere near as complex as its lambic big brothers, Cherry Meerts is remarkable in its own right.

Booze factor: An early batch of Cherry Meerts, including the bottle I reviewed here, was 6 percent ABV, but subsequent batches have been dialed in closer to regular Meerts’ 4 percent.

The buzz: The nomenclature around American wild or sour ales made in the Belgian lambic tradition has been the source of consternation in the brewing world lately, and Levi Funk is at the center of what’s emerging as the way forward.

“Lambic” is a term treasured and guarded by the traditional Belgian producers and their trade group, seeking similar status for it as French wineries have won with “Champagne.” In response, a group of American brewers this fall rolled out a program with the goal of replacing “lambic” with “Methode Traditionnelle” as the style description for such beers made in America but under the Belgian tradition.

Funk Factory is one of three breweries on the steering committee that developed the designation, along with two giants in the sour beer world: Jester King of Texas and Black Project of Colorado. About six weeks after the rollout, Funk said, about 40 breweries have expressed interest in using Methode Traditionnelle.

Funk said he hopes the designation — future lambic releases from Funk Factory will bear the logo on the label — will proliferate and help consumers differentiate between something that’s on par with the original Belgian lambics and something that’s … well, not, and not made the same way.

“There’s a big disconnect in what’s happening and how things are being labeled, and we’re trying to clean that up as best as we can,” Funk said. “I’m interested in 10, 20, 50 years from now, the word ‘lambic’ still means something.”

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Beer Baron: Was peak beer on display at Great American Beer Festival?

DENVER — There are a lot of places to get a sense of how awesome the craft beer world is right now: the bottle shops, overflowing with new beers; the business pages, with story after story of expansion; the want ads, burgeoning with new positions in small breweries; a barstool, one of my favorites.

But nothing brings it home like the Great American Beer Festival.

The ultimate beerfest, put on by the Brewers Association, this year featured more than 3,500 beers being poured by more than 750 breweries Sept. 24-26. The judging portion of the festival saw more than 240 judges evaluating more than 6,800 beers and bestowing honors in 92 style categories, including eight Wisconsin brews. In a letter in the GABF program, Denver Mayor Michael Hancock described it as “the largest collection of beer on tap in the history of the world” — again — and about 60,000 people passed through the doors of the sleek downtown Colorado Convention Center.

So, it’s a big deal, and this year I discovered just how big, firsthand, for the first time. (GABF granted me a media credential that allowed free access to two sessions of the festival.)

I knew all those big numbers going in, but the sheer scale of GABF still took some getting used to. There’s block after block of brewery booths, hosting 25-35 breweries each. These are lettered, literally A to Z, and grouped primarily by region — Pacific Northwest, Southeast, Mid-Atlantic, etc.

You could spend a couple hours drinking your way through any one of those blocks, and there are 26 of them.

To sift and winnow that kaleidoscope of beer, I relied heavily on the fantastic GABF app, which offers nearly complete beer and brewery rosters that you can use to build a custom map to drink your way through.

I had a few well-known breweries that don’t sell beer in Wisconsin that I knew I wanted to visit: Yazoo (Tennessee), Russian River (California), Great Divide (Colorado), Boulevard (Missouri). But for the most part I populated my app map with the help of a series of Denver Post blogs by beer writers from across the country offering their picks for their region, spotlighting hidden gems like Barley Brown’s (Oregon), Oasis (Texas) and Otter Creek (Vermont).

The big picture all of these pixels created was amazing. From the smallest brewpub on up to semi-national, name-brand craft brewers, the quality and diversity of beer right now, is extraordinary and — according to people more knowledgeable on the subject than me — unprecedented.

There was Dreamland, a spontaneously fermented, sour blonde ale with layers of complexity among its lactic embrace, from Denver’s own Black Project Spontaneous & Wild Ales. There was Coachella Valley Brewing’s Black Widow, a massive 17 percent ABV barrel-aged imperial stout that did something I didn’t think possible: rival Goose Island’s Bourbon County Brand Stout. There was Firestone Walker’s XVIII, an absolutely decadent malt-bomb blend of strong beers released for its 2014 anniversary.

But it wasn’t all out-there beers. Also impressing were straight-ahead but superbly executed versions of classic styles like Irish dry stout (from Beara Irish Brewing in Portsmouth, New Hampshire) and märzen (Pedernales Brewing of Fredericksburg, Texas).

It’s small breweries like these that are driving the growth in the beer industry. The day after the festival closed, the Brewers Association announced the number of breweries in the United States had passed 4,000 for the first time since probably the 1870s.

But this joyous scene at GABF took place in a context that some see as storm clouds gathering over the utopians reveling in this big bang of beer. That spectre: big business.

Buyouts in craft beer and predictions of ill effects from them are nothing new; the State Journal’s own George Hesselberg may have begun this craft beer tradition with a column that bemoaned Miller’s purchase of Leinenkugel’s in 1988.

But non-craft-brewing interests’ interest in craft brewers has risen dramatically as GABF neared. Consider the action in September alone: Craft big boy Lagunitas entered a 50-50 partnership with international giant Heineken. MillerCoors bought out San Diego’s Saint Archer Brewing, which is about the size of Milwaukee’s Lakefront Brewery. Anheuser-Busch InBev continued its string of small-brewery acquisitions by buying out well-respected Los Angeles’ Golden Road Brewing, from which I took a GABF pour of a pretty nice IPA called Point the Way. It’s a beast of a different sort, but it seems certain any acquisition of MillerCoors by Anheuser-Busch InBev would affect the distribution networks and retail environment those giants share with craft brewers.

The news continued in GABF’s wake. I high-fived Dogfish Head Craft Brewery founder Sam Calagione on the GABF floor about 36 hours before news broke that he had sold a 15 percent stake in his brewery to private equity firm LNK Partners.

But there will be time for more on that in future columns, surely. Let’s close with some smaller-picture observations from Denver, many of which come from having been to GABF once and the Great Taste of the Midwest, another premier beer event, many times.

SMALL POURS: One major departure was the pour size at GABF — one ounce, rigorously enforced — versus Great Taste’s 2 ounces, which is regularly 3 or even 4 in practice. One ounce is fine, perhaps preferable, for drinking by yourself, but those larger pours make it much easier to share beers among festival friends.

SOURS: The trend I touched on in this year’s Great Taste recap is happening on an even larger scale nationally. Many of the breweries who feature or focus exclusively on sour beers or those fermented with wild yeasts had some of the longest lines at GABF. For my second session I overcame my aversion to lines and zeroed in on such beers and ended up with outstanding pours from Maine’s Allagash, Colorado’s Avery, Tennessee’s Yazoo and AlmanacRare Barrel and Lost Abbey, all from California.

PERSONAL TOUCH: While the GABF volunteers at many of the brewery booths were passionate about beer and did their best to educate themselves on what they were pouring, there’s just no replacing the knowledge and passion that comes from actually putting your hands on the beer day in and day out. It made me grateful for the brewery reps, actual brewers or even brewmasters who pour across the board at Great Taste.

VENUE MATTERS: The Colorado Convention Center is a very nice convention center, and organizers do a nice job of laying it out and putting on a good beer festival, but how can any indoor space compare to Olin Park in August? It’s one huge reason the Great Taste is special — you just don’t have beer of that quality and quantity in that beautiful of a setting.

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