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.
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.”