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Photo courtesy Marilynn K. Yee, The New York Times

K is for Kriek, G is for Garrett

The Brooklyn Quarterly Experiment is a collection of limited-edition beers that take a little extra time, energy and trust in the unknown to pull off. I sat down with Brooklyn Brewmaster Garrett Oliver to hear his thoughts on the next BQE release: K is for Kriek.

Garrett Oliver first tried kriek in 1984. Back then, Garrett’s style tended more towards black leather and motorcycle boots for his jobs managing rock bands and producing concerts in England. A train trip through Eastern Europe landed Garrett at a bar in Ostend, Belgium, where he spotted a glass of kriek on a nearby table.

Photo courtesy of Stefano Giovannini

Photo courtesy of Stefano Giovannini

“It was such a vibrant shade of red, I was immediately curious about it.” Garrett says, “I remember pointing at the glass and going, ‘whatever that is, I’ll try some.’” Still a relative newcomer to traditional, non-industrial beers, he was bowled over by the tart, dry concoction in front of him. It was his first step in examining the kriek style, a brewing tradition that stretches back hundreds of years.

The word “kriek” is Belgian Flanders for “cherry,” which over time has become nearly synonymous with several beer styles brewed with or aged on cherries. The base beers tend to be lambics or sour browns, whose naturally funky flavors and relatively low alcohol content provide a perfect companion for the bright acidity of the cherries. People have been enjoying krieks for generations with all sorts of savory, earthy foods that come together with the marriage of sweet, tart and sour. Garrett is just one of many brewers throughout history who have become enamored with the mysteries of kriek, but he is definitely the first to implement the distinctly American brewing practices that make K is for Kriek unique to Brooklyn Brewery.

Garrett and the brewing team began to develop a kriek-style beer as a way of pushing themselves as brewers. “It’s a challenging style that not many people have tinkered with much,” Garrett says. “We wanted to pay homage [to kriek], but really put something of ourselves into it as well.” The team selected Brooklyn Brewery Local 2 to be their base beer. Garrett felt the dark abbey ale was a notable departure from traditional lambic- or sour brown-based krieks well worth exploring.

070_NOLA_slow_supper

Photo courtesy of Jeremy Roux

“A lot of people have mistakenly branded me as a ‘style Nazi’ of sorts over the years,” he says. “In truth, a lot of what we brew here pushes the lines and walks outside of strict style guidelines. With Local 2, we were able to incorporate the rich, caramelly sort of sweetness that the candi sugar brings along. We knew those flavors would play really well with the cherries. Sure, it’s not traditional, but why not try it?”

Another staunchly American spin was the decision to age K is for Kriek in second-use bourbon barrels. The barrel choice has a strong role in the beer as a deep, vanilla-oak flavor that counters the tartness of the cherries. Our love of bourbon barrels is well-known, as seen in a certain unspoken imperial stout and several BQE releases. Infusing the kriek heritage with a Brooklyn Brewery tradition struck Garrett as an irreverent way to build K is for Kriek.

Photo courtesy of Brett Casper

Photo courtesy of Brett Casper

He consulted with his friend Vinnie Cilurzo, brewmaster and barrel expert at Russian River Brewing, to pick Vinnie’s brain about the peculiarities that came along with fermenting beer in barrels filled with cherries. Vinnie and the Russian River team have been producing some of the best barrel-aged beers in the world for over fifteen years. Their Supplication, aged on sour cherries in Pinot Noir barrels, was another kriek-style beer that inspired Garrett. Even with Vinnie’s knowledge, Garrett still found out some lessons the hard way.

“At one point he was talking about having a second hole drilled in the barrel heads to make removing the beer easier. I said, ‘Vinnie, these barrels are already full,’ and he paused and goes, ‘…well, good luck with cleanup then.’ We ended up drilling right into the full barrel heads and hoping the vacuum of the existing bung would prevent it from being too much of a mess. It…well, it mostly worked.” Their experimental brew safely bottled with champagne and Brettanomyces yeasts, Garrett and his crew settled into the waiting game as the beer developed within the bottles.

“At first, the cherries were quite strong. It was really like a soda when we first tried it.” Garrett says. “After five or six months, it [had] really arrived.” This first iteration of Kriek joined our Ghost Bottle collection, a series of unreleased beers that only appear at very special brewery events. The team was pleased, but wanted to push their skills even further. They took their new knowledge of kriek and fiddled with the original formulas. They were getting close to the last of the hurdles in their experiment.

“We figured on just over twenty pounds of cherries per barrel at that point,” Garrett recalls. “The cherries had fluctuated a bit, and we found the dried cherries from that year were a little leaner and a little more acidic, so we had to take that into account. We also brought in a new Brettanomyces strain to really punch up that presence a bit more and stand up to the cherries. Then we barrelled them up and said ‘well, here goes nothing!’”

Kriek-750ml-LR

That “nothing,” barrelled all the way back in October 2013, has turned out to be very much something. K is for Kriek is already a runaway hit among the early tasters at The Brooklyn Brewery, and the team behind it is anxious to introduce the world to their latest special. Despite the fact that K is for Kriek has just hit the shelves, Garrett isn’t taking time to rest on his laurels. Instead, he’s thinking about what this successful experiment means for Brooklyn Brewery.

“We have an incredible barrel program, with Molly Browning at the head. You couldn’t ask for someone better.” Garrett says, “We’ve got some really interesting stuff tucked away and we’re all excited to see where it goes.”

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