Last Autumn my wife and I traveled to Bruges, Belgium, on a quest for great beer (and pretty buildings, but…beer). The trip was a dream we regretted waking up from when we boarded our Paris flight home, but we’ll be back. I’ll write more about that trip another time, but I mention it now because nothing can really compare to sipping an aged gueuze in a hidden bar nestled into an 800 year old building in medieval Belgium. An expert barkeeper twists open the cork cage, pops the cork, pours your beer with the flare of a card dealer, and presents you with a perfect pour, leaving the bottle and cork with you because they know you want both to sit there with you for a bit. You look at it in the glass but the light is too dim to really admire the color. Instead you offer your nose to the open vessel and breathe in something that can’t be explained to the uninitiated. You might waste a dozen adjectives describing the smell of a perfect sour ale, none of them words conventionally understood to be positive aroma descriptors but all constituting praise for this rare libation. You sip it and it’s damn good, but that first whiff is the magic, and the drink itself is the warm afterglow of the intimacy you just shared with that smell.
On my wife’s thirtieth birthday last month we opened a bottle we’d recently picked up without knowing much about it – Rivertown Brewing’s Ojos Negros. I’ve been aware of the Cincinnati brewery for a while and have had their year-round beers several times, but this was our first time with any of their limited releases. Ojos Negros is a blackberry lambic; the wort is turned over to the hands of their wild house yeast and then ages in wine barrels with fresh blackberries for over a year. We set up a game of Risk and poured the beer, because world domination + beer = romantic, obviously.
We both lifted our glasses and took a sharp draw from the breath of this beer wafting upward from its dark soul, and oh, dear reader. We met eyes over our armies arrayed for battle and felt we were sitting somewhere from our shared memory – low ceilings, dim lights, and a city older than our country, dusty beer bottles pouring scents and flavors that spoke of generations of dedication and tradition. There’s a big difference between drinking a beer, no matter how good, in a small apartment here in North America and drinking one in a pub in Bruges, and nothing can take the place of a plane ticket with a European city on it in your hand, visions of cobblestone streets and weathered bar signs in your mind. But perhaps the closest we can get before we return to that beautiful city is an American brewery who gets it, who knows that making a sour isn’t about targeting a growing market segment, but about creating something beautiful that enters the stream of great wild ales that have come before it from across the pond.
I could talk to you about tasting notes for Ojos Negros, but that misses the point. Sour, funk, blackberries. Etcetera. Try it. More important than the specific tasting notes is the fact that Rivertown Brewery got it right. You pour out this lovely beer and you aren’t watching a trend fill your glass; you’re watching a tradition. It’s a damn fine beer.
Now if only I’d won that game of Risk.