Like Minds’ John Lavalle And The Esoteric Beer

Tomorrow, on Saturday January 7th, John Lavalle of MIlwaukee’s Like Minds Brewing will release 100 bottles of a Red Wine Barrel Aged Sour Saison on Blueberries and only 50 bottles of Red Wine Barrel Aged Sour Saison on Blueberry and Rhubarb. Curious about this extremely limited release, I reached out to John, hoping to learn whatever I could about the designing and brewing of these beers.

As we discussed meeting up at Like Minds’ Hamilton Street location, John told me “the beers and path I’ve chosen are pretty esoteric,” priming me for the kind conversation exploration brewing philosophy and technique that I hope defines the work I’m doing when writing about craft beer in Milwaukee.

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While John describes these beers as esoteric, these aren’t beers only a few people can appreciate.

As I opened the bottle of rhubarb blueberry saison, and nosed the beautiful, pinkish beer, I was notes of strawberry jam, rhubarb pie, and warm caramel. My first sips opened with the taste of berries breaking open on my tongue to reveal a slightly sour tang, then a woody, vanilla creaminess, perhaps from some wheat used in the mash. I searched the bone dry, yet creamy, like a distant memory, chasing some unnameable, je ne se quoi quality, before realising that was I was tasting was California chardonnay. A light carbonation effervesced but never overwhelmed the flavors. The taste of blueberry skins lingered on my mouth long after I finished the bottle.

So incredibly drinkable was this beer that I immediately dove into the bottle of blueberry saison. Just as caramelly, but tarter, and fruity yet never sweet, the beer tasted like a case study in exploring the essence of blueberries. Simply put, it was like I was being shown something about blueberries that I’d always known, yet never realized. With every sip, a complex, sour tang rose and then broke into that same woody, vanilla, caramel finish. Supremely sessionable and lively, I easily  finished both bottles (with some help).

Though some people prefer saison or mixed-fermentation, I actually have come to quite like esoteric as a term to describe these beers: they’re something you savor because they’re complex enough that they reward consideration. Thinking through the layers of flavor and understanding this process involved in brewing these kind of beers can reveal their depths. That seems fairly esoteric to me.

If you get a bottle or two of these beers, drink them, and love every sip, I think John will be happy. He brewed them to be to be enjoyed. But his brewing of these esoteric beers was a subtle art. One that took time, skill, and a willingness to open himself up to chance. I think he would want you to understand that too.

See, underneath John’s humble, approachable persona is something like a brewer of the absurd, a mad scientist who crafts delicious beers through courting wild yeast strains in a process that creates wonderful, complex, challenging flavors by inviting the unexpected.

That process often starts with an idea and a simple process. John explains that when brewing an esoteric beer, “your intent is less about imagining the final product and more about creating a harmony of flavors.” He sums up his brewing as process “layer, layer, layer, layer.”

The first layer of these beers is a brown ale recipe which John has used as the base of other sour beers. This base layer contributes color to the final beer, but mostly acts as a foundation for the other elements of the beer.

The second layer comes from the yeast and bacteria john pitched into that unfermented brown ale, Brettanomyces, pediococcus, and lactobacillus. Here’s where the mad scientist part comes in. Most brewers avoid these microorganisms because they can all cause spoiled, off flavors in the beer, instead buying pure cultures of yeast from laboratories that specialize in propagating brewer’s yeast. Yet, managed skillfully, — as John has done — this mix of yeast and bacteria can each contribute really wonderful flavors.

The Brettanomyces, which originated as a wild yeast that John isolated through months of putting selective environmental pressures on the yeast, adds subtle fruit flavors and a slight acidity (though it can be quite funky when fermented at high temperatures). The lactobacillus and pediococcus, which are both traditionally used to ferment yogurt and other fermented food, produce acidity. Creating the right flavors with this yeast and bacteria depended on John calculating how much of each went into the beer, what temperature the beer fermented at, and what the beer’s pH was.

A third layer of flavor then came from the wine barrels John used. A mixture of American, French, and Hungarian oak. John describes this layer: “as soon as [the beer] was done with it’s primary fermentation, I took it out, put it in barrels, and it was there for six months until it hit the oak character that i was looking for.”

To achieve the right level of woody, spicy, vanilla, caramel, flavors, John soaked the barrels in 186℉ water, essentially rinsing out much of their dominant wine character, though some remains.  “It doesn’t have a lot of wine character,” John adds, “it’s just that oak.”

And here again, John is working with an unpredictable element. Which flavors the wood will contribute, how the flavors of one barrel will blend with the flavors of another, these are relative unknowns in the process. Managing them takes time and regular tastings. Throughout its time in the barrels, John would taste the beer to see how much of the wood flavors it was taking on.

When it began to taste how he wanted, John “pitched fresh blueberries,” about two and half pounds per gallon of beer, and “kind of let that roll itself in and become its own thing.”

About the blueberry Saison, John told me, “The one thing I do know going is that people’s perceptions — they’re going to walk in and think sweet and that is not the case.” As with all fruit, the blueberries were covered in wild strains of yeast, which fully fermented the sugars from the fruit. But this for the best, as “the sweetness can mask some of the depth of flavor in fruit.”

What remained was the pure essence of blueberry, it’s quintessential flavor, which became the fourth layer of flavor in the beer.

The end result of these layers is a complex, delectable beer, that’s better understood as a result of John’s brewing process than as an example of a particular style of beer. The wonderful flavors here are more about embracing the unexpected as the unknown as essential parts of brewing than about scientifically crafting a specific beer. As John explains it, his brewing process here was “a very different mindset  … It’s more out of your control.”

And the bottom line is that while what went into the bottle at the end of a wild fermentation might be slightly different that what he intended when designing the beer, for John, esoteric, wild beers are best appreciated for how they taste, for “how [the beer] reads on your palate: whether it’s hitting different sections and those things are reading in some sort of harmony versus tasting disjointed.”

“If it hits,” he says, “and if it reads exactly as it should, that means you hit your intent.”

Like the elusive flavors that went into it, this esoteric beer rewards time, care, and consideration.

It’s not easily made, not easily found, and maybe not even easily understood, but like these beers themselves, the time you spend acquiring them and savoring will be time well spent.