Happy Zwanze Day! Drink The World’s Most Exclusive Sour Beer This Saturday at Spuyten Duyvil

Flickr / Allagash Brewing.
Flickr / Allagash Brewing.

Before we offer our chat with Joe Carroll, owner of Spuyten Duyvil, I want to invite The Neighborhood to the upcoming premiere of my debut film, Sour Beer Snowbeasts from Outer Space!, on Septembernever 31.

If you’re wondering, and likely you are, it was an arduous journey to complete my seminal project: I rewrote a recently resurfaced script of Ed Wood’s about 15 minutes ago, and a few seconds later, I corralled the corpses of Bela Lugosi and Tor Johnson and filmed it. The sci-fi saga, only 26 hours in length and subtitled in Nikonese, follows a horrific horde of homebrewers hellbent on attacking Brooklyn with a squad of snowbeasts solely designed to destruct and devastate by shooting sticky sour-beer sludge from supersize spaceships. Follow?

I’m kidding, obviously and unfortunately, but the fictional film is a perfect preamble to discussing the powerful presence of sour beer presently in Brooklyn. Seriously! The borough’s streets are awash!

The fierce flood, which contains some spontaneously fermented suds, started on the first of September, when a trio of brother-bonded bars launched a monthlong sour-beer festival. While the three continue its collective deluging, they’ll receive some assistance this Saturday with the arrival of Zwanze Day, or what I call Christmasour, the ultimate holiday for sour-beer loons.

Merry Christmasour, Brooklyn!

Courtesy of Shelton Brothers.
Courtesy of Shelton Brothers.

I’ll offer a terse explanation for the uninitiated, because it’s a beautiful day in The Neighborhood. Zwanze Day is an annual fete for Lambic, the most renowned sour-beer style and synonymous with its preeminent producer, Cantillon. The global event, which seems to gains popularity in the United States with each successive year, started in 2008, when Jean Van Roy, fourth-generation brewmaster of the esteemed brewery from Brussels, Belgium, released a special rhubarb-infused Lambic named Zwanze on a small scale. After two more Zwanzes in different forms–the limited beer’s makeup changes annually and previous years may or may not be made again–Cantillon affixed a simultaneous worldwide release and keg-tapping to 2011’s, a Lambic with Pineau D’aunis grapes. This change birthed the current composition of Zwanze Day, a joyous celebration connecting lovers of Lambic worldwide, which will continue on Saturday with the unveiling of 2015’s version, Wild Brussels Stout.

Van Roy on this year’s Zwanze, from Cantillon’s website:

Belgium: the land of surrealism…

This artistic movement, which began at the end of the 19th century, continues to define in part the Belgian spirit and for quite a few people here has even become a sort of life philosophy. Bury, Ensor and, of course, Magritte were key figures of the movement in Belgium. ReneÌ Magritte, who became well-known for the contrast of light and dark in his works, is the author of the famous painting This is not a pipe.

With its Zwanze 2015, in its own way Cantillon wanted to perpetuate this typically Belgian surrealist mindset. In doing so, a few changes were made to the recipe for a traditional stout. Specifically, I fermented some raw wheat to improve mellowness and enhance storage characteristics and did not use roasted barley to avoid further accentuating the dry aspect, which was already present as a result of spontaneous fermentation.

The recipe is that of a stout, the colour is that of a stout, and spontaneous fermentation followed by 28 months of maturing in a cask has given birth to a “surreal” stout.

The dry and tart notes of a spontaneous fermentation beer combine with the roasted, slightly burnt and delicate chocolate flavours sometimes found in certain stouts.

For the 28 months of maturing we used three types of casks: 50 percent of the casks had already contained lambic, 25 percent had already been used for Côtes du Rhône wine and 25 percent had already been used for Cognac. Beers that have matured in old Cognac casks take up the warmth of the alcohol while those from casks having contained red wine adopt winey and fruity characteristics.

This “wild” stout’s fruitiness and “cooked” side reveal rancio flavours that are characteristic of Madeira or Banyuls wines. The ideal tasting temperature to fully enjoy these fragrances and flavours is 15 °C – 18 °C (59 °F – 64 °F).

Another indication of its specialness, Cantillon allocates Zwanze to only 25-ish places throughout the world for its universal tapping and toast. This includes Williamsburg’s Spuyten Duyvil, which has been among the prestigious pour participants since the celebration’s inception. (Another local bar is also Zwanze-ing this year: Manhattan’s Fools Gold.) Since the sour is scarce–only one keg is distributed to each spot–and highly coveted–tickets are usually pre-sold and sold quickly by these spots–most will assemble spectacular sour-beer lineups to offer alongside it. Spuyten is a model example of this, as evidenced by the bar’s 2012 list and, well, any year’s list.

Courtesy of Shelton Brothers.
Courtesy of Shelton Brothers.

We spoke to Carroll about Zwanze Day 2015, his first time drinking Cantillon, the recent surge of sour beer in America, and Spuyten’s collaboration with the brewery in 2004.

Niko Krommydas: Before we discuss Zwanze at Spuyten, let’s start with you. When was the first time you had Cantillon?

Joe Carroll: The first time was in Belgium, around 1993, I think. That was the first time I had tasted traditional Lambic. Any time before that, it was like Lindemans or the equivalent, which, in the Lambic realm, that’s really the fake, pasteurized, sweet stuff. It’s basically a wheat beer with fruit. But the first time I had traditional Lambic, my friends and I were in Belgium and we bought a bunch of bottles: Oud Beersel, Drie Fonteinen, and Cantillon. We sat and shared them all and I remember just freaking out, we were all floored. The stuff I was drinking home before that, the American stuff was all malty or hoppy. And here was not only a searing acidity to each sip, but also this element of funk from the bacteria and Brettanomyces. I remember it being overwhelmingly tough to identity the flavors at first. And at first, I don’t think I necessarily liked it. But after that trip, I was hooked and started seeking it out. It’s just so amazing to see over the last, say, five or six years, how much the perception has changed. Even from when we opened Spuyten to now. In 2003, the opinion of Lambic was vastly different.

NK: What was it? Do you remember starting to sell Cantillon at Spuyten?

JC: For a year, we were the only ones that sold any Cantillon in New York City. Mostly no one had ever heard of it. Again, I think the idea initially was that Lambic was this vibrantly colored, sweet, fruity beer with a little touch of funk. So the people who were expecting that from Cantillon, we would basically go out of our way to discourage them; it wasn’t going to be sweet, it was going to be very funky and acidic, and you’re not getting their money back if you don’t like this expensive bottle. [Laughs.] But yeah, at that point you could get your hand on any Cantillon you wanted from Shelton Brothers. I remember our opening tap list had a keg. Probably about six or seven years ago, that’s when it started to change. Cantillon went from being readily available to this almost elusive thing that everyone wanted but couldn’t get.

NK: How did you initially get selected as one of the Zwanze bars?

JC: I can’t speak for Jean, but I know that all of the places on the Zwanze list, they’re there because of personal relationships. People complain that one of the locations is this liquor store in Chicago, but Jean has a personal relationship with the owner. Same with us. Jean has been to Spuyten to drink before. I think the general idea of Zwanze is a global “thank you” for supporting Cantillon. It’s a reward for being there since the beginning, so to speak, and the Van Roy family, they’re just the nicest people. I mean, after a year of us being open we had our own proprietary Cantillon beer. How wild is that?

NK: I didn’t know that. That’s really cool. What was it?

JC: Yep. Cantillon Spuyten Duyvil. In November of 2004, I shipped them like two whole boxes of cranberries from New Jersey and they put them into a barrel with Lambic and we got about 30-liter keg and many cases of bottles. To give you an idea of how insane it all is now, we’ve had a customer that’s been a regular forever, and he bought multiple bottles of it back when it came out. And again, that was at a time when most people were oblivious to Cantillon; so I didn’t have a limit on how much you could by. I mean, I was selling the beer, so why not? Anyway, he had kept some bottles over the years and a few years, maybe two years ago, he sold six bottles of Cantillon Spuyten Duyvil at an auction for $12,000.

NK: Wow. I hope you got some of that.

JC: [Laughs.] I wish I did. It’s just amazing that in 10 years, [Cantillon] went from not many people knowing about it to bottles selling for $2,000 a pop. It’s amazing.

NK: Getting back to Zwanze Day, I know a lot of bars build a unique event around it with more Cantillon beer than the Zwanze. What about yours?

JC: For us, Zwanze morphed out of another event that we would hold called Brett Fest. That was a day in the summer of just sour beers, and we’d pour some Cantillons during that. So it made sense to morph the two. Now on Zwanze I basically try to have a few Cantillon on draft and some bottles set aside. Then we’ll add some American sours and some other rare stuff to round the list out.

NK: How much preparation is involved in creating Zwanze’s beer list?

JC: As far as Cantillon goes, I’m hoarding stuff year-round. If I get a case of six bottles in, say, March, I’ll sell three and keep three for Zwanze. So yeah, definitely preparing year-round.

NK: How has the crowd, the turnout, changed over the years on Zwanze Day?

JC: Every year I’m more taken by surprise over the reaction for it. Last year people started lining up at 9:00 a.m. On the one hand it’s great, but then on the other you see it becoming “a thing” and you can’t help but get worried. But you know what, there’s much stupider shit for people to get into. [Laughs.]

NK: How do you determine how many tickets to release for the beer?

JC: There’s only 20 or 30 liters of the beer and we figure it out as 100 glasses, give or take. So we’ll sell 90 tickets to be cautious. But later on if we have like two liters of the beer left, then we’ll open it up to regular sales. Every year is different, though. This year we’ll start selling tickets when people start lining up. We’re also putting a limit on how many bottles you can purchase at a time, at one bottle. Again, on the one hand the beer is there to sell but this is an event that I think as many people should experience as possible. I want everyone to get a shot to get some Cantillon.

Tickets to Spuyten Duyvil’s Zwanze Day event will be sold starting at 10 a.m. on Saturday, September 19.


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