It’s the second week of October, or the perfect time to start repeatedly hate-watching It’s the Great Pumpkin Ale, Charlie Brown as I vengefully plot to assemble my new autumn advocacy army, The Downfall of Fall-Flavore—Fuck! It’s Everything! It’s Everywhere, Too! (TDoFF—F!IE!IE,T!).
The mission of TDoFF—F!IE!IE,T! is simple, easier to understand than accurately pronouncing the acronym representing my seasonally appropriate militia; we are dedicated to ending the tyranny of the most ubiquitous “fall-flavored” flavor in the universe: pumpkin spice.
Our approach is more composed than John Oliver’s decimating tirade last year, which mostly targeted a popular candle-tasting coffee. We aim to offer a relaxing retreat from the unavoidable ire, instead, with a calendar of exciting pumpkin spice-free daily getaways. The next excursion is this Sunday, only 30-ish miles away from Brooklyn, at an event for the release of Captain Lawrence Brewing Company’s Rosso e Marrone. Sour Power!
Elmsford’s Captain Lawrence was recently one of five American breweries to partner with Jameson for the distillery’s Drinking Buddies program (we dutifully sampled the quintet’s whiskey-spiked offerings at Crown Victoria last Thursday), but barrel-aged beer has been an important component of its identity since the operation’s infancy.
Rosso e Marrone, a brown ale aged in oak barrels with Brettanomyces yeast and Zinfandel and Merlot grapes, is perhaps the most popular of Captain Lawrence’s woodies. The brewery is hosting a ticketed three-hour party for its first release since 2013 that guarantees attendees four 375-milliliter bottles of the limited sour, paired appetizers (some with Rosso incorporated into their recipe) made by Gleason’s in Peekskill, and the opportunity to drink this, and other brews, on draft.
We chatted with Scott Vaccaro, owner and brewmaster of Captain Lawrence, to learn more about Rosso.
Niko Krommydas: What was the initial inspiration behind Rosso?
Scott Vaccaro: If I think back to that point, it was probably a combination of reading Michael Jackson’s books and reading up on the Belgian sours, and also drinking Vinny Cilurzo’s sours from Russian River. Rosso debuted in 2009, but we actually put it into wine barrels in 2007. There really wasn’t a so-called sour movement in the states then, or even a lot of American sours being made period. So what we really wanted to do here was try our hands at making a great, complex barrel-aged beer.
NK: Was that Captain Lawrence’s first sour?
SV: No. The first one we put out was the [Cuvee de] Castleton in 2007, which also won a gold GABF medal. That’s a sour that’s brewed with Muscat grapes. I’ve never been a huge fan of making or drinking fruit beers, but grapes seem to be a natural fit with me.
NK: Why is that?
SV: I’ve just always felt that they’re a much more mysterious and interesting fruit to use. Most of the fruit beers out at the time we started making sours were sticky-sweet beers made with your run of mill berries: raspberry, strawberry, blueberry. And it wasn’t really the fruit I disliked, just the beers they were used in. Grapes aren’t used very often and as such, create a beer that to me is more interesting to drink. Plus the varietal differences in grapes are so wide ranging that you can make so many different beers. I think Rosso is a perfect example of that.
NK: How would you describe Rosso to drinkers?
SV: Well, it’s a little different every time, that’s the territory of making a beer with wild yeast. But the heart and soul are always constant, they’re always the same, so you’ll know the beer when you taste it. For me, I would describe it as slightly tart with a hint of fruit and a rich, winey character. There’s also a bit of barnyard funk to it, and a nice, soft acidity. One thing I think we’ve gotten better with in making Rosso and all of our sours is controlling the acidity; meaning, making it less acidic but having more of a sour, tart flavor. I’m not really interested having the type of acidity that rips the back of your throat. You can’t enjoy drinking that over a long period of time.
NK: Can you explain the process of making Rosso?
SV: Sure. So we start by brewing the base beer, a brown ale, with our house Belgian yeast. Then we filter it so it’s void of any yeast sediment and add it to the wine barrels with Brett[anomyces]. That yeast eats any leftover sugars and, usually at about the six-month mark, that’s when it starts to give us the funk, barnyard character. Then we add the Zinfandel and Merlot grapes and it basically sits in the barrels until it tells us it’s ready to blend.
NK: When you’re blending, what are you looking for?
SV: Consistency, definitely. We’re basically looking to discard any bad barrels here, meaning ones that’ve holding beer that’s too harshly acidic. This batch we tossed three barrels out of the 17. I’ve learned that you can’t blend good beer with bad beer and expect it to come out good. [Laughs.]
NK: How long does the entire process take?
SV: It usually takes around two years to make, which is why it’s such a limited beer. But we’re hoping that changes. The next batch was actually fruited earlier this week, and this was the fifth time we’ve made it. The last time we bottled and released it, it was 2013. That was 12 oak barrels of beer, and the one coming out on Sunday, that’s from 17 barrels. But the next batch, the one we made earlier this week, that’s 40 barrels.
NK: That’s a significant increase.
SV: It is. We recently expanded the new facility here in Elmsford. Basically we knocked down a wall and took over the adjacent space.
NK: Is that all reserved for barrels?
SV: Aside from about 800 square feet for offices and a lab, the rest is for barrel aging. About 4,000 square feet. We added 1,500-gallon oak foudres and 25-hectoliter barrels from Italy. Before that the barrels were basically jammed in the back of our fermentation area, right next to where the pale ale and IPA was made. But now we have a dedicated space to put beers like Rosso out more regularly.
NK: Meaning now you can make a pumpkin spice-flavored Rosso.
SV: [Laughs.] I’m pretty confident that you can put pumpkin into just about any beer and people will buy it from August to Thanksgiving. But don’t hold your breath with Rosso. I think we rather inoculate our barrels with Brett than cinnamon and allspice.
Get tickets here for the release of Rosso e Marrone at the Captain Lawrence brewery in Elmsford, N.Y.