A Chat With Tomme Arthur About Lost Abbey's Ultimate Box Set
The Lost Abbey is giving their Saints and Sinners ethos a rock star spin. Each month this year, the brewery is releasing a new beer that calls back on the imagery of heaven and hell in classic rock anthems. The only catch: if you want to try the beers, you have to go to the brewery. Every bottle sold is opened and poured for you in the tasting room.
My wife and I happened to be in California visiting friends when they released Track #2, so we braved President's Day weekend traffic and drove down to the brewery. (There's not much quite as hard rock as sitting in bumper-to-bumper Southern California traffic in a Prius, right?)
For Track #2, inspired by Led Zeppelin's "Stairway to Heaven," the brewers dug into their back catalog of barrels and blended Bourbon barrel-aged versions of The Angel's Share and Cuvee de Tomme along with their spontaneously fermented Project X and threw in a load of peaches and sour cherries for good measure. The resulting murky, dark mahogany concoction clocked in at 12.5% and came on strong with bourbon barrel and cherry in the aroma. Dark, vinous fruit followed along with vanilla and a vinegar note. Sweet peach and caramel backed up a balanced sourness. It ended a bit leathery, with a well-masked level of alcohol. Overall, it was a complex beer worthy of its namesake.
Last Saturday Lost Abbey released Track #3. Inspired by the AC/DC screamer "Hell's Bells," Track #3 is a pale sour blend that includes Phunky Duck, the base beer for the brewery's award-winning Duck-Duck-Gooze.
Tomme Arthur, co-founder and director of brewery operations at Lost Abbey & Port Brewing, took time earlier this month to give us the back story on their Ultimate Box Set.
How'd you come up with the idea for the Ultimate Box Set?
Over the summer of 2011, I found myself driving home with the windows rolled down and stereo cranked. The iPod was set to shuffle a bunch of rock anthems. It hit me that these songs were perfect vehicles for inspiration and the thematic concerns of our brewery. If you've ever seen VH1 Behind the Music, you know that those guys partied their asses off and in many ways empowered a lifestyle that was WAY more Sinner then Saint. So it made sense to me to use their music as inspiration for beers. In keeping with the notion of music, the release really tied into a box set as a way of showcasing classic riffs and new spins on things we've done over the years.
When did you start creating these beers?
I think last August I sat down with Mike Rodriguez, our head brewer, and laid out the road map for how we could attack this. There were already many experimental barrels in the programs so it was easy to look into the crystal ball and imagine some things going on. We were getting ready to put some Cabernet Sauvignon grapes in barrels, so that became Track #1.
What came first, the ideas for the beers or their matching songs?
The list of 12 songs was developed and then some of the beers directly corresponded to the music and others are just part of the set. For example, we'll have a beer later this fall inspired by "The Devil Went Down to Georgia." This will be a barleywine aged in bourbon barrels with peaches and black tea.
Have you planned out all of the beers in the set, or are some still in development?
Loosely, I think we have defined about 8 to 9 of the total beers. We have a running list of things in our head that we "can" imagine doing. It really all depends on how the barrels taste and whisper to us. We are set through Track #6 at this point and we're moving to secure the beers for 7 through 9, which is always where we knew there was some opportunity to monkey around even more.
The Track #2 blend included a wild beer called Project X, can you tell us a little more about that?
Project X barrels are spontaneously fermented barrels, meaning that we have not added any cultures to the barrels. It's a bit of wild card in terms of what we get. For Track #2 the blend needed some acid to bring out the fruit notes and keep the beer from being too one dimensional I think the addition of the X factor was justly needed and rewarding in the beer.
Are all of the Box Set Tracks going to be barrel-aged beers with Brett?
The early tracks will all feature wild yeasts and bugs. We felt they would age nicely as the summer went on and not deviate from the original monthly tastings that our consumers are getting a glimpse at each month. Later in the sequence, we'll start to see some non-bugged barrels and blends appear as well.
What's the plan once all 12 Tracks have been released?
There will be a release day in the fall. We haven't confirmed that date yet, but we expect a great turnout. We will be releasing 450 complete sets and, for the first time, the consumer will have a chance to open a bottle of these beers away from our brewery. It's a very long process this year that involves lotteries each quarter based upon consumption at the brewery during each of the releases. Needless to say, we anticipate the box sets to be in high demand when they are finally unleashed.
What else do you have in the pipeline? What can we look forward to this year from Lost Abbey?
Red Poppy is on the bottling line today. We expect 1,200 cases of this year's batch with only a smattering of draft for Southern California. We acquired some cognac barrels last fall and have a new beer slumbering in these as well with high hopes for sure. Framboise de Amorosa and Hop 15 make their comeback along with Hot Rocks in April. It's a busy time of year around here for sure.