The drive for experimentation and to find the next big thing can lead to some wild places. Set your time machine to 4,000 BC to find some of the oldest examples of winemakers using clay vessels to make and store wine. Closer to home—in Kansas City, Missouri, to be exact—Boulevard Brewing is using a similar clay amphora to produce a fruited wine-beer hybrid. The Vignoles Sour Ale will released in Boulevard’s Tours & Rec Center beer hall on Friday.
Lead brewer Ryan McNeive’s fascination with history and interest in “funky natural wine” led him to ship a 1,000-liter Tuscan-made amphora to the brewery in September 2018. Boulevard’s sole amphora stands among six massive oak foeders, 50 wine puncheons, oak barrels, and steel vessels. Each has its advantages. “You get different ester profiles from wild yeast and bacteria, as well as a different mouthfeel from wood barrels compared to clay,” McNeive says. “We’re using amphora to make sour and farmhouse mixed-culture beers. Our focus is to produce dry, complex blended beers.”
He enlisted Kansas City-based American Master of Wine and Master Sommelier Doug Frost to collaborate on the project and connected the brewery with a half-ton of crushed Vignoles from Les Bourgeois Vineyards. The French-American hybrid white grapes were harvested in the fall. The freshly crushed grapes, skins, seeds, and juice were deposited into the amphora two days later.
The last step was adding a golden ale sourced from Boulevard’s main brewery and then letting time do its job. For at least two years, McNeive has been experimenting with the aging time of mixed-culture beers in its amphora. This particular beer was aged for six months.
Boulevard Brewing isn’t the first brewery to adapt an amphora for aging beer. In 2012, an Italian wine tasting inspired Jean Van Roy of Brasserie Cantillon in Brussels, Belgium, to experiment with aging lambic in amphorae. That led Benson Brewing of Omaha, Nebraska to enlisted a local potter to build 40-gallon pots for fermentation. Benson’s brewers added airlocks, pressure-sealed gaskets, and other modern fixtures to facilitate beer-making. While London-based Beavertown’s Tempus Project also utilizes terra cotta amphora.
The fascination with amphorae traces back more than 6,000 years ago, when winemakers in ancient Georgia figured out that egg-shaped amphorae made of clay were ideal vessels to make, store, and transport wine. Modern winemakers in Italy and Oregon with an interest in natural wines tried their hand at aging wine in earthenware pots. Clay is naturally porous and rich in minerals. These qualities allow for micro-oxygenation, the addition of oxygen in a controlled manner. Aging wine and beer in amphorae may improve aromatics and yield a soft, rounded mouthfeel. As an added bonus, the aging process in amphorae can be faster than aging in oak barrels. Amphorae also don’t add tannin to its contents and beneficial bacteria may take up residence on the pot’s porous surface.
The use of amphora in the beer world is slightly more uncharted territory. Hence the need for experimentation. Since bottling the amphora-aged golden ale, McNeive has put a spontaneous-fermentation sour beer in the vessel. The beer’s mixed culture includes a saison strain, Lactobacillus strain, two Brettanomyces strains, and wild yeast from the facility. “It’s been bubbling for more than four months,” he says. “That’s unusual to still be gassing off.” Next, Boulevard will collaborate on projects with Maine breweries to produce an amphora-aged farmhouse ale.
McNeive found that aging beer in an amphora involved learning traditional methods and practical adaptation. Boulevard’s amphora was sealed inside with beeswax, a traditional Georgian winemaking technique to minimize oxidation during aging. Oxygen may also impact quality while removing beer from the vessel. McNeive plans to experiment with aging times to better control micro-oxygenation.
McNeive intends to produce two mixed-culture sours and farmhouse ales each annually in the amphora. “I’d like to do more wine-inspired beers,” McNeive says. “I want to jump on amphora-aging early. Not many breweries are doing this. It is time-consuming.” Cleaning the hefty, fragile, and expensive amphora is an awkward process involving removing spent fruit and byproducts with a shovel from the tall, narrow vessel. “Cleaning the amphora isn’t excessive,” McNeive says. “The tank is a living organism. You put beer in, pitch yeast, and let it go.”