How would fans react if the Beatles, the Rolling Stones and the Beach Boys got together to play a show, one night only? That same chaos, excitement and fervor surrounds a limited-release collaboratively-brewed beer from three craft powerhouses: Allagash in Portland, Maine, Russian River in Santa Rosa, California and Cantillon in Brussels, Belgium. That's the good news. But the bad news is that the beer is nearly gone and it's not for sale. Might it make a comeback?
If it weren't for Cantillon, America's beer scene might look entirely different today. The Belgian brewery, founded in 1900 and currently under fourth generation family ownership, is one of a handful that came through the modernization of the 20th and 21st centuries relatively unscathed. As its peers transitioned to stainless steel equipment and Louis Pasteur's fully sanitized, domesticated, controllable processes, Cantillon doubled down on oak barrels and the world's original method of fermentation: spontaneous, where a brewer invites wild yeasts (which live in wood, on fruit, on humans, basically everywhere) to inoculate and produce the beer. The company's sour ales are the stuff of legend in the fervent world of beer geekery.
Nearly ten years ago, a group of young, eager American brewers made a pilgrimage to mecca. While visiting Cantillon, they latched onto the notion that the brewery's famed wild organisms lived everywhere, not just Belgium. They took what they learned back across the Atlantic to rebuild their own country's infrastructure for and devotion to wild brewing. Eventually, after trial and error, Allagash birthed Coolship (a funky, sour beer fermented spontaneously and aged in oak barrels for years) and Russian River produced Sonambic (also wild fermented and sour). Years later, these brewers have been afforded the opportunity to join forces with Cantillon on an absurdly rare project for truly obsessive fans.
Similar to how Johnnie Walker blends Scotch from various top tier producers to draw upon the strengths of various batches, Allagash, Cantillon, and Russian River all contributed a portion of their own spontaneously fermented beers for the ultimate mashup. Together, the brewers sampled the individual components and decided how the beers would harmonize best in the bottle. The result, called Wild Friendship, is truly a marriage of regional and global flavors, and it has caused the crate diggers of the beer world to salivate over a trinity most will never taste.
How Cantillon Inspired American Brewers to Spontaneously Ferment
In 2006, Russian River co-owner Vinnie Cilurzo and Allagash founder Rob Tod visited Belgium with Sam Calagione of Dogfish Head Brewery, Tomme Arthur of Lost Abbey, and Adam Avery of Avery Brewing. Before that fateful trip, conventional wisdom held that Belgian lambics — sour beers with true terroir thanks to the wild and therefore local organisms involved in their production — were impossible to make outside of Belgium. It was similar to the once-held belief that San Francisco was the only proper place to make sourdough.
Cantillon owner Jean van Roy, whose family founded the renowned brewery in 1900, shattered that illusion. As Cilurzo recalls, "Jean said to us, 'You can spontaneously ferment anywhere in the world, it just may not be the same process we do.' That stuck with me. We did something pretty quickly. I don't know that we'd be spontaneously fermenting if it weren't for that trip."
For his part, Tod admitted, "I was nervous about introducing all these microbes into the brewery — for good reason! — so we didn't really act on it for a while." In August of 2007, though, about a year after the trip, he had a change of heart. "Maybe I had some weird dream about lambic beer, but I went right into the brewery and said to [head brewer Jason Perkins], 'We're getting a Coolship, we're gonna do this.'"
The Master Calls in His Disciples
The stage was set: Americans began making wild beers. Tod said van Roy has been an invaluable resource in smoothing out rough edges, and van Roy praised the improvements: "I remember your first batch. The character of your beers increased in the right way."
Van Roy was happy enough with their progress that a couple of years ago he asked Allagash and Russian River if they'd like to participate in a transcontinental blend for Quintessence, an event held at Cantillon on May 1, a European holiday. "Obviously we very quickly said yes, it was such a cool opportunity," Perkins shared. "Basically we wanted to showcase all three of our different ways of making spontaneous beer."
Thankfully for Americans who couldn't make the trip to Belgium for the first blend's debut at 2014's Quintessence, van Roy filled his American counterparts' kegs with Cantillon lambic before returning them, and another blend was produced at Allagash. This led to two recent events: a dinner at Russian River's brew pub in California and the Wild Friendship Celebration at Allagash in Maine.
Lambic, Sonambic, and Coolship, Together at Last
For its contribution to both batches of the trifecta beer, Allagash chose a two-and-a-half-year-old version of its Coolship series, spontaneously fermented beers that age in oak barrels for as long as needed before being sold. Russian River's "sweet spot" was a two-year-old iteration of what Cilurzo calls Sonambic, a contraction of Sonoma and lambic. "It's our word for our local spontaneous beer while respecting the lambic term," he clarified. Lambic isn't a protected term like Champagne, but many brewers treat it that way. Similarly, Allagash's use of "coolship" is an anglicization of "koelschip," a Dutch or Flemish word for the cooling vessel in which unfermented beer picks up wild organisms.
For his part, van Roy felt that the American beers had "the right sourness," so he decided to blend them with one of his three year old Cantillon lambics. He said it had "more softness, more mellowness, grain, a bit something delicate" to round out the acidity of the other two beers.
The Final Product
As of this month, the original Belgian blend has been aging in bottles for over a year, the American version for about eleven months. Cilurzo insisted you can taste all three base beers in the two blends that were produced if you're familiar enough with them. His contribution was the most sour, he felt. Van Roy in particular was excited about what the end result represents for the world of spontaneous fermentation and blending. "Three natural beers went together without any problem, even though they were produced so far from each other. It was the goal, and in my opinion it's a great success," he announced.
How to Try
That's the tough part: it's nearly gone, and it's not for sale. After 700 guests sampled the blends at Allagash's event — which raised over $10,000 in support of feeding hungry children through the charity "Full Plates, Full Potential" — there's only a handful of bottles remaining. "If there's any left over, each brewery will hang onto it, age it, open it for special pourings, but the one thing we agreed on at the beginning was that we wouldn't sell any bottles so there wouldn't be any black market," Cilurzo said.
Hope is not lost, however. When asked if he would ever repeat the collaboration, van Roy told Eater, "I think so."