Athens, Ohio — Last fall when the guys at Little Fish Brewing purchased a 930-gallon white oak foeder, their ultimate goal was to establish a sour beer program in the style of breweries in West Flanders, Belgium. On one level, a foeder is a simply a large oaken tank used to age a beer. To Little Fish co-owners Sean White and Jimmy Stockwell, however, it means a lot more.
“To us, it’s a symbol of our commitment to sour beers,” White asserts. “It reminds us of what our priorities are as brewers.”
In its first use, a brand new oak foeder releases quite a bit of woody tannins that would not be desirable in a sour beer. So, to temper the wood and prepare it for its ultimate fate of aging Flemish-style sour ales, head brewer White first filled the tank with water, let it soak a week or so, then drained it.
Next, he filled the foeder with a classic English-style Old Ale, added some wild yeast, and let it sit for the next three months. During that time, the wild yeast characteristics would develop and the ale would draw out the stronger flavors from the oak—flavors that an Old Ale can handle well.
Enter the Aecern
The Old English word aecern, what we now call acorn, refers to the fruit of the oak tree. In a certain sense, this Aecern Old Ale can be seen as the first fruit of the oak foeder.
Released this month at an ABV of 8.5 percent, Aecern has a brown color, deep malt character, and a low carbonation level. It will continue to develop over time. Sure, you can drink it now, but cellar it for a year, and you should be well rewarded.
Sold at the brewery, The Aecern is available on draught and in bottles. 375 ml bottles are $7.99, and 750 ml bottles are $14.99. Along with the barrel-aged Woodthrush, Poisson Grand, and Reinheitsgewhat, The Aecern gives Little Fish a solid bottle line-up.
Foeder Phase Two
With the strong tannins removed from the oak, the foeder was then ready for making Flemish-style sour red ale.
The secret to a good sour-ale foeder program is cultivating a virtual beehive of beer-friendly wild yeasts and bacteria that will find a long-term home in the pores of the wood and in the retained beer.
While aging the Old Ale, the foeder had already been inoculated with one strain of wild yeast, Brettanomyces claussenii, which is a mild version of the that yeast family. A lot of that Brett was also happily living in the residual Old Ale that had been left in the tank.
Separately, White brewed a new red ale with lots of Vienna and some crystal malts and fermented it with regular brewers yeast. Next, the beer was inoculated with a special Flemish sour blend of wild yeasts and bacteria (stuff like brett, lactobacillus, pediococcus) from brewery supplier East Coast Yeast.
The beer was then aged for a time in red wine barrels. Once all the critters got working, it was pumped into the foeder, mixing together with the residual Old Ale. In the solara-style system Little Fish is using, you always leave some old beer in the tank to help flavor and inoculate the new beer.
So what happens next? White’s not 100 percent sure. You see, establishing a foeder program is as much art as it is science. At this point it’s an ongoing experiment.
“I do not consider myself a master of sour beer,” he says. “It’s a learning process.”
Part of that learning process is building the best community of bugs and critters for his foeder. And White is always on the lookout for some good dregs of other people’s beer.
“When we find a culture or a bottle we really like, just for fun we’ll throw that in too,” he says. “There’s always an unknown factor in beer. It’s the magic of it.
“I have faith in it. It’s going to make really nice beer.”
So for now, the beer sits in the tank doing its thing. When this first batch will be ready to drink, only time will tell.
They watch it closely, test its vitals and taste it regularly. When White deems it ready, he will pull out around 20 barrels for bottling, and refill the foeder with more fresh red ale. The 10 barrels of beer remaining in the tank is left to start souring the new beer. Over time, this process will be repeated again and again, and the foeder will live its life producing sour red ale.
The brewery will let everyone know when they are ready to release this first batch. It’s announcement we’re definitely looking forward to.
For sun and saison
“We are planning on installing a solar array on our roof,” he says, explaining it’s a pretty expensive undertaking for a small start-up brewery.
To help defray those costs, he has a special Saison in the works. All of the income from selling that beer will be dedicated to funding the solar energy project.
The Saison will feature Ohio-grown malts, both barley and spelt. It will layer as many Ohio ingredients as possible, hopefully including some Ohio hops and other botanicals. The Saison’s availability will be announced on the brewery Facebook page.
Fans of the brewery and fans of renewable energy will be able to buy a beer and help out the brewery and the environment with one purchase. BrilliantStream likes this fundraising plan much better than a Kickstarter campaign.
And speaking of Ohio hops, expect the Little Fish folks, this spring, to install their own hopyard in the green space next to the brewery. They’re definitely a busy bunch over at Little Fish Brewing.