“Welcome my son, welcome to the machine.”
Pink Floyd’s 1975 synth-and-effects heavy dirge of disillusionment reverberates among the stacks of oak barrels filled with slumbering beer. There is always music playing in the climate-controlled barrel room at the Beachwood Blendery in Long Beach, California. Even when there are no brewers or cellarmen around, the barrels and the bugs serve as audience for a days-long playlist of classic rock and bluegrass assembled by Head Brewer and Blender Ryan Fields. “There’s a spiritual aspect of making beer, and you (have to) have the right music,” Fields says.
The music is one (near-tangible) example of how he imbues the brews with part of his personality. The idea of filling the space with melodic vibrations came from New Belgium Brewing’s famed “wood-cellar supervisor” Eric Salazar. “Eric suggested that it’s important to have music for the beer, so we installed speakers in the Blendery before we did our first brew,” says Gabe Gordon, founder of Beachwood BBQ and Brewing.
A spin-off of the lauded Beachwood brewpub in downtown Long Beach, the Blendery is the headquarters for the quixotic pursuit of perfection in the most romantic genre of fermentation: the lambics of Belgium’s Senne Valley. Those funky and complex Old World bières are the favorites of Gordon. He built the Blendery with the single-minded focus to re-create a true lambic-style beer 5,000 miles away in Southern California, and at the center of the effort is one critical piece of the lambic puzzle: the coolship.
True Belgian lambic bière is more alchemy than science. In the Oxford Companion to Beer, Bill Taylor calls lambic “among the most interesting and complex drinks ever created,” and many distinctive elements must work in harmony to produce the sour wheat ales. The lambic brewing process begins with a grist heavy in unmalted wheat and an intricate mash regimen. A long boil with well-aged hops follows, and the beer will spend many months slowly fermenting and conditioning in oak barrels. In between the boil and the barrels, the lambic wort is processed in a large flat pan where it cools overnight while exposed to the natural microflora of the Belgian countryside. No yeast is pitched—the fermentation kicks off spontaneously thanks to the once mysterious wild yeasts and bacteria that colonize the cooling wort, and the results are layers of funk, acid, and ester that give lambic its signature character.
“Breathe, breathe in the air / Don’t be afraid to care.”
Maybe it’s confirmation bias or maybe it’s synchronicity, but the music in the barrel room seems to reflect the work as it happens. More Pink Floyd plays as piping hot wort is transferred into the custom-built coolship. There’s no brew kettle or mash tun at the Blendery. Wort destined for the coolship and the barrels is brewed a few hundred feet away on the 10-barrel brewhouse at the Beachwood brewpub. Hot wort is then pumped from the kettle into a mobile stainless steel vessel that is dragged via motorized pallet jack through the parking garage and alleyway to the barrel room. Inside the Blendery, hundreds of barrels are stacked four-high, and oaken foeders hold hundreds more gallons of beer. The space is humidified and cooled to replicate the climate of Belgium, and wort destined for the coolship and spontaneous fermentation is brewed only a few months of the year (typically, September through April).
At many traditional Belgian lambic breweries, the coolship is located in the attic of the building, and windows are left open so the night air can flow into the brewery and over the cooling wort. In Long Beach, the coolship is mounted twelve feet above the floor and under the outlet of dedicated ductwork that pulls air from the roof of the building.
Gordon first wanted to have a copper coolship built, but none of the fabricators he spoke to would take on the large project. In mid-2015, with construction of the Blendery complete and the lambic-brewing season quickly approaching, Gordon turned to his commercial-kitchen supplier for a stainless-steel coolship. “The designs went back and forth, and we had to consider how that much steel would react going from room temperature to 212°F (100°C) and back to room temperature,” Gordon says. The finished coolship cost between six and seven thousand dollars, is doubly reinforced, and holds a little more than twelve barrels of wort.
Lambic brew days are long, with a multi-step mash, a slow and careful lauter, and a three-hour boil. By early afternoon, the wort is moved into the barrel room and is pumped from the transportation vessel into the coolship, which groans and sputters as thermal expansion flexes the steel against its welds. Fields monitors the flow of wort first from a perch atop a ladder leaned against a tower of barrels and then from a more secure spot on the barrel-room floor. The wort will cool overnight to pick up a medley of microbes from the air flowing inland off the Pacific. More microbes float down from the wooden ceiling beams and a wooden lattice mounted above the coolship that were sprayed with house culture before the initial spontaneous fermentations.
The Blendery releases other beers besides the straight lambic style that’s the project’s endgame, but they’re all made in service to Gordon’s ultimate goal of creating traditional blended gueuze that rivals examples from Belgian producers. Each beer gives the brewers more experience and more data that influences each critical decision. The Blendery is a brewing laboratory where the myths and traditions are investigated and analyzed to identify which variables are most important for making lambic-style beers that stand up to the Old World producers. The coolship is a crucial tool in this exploration, but the experimentation is time consuming and the results come slowly.
“Every year is getting shorter, never seem to find the time.”
The Blendery team brews seven batches a month, and during the cooler months one or two are a spontaneous fermentation. Fermentation times vary but average about fourteen months in a barrel before a bottle conditioning that lasts another couple of months, and a recipe tweak or process variation can’t be tasted until a finished bottle is popped. “Nothing is quick,” says Gordon.
“Every decision we make takes a year or more to see results.” But instead of being a frustration, the languor of lambic brewing is a refreshing slowdown for Gordon. “It’s cool to participate in creating a traditional and seasonal product,” he says. The unhurried pace gives the team time to consider each step and each decision. There’s a more instant gratification when making clean beer—in three weeks, you’re drinking that new IPA. Gordon, who was a fine-dining chef before opening the original Beachwood BBQ restaurant and beer bar in Seal Beach, California, says the pace in the kitchen is even more immediate, “Every seven minutes you either do a good job or you don’t. If you screw something up, make adjustments and do it again.”
While the spontaneously fermented beer is an important blending component in many of the Beachwood Blendery releases—it provides a distinctive background funk that the house culture has yet to develop—the first all-spontaneous fermentation beer wasn’t released until June 2017. The coolship was first used for six batches in the winter of 2015, and “one batch came out really interesting,” Fields says.
“It showed us that the coolship works, and that it is an important aspect of the flavors we’re after.” Half of that batch was bottled as Coolship Chaos and released at an elaborate party held in the Blendery tasting room and among the barrels. Attendees enjoyed samples poured right from select barrels and glasses of draft specialties featuring tropical fruits, exotic barberry, and some of the world’s most sought-after coffee, and everyone walked away with a pair of Coolshop Chaos bottles.
“We’re a couple of years closer to our goal,” Gordon says after the Coolship Chaos release, adding, “Maybe we’ll have a gueuze-style blend in eight years.” As for the quest for understanding the intricacies of Belgian lambic, that may take even longer. There’s a certain romance in lambic brewing—a mystique that brewers respect and chase. “American brewers have been all about analysis and applying science to brewing, but when we talk about lambic brewing, we still talk about ‘pixie dust,’” Gordon says.
“Is there more to beer than science? I hope that the music Ryan Fields plays for the barrels makes the beer better, but I’m okay if it just makes winters in the barrel room less miserable for him. I don’t need the secret of lambic to be magic, but I’m okay if it is. We have no agenda besides making great lambic-style beers.”
“And after a while, you can work on points for style.”