Brew Blog: Duchesse de Bourgogne

One birch-beating shy of a banya
One birch-beating shy of a banya

If you're not prepared for The Duchesse, she can be a bit of a shock. It all comes down to familiarity with sour beers. If you've never had a sour, it doesn't really matter which one you try first. The response always seems to be the same. "This isn't beer."

I remember my first encounter, though I don't recall the specific beer. My wife and I were at Anvil, and she struck up a conversation with a young woman sitting next to us at the bar. She'd had a beer, the same beer, sitting in front of her, seemingly untouched, for almost an hour.

My wife had grown curious. "Is there something wrong with your beer?" she asked. "Here," responded our neighbor, pushing the glass in our direction. "Taste it yourself." Cautiously, I raised the glass to my lips, noticing our bartender, Yao, looking on with interest. The shock must have been evident on my face, because he burst out laughing.

The beer tasted like someone had doused it with vinegar -- sharp, acerbic and utterly un-beer-like. It was also delicious, but it took my taste buds and brain a few moments to come to that consensus. They had to figure out what they were tasting first.

Since then, I've had a fair number of sour styles, and have developed a fondness for many of them. I can still appreciate that initial shock, though, and relived it a bit with Duchesse de Bourgogne.

I wasn't paying attention when I bought it, just trying to get something new to try. I must admit I was also swayed by Central Market beverage manager Justin Vann's attached warning label: "If you don't like this, we can't be friends." I'm a sucker for peer pressure.

The point is, I didn't know what it was. It was over with the Belgian beers, so I just sort of assumed it was some fairly standard Trappist something or other. Nope.

Of course, as soon as I poured it, I knew I was in for a different experience than I had expected. A fruity, slightly musty aroma poured out of the glass. It was slightly barnyardy and wild, with a sharp punch that recalled vinegar while avoiding its bracing, acerbic nature. There were very interesting notes of what I can only describe as Grape Kool-Aid and Fun-Dip, butting up against oxidized red wine. It was heady and intense, but also alive and vibrant.

The beer was visually alive, too, with animated carbonation keeping a constantly refreshing, fluffy off-white head perched atop the ruddy brown beer. I passed the glass to my wife for a sip, and the curiosity played across her face, brow knitting in concentration as she tried to figure out what she was smelling. She took a sip, eyes widening a bit, and handed the glass back to me.

Bright, fruity acidity enveloped my palate. The interplay of depth and lightness in this beer is remarkable. The first sensation is prickly carbonation mingling with a puckering tartness. Immediately after, the sour front edge rounds off, leading into woody and nutty flavors. Grape juice, wine-dark cherries, varnish or nail-polish play over the surface. Then, that nutty woodiness comes in, like drying hay with a touch of earth. The sweet-tart balance gives way to a remarkably dry finish, with a slightly tannic astringency, a hint of malty richness, and a coppery punch.

Just as the flavors play Janus-faced tricks on the palate, so does the texture of this beer. The body is rich and satiny, but in constant interplay with the bubbles. It's a constantly shifting pattern of rich and light, sour and sweet, creamy and effervescent. It's like the beverage equivalent of a Russian banya, minus the birch-beatings.

This is an absolutely delicious beer, both satisfying and refreshing. It's also a pretty good introduction to the world of sour beers, as its chameleon-like shifting allows a gentler entry than some beers that focus more stridently on their tang. There's a bit of a shock on the first sip, no doubt, but the beer offers so much more than sour that it's likely to win people over. Besides, it's kind of fun to see the look on the face of an unsuspecting drinker when confronted with his or her first sour. Bring The Duchesse to your next get-together. It's like a practical joke, but with the end result of great beer.

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