When we heard Eugene, Oregon’s Alesong Brewing and Blending was paying our Tavour tasting room a visit, it was like music to our ears. When they arrived, everyone dropped what they were doing to get a taste of the brewery's barrel-aged treasures and learn about the process and inspiration behind them.
Alesong is comprised of Matt Van Wyk, a former science teacher; Doug Coombes, former wine world/finance wizard; and Brian Coombes, brother to Doug and Chemistry major. They started brewing together in 2015, became legal in 2016, and released their first bottles in August of 2016. They wanted to start a brewery that blurred the lines between beer and wine, so oak barrel-aging has always been a huge part of their focus.
How is your beer connected to your local area in and around Eugene?
Our tasting room is located smack dab in Oregon wine country, and we get a lot of our wine barrels from King Estates (one of the largest wineries in the the state) that’s right next door. Being out in the country gives us access to local ingredients from nearby family farms as well. Our tasting room just opened last summer, but the plan is to plant some trees on our tasting room property so we can pick our own fruit for our beer.
Matt, you left Oakshire to start Alesong. Did you bring any of their influence with you?
I definitely brought some influence, but maybe not any specific recipes. I approach brewing like a chef and treat barrels like the key ingredients they are. I worked with 4 breweries before starting Alesong. One beer we’ve brewed [at AleSong] is a spiced Cucumber Berliner Weisse. This brew’s inspiration came from working with 10 Barrel Brewing and really enjoying their Cucumber Crush.
You make some really tasty Farmhouse Ales, and Belgian styles seem to be your specialty. What would you say is the most unique thing about Alesong? What makes you guys stand out from other Belgian-focused breweries?
Different from other barrel-focused breweries that specialize in one method of Sour brewing, we sometimes use Brett only, and sometimes do mixed fermentation with Brett, Lacto and a whole host of mixed cultures. We use lots of wine and Bourbon barrels, and a few American Whiskey, and occasionally we’ll use Gin barrels from Portland’s Ransom Spirits.
Another big distinction is that we typically release 4 to 5 new beers per quarter -- we don’t do flagships, and very rarely do we ever brew the same beer twice.
Do you have separate facilities for your fresh and wild beers?
We’re slowly transitioning all of our wild and sour production to a separate location out in the country.
How many people come into the taproom knowing what to expect?
Lots of education is involved, and because of our location, many of our visitors are part of the wine tasting crowd. It’s important to us to be able to relate to the audience. Many people come in with the mindset that they don’t actually enjoy beer. We’ll learn what types of wines they gravitate towards and recommend they try one of our Pinot Gris or Pinot Noir barrel-aged brews. One of the most rewarding feelings is we when find a beer for those people that say they don't drink beer -- and they end up really enjoying it.
We try to emphasize using words people are familiar with, like “you know what chocolate covered cherries taste like -- here’s a beer that delivers those same flavors.” For craft beer fans that come in, practically everyone calls themselves a hophead, and so many people come in looking for hazies. We jokingly say we make the O.G. hazies: unfiltered Belgians and Farmhouse Ales.
Tell us more about your relationship with the barrels.
We use a steamer to make sure wood is clean. Repurposing barrels is difficult because of deterioration. We’ve come up with all kinds of random things to use to patch up leaks, like crayons, toothpicks, you name it.
What’s the lifespan of liquor barrels? Bourbon barrels are one and done. They have heavy char you don’t get in a wine barrel (that can be used over and over again).
Gin barrels are nice to use, the character from oils in the botanicals lasts a really long time.
We are always looking for ways to reuse and recycle everything we can. Just recently we found a local guy in Eugene to repurpose our barrels into furniture.
Do you generate the recipes based off the barrels?
Yes in an ideal world, when we have unique barrels and a specific idea in advance, it’s a great strategy for creating new recipes. We brewed one for a fundraiser called Barrel Race For The Cure. The organizer of the event suggested we make something with Tequila barrels but didn’t have any specific ideas. So we used Tequila Barrels to brew a margarita-inspired Gose specifically for the race.
Your brews tend to be more subtle and delicate compared to a lot of the popular American Sour-focused breweries. What’s your perspective on Sour Ales?
We dislike the terms “Sours” and “Sour Ales,” and when people generalize and say “I like Sours.” Sours are becoming a style (with so many sub-styles within it).
Many brewers seem to be brewing with the intention of making Sour Ales as tart as humanly possible. A good example is The Rare Barrel: everything they used to make was extremely sour, and after repeat use their culture got so aggressive. With age, culture can get way out of control, and breweries like de Garde are making amazing stuff but it’s just so intensely tart.
We focus on balance, blending, and keeping our culture under control with hops, with the intent of being approachable like the godfathers of Belgian Sours at 3 Fonteinen and Cantillon. We don’t want the craft beer community to think more sour means better.
What was the beer (for each of you) that made you fall in love with craft? Or, more specifically, Belgians / Saisons?
Matt - Back in the mid-90s: Chimay, Rodenbach Grand Cru. It was the first time I experienced that beer could be sour, and the first time I tried a Guezue.
Doug - Probably The Dutchess. A similar story to Matt’s, it was the first time I had tasted anything like it before.
You’re coming up on your 2nd anniversary. Any surprises so far?
It has been interesting seeing which of our beers the community gets the most excited about. We’ve won multiple awards for Touch Of Brett, but people really love big BBA Stouts and super Sour Ales. The response whenever we have Bourbon Barrel-Aged anything has been crazy. People hoard them.
Looking ahead, what’s next for AleSong?
In March we’ll be doing a collaboration with Logsdon. It’ll be an interesting merger between our orchard style and their coolship techniques (which is new territory for us to use open spontaneous fermentation).
We’re joining up with Portland Table Beer specialists at The Commons Brewery for their last collab. They recently closed their brewery doors -- so it was a special opportunity for us to work with them on one last project.
Now approaching our two year anniversary, we realized that we’ve never made an IPA. After being asked if we planned to, I jokingly responded we might make a hazy almost as a gag-gift to celebrate our anniversary.
What Alesong brought to the tasting:
Belgian-Style Wit - classic character -- true to style.
French 75 - a Wild Ale inspired after the famous cocktail that delivers delicate lemony Gin notes.
Peche Peach Wild Ale - mildly tart ripe peach notes, subtle funk.
Belgian Style Quad aged in Rum Barrels - vibrantly sweet and boozy, the Rum notes play really nicely.
Kentucky Kilt Scotch Ale aged in Bourbon and Whiskey Barrels - malt forward with bountiful flavors of vanilla and oak. Quite boozy but very smooth.
Rackhouse Reserve Imp Stout aged in Rum, Bourbon, and Whiskey Barrels - a complex dessert with a creamy mouthfeel. Designed for sophisticated palates with a whole playground of liquor swimming around the tongue.
Written by Dylan Kasprzyk
Featured image from alesongbrewing.com