New Orleans is a Miller High Life kind of town for the most part ”” we like cheap, light beer, especially when it’s hot. In the last four years, however, the wave of the craft beer boom has crashed here, bringing with it some of the great beers from the East and West Coasts and abroad. Local craft brewers have also started to produce competitive alternatives to macrobrews.
Enter The Avenue Pub. Once a 24-hour dive bar, in the last three years, the bar has become the center of craft beer activities in the city thanks to the tireless efforts of owner Polly Watts and her devoted staff (and it’s still open 24/7). On Saturday, September 17, Avenue Pub hosted one of only 21 Zwanze Day events to celebrate a limited batch of lambic beer released by Belgian brewery Cantillon.
Zwanze began in 2008 as a way for owner Jean Van Roy to “make a distinction” between his experimental beers and Cantillon’s regular products:
Taken from the Dutch dialect spoken in Brussels, the word «zwanze » describes the typical humour of the city’s inhabitants, which is characterised by a finely-balanced mix of self-deprecation and exaggeration. I quite like the idea of my lambic «Made in Brussels » having the same jovial and slightly derisive spirit as the people of Belgium’s Capital City, and of it also taking a light-hearted look at these blends, which I admit can seem a bit strange at times.
Unfortunately the joke was on Van Roy last year. When he released the Zwanze 2010 in bottles for 6 Euros, it didn’t take long for opportunists to scoop up the tasty brew and put it on eBay for upwards of 80 Euros.
To combat this, Van Roy decided not to sell Zwanze 2011 in bottles. He selected 21 bars around the world in Brussels, Stockholm, Paris, Fougà ¨res sur Bià ¨vre (France), Rome, Copenhagen, Helsinki, Nicorvo (Italy), Bergamo (Italy), Washington D.C., Montreal, Louisville (KY), Cambridge (MA), Philadelphia (PA), Portland (OR), Brooklyn (NY), Chicago (IL), Santa Rosa (CA), Escondido (CA), New Orleans (LA) and Itami (Japan) at which he released the beer on September 17. Only a few bottles will be kept for tastings at the brewery.
At Avenue Pub, the celebration ran for an entire week. On Wednesday, the bar held a tasting event for sour beers, and on the Friday, they tapped a cask of Cantillon’s St. Lamvinus ”” an unblended two- to three-year-old lambic that is fermented in Bordeaux barrels and then has Merlot and Cabernet Franc grapes added. Watts was on hand to pour the first glasses.
The result is a puckeringly sour beer that reeks (in a good way) of “funk” produced by the yeast Brettanomyces, the special yeast that lambics use to achieve their unique flavor palate.
Pourings were six ounces each for six dollars. Although lambics are beers, they deserve to be enjoyed more like wine.
On Saturday, the bar was already crowded when I arrived at 11:30, and the first person to enter the official queue arrived before 10. Many of the customers had traveled far for a taste of the rare beer ”” I spoke with people from Mobile, Lafayette, and as far as Houston.
T-shirts commemorating the event were available.
Watts took names as folks arrived, and by the 2pm tapping time there were over 150 people waiting. They were allowed up to the second floor balcony bar in groups of 30.
At 2pm, the first group swarmed toward the bar, and Dylan Lintern, vice-president of NOLA Brewing, hesitantly took the first pour.
Zwanze 2011 makes use of Pineau d’Aunis grapes from organic winegrower Olivier Lemasson:
In 2010 we tried something new by blending lambic with Pineau d’Aunis. The result was quite surprising and wine-like with specific accents of fruit, pepper and other spices, both as regards smell and taste. With Olivier’s approval, and despite a substandard harvest due to poor weather conditions, we recreated the same beer for Zwanze 2011. I subjected it to some very limited cold hopping using Bramling Cross hops, which yields a slightly bitter fruitiness. My friend Rob Todd of the Allagash Brewing Company calls it the «kiss of the hops », and I’ve decided to use this fantastic expression. The balance struck between the lambic, the grapes and the delicate bitter fruitiness is surprising yet very pleasant.
The resulting blend of Pineau d’Aunis (which Van Roy mistakenly labeled Pinot d’Aunis in his brewery for a while) and Cantillon lambic is a rich, grapey beer that features some aspects of the Cantillon range of lambic beers ”” a tart taste, not overly sweet, and a nose that shows some of the effects of funk but doesn’t hide the grapes as much as the St. Lamvinus. It’s extremely quaffable, and a number of tasters compared it to a rose wine.
The Zwanze 2010 is the beer that started the Zwanze craze and resulted in the formation of the current Zwanze Day setup, and it was available in bottles. It’s a witbier that underwent mixed fermentation ”” in addition to the ale yeasts, it was also naturally inoculated by lambic yeasts. The lemony and spiced notes of a witbier were present alongside oak from the aging in barrels, giving it a very complex flavor. One astute taster compared the aroma “dill,” which was very much a compliment.
Now that the event is over, it’s likely that the only Zwanze 2011 left is whatever Van Roy decided to keep in bottles at the brewery. Beer geeks will have to wait until next year to see what results from further experiments in Cantillon’s beer laboratories.