Membership Has Its Privileges: Upland’s Secret Barrel Society Dinner

Membership Has Its Privileges: Upland’s Secret Barrel Society Dinner


By Writing & Reporting Community Member Rod Myers

For Christmas last year, I convinced my wife that I had been good enough to deserve a membership in Upland’s Secret Barrel Society (SBS), which among other things gives one first crack at purchasing their sour releases before the unwashed masses storm the public lotteries. After a run of luck, I had come up empty in the last few lotteries of 2014, and the sour section of my beer cellar was dangerously low. My wife could see this and, herself a connoisseur of lactic and acetic acid, was more than happy to agree, balking only briefly at the $250 price tag.

Upland started brewing lambic-style beers in 2006 after trading beer for white oak barrels from Oliver Winery. The rest, as they say, is history; today Upland sours have won numerous awards, and wild ale aficionados seek them out in the dark recesses of the Internet where anything may be obtained for a price (as long as FedEx believes you’re shipping “yeast samples”). Upland founded SBS to raise capital in order to expand their sour program, and the venture seems to be a success. Our 250 bucks bought us not only first dibs on new sour releases—quickly replenishing our cellar while depleting our bank account—but also some sweet Upland swag, a ticket to the Sour+Wild+Funk Fest (which we quickly upgraded to two VIP tickets), and—this past Saturday—two seats at an exclusive SBS dinner at Upland’s West Side Beer Bar, a production facility and tasting room.

Those of you playing along at home may have noticed that this is my second beer dinner of the week, despite a crippling (okay, merely painful—never let your wife proofread your writing) attack of gout in my big toe. This is the price I pay so that you can vicariously experience the glamour and excitement of Bloomington beer culture. We arrived to find the tasting room packed, with the majority being SBS members waiting to enter the production area where the dinner would take place. After a cursory check of our IDs, we sauntered into a candle-lit space to find a tree that apparently had been felled for the occasion, split vertically, the cut side then sanded, varnished, and ready to hold a spread of Smoking Goose charcuterie. What a beautiful beginning: classic fatty, melt-in-your-mouth capocollo; Toulouse sausage with garlic, nutmeg, white pepper, and white wine; Dodge City pork salame with fennel pollen and pink peppercorns; and a couple of cheeses, including one that must have contained some habanero to tickle the spice-loving receptors of my brain. At the end of the tree were Upland tulip glasses containing Sour Reserve #6.

The Sour Reserve series is sometimes described as an American-style gueuze, made by blending various vintages of Upland’s base lambic, which they have been making since 2006. To create these lambics, Head Brewer Caleb Staton uses a malt bill with 30% unmalted wheat and conducts a turbid mash, a traditional Belgian technique that involves drawing off some of the wort, heating it to denature the enzymes that would otherwise work to break down the starches into simple sugars that regular brewer’s yeast (Saccharomyces) can quickly eat, and returning the hot liquid to the mash. The result is a cloudy, starchy wort that will ferment in a large oak foudre, souring over time as Upland’s unique blend of Belgian yeast, wild yeast, and other microorganisms works its magic. The beer spends another 8 months or more in oak barrels, aging and developing the complex flavors that American craft beer drinkers are growing to love.

Bloomington is a small town and I’m a big drinker, so there are always some familiar faces at a beer dinner. We sat at one of the tables for eight and were soon joined by some friends. Just as I was finishing my beer, Pete Batule, Head of Production at Upland, appeared and offered to refill our glasses. Now, Upland could have hired some generic servers to top off our tulips and meet our geeky questions with blank stares and mumbles; instead, some of the most knowledgeable people at the brewery were pouring their creations and chatting with us about the nuances of barrels and bugs (the affectionate nickname that brewers have given those magical microorganisms that turn mere beer into liquid gold).

Meanwhile, the first course of strawberry arugula salad with red wine vinaigrette and walnuts appeared, accompanied by Pete with a bottle of Strawberry Sour Ale. He informed us that this beer had aged for over a year before being racked onto strawberries from California and Indiana for another four to six months. The course was a fond reminder of summer.

Apparently the Upland folks had expected us to mingle around the charcuterie tree (ah, doesn’t that conjure an Edenic vision: a tree bearing cured meats!) rather than stampede the dining tables, because Chef Paddy materialized to announce a slight delay until the main course would be served. Given that the production facility doesn’t have a proper kitchen and the chef and his crew were grilling in the rain, none of the guests seemed bothered in the least by the wait. More rounds of the Sour Reserve #6 and the Strawberry Sour appeased the crowd.

The main course was worth the wait. A generous portion of Fischer Farms center-cut filet, grilled to succulent perfection, was flanked by roasted baby carrots (not those bland stubs you see in the supermarket, in case that’s what you’re picturing) and creamy baked potato soufflé. Chef Paddy explained that they had scooped out the baked potatoes and pureed the skins, which added a deep, earthy note to the dish. This course was paired with Malefactor, a stronger version of a Flanders-style Red Ale that is very malt-forward and gives little clue that it is roughly 10% ABV. Pete told us that Malefactor is aged in bourbon barrels that have previously been used two or three times to age other beers, resulting in a mellow bourbon character with charred wood notes.

While we dined, the charcuterie tree was transformed into a dessert tree with slices of mini chocolate cake and blueberry cheesecake paired with Blueberry Sour Ale. We returned to our table to indulge in the sweets and loosen our belts another notch, drifting into sated reverie as the evening drew to a close. But wait, what’s that? A vertical tasting of Sour Reserves #1 through #6! We hastily rinsed our tulip glasses and gathered empty water glasses, rushing back to the wondrous tree that now held rows of amber bottles. At this point my notes are hazy at best. My wife and I slowly sniffed and sipped our way through the six vintages, savoring the aromas and flavors, discussing the subtle differences with our tablemates. Some preferred the complexities of the earlier years, while others liked the freshness of the more recent batches. Most agreed that #4 had a nice funk going on.

How do you end a night that you don’t want to end? Take it out to the patio, where Upland and Yazoo Brewing of Nashville, Tennessee were serving the results of a collaboration between the two breweries. Upland’s Three Degrees North is a blend of their Kiwi and Cherry Sour Ales and  Yazoo’s Sour Blonde, while Yazoo’s Three Degrees South is a blend of their Sour Brown Ale (some aged in red wine barrels, some aged in bourbon barrels) and Upland’s Dantalion and Cherry Sour Ale. To tell you the truth, my palate was pretty blown by this point, but I have a couple of bottles of Three Degrees North in my cellar thanks to my SBS membership. Speaking of which, Caleb announced that the 2016 membership will cost only $150 while still retaining all of the perks and privileges. Christmas is coming, so you might want to remind your spouse about how good you’ve been this year.


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