Considering that Belgian beer has its origins in medieval monasteries, its status in craft brewing remains white-hot. A number of local brewers, from Sierra Nevada to North Coast, have tried their hands at Belgian-style beers in recent years, but they all owe a debt to Allagash, the Maine-based brewery whose products have grown increasingly popular in California over the past few years. While the brand's flagship remains the White, a Belgian-style wheat beer that was also the first beer they brewed, their brewing structure is surprisingly open and inventive.
"We have only 25 employees, and they're all passionate about what they do," brewer Rob Tod told us last week at an Allagash dinner at the Monk's Kettle. The Allagash brewery boasts a small, ten-gallon brewing system that all employees (including the administrative staff) are encouraged to use to test beer recipes. One of the beers served at the dinner, the 2009 Fluxus, was based on a concoction by brewery staffer Dee Dee Germain, whose Southern roots inspired her to add mashed sweet potatoes to the brew. The resulting beer, a more alcohol-forward take on a saison, has a beautiful orange color and hints of citrus and papaya flavor.
Confluence, another beer served at the dinner, was the result of a happy brewing mistake. A batch of beer was accidentally infected with brettanomyces yeast; when Tod checked on the brew, it overflowed, and a taste of the foam that splashed him proved to be surprisingly delicious. The resulting "American Wild Ale" is malty, funky, and silky in the mouth.
Allagash was also one of the first breweries to adopt the now-ubiquitous practice of aging strong beers in liquor barrels, and its Curieux is still aged in barrels that previously held Jim Beam bourbon. One of the best-regarded barrel-aged beers, the bourbon gives Curieux hints of coconut and vanilla to complement its spice.
While the brewery has more visibility in California than ever before, Tod admitted that they're finding it difficult to keep up with demand. Distributors at the dinner suggested that those interested in trying Allagash should try Healthy Spirits in the Castro or BevMo! to find retail bottles. In addition to the Monk's Kettle, the White is available on draft at Rosamunde Sausage Grill's Mission location and the new Public House at AT&T Park. Anchor & Hope offers bottles of the Curieux, and Bar Crudo carries the Odyssey and Four varieties.