Jolly Pumpkin La Roja Header

Hello Sour Beer Fans,

Before my first solo review, and story of how I came to love sour beers, I’d like to tell you a little about myself. My name is Carlo Palumbo I am currently a manager of two family restaurants, Davinci’s Italian Eatery and Palumbo Pizza of Hampden.  I am a certified former bartender and I have worked in many places from causal fine dining golf course restaurants and banquets to downtown city sports bars. I am a four year homebrewer and have been making wine at home with my dad for 12 years.  I recently began working on getting my BJCP certification (Beer Judge Certification Program). I am currently a Provisional judge and recently took my tasting exam at NHC in Grand Rapids and am presently waiting to receive my score. My goal in the near future is to work on the Cicerone program and plan to take my Certified Beer Server exam this weekend. I both enjoy brewing and am a fan of all beer styles as long as they are well made.

The story of my first taste of sour beer begins on May 1st, 2011.  My memory flashes to a late night in Philadelphia where I am leaving Citizens Bank Park early because my friends wanted to start heading home even though the game was in extra-innings. What we didn’t know at the time is that we would miss one of the most memorable events in Philadelphia baseball history. During our drive home, we turned the radio on to listen to the rest of the game, and we could hear fans start chanting U-S-A repeatedly as the news of Osama Bin Laden’s  death was being shown over the outfield screen. As I rode home my mind flashed back several hours earlier.  While tailgating in lot K, I tried a sour beer for the first time. It was obscure Flemish sour red ale.  I still remember the shock of my first sip, the beer tasted like oak aged vinegar and made me vow to never drink a sour beer again.  I ridiculed Dr. Lambic for drinking such awful beers and said they belong on a salad.  He then suggested a similar beer and, after tracking one down, he had me try it.  My sour world went upside down!  It was a mellow sour, easy to drink but complex.  The beer was palate cleansing but left so many flavors behind. This, my first enjoyable sour beer, was La Roja, the red.

Jolly Pumpkin La RojaAs my first solo review for Sour Beer Blog, I figured that it was only fitting to reminisce back to my introduction to the world of sour beers.  La Roja is brewed by Jolly Pumpkin Artisan Ales in Dexter, Michigan. Founded by Ron Jeffries in 2004, Jolly Pumpkin used and continues to use spontaneous fermentation to develop their own house culture. The label reads: “An artisan amber ale brewed in the Flanders tradition. Deep amber with earthy caramel, spice, and sour fruit notes developed through natural barrel aging.  Unfiltered, unpasteurized and blended from barrels ranging to over a year in age”.  I also need to mention how much I love the art on the label.  For my 30th birthday, Matt gave me a bottle so that I could review it.

As it pours from the bottle, it is a deep copper to amber color. Once in the glass, the beer appears  amber to blood orange in direct light, and murky light brown out of the light.  I used my newly acquired Spiegelau snifter glass which I received at a NHC seminar to review La Roja.

As a side note, Spiegelau may make the best glasses for tasting a beer.  They hold great aromatics, temperature, and carbonation.

When the beer hits the glass the aromatics burst out immediately with raisons, plums, dark cherries, and dark skinned fruits.  As the thin white head dissipates quickly, leaving a small amount of lace, I get closer and smell red wine, vanilla, strong lactic acid, and vinegar.  The Brettanomyces characters are those of leather, “barnyard”, and a slight mustiness.  Absent are aromas of tropical fruits and dough, bread, or crackers. As La Roja warmed, aromas of aged malt and caramel malt present themselves. As I finish each sip,  I notice slight oxidation and sherry aromas, like wet cardboard, which could be a product of oxygen entering the wine barrels or the use of a sherry yeast.

Jolly Pumpkin La Roja

The flavors are a lot like the aroma: dark cherry, plums, and fruit skins. The beer is slightly metallic (like licking a penny) and has some vinegar (acetic acid) but not as much as I’ve had in many other examples of this style.  As it warms, the slight flavor of caramel malt becomes apparent. La Roja finished very dry, and has a body which is a bit thin, but this accentuates the sour flavors. The sourness is medium and lowers slightly as the beer warms up and loses some of its carbonation. The sour profile is a very balanced lactic and acetic sourness with mid-levels of Brettanomyces funk and dryness.

I think the next three components of the flavor all go together:  There’s a mellow but defined flavor of oak, a slight wine vinegar, and red wine booziness (like over attenuated strong red wine).  La Roja is aged in used Pinot Noir barrels, which I feel fits this beer perfectly. Pinot Noir is known for its red fruit flavors of cherries and strawberries as well as its light fruit skin tannins. As Pinot Noir ages, slight vegetal and “barnyard” aromas can become present.

La Roja is a must try for both sour beer beginners and long-time enthusiasts. It is a great example of a Flanders Red being “brewed in the traditional style”, but I would go further and say that this beer is a great example of what an American Sour Red Ale should be.