Jason Barbee has a way with peaches.
Two years ago, while an assistant brewer at Deschutes' Portland pub, he made one of the finest pitted ales we've ever tasted—a happy accident of a tart habanero beer that he called Peach Slap, which we called the second best beer of 2015.
This year, he and stone fruit meet on our list again. This time around Barbeee was brewing at North Portland's Ex Novo, and the beer is called Duo.
An astonishing blend of whole peaches and lambic-inspired sour ale, Duo sat for a year in pinot noir barrels before hitting limited bottles this past July, in celebration of the nonprofit brewery's second anniversary.
And until just days before wort hit kettle, Barbee had no idea it would ever exist.
"Alex [Ganum] from Upright Brewing basically called me and was like, 'Our peach farmer has a bunch of extra fruit, could you use some?'" Barbee says. "I was like, 'Uhhhh… yes….?'"
Immediately, he thought of making a follow-up to Uno—the brewery's first-anniversary beer—which was a funky saison he thought was developing nicely in the bottle. Duo, he decided, would be a pinot-barrel-aged peach variant, and he'd model it more after the delicious and sour fruit lambics of Belgium than the country's dry and effervescent field beers.
So he bought the peaches.
"I called the peach farmer and asked him about pricing and everything, and he told me they sold them by something called a 'tote.' I thought we needed like a hundred pounds of peaches. I said, 'One tote, please.'"
Though Barbee himself vaguely recalls paying the man about $300 for the fruit, everyone at Ex Novo vividly remembers the 500 pounds of perfectly ripe peaches that arrived at the brewery shortly thereafter.
"We probably crammed about 60 to 100 pounds of peaches into each of the barrels, the kitchen made a bunch of desserts and jams and things, and every person at the restaurant took 5-gallon buckets of peaches home," he laughs. "They were so ripe and so good that we were able to stuff them in the barrel about as fast as you could grab them."
Wild yeast from the peach skin met a thick saison base and a special blend of wild yeast from Wyeast in Hood River, and then the beer was left to silently discover itself—first for a year in barrels, and now quietly in the cellars of lucky beer nerds citywide.
In July it was massively fruity, with peach flavors that absolutely leapt out of the glass. But with each passing month it has became mellower and more cohesive, steadily approaching the same level of complexity as its foremost Belgian counterparts.
Because of the long, slow fermentation process of the bugs that were introduced to the barrel, Duo has only gotten rounder, more subtle and slightly more effervescent since its first release.
A deep, cloudy gold, the lambic-inspired ale pours with a thick, creamy head even at room temperature; it's a bubbly, Champagnelike beer that hits your tongue with a blend of fleshy peach preserves, leathery malt and tart wild-yeast character.
"My secret goal was for this beer to age very well," Barbee says, "so that at Ex Novo's third and fourth anniversary, you get a flight that is Duo, Tres and whatever the Latin for four is."
But despite his successes with the first two mile-marker beers, Barbee won't be at Ex Novo to usher in the next one. He has since left the brewery to join ex-Laurelwood brewer Shane Watterson and Bailey's Taproom owner Geoff Phillips to open his own brewery, called Level Beer, in a big red barn in East Portland this spring.
Barbee has one final gift for patrons of Ex Novo, though—a strikingly similar beer which is slated to be released at the brewery's next anniversary.
Last year, Upright's Ganum called him with a similar fruit proposition, this time for leftover Rainier cherries from Upright's acclaimed sour ale Shades.
As you read this, Duo's cherry-flavored younger brother, Tres, is still sleeping quietly in oak, awaiting a July release.
Barbee says new brewmaster Ryan Buxton is under explicit orders to keep a keen eye on those three pinot barrels. So far, he says, Tres is tasting amazing.
"'Don't mess this up for me,' he recalls laughing with Buxton when he first showed him the barrels. 'That is my beer. Everything else is yours, but that is mine!'"
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