Rivertown Brewery | Ojos Negros
Image by David Nilsen
ABV: 6.2% | IBU: 8
When you taste an authentic Belgian oude gueuze or other lambic-based style, you’re tasting something its brewers certainly hope you enjoy, but there’s a sense the beer doesn’t really need you. It existed before you, and it’ll find a way to survive after you, just like the wild microorganisms that give these beers their distinctive character. You drink a lambic or gueuze on the beer’s own terms, not yours.
While lambic styles can only officially be produced in the Senne River valley in and around Brussels, Belgium, plenty of American brewers have tried their hand at these styles, with varying success. One brewery producing some of the best lambic-style beers in the country flies under the radar for most American sour beer hounds: Cincinnati’s Rivertown Brewery. Having been to Belgium twice now to enjoy that country’s famed lambics, I can say Rivertown’s Lambic, Ville de Rivere Geuze and Ojos Negros blackberry lambic are worthy tributes to their namesake Belgian styles.
Ojos Negros in particular is an absolute gem. Aged in oak wine barrels for over a year with 45-50 pounds of blackberries in each barrel, Ojos Negros is a refined, luxurious sour ale. Rivertown uses open fermentation for authentic lambic brewing, and the ambient microflora in and around their Lockland, Ohio home base have been very kind to them. Their new Monroe location, just north of Cincinnati, is surrounded by farmland and rolling hills, and they’ve already had similar success with the resident microflora there as well. Rivertown refers to their brewery’s wild fermentation culture as their “house funk,” and it produces lambics with expressive but controlled sourness and delightfully funky aromas.
Rivertown first brewed Ojos Negros in 2010 and, according to Lindsey Roeper—who co-owns the company with her husband, Jason, and serves as “Company Dream Facilitator”—the beer is a real handful to brew. “This beer is our messiest to make!” joked Roeper when I spoke to her for this article. Trying to cram 50 pounds of juicy blackberries into the bung holes of barrels is not a clean task, but it’s worth the effort. While the fermentation, aging and blending processes are time-consuming and make it difficult to set release dates, Roeper expects to release the next batch of Ojos Negros in August, 2018. “August-ish,” she clarified. Some bottles of 2015’s vintage remain for sale while you wait.
This fruited lambic is delightful. It shows a lovely red tea color in the glass, and gives recognizable but restrained blackberry aromas and flavors that blend well with the vinous notes from the wine barrels. Notes of jasmine and a pleasant phenolic funk slide in as well, along with the expected acidic tartness. This is a classy but assertive lambic that is worthy of its style name. Be sure to grab a bottle if you’re in Ohio later this summer, and maybe lay a few down for future years as well, as it will continue to develop over time.