Sooner or later, we were going to have to tackle the question of what the heck is sur lie (which translates as “on the lees” in English). You’ve undoubtedly seen in as I have on some European labels and it is an even more common description on the labels of Quebec beers. So, what does it mean?
I welcome any true brewmasters or home brewers out there to correct me, but my understanding is that it refers to both a fermentation process as well as the residuals in the beer. One of my very favourite poems for all ages is Tennyson’s epic monologue “Ulysses” where the titled narrator early on soliloquizes that he cannot sit still and go quietly into retirement but instead that he “will drink / Life to the lees” (i.e. to the bottom of the cup, or, to use another metaphor, to the ‘bitter end’). Seems a great pronouncement as we continue our journey into the mysteries of beer making.
In some beers, it might be enough to consider “lees” the sediment produced out of the fermentation process (not to be confused with the grains and other ingredients used in the brewing itself); this sediment is a byproduct of the process (not the products used) which is typically removed through filtration. My previous post being a good example of the difference filtration makes to a beer. You can see there the difference filtered vs. unfiltered. Without filtration, the result is turbidity or cloudiness or ‘whiteness’ that gives the beer a creamy or muddy appearance: choose your adjective.
When sur lies describes the fementation process, things get a bit more interesting … and complicated. What’s actually happening is where I could use some help from others to fill in the blanks … but as I understand it, the sediment is a result of leaving in the bottle some of the yeasts (i.e. the bacteria used to produced both natural carbonation and alcohol) after the first round of fermentation. Typically, a beer is fermented in the cask, filtered, and bottled or served. When it is produced sur lies, a second round of fermentation continues in the bottle. It’s a bit like the champagne method if you know what I mean. As these yeasts are spent up, they produce additional alcohol, more flavour, more carbonation … and as they eat up some of sugars in the beer (yeast needs sugar to do it’s thing), they also leave behind ‘proteins’ (the proteins reside in the barley or wheat that would be used to feed the yeast). These proteins eventually settle to the bottom of the bottle and ‘cloud’ the beer when it is poured.
And, there you have it — the story of sur lies … and the backstory to La Chouape’s IPA.
One of the chief results of this fermentation process is a slightly more flavourful (‘strong’ beer) and which often has a more ‘yeasty’ aroma. This is especially relevant in the case of this beer because the first sniff of this beer left me thinking yeast, or bread, following by the citrusy west coast hop smell you’d expect in this American IPA, aka American Pale Ale. However, in this case, the yeasts dominate more than the hops when it comes to the aroma. Where the hops do prevail is in the “generous hoppy” (to quote the brewer) aftertaste.
The sur lies backstory is also relevant here because it explains the ‘excess’ carbonation that springs from the pour … however, these bubbles are fragile and the head disappears quickly and leaving behind a very fine lacing on the edges, and nothing more.
Ultimately, where this beer fails, in my opinion, is the carbonation – there is too much of it and it distracts and fizzes on the palette. However, this is my only knock against the beer. I really like this as an alternative to some of the other good IPAs I’ve had of late. It definitely works in its class, but is unusual in some of the flavours making a distinct IPA worth tasting. If you like the bitterness that defines the IPA movement, then you’ll love this finish and the almost grapefruit ending – though there is a bit of that astringent quality that keeps the back of the tongue tingling or burning or curling (again, choose your metaphor) which while it may be a natural component of most IPAs, the really great ones layer something else on top of to leave you smiling long after the glass is empty.
Stats: IPA. 6.4% ABV. 62 IBUs. St-Eustache, Quebec.
Colour: Light Amber.
Mouth Feel: Lots of fizz on the tongue and glass, but carbonation is very tight and dissipates quickly. Some buttery creaminess, but an otherwise astringent finish.