Friday Froth: Nepenthia, Part 1

James Gribbon

"Nepenthes pharmakon," its says in the Odyssey. Literally: "anti-sorrow drug," or "... a drug which eased men's pains and irritations, making them forget their troubles." 

Smiles abounded on a hill in the woods of Oxford, Connecticut, as B. United International opened both its doors and taps on a brilliantly sunny day this May for Nepethia, a one-day event. The beverage importer's stated mission is to bring the most spectacular examples of low volume, hand crafted beer, mead, cider, and sake from around the world to the U.S. The collected industry representatives (and I) weren't there to forget, though. There was too much to learn. 

I've mentioned B.United, and the beers they import, more than a few times here on CTBites, and they've been an impressive lot. Home base in Oxford is hardly less impressive: I crested the facility's driveway to see what appeared to be a series of interlinked red barns, some with flagstone facades, in land cleared of the surrounding hardwoods and, in places, very recently planted with grapes, figs, kumquats... I couldn't identify everything I was seeing. I could, however, identify one of BU's signature custom-built tanks sitting on a truck trailer in the driveway, just beyond where a jazz quartet was playing for the invited guests.

I made it about ten feet in that direction before I was intercepted by BU's sunny Connecticut sales rep, Jie Yu, and given a small, glass tasting cup, and a packet containing info about each of the 80 different styles of beer, mead, cider, sake and spirits available on the day.Nepenthe, hell - this was Valhalla. Workshops on draft beer, food pairing, glassware and the facility itself would be ongoing throughout the day. I hadn't even had breakfast yet. 

The only reasonable starting point was that tank. I could see men and women leaning casually against it as Ben Neidhart, son of B.United founder Matthias, poured samples which had last seen the light of day in Austria, Bavaria and Switzerland. 

The white tanks are maybe half the size of the kind you see on tanker trucks, and each of the six BU operates is separated into four temperature and pressure controlled compartments. The high volume to surface area ratio of the tanks eliminates the chance of oxidization as they're shipped - cold, and below the waterline of cross-Atlantic ships - back to Connecticut. The beer therein is either kegged for market or set aside for the witchcraft of B.United's secondary fermentation experiments. One of the beers destined for BU's Zymatore room (more on that later) was a Berliner Weisse from Bayerischer Bahnhof. It caught my eye because it was white - honest to goodness white. Ben told me the color was the result of brewing with barley and potatoes, before returning my glass. 

How does yeast eat potato starch, I wondered, as I took my first sip. And then my head caved in. 

Have you seen those YouTube videos parents post where babies taste lemon for the first time? Imagine a really, truly ugly baby, with a beard, and that was roughly the face I made. Expecting smooth and maybe starchy, I was absolutely gobsmacked with the most sour thing I've consumed since my last Warhead candy. This experience of having my mind completely blown would repeat itself throughout the day

Business coming first, I set off to explore the interior spaces with my camera before further sampling. The first room was an open, unfinished space in white with darkly stained rafters - a physical manifestation of B.United's ongoing expansion. Reps from Schneider Weisse and Italian micro-brewers Birra Del Borgo and Birra Baladin poured samples. I resisted the urge and kept moving. 

I turned the corner and entered a lab, and actual laboratory, where Jacquelyn Ludeman, BU's Florida rep, was hosting a tour group. Sinks, beakers, Erlenmeyer flasks, devices for heating and stirring, microscopes and tanks of compounds labeled only with their chemical codes populated the space as she described BU differentiating and culturing strains of yeast. I shook my head like a DEA agent discovering Gus' pharma-quality meth lab in Breaking Bad and moved on.

My feet carried me around another corner and down some stairs, and I found myself in what looked like a small brewery floor. Immense and gleaming stainless steel fermentation tanks rose from slab concrete as a smiling German man in a bow tie proffered small shots of spirits from behind a folding table. Aecht Schlenkerla - a traditional Frankonian spirit distilled from smokey beer, Uerige Stickum beer eau-de-vie matured in French Sauterne wine barrels, 90 proof pear liquor from Dupont, Edelster Aventinus matured in whiskey barrels from M. Courer... too early for that, I thought and, with some effort, turned my head away.

I spied a huge, and apparently quite old, wooden barrel just beyond, and it grabbed me like a tractor beam. I was close to Zymatore. 

The Zymatore Project is here to destroy and create. The boundaries between beer, wine and spirits are removed as BU's staff mixes the flavors and aromas of brewed and distilled drinks through wildly innovative barrel aging. Some of the end products are designed to simply enhance and retain the original character of the beers and meads used, but some are completely transformed or rearranged like a piece of music. 

The concept isn't entirely new or unique: many of us have had a barrel aged negroni at a bar or bought a bottle of bourbon-aged stout, but comparing 
Zymatore to most barrel-aging efforts is like comparing a Ducati to a razor scooter. I made brief mention of African iQhilikamead aged in French Mourvèdre wine barrels, and many wine barrels rested on huge racks in the cool dark of BU's Zymatore room, but tequila, rum and whiskey barrels filled with who knows what also stretched to the ceiling. I took a pic of the markings on one, just because I liked the look of the names written in chalk thereon, and later found the barrel was used to age years of Belgian Owl, a craft whiskey from Belgium, and it was filled with Grodziskie, an all-wheat (no barley), sour, smoked beer from Grodzisk Wielkopolski in Poland, close the German border. 

A BU rep was in the room distributing samples of beers, directly from the barrels, which could not be had any place else on Earth. I went for another iQhilika: this time the sweet mead had been aged and refermented in merlot barrels from Thelema Mountain Vinyards in South Africa. The mead had been infused at the source with bird's eye chilis from South Africa, and had turned from gold to a cloudy, light pink in the barrel. Reportedly super hot when it  arrived, the barrels had mellowed the spice. The 
iQhilika is sweet, as one would expect a honey-based beverage to be, but there's also a juicyness from the grapes, and the pepper comes on late, smokey and gentle, like the dying embers of a campfire.  

Quaff, oh quaff this kind nepenthe" - E.A. Poe

I've already strained the limits of most of your attention spans, so my experiences after I stowed the camera and picked up a glass are coming up in part 2. For now, information on when and where to find B.United beers, etc. can be had by contacting them directly here