In the vast pantheon of household name San Diego beers, few if any embody the commitment, patience, knowhow and effort of Duck Duck Gooze. One of the pristine white whales bred at The Lost Abbey’s barrel warehouse in San Marcos, it only surfaces every three or four years, bringing with it great anticipation among fans of sour beer.
Based loosely on the Belgian style of beer known as gueuze – a blending of different spontaneously-fermented lambic beers aged up to three years – each vintage of Duck Duck Gooze combines various blond, non-fruited, barrel-aged sour ales from The Lost Abbey’s robust inventory. Historically, the majority of the beer has not undergone spontaneous fermentation, though the most recent vintage utilized beer that had received such influence from airborne microorganisms.
To date, three vintages of Duck Duck Gooze have been released: in 2009, 2013, and 2016. The 2019 edition will go on sale via online platform Eventbrite at noon on April 15, with an indoor-outdoor pick-up festival taking place from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. at the brewery on May 10 and 11.
With this momentous occasion on the horizon, it seemed the perfect time to delve into the art and science behind this storied labor of love with The Lost Abbey director of brewery operations, Tomme Arthur.
“Duck Duck Gooze was something that had been in the business plan since The Lost Abbey’s earliest days,” says Arthur. “I knew I wanted to make a blond, non-fruited sour ale, and the bulk of the ones being made in Belgium were gueuze-style beeors, so it seemed fitting. While a very large task, it also gave us time once we opened the brewery (in 2006) to put some barrels aside and really focus on the 2009 release being something special.”
And it was. The inaugural vintage of Duck Duck Gooze earned a gold medal in the Belgian-Style Lambic or Sour Ale category at the 2009 Great American Beer Festival (GABF). At the time, the popularity of sour beers was on the rise but early in its development; only a thin sliver of the beer-drinking population knew what a gueuze was, and even fewer had sampled Belgian examples of the funky, mineralic, horse-blankety style, much less one crafted stateside. While not 100% to-style, Duck Duck Gooze became a benchmark beer and an instant cult-classic, and the lore and fanfare behind it have only increased with each subsequent release. Interest in the upcoming vintage is at an all-time high, thanks in part to the 2016 iteration taking a silver in the Wood- and Barrel-Aged Sour Beer category at last year’s GABF.
While Arthur says he did not seek out the advice of Old World gueuze practitioners when tackling Duck Duck Gooze, primarily because of such brewers’ distaste for New World producers co-opting their names and methodologies without respect to provenance, he did receive both advice and encouragement from Jean Van Roy, the owner, brewer, and blender from Brussels’ famed lambic brewery Cantillon. As for research, Arthur cites being fortunate enough to sample young lambics that were less than six months old on several occasions, which he says was “eye-opening.” So, too, was examining the evolution that takes place with lambics and gueuzes care of in-bottle refermentation.
Armed with a palate developed by first-hand sampling and a vision for what he wanted Duck Duck Gooze to be, Arthur quietly embarked on his first three-year journey, keeping a tight lid on the project over that span. His goal was not to create a traditional blend of lambics, and he has always been careful not to describe the beer as a gueuze, but rather to craft a blend of beers aged in oak for various lengths of time, which would illustrate the beauty that can be achieved through the careful, thoughtful combination of complementary barrel-matured stock.
“2009 was our first attempt at blending beers that were up to three years old. Learning how to work with the different acids – especially some of the more acidic and acetic ones – was a learning experience for sure,” says Arthur. “When the beer was young, it was quite brash. Now that it has had a chance to age gracefully, it still shows that youthful exuberance, albeit a bit mellower. In 2013, we worked to showcase more of the middle-cut barrels. Eighteen-month-old beer made up a large part of that blend. The 2016 blend was probably the most fun of the bunch. We started with more than 100 barrels and were able to incorporate some spontaneously-fermented beer for the first time. When the beer was released, I had full confidence it was going to be an amazing finished beer, though in reality it took an extra three-to-six months for the bottles to really integrate and hit their stride.”
While traditional gueuze blends different vintages of a single base beer, Arthur believes that were it not for having so many different blond base beers to select from, Duck Duck Gooze wouldn’t be as good or complex as it is.
“I believe each batch so far has contained at a minimum three different base beers and they are never blended in exacting ratios. The goal is always to create a range of acids for us to work with. What works best for us is to sample all of the blond, sour, non-fruited barrels we have in our world and build from a base stock once we understand how they are behaving,” he says. “All told, in 2016 we sampled nearly 100 different barrels before settling on 50 that we then used.”
At times, even the complicated aging and production processes have proven the easier part of the Duck Duck Gooze equation. The fervor of beer fans to procure bottles of this rare gem has made the practice of selling it extremely difficult. To avoid massive lines and the potential for not rewarding a long wait with a bottle, The Lost Abbey long ago opted to go the online sales route. This method famously backfired on the company in 2013 and 2016, when online sales platforms were ill-equipped to deal with the massive thrush of online customers and went down.
“Anytime you combine large crowds with alcohol, there will be challenges,” says Adam Martinez, director of marketing and coordinator of Duck Duck Gooze sales since 2013. “Our problems with this beer have always been with one-sale execution. We rely on third-party vendors to sell the beer on their platforms. When something goes wrong with those platforms, we’re pretty much stuck twiddling our thumbs waiting to be told when we can sell beer. We’ll continue to strive to alleviate the pains of the purchasing process, making it as easy as possible to get beers in peoples’ hands.”
Both Martinez and Arthur breathe sighs of relief once sales are complete, with the former seeing the opportunity to even out the almost inevitable online sales hiccups by exceeding expectations once transactions have all been finalized. “One big positive about a release like this is the clientele is on a different plane than your typical beer fest. They’re more interested in sampling beers versus chugging them, so probably the biggest challenge is creating the right experience for people that visit us to pick up their bottles. With so many awesome beer fests around the country, creating something new and different with people walking away feeling like they just enjoyed a unique event is getting harder and harder, but we’re up for the challenge.”
Enter this May’s pickup party – in addition to being able to sample Duck Duck Gooze under the San Diego sun, The Lost Abbey will have various games and activities, including axe throwing. New gear and glassware will also make its debut and, according to Martinez, “there may even be a sighting of the elusive Green Duck Duck.” Unfamiliar with that tiny character in the legend of this storied beer? This may just be your chance to remedy that.