On April 17th, 2016, I was waiting to board my plane to Milwaukee and I posted a photo on Instagram for advice on where I should go on my days off. I was stopping in Madison because I had planned a mini road trip to visit New Glarus and Toppling Goliath before heading to Milwaukee for business. Luckily, I stumbled across the best part of my trip with a little help from social media. @BeerScenes, suggested,
I had heard of Funk Factory, but I had absolutely no idea the up and coming Geuzeria was from Madison. Shortly thereafter, @dunbarzack, commented,
Unfortunately, I had to drop my plans of sitting in a bar by myself that night to meet up with Levi Funk, owner & blender, of Funk Factory. Four hours after my initial post, I was sharing beers with one of the bright new innovative minds of the U.S. beer industry.
I swung by Levi’s Geuzeria around 8:30pm and stayed approximately until midnight. He was extremely welcoming and showed me around his facility with pride beginning outside where his mobile coolship resided. I started asking questions, while beers began to flow and before we knew the night had escaped us. Our conversation was all across the board from suckling pigs, to the auteur theory, Wisconsin cheese vs. California cheese, and even a helpful future tip on keeping babies on breast milk so as a dad you don’t have to wake up in the middle of the night to feed them formula. It was a very educational night for me. I learned a lot about lambic and it was a pleasure picking Levi’s brain. Below are excerpts from our conversation.
Ale Auteur: How much time do you spend here?
Levi Funk: It depends on the month. During production season when we are filing I will be here every night, but there are weeks when I’m not here. I normally come after work because I have a job.
AA: What do you do?
LF: I’m an economist. The other end of the spectrum. I do like the job. I also like doing this though. There is a lot about this that I don’t necessarily like doing. It’s not very fun cleaning barrels and hoses.
AA: What aspect of being an economist do you think plays into you being a good blender?
LF: Nothing. It is a completely different side of my brain. Although, maybe in the sense that economists are somewhat heartless. Lambic, the more I learn about it, the less romantic it has become. When I hear people tout certain things about lambic it is like telling children that Santa Claus isn’t real you know? You kind of have to do it at some point, but you don’t really want to walk around and tell every kid that Santa doesn’t exist. I think that the de-romanticized perspective of lambic has helped me be a little more confident toward me building a coolship and believing that it is going to work.
AA: So it’s helped you go after it and try things?
LF: Well, because I’ve looked into it and because I haven’t just been love-struck the whole time. I’ve gone through the process.
"I think that the de-romanticized perspective of lambic has helped me be a little more confident toward me building a coolship and believing that it is going to work." - Levi Funk
AA: Maybe your next beer will be called The Economist?
LF: I’ll call it Santa Isn’t Real.
AA: Do you have a beer that you are the most proud of so far?
LF: White Lodge is my standing in a room naked beer.
AA: What exactly do you mean by that?
LF: When you fruit beers you can hide a little bit. You can build flavors off of the fruit and make a complete beer and round it out. When you do a geuze there is nothing but the base. Nothing but the lambic that you aged and the blend you have decided. I think that the lambic I have here is great and I think that if I blend these barrels together it is going to round out and be this balanced beautiful beer. It is super crucial. So doing all of that with a geuze there is only one shot at it.
AA: What is your favorite American lambic?
LF: American lambic. Ah-hhhh. I mean the only breweries that are doing full traditional lambic in America are Jester King and Allagash.
AA: What is the difference between traditional lambic and some of the American versions?
LF: This is a highly debated topic. The fact that you called mine American lambic means I know you are on this one camp over here. There are people who are so purist that because I’m not in Belgium I’m not making lambic. That is their stance. Then there’s a whole debate of what is the definition of lambic mostly due to how it is produced in Belgium. That is a very very difficult thing to identify because every brewer in Belgium has a very different variant of lambic. So you can go back and say here is a definition of traditional lambic and it would be 30% wheat 70% malt or something close to that ratio. Spontaneously fermented, turbid mash, three-hour boil with aged hops. Hops are aged at least one year. Primary and aging in oak barrels. Aged for at least a year before using it. If it is fruited it is fruited with whole fruits, actual fruits and not extracts or syrups. No sugar is added. No artificial flavorings. No artificial colorings.
"There are people who are so purist that because I’m not in Belgium I’m not making lambic." - Levi Funk
AA: And you are doing all of that?
LF: Yeah. So I am doing all of that, but for each of those I can show you a brewery in Belgium that isn’t following that. I mean there’s a lambic brewery in Belgium who doesn’t have a coolship. So that’s the ambiguity around the term lambic and really the problem with ever trying to protect it as a term. It’s not a protected term. There’s an E.U. definition of lambic, but Cantillon and Drie Fonteinen break that definition. Nobody pays attention to that. Nobody enforces that. It’s for sure not enforceable over here. You have American brewers like Upland or Russian River who are making sour beers that are lambic inspired. I mean Upland calls it lambic. Just flat out, I know they don’t follow the traditional process of making lambic, but neither do half the Belgium brewers. So at this point it is open to interpretation. I wanted to do the traditional. Basically, I wanted to get to the point where the only hang up on calling my beer lambic is that I’m not located in Belgium. Outside of that, you have no reason not to call it lambic.
AA: When do you think people will feel validated to call your beer lambic? Have you done side by sides yourself?
LF: Here’s the thing. If you are someone who is reluctant to call it lambic that means you are either ill informed or a purist. I’ve seen the reviews. There are enough comments like, “Shit this is the closest thing to lambic that America has done” or “This is really Belgium-esque in it’s lambic approach”. I let people make that call. If you want to do side by sides I’d say take my beer and put it amongst the whole spectrum of Belgium lambic. If you are going to do a side by side for the purpose of determining if I make real lambic or not.
AA: What is the big long term vision?
LF: A nationally distributed lambic brand. I’d like to make as much of this as possible. I mean, the reason I started it was because I started with a barrel in my basement and I wanted to learn about barrel fermentation and what not, but I also thought, “Hey this will be a cheaper way for me to get lambic”. Now, this has been the most expensive lambic I’ve ever had to buy. This is very expensive for me to do, but I enjoy making it and hopefully one day for me it will pay off. The idea was I’d love to make lambic something that is accessible for Amerians because currently you can’t get it.
AA: Do you think it is possible that five or ten years down the road that Americans make better Lambic than Belgium?
LF: Not that close, no.
AA: What will it take to get to that point?
LF: I don’t think I’ll ever make lambic better than Armand. I don’t think I’ll ever make a geuze better than Armand, but I think my son might or my daughter, if I have a daughter. I mean, you hear the stories of Armand or Jean Van Roy, I can’t remember who, in the brewery working with their dad and their dad pulling barrel samples and cutting it with water and giving it to the little kid to start to build that pallet. I think that is going to be something that I have to develop over twenty years. There’s an understanding of when a barrel is ready, but that is just step one. Those guys know how this blend is going to age for ten years and that is something that I don’t understand. I might start getting an idea in ten years, but then I have to start putting those ideas into practice and then wait another ten years to see if it was true. I mean maybe in like twenty or thirty years.
AA: It seems like lambic blending is a humbling process when you can say I’m twenty or thirty years away from having enough experience?
LF: I mean, yeah, it’s humbling, but it’s also hard to say it’s fully humbling when you have beers that sell out in 60 seconds. I mean there’s those days when you’re like I’m the best and another day your pumping over wort and you forgot to shut off a valve and you’ve got a hundred gallons of wort on the floor and your like “I’m so stupid.”
AA: Where did you learn all of this?
LF: I don’t know. I guess just drinking and doing it.
AA: It’s not like your buddy is home brewing and you learn how to do an IPA because he is doing it next door in the garage.
LF: Yeah, fortunately, the people who are doing it in the U.S. is such a small group of people that it is pretty tight nit if you have questions you can ask anybody anything and they will tell you. There is a lot of information out there from Belgium producers over the history of them doing it and people recording what they are doing and how they are doing it. Most of them are pretty open to answering questions.
"Basically, I wanted to get to the point where the only hang up on calling my beer lambic is that I’m not located in Belgium. Outside of that, you have no reason not to call it lambic." - Levi Funk
AA: When you were scouting out brewers to brew your wort did you have breweries in mind?
LF: I started the project with Oso brewing. I did that for three years prior to this. So they still brew me wort. I mean, it has to be a good brewer. Other than that, you are following a recipe. The wort creation is really the science behind lambic. It is the aging, fruiting, and blending process, which is more of the artistic side, which distinguishes different lambics.
AA: What are the biggest complications when it comes to the aging and fruiting?
LF: Just time. I mean, I got a rough idea of when barrels hit different stages and when they should be ready, but you will have a batch from the same brewery filled the same day in the same kind of oak and six of your barrels will be four months behind their aging process.
AA: How important is the timing of when you introduce the fruit?
LF: You want the base beer to have matured and be where you want it to be. Once you add fruit it is very short, I mean, it is three months on fruit so it is not very short, but it kicks off a whole other fermentation and the whole aging process essentially delays in that fruiting process. It goes back into fermentation and eating sugar. That is its plan for those three months.
AA: What happens if you go beyond the three months?
LF: I say three months because it is the common fruiting time. So like raspberries and cherries are three months, but some fruits like peaches are really acidic so if you go longer then four or maybe six weeks you will get a very sour beer. Blueberries and grapes are tannic so if you go longer than like six to eight weeks you will just start getting a lot of tannins. I mean, you could let it age longer after fruiting, but there is not a lot of benefit to it. You should let the base age before you add the fruit, but if you let it sit on the fruit longer than your going to have problems with your fruit flavor.
AA: Have you ever called up Armand or Jean Roy and asked them a question?
LF: I have not. There is this type of beer I wanted to try doing. I attempted it this year and it didn’t work. It is called Mars. It is the second runnings of lambic and it is just like a lower alcohol table beer version of lambic. So I wanted to make that and nobody does it anymore. The only person who does it is Frank Boon. My understanding is that he doesn’t do second runnings of lambic. He brews a beer that is a lower alcohol version of lambic . That is my understanding and that is how he makes Mars. So when ours failed I sent him an e-mail and I haven’t heard back.
AA: Why aren’t there more American’s trying to make lambic? Is it the investment? Is it a different personality?
LF: Well it’s not a brewery. I don’t know why I’m saying it because I’m doing it, but who’s out there that wants to have a brewery and not brew? I think it is a void in consideration maybe? I don’t think that this model is flushed out in America. For me I’ve never brewed. I’m not a brewer and I know that I can buy wort from people that are far far better at brewing wort than I am. So you just have to be a craft beer fan and think that you’re able to blend or you’re able to contract out. It’s hard to start of without any name because if you go up to a brewery and say, "I want to buy wort from you" they are going to say, "no."
AA: Is it the unknown too? Can you go to the Seibel Institute or UC Davis and actually learn how to blend?
LF: No. No.
AA: It’s not even on the radar at this point?
LF: I guess at that point if you’re not blending then why aren’t you just contract brewing it? You can hire any brewery out there. File your paperwork to have a label and a brewery and you can hire any number of breweries to make the recipe, package it, everything. So I’m kind of in this weird middle space between a contract brewer and a brewery. I’m not either of them. It’s where I am at out of necessity because I took the model that had been flushed out in Belgium and I knew that there where blendery’s there and I liked that model. It’s like I’m not a brewer, but I still want to make lambic right? There’s a good amount of people in Belgium doing it so I figured out how to apply that in the U.S. and that’s been what this is. I have a very narrow specific purpose and unless you have that I don’t know why you would be a blender?
AA: How did that even begin? Did you just knock on their door and say, “ Hey I want to start blending and can I borrow a bunch of wort?”
LF: Well I had a barrel in my basement and I e-mailed everybody around to try and get that barrel filled and Oso was one of them. They were like 'nah' we aren’t brewing anything close to the lambic wort and if we did it would be thirty barrels worth. So they couldn’t do it, but I eventually got it filled and then one night I saw the owner downtown and I lived downtown so I said, “Hey I got that barrel and I got it filled. It’s in my basement if you want to come over and taste it and he was like, “Yeah sure.” We were a little into the night and it’s the tail end of the night so everybody is happy you know? So it was him and his sales guy and we went to my house. I have my beer cellar down there and there’s this barrel of beer so I said go pick out any beer you want in the cellar. We were opening bottles and then I pulled the nail on the barrel and gave them samples and he was like, "Alright lets do this. This is good."
"I don’t think I’ll ever make a geuze better than Armand, but I think my son might or my daughter..." - Levi Funk
AA: You have to be passionate about it because it is not like you can quit your day job right now?
LF: Or you would have to have like a million dollars to start it up and you probably wouldn’t only be doing lambic. You probably would want to do this, but to make the financials look right you would probably be putting out some short run stuff and that would just almost be wholly contract brewed.
AA: So I take it you don’t have a million dollars?
AA: If you did have a million dollars what would you do?
LF: Um, buy a bigger warehouse, hire some people, and fill two thousand barrels. Buy a few foeders. I mean the whole idea is to ramp this up as fast as possible and that is a cash flow question. So sales of that row will go wholly into buying more oak and buying more wort.
AA: What importance does the environment play in the coolship? If you took that same coolship in New York vs. here or in the mountains of California or Belgium does it play that big of a role in the end result?
LF: I’m not sold that it does. It’s a good story to say we are making beer from the air around us and it’s part of our terroir that is unique to us, but I’m not sold that is true. People that think the reason you can only make lambic in Belgium is that they have a unique strain or that their microflora is unique so it will spontaneously ferment. Well obviously that’s not true because you can spontaneously ferment in the U.S. also. People have done that with great success. The unique strain thing, the brettanomyces bruxellensis, I don’t know how to pronounce it, brett brux, has been isolated from the wild here in the U.S. so it is not anything that is unique to Belgium or Brussels specifically. You know it’s not like microbes hit a nations boundary and say we can’t go any further. They just float around and there are all of the same microbes. They seem to match what is floating around in Belgium lambic. So I’m not really sold that microflora changes drastically region to region with the same temperate zone. So if you go further south and it’s warmer I think your microbes are going to change, but other than that I don’t know. On one hand, I’d like it to be true because it adds like a mystique to the beer and I can add that to my marketing and sell people on it, but on the other hand, I don’t want it to be true because I don’t want there to be some definitive claim that lambic can only be made in Belgium.
(Levi opens up a Frampaars for the two of us to share. After taking a few sips we talk about the beer.)
AA: This is one of the more memorable beers I have had in a while?
LF: Cool. My whole philosophy with lambic blending and fruiting is balanced. I don’t want any one component to outcompete the other. I don’t like sour bombs. In lambic, I don’t like sour bombs. I don’t like fruit bombs. When I’m making a lambic I think everything should be balanced. I think that my biggest qualm with Upland using the term lambic isn’t that they aren’t following the tradition it’s that they are acid bombs. Americans approach to beer styles seem to be the extremes. If you are making an IPA you want it to be the hoppiest beer. If you are making a stout you want it to be super high alcohol. I think there is a time and place for that, but I’m not looking to make that. I’m looking to make something balanced.
AA: Are there times when you feel like you hit a beer right on the head?
LF: What’s really nice is having the concept for the beer and it turning out better than you hoped for, but that’s just your opinion. Then it gets out there and that release date is almost the end of the journey for this beer, but that’s where it starts for consumers. I have an opinion of the beer and I know how it tastes and the quality of it, but then to see other people say the same thing is great. When I first tasted this beer I was like, “Oh my gosh, this is great you know” and to have other people say the same thing is good. It’s like, “I knew you guys would like this.”
AA: How many bottles of Frampaars did you do?
LF: A thousand.
AA: What’s been your most limited bottle run so far?
LF: Cassis. It was supposed to be a full batch, but the scheduling of the brewery meant that the fruit got thrown into the cooler for like a month and most of it spoiled and some of it just started fermenting. The ones that were fermenting we made the beer with and the ones that spoiled we dumped. So a batch of enough fruit for 1000 bottles only became enough fruit for 250 bottles. Currants aren’t cheap and we dumped a lot of good currants.
LF: Have you heard this one fruit? It’s either called the miracle fruit or the magical fruit, but it makes you perceive sourness for sweetness. So you can just eat a lemon and it will taste sweet. Just in the last few days I was reminded of this thing and I’ve been thinking it could be fun to do a barrel that is of this magic fruit so people will think it’s a sweet beer, but tell them what it is.
AA: There is only one way to find out.
LF: And then after you drink that beer every beer that night will also taste sweet. I mean it will wreck your pallet for every other beer.
AA: You’ve got to do it.