San Diego and the surrounding county has blossomed into one of the United States’ premier destinations for craft beer. With more than 100 breweries located around California’s second largest populated city, the region offers some of the industry’s heavy hitters and innovative minds. One of those minds is Tomme Arthur, the co-founder and chief operating owner of The Lost Abbey.
Arthur, 45, is a San Diego native with an incredible passion for brewing.
After earning an English degree at Northern Arizona University, Arthur’s brewing career began to blossom in 1997 when he was hired by Pizza Port Brewing Company in nearby Solana Beach, where he spent almost eight years as the company’s head brewer. During that span, Pizza Port took home 13 medals at the Great American Beer Festival while also earning Small Brewpub of the Year honors. In 2006, Arthur co-founded the combination of Port Brewing and The Lost Abbey. Producing unique and flavorful beers, Arthur proved to be a trailblazer in southern California’s beer scene and throughout the industry, growing The Lost Abbey into a premier brewery with about 24 flagship and seasonal beers in its repertoire – the most popular of which would have to be Duck Duck Gooze.
Released every three years, Duck Duck Gooze is a skillfully crafted blend of one, two and three-year-old barrel-aged blonde sours that creates a complex sparkling beer. Released earlier this month on April 15, the 750 ml bottle is now in its fourth iteration, with two of the previous three vintages winning medals at the Great American Beer Festival. It’s not just The Lost Abbey’s most sought-after effort, it’s one of the most sought-after from coast to coast and there are many reasons behind what makes it so desirable.
“It is never a stock recipe,” Arthur said in a recent interview. “We sit down about a year in advance of the bottling and discuss the barrels in our warehouse and which ones we might need for the future blend. First and foremost, the blend tends to speak for itself. Those who purchase Duck Duck Gooze are rewarded with a beer of incredible depth and each bottle is an experience.”
The majority of Duck Duck Gooze’s blend is roughly 18-months-old, though there is a certain percentage that is significantly older and younger, around the one-year and three-year marks. For Arthur, the goal is to get a similar flavor to the last release and create enough to please loyal drinkers. There are over 1,300 oak barrels in The Lost Abbey’s repertoire, though it only takes about 50 to create Duck Duck Gooze which, after overwhelming demand for the $45 a bottle effort last time around, was sold online using Eventbrite. But could it be sold on a more regular basis?
“Duck Duck Gooze is not something we like to rush,” Arthur admitted. “It is likely we could release a beer every year. That being said, we do not believe our ability to cull the best of the barrels out for the blend as we currently do would be easily captured on an annual basis. We have no intentions of moving this to an annual release, as we truly think that would devalue the beer and experience.”
Barrel-aging is what The Lost Abbey has built its reputation on for almost 13 years and while there are a glut of breweries across the country doing the same processes, not many can do it on the same level. For most of the company’s existence, the majority of the spirits barrels have been bourbon, sourcing the containers from Kentucky-based Heaven Hill Distillery, using barrels that once held Evan Williams bourbon. To create sours, however, The Lost Abbey sources french oak wine barrels that held red wine.
These barrels are important to enhancing the beer’s flavor and complexity and while bourbon and wine barrels are commonplace for most breweries, sometimes Arthur and his crew shake things up. Recently, The Lost Abbey hinted to a beer aged in tequila barrels on its social media outlets, with the hashtag #sinnerandsaints.
“It has always been our intent to source unique spirit barrels and tequila continues to prove to be a difficult task. That being said, the barrels, which have been resting with our Agave Maria Reserva in them, are quite impressive. They were used one time for tequila and never were used in the manufacture of Bourbon. This makes them quite different than other barrels on the market. We’re very excited about this forthcoming release.”
Unlike bourbon and some of the sour efforts, tequila can be quite a fickle flavor, adding an abundance of flavor derived simply from the barrels. Often, beers aged in tequila barrels present a strong flavor, one that sometimes overpowers the taste of the beer, as though it’s almost straight tequila. That’s certainly something Arthur considers when brewing a unique limited release like this one, however he feels it’s best to just let the barrel reveal what it wants.
“Spirit barrels are like their own universe,” he added. “All we can hope for is best laid plans and executing a base beer that we feel will marry to the barrel intensities. Ultimately, the barrel will reveal what it wants to reveal. And yes, sometimes they can be quite expressive in the finished beer.”
Beer trends like tequila barrel-aging, which is becoming more and more commonplace, seem to come and go as the craft beer landscape looks for new and appealing ways to draw drinkers in – especially when it comes to India Pale Ales, which recently saw the rise of Milkshake IPAs and Brut IPAs. Figuring out a way to stand out and not get lost in the shuffle is important – and something The Lost Abbey has done for well over a decade.
Arthur is not sure what might be coming next as far as the process is concerned, instead he just seems to be focused on The Lost Abbey and continuing to grow his own brand.
“Many breweries now have large barrel programs – and small ones – and there seems to be a sense that many things have already been accomplished. We’re navigating the crowded ocean of brewers and new breweries as best we can. We’re looking at our current beers and trying to ensure we delivering great beers and experiences for the consumer. These are certainly interesting times we live in and with more brewers entering the harbor every day, the regatta looks a whole lot bigger than it used to.”