One of the core ideas behind the formulation of recipes for Slumbrew has been using quality ingredients to drive the expression of unique flavor profiles in our beers. This is both extremely satisfying in that we have an opportunity to source some amazing ingredients and it helps differentiate our products among what is sometimes a lot of sameness within beer styles on the shelf. None of our beers are an example of an ingredient-driven approach more than Happy Sol – our hefeweizen brewed with local Massachusetts honey, coriander and orange peel, then fermented with the juice from blood oranges.
We visited La Vigne Organics in southern California where our blood oranges are grown this past December. Although the harvest of blood oranges begins in mid to late January, the fruit was well underway in its development. The final stage of maturity is when the skin will take on a redish hue, hinting the ruby colored tart citrus inside. This reddening will occur in January and become more pronounced as the fruit is left on the trees longer.
It was quite fortuitous that we found La Vigne as our supplier for blood oranges as it quickly became apparent that their groves and facility is a really special place. It’s located in Fallbrook California, right down the Avocado Highway (I-15) from Los Angeles, and about an hour north of San Diego in area with a heavy emphasis on agriculture. The countryside is beautiful and reminded us of some parts of Tuscany with numerous rolling hills and an extremely high number of sunny days in the year. Blood oranges are just one of over 15 crops produced by the estate which includes many less-mainstream fruits and products including kumquats, persimmons, kaffir limes, minneolas, meyer lemons, passion fruit and pomegranates. We had the opportunity to spend some quality time with Helene Beck, who is the founder and principal of La Vigne, as well as Mark who manages the grove and all fruit production. Their approach to farming these crops is really commendable in a world that seems, at times, out of touch with sustainable agriculture practices. All of their crops are grown organically and are Certified Biodynamic by Demeter Association in an effort to both have as little impact on the ecosystem as possible and also produce a product with the most vibrant flavors.
As I walked with Mark to toward the blood orange groves he explained that the biodynamic approach to farming is really important to their fruits. Certified Biodynamic farming, a much higher level of ecological commitment than just organic, is given to farms that become individually unique ecosystems and self-sufficient with respect to the substances used in their farming. For instance, he maintains their own farm animals to produce manure used in custom-mixed natural fertilizers. They do not use pesticides, herbicides or fungicides, but instead grow other plants and wildflowers that attract natural predators for any problem pests. Listening to Mark speak, it was clear he believed all of these crops to be interconnected and in harmony with the nutrients and fertility of the soil.
Our particular use of blood oranges in production of Happy Sol depends on the fruit having the most complex and vibrant flavors. Since we use juice in our fermentation, the fruit needs to be fully mature and so our oranges are not harvested until late February or even March. Most of the crops at La Vigne are harvested to order – meaning that the fruit is only picked from the trees when a customer puts in an order. Alongside the blood oranges is another grove of persimmons, which the trees had lost all of their leaves as part of the fall season, but still held on to an assortment of ripe fruit. Mark said these remaining fruit would be picked as new orders came in over the coming weeks. The same is true for the blood orange crop when it is ready in the coming months and luckily there is an ample supply to use in our ongoing production of Happy Sol. As part of the dozens of pilot batches for this beer we tried many different types of citrus but always came back to the blood orange as adding the right amount of tartness and a distinctive flavor that sets it apart from other hefeweizens. Visiting the groves provides great assurance that we are engaged in producing a high quality product, but also offered some inspiration for ingredients we might use in other upcoming recipes.