Tomme Arthur Is the Rock Star of Yeast

The Lost Abbey's brewmaster, Tomme Arthur, is the David Bowie of beer. Over the past 10 years, his San Diego brewery has built a cultish reputation in the beer world for its unique Belgian-style ales. He is so far upstream that his endless ideas and experiments are filtering into the mainstream only now. The beer world idolizes Tomme (pronounced like Tommy) because of his brewing experiments with microorganisms, which have won masses of awards. For too long, mega-strains of yeast have dominated craft as well as commercial beer in America. If I may geek out for a few sentences, Tomme messes around with a particular strain of yeasts, Brettanomyces ("Brett" for short). Many brewers consider the appearance of Brett in their beer a flaw, a result of unclean brewing practices. However, a number of traditional Belgian brewers have learned to control the yeast, producing some amazingly complex beers, including the entire lambic family and many brown and red ales. The Lost Abbey's chef d'oeuvre, the Cuvee du Tomme, employs all three Belgian Brett strains along with sour cherries, and tasting the beer is the equivalent of hearing Eddie Van Halen's hammer-on style for the first time. Two weeks ago, at a brewer's dinner thrown by Union and Michael Jackson's Rare Beer Club (Jackson the bearded Brit, not the freak), I was lucky enough to share a meal with Tomme, whose shaved head and glasses look more Brian Eno than Ziggy Stardust. He talked about Lost Abbey's new brewing facility— and, in an exciting bit of news, announced that we'll see Lost Abbey beers in Seattle before the end of summer. Though his brewery is doubling production, Tomme says, "We're not a volume business, as I have to remind the accountant all the time. I don't want to get stuck with a certain product line; I want time to create." Case in point: Lost Abbey introduced 15 new beers last year alone, all in limited quantities. Tomme's set list inspires devotion with a capital D in beer fans, and the dining room was filled with the sentiment that night. It was also the name of the first beer, served with tiny fried-quail drumsticks. The Avant Garde ale, paired with halibut and peas, had a tangy, baked-bread quality that was friendly but not pedestrian. It was a great example of Tomme's commitment to not committing to specific styles; To produce the Avant Garde, for example, he employs lager yeast but brews at ale temperatures. The encore of the night, the 2005 Cuvee du Tomme, came with a chocolate terrine and coffee ice cream—not so much a pairing as a way to highlight just how far off the freaking charts the Cuvee lands. It is a bourbon-cherry-toasted wonderland of a dark ale. If I'd had a lighter, I would have raised it in praise. Until Lost Abbey's beers are available for purchase in our state (look in stores that pay particular attention to Belgian brews), you can enjoy Tomme's handiwork through a Belgian beer that will be available locally starting in June. Called "Signature Ale," it was co-produced by Tomme and pre-eminent Belgian brewery De Proef.

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