What to say about Urban Family Brewing? First off, they seemed to come out of nowhere: I was looking over the month’s 12% Imports inventory sheet—Urban Family is based in Seattle, it’s ridiculous, this kind of thing happens all the time, let’s move on—and saw this new brewery. Farmhouse ales. Brettanomyces. Hoppy sours. Every beer was a coy raised eyebrow; every answer a head-butt. I had to have them.
Second, they seemed to emerge from everywhere. Not in the sense of proliferate distribution—I have no idea what they’re doing in Wisconsin—but in terms of style and creative pursuit. In addition to everything I’m reviewing in this space, they have a coffee stout, a blood orange farmhouse ale, etc. They’re executing the Hill Farmstead playbook, but every third page is missing.
Urban Family is an interesting case study. It’s like watching a baby deer learn to walk; there’s a good many stumbles, to be sure, but every five minutes the deer covers Wu-Tang Clan’s Liquid Swords while doing backflips over a lava pit. Make sense? Okay. FINISH HIM.
Farmhouse Ale w/Brettanomyces
This is a farmhouse ale brewed with barley, wheat, oats, and rye, and it is by far the most basic beer that Urban Family makes. That is much less an indictment of its flavor than it is an indication of just how off the rails this brewery can get; we’re not talking Bruery-level shenanigans or anything, but still.
In what will prove to be a theme, Voices Underground opens with an aggressive pop of CO2, but thankfully refrains from gushing. It pours, well, expectedly: golden, slightly hazy, with billowy white foam. Very pretty. The head recedes a little, but I was still sipping through a good finger of foam when I finished the beer about 20 minutes later. The Brettanomyces character here is gentle; Urban Family pitched a mixture of their house yeast and a Brett culture, and it serves the beer well: there’s a snappy pineapple/pear sort of note to the smell, with just a little bit of something like Gruyere cheese.
If my paycheck didn’t hinge on me digging into this beer, I could have taken down the 12-oz. bottle in about four gulps. It’s ridiculously refreshing, crisp without being over-dry, and borderline juicy. The body is light, but given fullness and complexity by the mixed grain bill: the wheat lends creaminess, the rye a hint of spice, and the oats soften what acidity the beer does possess.
Urban Family could package this thing solely in 1.5L magnum bottles, and I’d still consider that a single serving size. It’s not a game-changing saison or anything, but damned if it’s not flawless execution.
Dry-Hopped Sour Ale
We’re not jumping down the rabbit hole yet, but we’re sneaking up the edge and peering over, Kilroy-style. From what I can tell, Urban Family brews a few different versions of this, differentiated only by the hop bill. The base beer is soured with lactobacillus, and my bottle indicates a dry-hopping of Nelson Sauvin and Azacca hops.
This is maybe a shade darker than Voices Underground, with an almost greenish hue if you let a little of the yeast slip into the glass. Which I did. Because I’m careless. The nose delivers on the label’s promise: there’s a great interplay here between the sour base beer and the hops. Nelson Sauvin tends to impart, depending on the crop, notes of melon, white wine, or tropical fruit; Azacca could be the bastard child of Mosaic and Centennial, with tons of mango and pine needle. As a result, this batch of Lady of the Night smells like kiwis soaked in Sauvignon Blanc wine. We’re off to a good start.
Lactobacillus can strip the enamel off your gums if it’s not utilized with a steady hand; fortunately, Urban Family knows their game. This is definitely tangy, but in a ripe gooseberry-meets-lime sort of way; taste-wise, imagine a bowl of tropical fruit with fresh yogurt, and you’re just about there. It is, again, refreshing, yet only off-dry. I’d be surprised if there wasn’t any wheat in this beer; it exhibits that same sort of creamy lightness in body that that grain usually imparts.
Barrel-Aged Farmhouse Pale Ale
This beer and I have a history. I ordered a case for my bar, and upon opening one of them on the day of arrival, literally the entire contents erupted from the bottle. I’ve experienced gushers, but I’ve never seen a beer do that; it was the Taylor Swift acceptance speech of the farmhouse world. It smelled amazing, but a back-bar mirror that yields notes of blood orange and overripe peach will only get you so far with the health inspector.
So I waited. About two months later, here we are: somehow, time has calmed the carbonation on this thing. Oh, it still gushed; turns out the hazmat suit I was wearing and the Area 51-level ventilation ducts I’d installed in my kitchen were a bit overkill, but foam began to seep up over the edge of the bottle as soon as the cap was free. Just be on your guard, is what I’m saying.
It looks like dirty orange juice. This is not a pretty beer, and the carbonation profile has gotten weird; a huge, frothy white head emerges but dies out faster than neck-beard indignation at the latest AB-InBev takeover. It looks flat in the glass, but it is not. IT IS NOT. It’s prickly, but somehow soft at the same time, luring you in like a blanket that looks like it’s made out of felt, but then you realize, oh shit, some asshole scientist figured out how to solidify acid.
I realize I’m making it sound like this beer sucks. It doesn’t. The nose is still a veritable peach orchard, with a hugely tannic oak profile, and a whiff of vanilla. There are sturdy hops at play too: Citra, maybe? The taste, similarly, is actually really good: passion fruit, jammy, a nice pucker. Everything is simply overwhelmed by the completely batshit carbonation. Is this even kegged? F***ing how? A 50-psi setting, flow-control faucet, and a sacrificed chicken?
Whatever, look…it’s a good beer, just with issues. It needs Jesus, I think, and then it can be great.
Milkshake (?) Ale
Real talk—I pitched this assignment pretty much because I wanted to drink this beer, and because I could get it for free. It’s a “milkshake ale,” because that’s totally a thing; thanks, Tired Hands and Omnipollo. It’s brewed with lime zest and lime juice, lactose, and hopped with New Zealand-grown Motueka. I saw the label and instinctively threw my wallet at it.
The good news: it looks and smells like a melted limeade Popsicle, which I think is the point. There’s a ton of freshly squeezed lime juice on the nose, a hint of vanilla bean, a slightly catty white wine note. This beer knows what I want, I am all out of bubblegum, and I’m so excited that I’m scrambling my metaphors.
The less-good news: it’s…y’know, it’s fine? It’s totally fine. But what complexity the nose promised is gone on the palate, replaced simply by a taste of liquid lime pith. It’s lime-heavy, for sure, but it’s borderline astringent, with little of the hop character or creaminess insinuated by the smell. I still liked it, but I liked Salo too, and I don’t feel the need to revisit that.
Brettanomyces Farmhouse Ale w/Honeysuckle & Elderflower
For the record, I’m bookending this piece with what are far and away Urban Family’s two best beers. They undoubtedly have a knack for Brettanomyces-influenced farmhouse ales; it is their unmistakable jam, like Central Waters’ bourbon barrel beers, Bissell Brothers’ hazy hoppy riff, or Dogfish Head’s level 99 troll game.
In any case, this beer rocks: it pours an opaque gold, with a tight, resilient, heaven-white head that just leaves all kinds of symmetrical lacing. I was fortunate enough to try Cantillon’s newest batch of Mamouche recently—thanks Jean, for real—and the ultra-fresh elderflower profile on that beer was intensely spicy, like just-harvested bell peppers. It worked, but man, it was…forthright, let’s say. The Flowers are Sleeping exhibits a hint of that, but in a more measured approach: floral, quasi-vegetal spice character underscored by the honeysuckle addition, and a lovely, musty pear note from the Brettanomyces strain.
This beer is dry, complex, and frustratingly drinkable; I paid close attention to the first few ounces for journalism reasons, then annihilated the remainder while I cooked dinner. This is what I look for in beer, I think: refreshing enough to forget in the moment, but memorable enough to stick with you for an extended period of time.
And, I mean, there you have it. That’s Urban Family. Because I’m obsessed with drawing parallels between beer and non-beer things, let’s say that Urban Family is to beer what James Kirkland is to boxing: a wealth of preternatural skill, an offense-first approach to fighting, and life, and checking the mail, and generally anything, really, but with a predilection for either scoring or suffering a KO.
Just, y’know, keep them hands up.