It's not often anymore I can walk into a bottle shop and find a beer I've never seen, of which I have never heard. Even less so my local: Bottles 'n Bins, just up the street from the Monterey Bay Aquarium, is where I started my exploration of beer and to say that I know their (very impressive) selection like the back of my hand would be to admit far greater familiarity with that extremity than I'm willing to aver.
So imagine my surprise. Standing, browsing their shelves with the supreme assuredness I imagine was enjoyed by Demetrius of Phaleron in the Stacks at Alexandria, I was suddenly struck by an undefined interstice in the otherwise orderly presentation of labels.
Bacchus, produced by Castle Brewery in Van Honsebrouck, Belgium, comes in the kind of stately 375ml bottle (not pictured) that sings to the potential purchaser of high quality ingredients prepared in ancient facilities by people who are paying attention. Though it doesn't say so on the bottle, this is a very subtle realization of a style endemic to the area of southern Belgium known as Flanders: the Flemish Sour Brown. Flemish Browns vary in color from a dark rust to a subdued ruby, and like their cousins, the Flemish Sour Reds, are notable for high acidity and strong noses of cherry and plum.
For its own part, Bacchus may be the most restrained Brown I've ever tasted. It seemed flat at first, and lacking body, but as the glass warmed I realized that this was due to significantly lower acidity than I am accustomed to in this style. Rather than heavy-handed and high-gravity fruit up front with enamel-stripping acidity to clean it up, Bacchus has a very light body and mouthfeel that allows more halting woodiness and vanilla to develop to complement the sour cherries and dark stone fruit; while I haven't been able to find any data to back it up, I am quite sure this beer must be aged in oak barrels. Without the cloying sweetness there is no need for anything to counteract it, so the brewers have allowed the beer to dry out significantly with just a complementary hint of vinegar. After the fruit, the spices sharpen from vanilla into something more like nutmeg before drying out entirely.
The truly remarkable characteristic of this beer is its carbonation, which is absolutely pinprick - only with incredible care and attention can an effect like this be achieved. It is a good analog for the experience as a whole: Bacchus is a well made, well-tempered example of a style that is frequently and easily overdone. Avoiding these pitfalls, it distinguishes itself by its reserve.