The quest for identity in today’s brewing industry is borderline Sisyphean. Customer demand dictates trends and, in a general sense, it falls on the brewery to either A) utilize a combination of marketing research and blind luck to predict where the arc will crest next, or B) capitalize on an existing trend before it gets played out; see the Samuel Adams portfolio circa 2015 to now for a prime example of the latter. And consumers, sooner or later, will sense whether or not a brewery is genuine in their pursuit, or looking for a quick cash grab. Cue neckbeard backlash.
OEC, aka Ordinem Eccentrici Coctores, aka “The Order of Eccentric Boilers,” decided to side-step this problem entirely, instead entering the market with a series of esoteric, blended sour projects. Their emergence was gradual, but not tentative; it was evident from the outset that head brewer Benjamin Neidhart had a clear vision for OEC, and that he has intention of narrowing that field of vision any time soon.
OEC operates, both figuratively and quite literally, within B. United Imports. Located in Oxford, Connecticut, about an hour’s train ride from Grand Central in New York City, B. United is my Disney World. The company, founded and operated by Ben’s father Matthias, imports shelf staples like Reissdorf Kolsch and the Schneider portfolio alongside less-renowned but still world-class producers like Switzerland’s BFM, the Belgian lambic blender Hanssen’s, Scotland’s Harviestoun, and others from Finland, England, South Africa, Italy, France, Japan, you name it.
Consider this: the simplest beer OEC brews, Exilis, is a 3.8% ABV Berliner-style weisse brewed using a three-part decoction mash, then fermented using a combination of spontaneous yeast drawn from the Connecticut country air in the brewery’s coolship, then re-pitched the following day with house yeast…which is itself a mutant grab-bag of cultures and wild bugs. Exilis, along with everything else coming out of OEC, is a stunning achievement that no one asked for. And though now OEC seemingly operates with nary a rough edge to sand down, the brewery’s ability to churn out consistently high-quality, complex beers is the result of careful, meticulous planning.
“The idea for the brewery had been gestating three years before it actually started,” head brewer Benjamin Neidhart tells me over the phone one morning. “It took a while to really put everything together, especially researching the brewhouse; we needed some special things. The brewhouse is actually a combination of copper and steel, and we had to find a supplier that could work with those materials. We also had to find someone who could construct a coolship, not something many suppliers could do. Kris from De Dolle helped a lot, as well as Professor Fritz Briem.”
It bears reiterating: OEC makes these kinds of beers exclusively. While other American breweries work with coolships, barrel-aging, and long fermentation, they tend to have the luxury of a quick-turnaround flagship product to subsidize the passion projects: Allagash White, Russian River IPAs, New Glarus Spotted Cow, etc. OEC, by comparison, is all passion project.
“We never really considered taking a more conventional approach,” Ben says. “I worked for a bit at [Bamberg-based smoked beer producer] Aecht Schlenkerla and [French Normandy cider-maker] Domaine Dupont. You spend nine years around a certain thing, and it can’t help but influence the way you operate.”
In reality, Ben has spent pretty much his entire life around products like this. As he points out, the fact that OEC is run quite literally under the same roof as B. United Imports, which his family owns, has a considerable impact not just on Ben’s vision for OEC, but on the way he executes that vision.
“We have a relationship with all these suppliers, and the last thing I want to do is copy. I love Old Engine Oil, but I’m not going to try and brew that here. The goal is to make something interesting; this is a shared infrastructure, we bottle at B. United. I don’t need a volume product.”
Nearly everything at OEC is conceptualized and released as a blend, which not only helps Ben and crew to maintain general consistency across multiple releases, but adds even more layers of character to each brand. On top of that, the blending process may be different for each batch, but with a similar flavor target in mind. For example, the initial batch of Tempus, one of OEC’s longest-lived beers, is simply a blend of saisons with spices: 40% oak-aged, 60% young ale; Batch 3 is 50% young Tempus layered in oak barrels, with the remainder a mixture of barrel-fermented saisons and lambic-style ale; Batch #6 is 30% young Tempus layered in wine barrels, 15% lambic-style ale, and the remainder a blend of saisons aged in red and white wine barrels. It’s dizzying. And Ben knows it.
“It’s actually the single biggest challenge (laughs). We never pitch any wild bugs; we have two different kind of natural yeasts, but we never pitch anything forcefully. Everything touches wood, so we have a ton of diversity among the different barrels,” he says. “When we have specific brands, like Tempus, one of the reasons we say that and are so upfront about it, you’re going to get batch variation. They’ll all taste different, but if you taste them all together, you’ll notice similarities. For example, one thing for me that defines Tempus is the blend of different types of acidity you can have. There’s lactic and tart, then a deeper, acetic toward the back. One of the things that defines Tempus is the balance of those different acidities.”
OEC also categorizes several of its labels under the umbrella of different series. Which series a beer might or might not fall under is largely a matter of technique, process, and ingredients. One of the most intriguing, and one that has yielded—for this writer’s money—the greatest dividends, is the Artista Zynergia line. The concept, on paper, is simple: a blend of OEC beer with beer from one of the brands B. United brings in. Remember, they operate literally at the same facility, under the same company roof. And because B. United imports most of its draft products in large shipping tankers, as opposed to kegs, it’s logistically feasible. According to Ben, this was one of the original projects OEC had planned upon opening.
“It definitely came along with starting the brewery,” he says. “We always wanted to do things in our own way, but for the most part a couple of brewers get together and brew a beer, then sell it. We wanted to turn that on its head. Whenever you brew something at one facility, there’s always a house character. We wanted to explore that.”
To date, OEC has released Artista Zynergia collaborations with Hanssens, LoverBeer, Alvinne, Kiuchi (producer of the Hitachino Nest line), and others. All of them are amazing, even if the journey required to produce them is fraught with peril, chance, and uncooperative yeast.
Ben is upfront about this. “Well, if they fail, it doesn’t get released. One of the hardest ones to do is blend beer and cider. I did it successfully once, but tried it again and it didn’t work. Solaris [an early success with the Sargadoa cider-maker] is a blend of gose and Basque cider. One of the issues is that the cider yeast can become very reductive; it can keep eating sugars, and really overpower the beer.”
And Artista Zynergia is the least insane thing going on at OEC. Take the Frigus project, for example. In an effort to recreate the natural eisbock process—freezing a beer, then slowly thawing it and skimming off the excess water to produce a stronger, more concentrated beer—Ben and his crew rack some beer into used wine barrels, and then store it in an on-site barn. Without temperature control. Year-round. In Connecticut. This project has resulted in two beers: Imperium—a wheat wine—and the biere de garde Vetus. Both are completely bonkers and taste better than they probably should.
All of this, it should be said, has historical precedent. When I toured the facility a couple of years ago, for example, OEC was just undertaking the Urwaga series, wherein a beer would be transferred to a wine barrel, then literally buried in the ground for nearly two years.
“It’s actually been done for a long time,” Ben says, and I can almost hear him smile. “My dad got the idea from a book on the fermentation of African beverages.”
An alien concept, deeply rooted in tradition, and executed with something bordering, gloriously, on flippancy. OEC’s products and methods exist in the present, embrace the past, and face down the future. Beer, Rust Cohle might say, is a flat circle. OEC is the circumference.