Not so wild ales

The recent Lost Abbey and New Belgium Lips of Faith Brett Beer has produced a number of interesting exchanges on internet forums and beer rating apps. Some reviewers are disappointed that the beer is not sour. Clearly, this is a misunderstanding of the brew because 100% brettanomyces beers are not necessarily supposed to be sour. They can be slightly tart as a consequence of acetic acid production by the brettanomyces yeast, but for a real sour beer the brett needs to work in conjunction with souring bacteria. A more understandable concern is that New Belgium filtered out the brettanomyces yeast prior to bottling. This is not speculation but has been actually confirmed by Lauren Salazar from New Belgium in an interesting and candid interview for Embrace the Funk. Lauren not only confirms that there is no living brett yeast in the Brett Beer, but also goes into quite some detail about their use of flash pasteurization for their sour blends.

To me such a development actually reflects how far sour beers and wild ales have come. If New Belgium would be one of the few producers of such beers, I could imagine some people being really concerned about such a procedure. In the current situation I suspect that many craft beer lovers who strongly prefer bottle-conditioned wild ales will just look for a release of any of the other 100+ craft brewers that do sour and brett beers. In fact, if you look at Flemish Reds you will note that pasteurization is not beyond the pale in this style at all. Clearly, there is a whole world out there between traditional spontaneously fermented lambics and pasteurized sweetened beers.  As long as a traditional beer style is not on the brink of extinction (such as traditional lambic was not that long ago), I think that respecting the artistic, business, and practical decisions a brewer makes is the most welcome approach.

Lauren does make a point about flash pasteurization that draws attention to different views people can have about what makes a style a style (or what makes a beer a beer). She says that pasteurization has “a side effect, but it’s a wonderful side effect. It locks the blend that I produce into place. ..You know some people store beers like Geuze for a really long time and what they don’t realize is that blender painstakingly made that blend.  The blender tasted all their barrels and said “This percentage of this barrel, this percentage of this one etc..”. That person brought all those together, tasted it and said “Perfect.” But 3 years later, who knows what it’s like if its not pasteurized. So when you pasteurize you can definitely lock in the blend, but it can also oxidize.”  This surprised me because it is well known that some lambic brewers and blenders do actually encourage people to age their geuzes and even highlight the qualities that the beer will pick up over time – just attend a vertical tasting of geuzes to experience this. When these brewers blend, the evolution of the beer over time and its aging potential is one of the things on their mind. Yes, the beer can get oxidized but that is something that both the drinker and the producer recognize – just like people with a wine cellar recognize their (expensive) wines may turn out fabulous, mediocre, or past their prime.

Lambic connoisseurs often have clear affinities with the (natural) wine crowd. No lambic or gueuze is the same year after year, but this is seen as a feature of lambic brewing and not a bug.  It is one of the things that makes spontaneous fermentation and natural wine making so interesting and fascinating (even from a biochemical perspective). It mimics life. It is as much about taste as it is about process and acceptance. Clearly, this is not an approach that is suitable for all brewers and as the craft beer revolution keeps on going we are going to see more safer and “consistent” approaches; filtered brett beers; pasteurized sours; changing the ratio between young and old base beers in a blend to make it more marketable; carefully cultivated “wild” yeast; and perhaps even sour beers that have never been in contact with bacteria at all! But there are also going to be the new craft- and home brewers who install coolships or use “infected” barrels to ferment their beers.

Speaking for myself, I increasingly have a hard time keeping up with and tasting, let alone reviewing, all the wild ales (and not so wild ales) that are being produced by American craft brewers. To keep things interesting and manageable for myself, I will now mostly confine myself to brewers that do spontaneous fermentation or who do something really interesting (such as gin barrel aging of sours, producing sour gruits etc.).

Wild Yeast

Chris White and Jamil Zainasheff’s Yeast: The Practical Guide to Beer Fermentation is a thorough review of the subject of yeast, with the practical (home)brewer in mind. It is mostly a treatment of commercial brewer’s yeast but there are some interesting observations about wild yeast, too. The authors define wild yeast as yeast “that is not in the brewer’s control.” For example, commercial Brettanomcyes is not wild yeast but native strains of Saccharomyces that (unintentionally) are introduced during cooling of the wort or barrel aging would be. Of course, today’s commercial strains of Brettanomyces may still have a lot in common with yeasts that are found in the wild, but one could imagine a scenario where the use of Brettanomyces becomes so popular that commercial yeast sellers increasingly select these strains for certain properties. As a consequence, wild yeast is not characterized by its aroma and flavor properties (such as tartness or funkiness) but by its involvement in (ambient) spontaneous fermentation.

There are a number of distinct traits that have been retained in wild yeast. Wild yeasts are usually diploid, form spores, and are still capable of mating. Commercial yeast, in contrast, has lost this ability because mainstream brewers desire consistent characteristics from their yeast. Wild yeast usually has low flocculation, which can produce higher attenuation because the yeasts will not quickly drop or rise in the wort. In commercial yeast, however, such a property is not desirable for many beer styles, where a quick and clean beer is the goal.  Unlike wild yeasts, which have evolved to compete against each other, commercial yeast can often co-exist and ferment at similar rates.

The book also includes sections on Brettanomyces and capturing wild yeast. Although the name Dekkera is often used interchangeably with Brettanomyces, it is only Brettanomyces that is of the non-spore forming type. One of the intriguing things about Brettanomyces, much to the chagrin of wine makers, is that it produces the enzyme Beta-glucosidase, which can convert the wood sugar cellobiose into glucose, a phenomenon that is more prevalent in new barrels that have higher concentrations of cellobiose. Brettanomyces is quite sensitive to oxygen, with moderate concentrations most favorable to its growth, and lower and higher concentrations, unfavorable. Increased oxygen produces more acetic acid as a fermentation product.

Instead of inoculating wort with commercial Brett, some (home)brewers aim to capture real wild yeast for fermentation. There is no shortage of methods for doing this, including ambient exposure of the wort, fermentation in “infected” barrels, the use of wild fruit and herbs to start fermentation, or using dregs from the bottles of traditional lambic brewers. Of course, such methods usually introduce souring bacteria as well, and the art is to discover and perfect a method that leads to consistent, favorable outcomes. Because many brewers prefer not to waste multiple batches of wort on spontaneous fermentation experiments, and the yeast captured in the wild may not be sufficient to start a healthy fermentation, one approach is to create ambient spontaneous starters (there is a lot of information about creating conventional starters in the book). At this stage, such efforts are still largely the work of some adventurous (home)brewers, and documentation of such efforts is still in its early stages (the Mad Fermentationist blog is an excellent resource). In the case of spontaneous starters it is important to avoid sampling at an early stage, where aerobic conditions, higher pH, and low alcohol still permit the presence of dangerous pathogens.

Because the book is mostly written for brewers who have control over their yeast and fermentation, a lot of information is not completely applicable to brewers who use spontaneous fermentation or incorporate spontaneous fermentation. But there is some information that is interesting for “wild” brewers as well. For example, proper wort aeration is important for healthy yeast growth but brewers who use barrels for (primary) fermentation may have problems in getting enough dissolved oxygen at the start of fermentation. The authors report on a New Belgium method where olive oil was added to the wort to supply the sterols that yeast cell membranes require for proper structure and function. One also wonders how the use of coolships (with their large surface to volume ratio) influences initial wort aeration. Temperature is another topic that affects conventional brewers as well as those using wild yeast. As far as I am aware, traditional lambic brewing does not necessarily exclude temperature control, but I think it is safe to assume that most fermenting lambic wort is subject to substantial seasonal and overnight temperature changes that would be contra-indicated for conventional brewers (Cantillon’s Jean-Pierre Van Roy once looked horrified when I asked him about active temperature control). It would be quite helpful to quantify and characterize the effect of ambient temperature fluctuations on wild yeast and bacterial growth, fermentation, and flavor.

Much of the information on yeast growth, handling, storage, and labs is not applicable to spontaneous fermentation but some of the techniques (such as wild yeast tests and forced fermentation) can be used by adventurous brewers to study wild yeast and the conditions that influence spontaneous fermentation. Ultimately, there is an increasing need for an extensive book treatment on (home)brewing with non-conventional and wild yeast. Modifying or ignoring (!) procedures for brewing with domesticated yeast will only take you so far, and the homebrew recipes that can be found in some classic lambic and wild beer books give little guidance about expected fermentation behavior and troubleshooting. Of course, no matter how much our knowledge about spontaneous fermentation grows, beer that is produced in this way will always have more variability than beer that is produced with domesticated yeast under highly controlled conditions. But this is also one of its strengths, and like authentic wine, can lead to surprising results. Many readers of this blog will agree that the best beer in this world remains a product of spontaneous fermentation. If you brew conventional beer in addition to wild beer, Yeast is an invaluable resource.

Authentic wine

Jamie Goode and Sam Harrop’s Authentic Wine: Toward Natural and Sustainable Winemaking is the most extensive (technical) review of natural wine making to date. The authors prefer the term authentic wine to recognize the fact that wine is not a spontaneous product of nature but requires a competent winemaker. As the authors point out on many occasions, “natural” is a matter of degree. So why aim for non-interventionist wine making in the first place? The answer that appeals most to the authors is that it allows for the purest expression of terroir. A fair degree of non-interventionism is a necessary, but not sufficient, condition for making good wine. As such, the authors do not reject, and in some chapters seem to strongly support, some manipulation of the wine to allow for the best expression of terroir, a perspective that no doubt is controversial with those who practice natural wine making because they value non-interventionism as such. One could argue that the writers are terroirists first, and non-interventionists second.

I think the rejoinder to such a “terroir through manipulation” perspective would be to argue that if non-interventionist wine making leads to a poor expression of terroir, then either the wine maker is not creating the proper conditions for the grapes and wine to develop, or one is trying to make wine in an area (i.e., soil, climate) that is simply not suitable for their choice of grape, style, or even wine making at all. The authors actually seem to be quite sympathetic to this outlook because the book is full of examples of how many wine “faults” can be avoided without manipulation of the end product. Ultimately, the implied verdict seems to be that natural wine making is an advanced form of wine making for a specific subset of consumers, and does not permit a lot of room for errors or ignorance. I think there is a strong parallel with spontaneous fermentation in beer making here. Despite the rhetoric about letting nature take its course, lambic brewers usually have a deep and thorough understanding of the conditions and variables that affect their beer, even if they do not always express this in the technical language of brewing science.  In today’s world, natural wine making and spontaneous fermentation of beer is a choice and one that is usually made by people who accept and embrace the challenge — hence the (mostly) superior results.

One of the most interesting chapters in the book is about ripeness and alcohol levels. The authors show how syrah performs in cool and warm climates, and how picking times influence terroir expression. Picking the grapes too early will result in low alcohol, unripe, and harshly tannic wines, and picking the grapes too late will produce high alcohol, low acid and uncharacteristic “soupy” wines.  Of course, personal preference matters and that is why the authors show an “optimum window for terroir expression” instead of one single time point. For example, I personally prefer wines that are very dry, lower in alcohol, with good acidity and tannins, with restrained green notes, which requires relatively early picking of the grapes. As a general rule, writers on natural wine agree that (excessive) new oak and high alcohol overwhelm the expression of terroir. The authors quote winemaker Scott Burr: “alcohol is a masking agent…so taking it away reveals what’s there.” I am inclined to think that this applies to many beer styles as well. For example, a high gravity beer with a lot of post-fermentation residual sugar is not ideal for showcasing the differences between different fresh hop varieties. It may not be a coincidence that most lambic producers, and Cantillon in particular, keep their alcohol percentages on the lower side of the spectrum and generally avoid new oak.

This book stands out for a relatively detailed discussion of yeast and fermentation in wine. In contrast to brewing, the use of the indigenous (“wild”) yeast on the grapes has never really gone out of style in wine making, despite the increasing popularity of inoculating wine with commercial yeast. I suspect that, aside from the more traditionalist culture associated with wine, a major reason is that the differences between the results of spontaneous fermentation in wine and the use of commercial yeast in wine are smaller than the outcomes for beer. As a general rule, spontaneous fermentation in beer leads to distinctively dry, tart and funky beers that do not appeal to the average beer drinker. In wine, spontaneous fermentation can produce funkier wines, but the degree of funk is not of the magnitude that we see in beer – although it strikes me that it should be possible to “direct” a natural wine towards a far more funkier expression, something I suspect some French natural wine makers deliberately aim for.

Brewing with brettanomyces, or even 100% brettanomyces, is now quite popular in craft beer brewing. In wine making, brettanomyces is considered a “fault,” even among many natural wine makers. The reasoning is that brettanomyces inhibits the expression of fruit and blurs the distinctions between grapes and terroir.  Having said this, some of the most prestigious red wines have a faint brett character that some feel adds complexity. Even the authors consider the possibility that the presence of brettanomyces might work in some specific wine styles. I have tasted a number of wines where the presence of brettanomyces was unmistakable — in some wines I agree that it impoverished the wine, in others I think it positively amplified the dark, brooding, and rustic character of the wine. As far as I am aware, unlike beer drinkers, wine drinkers never express an explicit liking for brettanomyces. Whether this psychological barrier reflects a fundamental, and correct, recognition that brett generally has no place in good wine, or a reluctance to embrace the unorthodox results of spontaneous fermentation, remains to be seen. What is clear, however, is that brewers of funky and sour beers have a (practical) knowledge about the complexities of brettanomyces fermentation and expression that is usually absent among wine writers.

Interview with Crooked Stave’s Chad Yakobson

Chad Yakobson has done the world of homebrewing and microbrewing a great favor by making the results of his academic investigations with brettanomyces yeast available on his website and participating in online exchanges about the use of brettanomyces in homebrewing. Chad is also one of the (early) readers of Lambic and Wild Ale and has contacted me from time to time about an item I posted. I am therefore quite pleased to publish this interview about his artisan brewing project called Crooked Stave.

1. Did your desire to start a brewery come out of your academic studies, or did you always want to start a brewery?

I actually wanted to stat a winery at first. I studied grape growing in my undergrad and then moved to New Zealand to study wine making. Throughout all of this I was always more passionate about brewing and during my travels after New Zealand I decided that I wanted to work for a brewery instead of a winery. I was still interested in further academic studies so I eventually made my way to Edinburgh, Scotland, to study at the International Centre for Brewing and Distilling…with the final goal of one day opening a brewery of my own.

2. How would you summarize the most significant findings of your studies with brettanomyces?

I would say the most significant finding was that Brettanomyces yeasts are capable of Primary fermentation in a manner similar to Saccharomyces strains but with an incredibly different means to metabolite production and even greater variability in their ability to ferment and produce secondary metabolites like esters and phenols.

3. What is the biggest challenge of 100% Brettanomyces brewing?

Choosing the right strain to match the beer you’re trying to brew and hitting the fermentation profile you’re looking for with that beer. There aren’t enough strains right now, so most Brett beers taste the same. Brewers only have a few strains to choose from and it takes time to learn how the different Bretts ferment and how best to accentuate their characteristics in the beer.

4. Do you think it is possible to brew a quality 100% Brettanomyces beer on a similar timescale as a regular ale?

I do! Our last Brettanomyces fermentation took 6 days to go from 14 Plato to 3 Plato. To make a quality 100% Brettanomyces beer is a bit more of a trick. That is my goal through producing a series of beers called Wild Wild Brett. The first series plays off the color wheel (ROY-G-BIV), incorporating an ingredient into the beer that in some form relates to the color of the color wheel for that particular batch. In the end I’m looking for the ideal Brettanomyces beer, one that can be produced as part of a brewery’s normal lineup of beers.

5. Do you favor certain grains and hops in your brewing?

Absolutely, I can’t say I favor them as much as the yeasts (both wild and non-wild) I use, but every brewer will tell you they have certain ingredients they like to use. For me I like what rye can do as well as steel-cut oats. I use steel-cut oats in quite a few of the beers. Special B is a great malt as well as Carafa II debittered. As for hops, it’s really specific on the beer and the flavor profile I’m looking for. Centennial is a nice hop with a good aroma in a beer. I haven’t had a chance to play around with the fancy new hops that brewers are using so I’m looking forward to trying some of those out and developing a greater opinion on how I can use hops in the beers we’ll be brewing.

6. Can you give us a taste of the kind of “unique ingredients” that you have encountered during your travels that you would like to use in brewing?

Something I get the most out of when traveling is visiting markets and trying the local foods, to me that is a big part of culture. We don’t have anything like the markets I’ve visited throughout Southeast Asia, Africa, even South America. Walking through the markets grabbing new fruits like buddhas hand or a mangosteen is exciting to try and think how they would incorporate into a beer. The spice market in Cairo is the largest of its kind and the variety of spices is unreal. Maracuyá and Lulo from Colombia are similar to passion fruit and have a great acidity, there is also a raw pressed cane sugar called panela which lends a some dried fruit flavors when used in fermentation. The variety of fruits, herbs, spices, and flowers that exist outside of what we have available is amazing and the way the various ingredients are incorporated into the local foods is also unique. Every culture is different and they incorporate the ingredients differently. A curry might have 10 spices which come together to create a singular flavor while a still equally flavorful dish in South America might have only 2 or 3 ingredients but still be just  savory. It’s all about the way the ingredients are used that bring out their unique flavors and I like to think of brewing in the same way.

7. Your brewery seems off to an ambitious start. Can you tell us something about your objectives and achievements to date?

Our objective is to produce expressive well crafted beers. I’m building a library of barrels and filling them as fast as I can to get them souring. I’m only adding certain cultures of critters to the barrels to see how they develop to build our house flavor. It’s not something I can control but I do play a hand in it when blending barrels, and choosing which stay and which get tossed. We are concentrating heavily on Brettanomyces fermentations and I want to see the abilities of these yeasts culture and find new strains and discover new flavors. Bioflavoring is very promising with these yeasts and can really lend some interesting characteristics to the beers. Playing around with the barrels and making sour beers is exciting for me, but I look forward to having a very diverse portfolio of beers. Diversification is our model and we plan to produce many types of beers in every fashion possible. With creativity the options are endless.

8. How big is your brewery currently? How much space do you think you will need in the future?

We are currently using about 5,000 sq. ft. of space shared between two breweries. This is going to put our limits at about 100 barrels the oak foeder and the 17bbl fermenter and bright tank for a total of around 500-600 barrels of beer a year. We’re are looking to expand into Denver, Colorado, to have a brewery of our own as soon as we get the capital raised. At that point we will be looking for something with at least 10,000 sq. ft.

9. What are your short and long term goals for Crooked Stave?

Short term goals are to open a brewery location in Denver and be a successful brewery, one which people look at and hopefully think we are trying new things and making exciting beers. From there we’ll see what the future holds. Ideally we would build a green site brewery out along the front range up against the foothills west of Denver and have acreage for agriculture crops. I’d love to have an onsite orchard, small vineyard, and greenhouses for seasonal crops and herbs and spices to use in small batch beers.

10. Do you have any specific plans for spontaneous fermentation?

Absolutely! We actually just brewed a no boil beer to start a sour culture going this past week. If that works we’ll have a spontaneous culture to always use for souring wort for natural acidification in the brewhouse and post fermentation. From there I have a few more ideas like using fruits harvested and mashed which then will start fermentation spontaneously. I’ve played around with this a little and know some distilleries doing natural fermentation with fruits before distilling the product. A coolship is always an entertaining idea so we’ll see where we go with this, but a Colorado spontaneous beer will be produced one day.

11. How has your exposure to wine making influenced your brewing?

I think it has greatly influenced the way I look at fermentation, the organisms involved, and the level of my involvement with those organisms. It has given me a great understanding of how fruits can be used in primary fermentation and the characteristics they bring. Also our use of oak barrels goes hand in hand with those of a winemaker and the understanding of palate development and blending to achieve a desired final blend. A developed palate and blending skills makes the difference between a good wine and an average wine. I also treat my barrels much as a winemaker would. I take them apart and inspect each one, fix them if needed. This gives a greater understanding of each barrel and the the influences a barrel will give.

12. Can you tell us something about the artwork you envision for your labels and promotion materials?

We have a few variations for the labels depending on the series of beers. The labels for the sours are the most artistic and I’m happy with they way they are coming along. Each label has unique typography being hand created which will make the labels stand out. I like the gracefulness a wine label has with its simplicity and elegance. We are trying to bring some of this into our labels as well. I would like to see our labels continue to change even having guest artists doing labels or series of labels.

13. There has been increased interest in sour ales, wild ales and spontaneous fermentation in American microbrewing. Do you think an affordable year-round wild ale is economically feasible?

I do, and its what I’m hoping to do with our American Petite Sour. As well as being able to always have a Brettanomyces beer available.

14. What are your favorite brewers and beers?

I have quite a few… It would be hard to list all them… plus so many I’m yet to try but know of…

15. Are there any collaborations with other brewers in the works?

We just did a Fort Collins Collaboration with all the breweries in Fort Collins getting together to brew one beer that will be served during American Craft Beer Week. Also a few months back we had a Super Saison Friends League brew which was a 12% Saison aged in some of our Chardonnay barrels and inoculated with 10 different strains of Brettanomyces.

Recently we have been talking with Epic Brewing Company in Salt Lake City about doing a Collaboration. So we’ll see if that happens. There are a lot of brewers I’d like to do collaborations with, so we’ll see if that starts to happen as we get going.

Thanks for giving me the opportunity to do an interview. I’ve followed your website since I was studying back in Edinburgh so it’s exciting for me to get to be featured in a post.

Barnyard IPA

In his book Grape vs. Grain Charles Bamforth writes:

It is often not realized that, while some bottled beer was shipped, by far, the bulk of the beer sold to India was in casks, for bottling locally. Hop bitter acids by no means kill all organisms, and the most prolific inhabitant of those casks bouncing on the ocean waves was Brettanomyces. The typical flavor notes produced by this organism are “barnyard” or “mouse pee.”

The author continues to write that modern IPAs “happily, lack this touch of authenticity…..” But some traditional lambic brewers are experimenting with all malt brews and  fresh hops though. The best known available example is Cantillon’s Iris, which is made from 100% malted barley, 50% fresh hops (Styrian Goldings) and is “cold hopped” (dry hopped) before bottling. Because Iris does not contain wheat, this beer is not a lambic beer in the traditional sense of the word, but a spontaneously fermentented ale. Cantillon has even brewed an experimental concoction with fresh US Cascade hops. And in the United States, some innovating brewers are collaborating on “wild IPA” style beers.