The Commons Brewery Eidolon

One of the nice things about Portland’s The Commons Brewery is its emphasis on (low alcohol) farmhouse ales and sours. I recently visited their tasting room and enjoyed most of their offerings and would only classify their Berliner Weisse as a “work in progress” (not lactic enough). The beer that intrigued me the most was Eidolon, a limited release in the “Beetje Series” (referring to the nano-brewery that gave rise to The Commons Brewery). Eidolon is a collaborative sour farmhouse ale with meyer lemon juice and peel, jasmine green tea and flowers, and New Zealand hallertau  hops, matured in red wine barrels with two strains of brettanomyces. This beer has an ABV of 7.5%. and I tasted it on September 16, 2012.

Poured in a De Cam geuze glass, the beer has a deep golden/amber color, is surprisingly clear, and even a relatively vigorous pour only produced a little head, which dissipated quickly. The aroma is lactic and fruity with some sweetness. The lactic aroma is nicely complemented by a modest Brett-induced barnyard character. The taste initially reflects this sweet and sour aroma but there is a lot more going on here, most notably an unusual but pleasant earthy ‘dark’ licorice flavor (flowers?) that ends in a fairly long finish. I have a hard time characterizing this finish; it could be the tea, the hops, something else, or all of them. I am also reminded of drinking a good barrel-aged dry cider but did not notice much astringency. The beer has a medium but slightly sticky mouthfeel and very low carbonation. In fact, I would argue that the carbonation is really on the low side for any kind of beer style except unblended straight lambic. Perhaps the brewers wanted to err on the side of caution with the  two added strains of brettanomyces.

This was really a nice, and positively unusual, concoction. Using sour beers as a vehicle for botanicals opens a world of unlimited possibilities, provided it is executed with knowledge and skill. One thing that is hard to improve upon is the label (more information here). If the style and ingredients list would not have pulled me in, the beautiful label would have done it. I am definitely looking forward to tasting more (sour) brews by The Commons Brewery. And if you like going to the Upright tasting room, there is a good chance you will like going to the Commons tasting room, too.

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.).

Mikkeller Yeast Series: Brettanomyces

Admittedly, I was a little hesitant about this beer because Mikkeler seems to show little restraint in what it releases to the market. But this “educational” beer designed solely to showcase the Brettanomyces yeast was too tempting to leave untouched and I was not disappointed at all. The base for this beer (and all the others in the yeast series) is a strong pale ale, and it was brewed and bottled by Mikkeler at the Proef Brouwerij in Belgium.

Brettanomyces pours a dark orange / amber with a good two finger head. For an 8% beer I find the aroma quite crisp and restrained with notes of musty tropical fruit, green apple, and hops. I am not sure about the brettanomyces strain(s) used for this beer, but I suspect it may have been one of the milder strains (Claussenii?) – not of the barnyard, band-aid variety. The beer is mildly tart and has a nice European hop character to balance out the malt and yeast expression. Not terribly complex, but that is a good thing in this beer, I think. The finish is dry and pleasantly bitter. Not too cloying or sweet, inviting one to take another sip. Carbonation is quite high, which could be the result of the higher attenuation induced by the brett during bottle fermentation.

Brettanomyces is too strong to be an easy-drinking session beer. But considering the alcohol percentage, I found it quite smooth and light. Although this beer was designed to showcase the brettanomyces yeast, I think it would not have been nearly as refined without the generous amounts of hops. I can see how this beer could be disappointing to people who want more fireworks from the brett, but simply judged as a balanced beer, I think it is a good effort.

Anchorage brews with brettanomyces

When I ventured into the low-temperature walk-in beer section in my local Whole Foods recently, my eye caught no fewer than three bottles from Anchorage Brewing that all said “with brettanomyces:” a Saison (Love Buzz), a Wit Bier (Whiteout), and a double IPA (Bitter Monk). As a matter of fact, Anchorage Brewing aims to brew all barrel-aged, brettanomyces-influenced beers. Since I have let loose all kinds of brettanomyces on my own home brews, I was quite interested to experience the effect of on these different beer styles.

I first tried the Saison, which clocks in at no less than 8% alcohol and 40 IBU, which is not trivial for the style. While the label mentions rose hips, peppercorns,  fresh orange peels, and Pinot Noir barrel aging, I did not seem to get a lot of this. The beer pours a beautiful cloudy, dark orange and has pronounced notes of brettanomyces, grass, lemon and a faint biscuit sweetness. The hops definitely make their presence known and carry the beer towards a long, off-dry, bitter finish. As it warms up, the (sticky) sweetness becomes a little more pronounced, but the brett and hops keep it in check. This is not a session beer but I would not call it a sipper either. I was expecting a little more complexity and I could see people mistaking this for a Brett-enhanced IPA instead. Dialing down the alcohol and letting the herbs shine may lead to further improvement.

The next Anchorage beer I tried was Whiteout. Whiteout pours a very light cloudy yellow. The first thing that entered my mind when I smelled it was “lambic.” Whether it was the contribution of the lemony Sorachi Ace hops, the wheat, or some other fermentation product, the aroma evoked a good, earthy, Belgian Gueuze, with a hefty dose of barnyard and spice. This beer tastes as great as it smells; dry, crisp, minty, and tart with a long bitter finish. The coriander contributes a nice herbal note and the Chardonnay barrel aging adds some buttery smoothness. As the beer warms up, the Belgian yeast expresses itself without throwing around too many esters. Mouthfeel is on the lighter side and the beer is very effervescent. As a crisp 6.5% alcohol beer, this is a very drinkable beer.

The third beer I drank was their Brett-enhanced Belgian-style double IPA. I do not recall tasting a double IPA with secondary brettanomyces fermentation before so I was quite curious about this one. Bitter Monk pours an opaque dark orange and leaves quite a bit of lacing during consumption. As would be expected from a double IPA, the nose reveals major hops – plus some funk from the brett. I am not a big fan of  (American) citrus hop varieties but that is not the brewer’s fault. I also detect green apples, banana, and grassy notes. For a high gravity beer, the sweetness is not too oppressive and it seems that the brett consumed some additional sugar. The beer tastes relatively dry for the style and ends on a long bitter note. Carbonation is quite low but I tend to like it that way. For a double IPA this beer is quite drinkable, even crisp. It is not as complex as the Whiteout beer, or perhaps it is under the surface, as the 100 IBU hops ensure a beer dominated by hops. For someone who is not a big fan of the double IPA style, this is not bad at all.

So how does the brettanomyces contribute to these three beer styles? I am inclined to say: Brettanomyces giveth and Brettanomyces taketh away. It seemed that in the case of the Saison, something might have been lost. In the case of the white beer, it produced a stellar, fascinating beer. As for the Belgian double IPA, a hop bomb remains a hop bomb, but it seemed to confer a crisper, drier character and some unmistakable earthiness. So Whiteout is the clear winner for me. Of all three brews, it allowed the other ingredients and barrel-aging to shine. Yet again, it reinforced my preference to keep the alcohol down in such beers. And I may have to get some of these Sorachi Ace hops!

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.