Victory Wild Devil Ale

wild_devilA little while ago when I was visiting family in East Texas in a “dry county” we had to make an effort to find a store that sells beer and wine. Fortunately, it only took a short drive across county lines  to find a gas station with a small collection of beers and wines.  This store was, of course, not stocked with a large selection of craft beers. After some deliberation we ended up purchasing a six pack of Victory Hop Devil Ale, a pretty decent IPA that approaches the Imperial IPA style in terms of taste and alcohol percentage. Not long after we returned from Texas we noticed a bottle of Victory Wild Devil Ale on the local Whole Foods Market shelves and decided to take it home to compare.

As the name indicates, Wild Devil is a wild variant of Hop Devil. The use of malt, whole flower hops and alcohol content are similar but this beer has been fermented with “100% laboratory grown Brettanomyces.”  As such, this beer constitutes an interesting experiment in substituting brettanomyces yeast for conventional ale yeast.

The following notes were taken on Sunday, October 04, 2009:

Poured into a Cantillon Geuze glass.

Appearance: Even with gentle pouring, produces a 2 finger “moon crater” head. Golden/amber in color, hazy. Long head retention.

Smell: Flowery/citrus hops . Brett. Sweet caramel malt.  Peppery spice.

Taste: Hops and brett. Fruit. Ends on a spicy, bitter note. Dry. Long aftertaste. As the beer warms up, the brett becomes more dominant at the expense of the hops.

Mouthfeel: Quite smooth. Moderate carbonation.

Drinkability: Less drinkable than Hop Devil. Generous remaining foam.

In previous reviews of beers in which brettanomyces yeast was used it was observed that this style does better when it is either balanced with a strong hop profile or souring bacteria. Wild Devil falls firmly in the former category.  This beer is a basic but tasty example of “brett meets hops.” Particularly pleasant is its lingering aftertaste, a characteristic of  many good beers and wines. The only negative note was the remaining foam at the bottom of the glass. The drinkability of Wild Devil is less than that of Hop Devil, which may indicate that all-brett beers may be less suitable for a session beer. The best way to sum up this beer is that it represents the sum of its parts; nothing more, nothing less.

Wild Devil could anticipate a future development in American craft brewing. The brewing of the same beer with different yeasts; saccharomyces or brettanomyces fermentation. It should be noted, however, that the use of saccharomyces and brettanomyces are not mutually exclusive. The most impressive non-lambic brettanomyces-based wild ale I have tasted to date is Signature Ale, a collaboration between Dirk Naudts from Belgium’s De Proef Brewery and Tomme Arthur from California’s Port Brewing and Lost Abbey.  Signature Ale was fermented with saccharomyces and brettanomyces and contains four different malts. Whether  this approach conferred comparatively superb qualities on this beer I cannot say but it has become evident that the combination of brettanomyces fermentation and aggressive hopping can be pushed in very impressive directions.

Signature Ale

signatureBrettanomyces and hops are a predictable element in traditional lambic brewing but, as a general rule, the hops are not allowed to contribute to the flavor of the beer. One exception to this rule is Cantillon Iris, which does not contain wheat and includes fresh hops. As such, Cantillon has wisely decided not to label that a lambic beer. Another example of a beer that combines the Brettanomyces yeast and hops is the classic Trappist ale Orval.  But what can we expect from an experiment to combine Brettanomyces and American West Coast style hopping?

Signature Ale was conceived by the Port Brewing Company and De Proefbrouwerij in 2007 to find out. This  limited American / Belgian collaboration uses Sacchromyces and Brettanomyces and Amarillo, UK Phoenix, and German Brewers’ Gold hops during the boil and dry hopping. The result was released in 750 ml corked bottles.

The following notes were taken on Friday, March 27, 2009.

Poured into a snifter.

Appearance: Golden orange color. Substantial amount of yeast in bottom of bottle before pouring, resulting in a little yeast in the glass. 1.5 fingers of foam with some head retention and lacing.

Smell: Brett, pronounced orange smell, and citrus hops. Sweeter and more expressive when it gets warmer, but no element ever runs amok.

Taste: The malt, Brett and hops are in perfect harmony throughout. Ends on a velvety, hoppy finish. Warm and boozy.

Mouthfeel: Medium-bodied, nice carbonation, smooth, and creamy.

Drinkability: Smooth sipper. Beer changes with temperature, but is incredibly well integrated at every temperature. At 8.5% alcohol, this beer definitely packs a punch…take a taxi home!

Can one use Brettanomyces for beers that are not sour? I had an experimental 100% Brett beer once and was seriously underwhelmed, having to poor a portion of it down the drain. So it is fair to say that this beer was approached with some degree of caution. I am therefore glad to report that Signature Ale is absolutely stunning. The malt, brett and citrus hops present themselves in a beautiful balance. Finding a note that is off, even at different temperatures, is impossible.  This drinks like a strong but subtle Imperial IPA with the warm and introvert feel of a good Belgian Trappist Triple. This creation should not leave any remaining questions about the use of Brettanomyces for strongly hopped beers. A remarkable achievement.