Article By: Lew Bryson
These American-brewed beers are starting to find their way into the New England beer market. They're similar to classic Belgian beers, they're complex in flavor and aroma, they're hot with the high-end beer customer, and they've got a margin like wine. Interested? You should be; the right shop can do a nice little business in these specialty products (as can a savvy wholesaler who orders in small, pre-ordered lots), and they're great cross-over sales to wine drinkers.
The Belgians produce these beers - by spontaneous fermentation, just leaving the beer open to the air, or by exposing fresh-brewed beer to biota-infested wooden vessels - and call them lambics and Flemish sour ales. Orval, a unique and hallowed Trappist ale, gains its dry, puckery character from a deliberate exposure to wild Brettanomyces yeast, the same "brett" that can add complexity to - or ruin - wine.
That's how the Belgians have made these beers for centuries, and a small number of brewers continue the arduous process. Over 2OO different strains of microflora have been identified in these beers so far. They are highly prized by connoisseurs, and largely held to be strongly a product of their place, shaped by microclimate and biological environment. It was thought that producing them outside of these areas in Belgium would either be impossible or disappointing.
American brewers have come to this frontier and boldly stepped across, as they have so many times with other types of beer. "Fermentation with saccharomyces cerevisiae is only the tip of the iceberg," said Cody Reif, a staff microbiologist at New Belgium Brewing in Ft. Collins, CO. "Using other organisms opens the door to many flavors and aromas you can't get with a production yeast strain. In the end, these organisms are another tool to make great creative beers."
Reif puts his finger on why brewers are experimenting with these different yeasts and bacteria, despite the more demanding cleaning regimen they require: "flavors and aromas you can't get with a production yeast strain." If you know the profiles of lambic beers like Girardin or Boon, of Flemish sours like Rodenbach, you know that Reif is understating the issue. These beers are vinous, dry, tart, 'funky,' or even outright sour, yet the best of them manage to pull it off with a beautiful drinkability and complexity, the very character that makes them so highly prized by a small number of drinkers who are willing to pay for the experience.
You'll have to expect to pay for the experience, too. These beers are expensive to brew because the non-standard biota work very slowly, and not always predictably. "I've used Pediococcus, lactobacillus delbrueckii, brettanomyces lambicus, and brettanomyces bruxellensis," said Phil Markowski, the highly regarded brewer at the Southampton Publick House on Long Island. "The typical cultures, you could say. It takes a lot of trial and error to work with these strains. People expect these cultures will react the same way saccharomyces yeasts will. But you don't see the activity. They work so slowly and steadily that there's no perceptible change. Any visual changes appear over long times. You kind of have to forget about it, have the discipline to just leave it alone."
Whenever trial and error enter the brewing process, with the concurrent possibility of recurring failure, prices go up. Add to that a brewing process that can take six months or more of maturation, and you start to understand why these beers command retail prices of $8 and up for a single 12oz. bottle.
"It's challenging and stressful to make these beers," said Allagash Brewing's (Portland, ME) Rob Tod, where they've just introduced their first brett beer, Interlude (see sidebar). "It takes a long time, because you have to make sure the brett's done; you don't want the fermentation to continue in the bottle, it could burst the bottle. Also, you can't just pick up the phone and talk to twenty other brewers who work with it; there's a lot of mystery to the process. Finally, you have to be extremely careful about sanitation. Otherwise, the brett will get in any and all of your other beers and do the same thing it does to the beers you carefully invite it into. It's a bald-headed, feisty yeast."
The Russian River Brewery, out in Santa Rosa, CA, is gaining a reputation for bug beers. They've already got a reputation for hop-monster beers. Brewer-founder Vinne Cilurzo is generally credited with having invented the Double IPA category of beers - his Pliny the Elder is one of the biggest of the batch and his Pliny the Younger is a triple IPA.
But it is Cilurzo's bug beers that are causing the stir right now. He has six: Deification, Sanctification, Temptation, Supplication, and Beatification are planned bug beers, and the sixth is the result of an accidental brett contamination of a batch of Redemption, an abbey-style single, that turned out so well, they made more.
Cilurzo explained how that contamination happened, by way of explaining how opportunistic the brettanomyces yeast is. "When I was testing out some brettanomyces beers," he said, "I took a homebrew bucket with the spigot on the bottom, and bottled some Temptation with it. Then I racked out 5 gallons of Redemption into it, after rinsing it well with hot water. Six months later that Redemption had brett in it. That's why we have two of everything: hose gaskets, pumps, gloves. We keep it all in what we call our 'brett bucket', just for the wild beers. There's an inherent risk in having wild yeasts and bacteria in your brewery."
He also worked with some barrels Reif had seen at New Belgium, where brewer Peter Bouckaert had aged his magnificent sour beer, La Folie, in them. "I took Redemption and put it in the barrels," he said. "I didn't add any of my own critters. Twenty-one months later it's very lambic-like, no fruit, very tart."
That points up two things quite clearly: again, these are beers that take a long time to produce and take up a lot of space in the brewery (barrels are very inefficient containers compared to 31,OOO-gallon stainless steel fermenters), and that there is more than one way to source your bugs. As mentioned earlier, the Belgians open the windows - literally - to let air-borne bugs in, and sometimes deliberately "dose" a beer with a culture, but they also use wood aging to consistently "infect" a beer with the biota that take up residence in the porous wood of the barrel.
New Belgium is evidently using a combination of sources. With a resource like Peter Bouckaert, a Belgian himself and an expert on wood aging of beers, it's not surprising. "The organisms themselves and their origins are a bit of a trade secret," Reif said. "All our wood-aged beers contain some combination of lactobacilli, pediococcus and brettanomyces, along with other organisms as well. In Belgium, many of the breweries don't have a standard yeast strain, they use the native flora via spontaneous fermentation. Whether or not that was an effective means to procuring organisms is up for debate." Indeed, you'll hear more about the open windows than about the bugs in the barrels, but the bugs in the barrels represent a much more consistent source of biota.
Bacteria, wild yeasts, tart, dry, funky, sour - why do people want such odd-tasting beers, anyway? "It's the same answer as with our Curieux," Rob Tod said. "It's really good! You can put this in front of a wine drinker: it's very balanced, it's complex, not too dry or sweet. I think it's a great beer to pair with food, cheeses particularly, and I thought the escargot match we did at a recent dinner was a home run."
It doesn't have to be over-powering, either. Greg Hall, of Goose Island Brewing in Chicago, makes a brett-tinged beer named Matilda (a sly reference to the origins of the Abbey that makes Orval). I had a chance to taste it at WhiskyFest Chicago. Matilda is brett-influenced, but not overwhelming. "The brett should be there," Hall told me, "but it shouldn't be all that's there." Goose Island's beer is in New York, and should be coming to New England soon.
Chris LaPierre is a big sour beer fan. He used to brew at Harpoon, and he's now head brewer at the Iron Hill Brewpub in West Chester, Pennsylvania, where he makes bug beers often. He looks at 'why' from the aspect of the brewer, and comes up with a 'because it's there' kind of answer. "It's one of the last frontiers in American brewing," he said. "Americans have perfected replications of time-honored European styles and gone a long way to creating uniquely American styles, like the ultra hoppy San Diego styles. What's left? Until five or ten years ago bug beers were really the only styles in the world that Americans didn't brew. That's changed."
While it's a small niche within a niche, it looks like bug beer is here to stay. "Without a doubt, the market is expanding," said Tod. "It gets back to when we started here, 11 years ago. I went into some Portland accounts with samples of our White, and people said, 'What the hell is this? It's all cloudy!' It tastes different, it has a different aroma, and you wonder what's wrong with this beer. But now it's accepted, it's grown in popularity, and people don't even think twice about it. Will the brett beers ever be volume products? No, but it's going to grow. I'm sure of it."
There aren't many bug beers available in the Massachusetts market yet, but you can bet that your savvy customers have heard of them, and are looking for them. Talk to your wholesaler; better yet, bug him about it.
I was at a beer dinner at Monk's Cafe in Philadelphia when I spotted Allagash Brewery owner-brewer Rob Tod. He was there to serve and talk about a new Allagash beer made with brettanomyces yeast - Interlude. The host of the beer dinner, beer writer Stephen Beaumont, had paired Interlude with escargot in a buttery sauce around a huge hunk of puff pastry. It was a brilliant pairing: the knife-sharp dryness of the Interlude cut right through the richness of the sauce to marry with the snails. After thoroughly enjoying this opening course, I lured Rob over and asked him about this beautiful new beer, one of the better brett-laced beers I've had recently.
Why make such a beer, anyway? "Honestly, we did it because we got inspired," he said. "We hadn't had any plans to do one. But then we tasted one of our two-year-old barrels of Double - we're aging some of our beers in wine barrels - and it had a definite, pleasant, clean brett character."
What is that "brett character"? Some people may tell you that it's sour, but that doesn't really cut it. "It's a bit of a misnomer with brett," Rob said. "They are not necessarily sour beers. Interlude is a touch tart, but it is not sour. It's not like your first taste of a lambic, for sure. It's not that extreme. That classic brett character - almost like crusty bread, maybe - it's hard to put your finger on that flavor, that combination of flavors. Kind of tart, but not too much, a bit vinous. It's identifiably brett."
I asked Rob for a little detail on how it happens. "It was very loosely based on a saison style," he said. "About 9.5%, so I can't really say it's a saison, it's too big. But that's about as close as it gets. About halfway through the fermentation, that yeast slows down significantly, which is typical of saison. That's when we added the brett. After fermentation with the brett was over, we racked about one-third, maybe closer to half, of the beer to French oak barrels that had been used for syrah and merlot, from the Plumpjack Winery in Napa."
Will there be more Interlude? Definitely, says Rob, even though "we cannot possibly make enough. It sold so fast! I was nervous, what would people think of it? But we've never done anything even close to it for sales speed. It just flew out. We still have some aging from that first batch that we didn't add. We were careful not to get too much oak flavor."
Sales were particularly strong, considering the price, but Rob makes no apologies. "All the wood-barrel beers are a ton of work," he said. "For $18.99 a bottle, it's a bargain. It's unique, there's nothing like it. And it's truly an Allagash culture, it originated here, at this brewery, there is no other brewery that has that yeast. We'll probably make another beer with it."