Wild Ales generally refer to an ale that has been fermented using other yeast and/or bacteria in addition to the traditional brewer’s yeast. Similar is the traditional Belgian Lambic which utilizes spontaneous fermentation when the wort is cooled overnight in an open air, shallow metal pan called a coolship. Both of these beer styles utilize Brettanomyces, a wild yeast strain who’s anthem is basically Funky Town!
You either love or hate wild ales, I don’t think there’s anything in between. These ales are brewed using an existing beer style as the base and then introducing a wild yeast strain or good bacteria into the wort, giddy up cowboy! Most of the time, fruit or extracts are used to counteract the acidity brought about during fermentation, but it is the acidity and sourness that categorizes it as a wild ale, not the base beer recipe used. Due to this, these beers can range from light to dark and have an array of differences in flavor complexities. That being said, there are three main categories: American-style sour ale, American-style brett beer and wood- and barrel-aged sour beer. Breweries nowadays tend to purchase pure yeast strands or maintain their own strands so they aren’t fully relying on “wild” fermentation. The yeast/bacteria can be introduced by re-using previously used oak barrels, pitching the yeast (pouring the yeast into the wort), or by using various “sour mash” techniques. Mash, or mashing rather, is the process of adding the malt or grains to water and boiling it. In other words, mashing is the process and wort is the product. Sour mash is when you use part of an older mash to start fermentation in a new mash. One such brewery here in Charlotte that embraces the “wild side” is Lenny Boy Brewing Co. They are a brewery known for their wild ales, gluten free beer and kombucha, and have been maintaining their own strand of yeast for 8 years!! Holy Moly is one of their gluten free wild ales brewed utilizing an open-top fermenting method with sweet potato, molasses and spices. It was a very nice, crisp, spicy ale with a well-rounded flavor from the sweet potatoes.
Lambics are a Belgian beer that, summed up in one word, can be described as funky. Once the wort is made, it’s left to cool in a coolship where wild yeasts and bacteria can post up and work their magic. Once fermentation begins, it’s transferred to barrels and left to ferment for up to 3 years! A long time, but well worth the wait. Plus, think of how much beer you could drink while you wait! Many lambics are fermented with fruits such as cherries, raspberries and apricots to add a layer of flavor that balances the sour brew with tart and sweet fruity flavors. Some breweries will use extracts and syrups instead of whole fruit which can leave the beer tasting overly sweet or syrupy, so in my opinion, fresh is always best! One of my personal favorites is Lindemans Frambroise, a raspberry lambic brewed in Belgium that hits you right in the face with its tart fruity flavor and leaves a tingling aftertaste. A popular traditional variety of lambic is called a Gueuze (pronounced many ways but widely accepted as “gooze”) which combines old and new lambics together so the old brew can feast on the sugars of the not-fully fermented new lambic. – cue Beauty and the Beast’s song Be Our Guest – This process gives it a dry, almost cider-like quality and is also known as the Brussels Champagne. Side note: its cousin, Gose (pronounced “goh-suh”) is more widely known in the US, but has a crisper, citrus flavor due to the salt and coriander added. Hops, while used for their aroma and flavor, are also used for their antibacterial properties. Since lambics are fermented for long periods of time, brewers use an increased amount of hops to combat spoilage. For this reason, original lambics were hop heavy. However, brewers of modern lambics tend to stray from this and use aged, dry hops which have all the antibacterial properties needed without the aroma, flavors or bitterness associated with fresh hops.
As previously promised, here’s a little more information on “Big Bad Brett” aka the brettanomyces (Brett-ah-no-MY-sees) strain of yeast. A wild version of domesticated brewer’s yeast, Brett creates beers that are funky, tart, earthy, fruity and almost wine-like. Before modern sanitation techniques, this yeast strain was found in many beers due to the inability to clean it away. Some were found to have up to 80 strains of wild yeast and good bacteria in them! Today, many breweries stay away from using Brett because, once established, it can be tricky and time consuming to get rid of. Left unchecked, a batch of beer you thought was “clean” could end up sour and unpleasant to drink. If you do end up using it, you’ll most likely have to dedicate one set of equipment for the process so as not to cross contaminate. This can decrease production on other, more popular beer styles and is another reason why brewers may not be so keen on experimentation. On the flip side, some brewers take Brett and run with it allowing for a truly different style of craft beer where artisanship can really be shown off. Due to its wild nature, the final product can vary slightly between batches even if you’re using the same recipe. Check out this previous post for my review on a crazy good Brett beer made at Sugar Creek Brewery in Charlotte! There is a ton of room for experimentation here and I believe this is an area that will continue to grow so long as there are curious souls out there willing to take a chance.
If you’re up for a funky little adventure, head on over to Germany and Belgium as this is where these sour brews are most popular; they did originate here after all. But if your wallet is saying “ouch that would hurt” try Cascade Brewing and Upright Brewing in Portland, OR, New Belgium Brewing in Colorado or Allagash Brewing Co. in Portland, ME. If you’d like to sample a few more, hit up a couple of beer fests as some breweries will bring their sour creations along with them. The Lambic Beer Festival in Chicago is all that and a bag of chips and in Charlotte, Release the Funk hosted by Salud Beer Shop is where you can find funky beers from all over the country! I’ll admit, I was not a fan the first few times I tried sour beer, but just like Brett on a malt sugar, it’s growing on me.