Fault or Feature?
Brewers Taking on Green Bottles and Conventional Wisdom
Chase Healey, founder and brewmaster of Prairie Artisan Ales in Oklahoma, is in his office staring up at a shelf lined with emptied Belgian beer bottles. The top row: all from Brasserie Fantôme, all (give or take) rustic saisons—and, all of them, points of inspiration for Prairie.
“Every one of them is in a green bottle,” says Healey.
Around the start of 2015, following in the footsteps of brewers like Bob Sylvester of Florida’s Saint Somewhere Brewing Co., Healey started to package one of his beers into green bottles instead of brown, the latter generally considered the industry standard for its ability to keep most light from intruding. Healey picked Prairie-Vous Francais for the experiment: a small, 4% saison of a relatively simple nature, seasoned by Saaz hops. (Prairie also once did a green-bottle collab with Omnipollo from Sweden called Potlatch—though those were wrapped in paper.)
“We know what’s going on chemically as far as beer being light-struck and the hops kicking out a sulfur compound that creates what people call a skunky flavor,” Healey says. “It’s just a chemical reaction with the sunlight and the compounds in the hops.” The actual compound generated is 3-methyl-2-butene-1-thiol, similar to the sulfur-containing thiols in skunk scent. Like most things, though, not everyone interprets the chemical the same way.
Healey describes it as faint sulfur, pencil eraser or “like that underlying hint of Heineken.” A healthy dose of skepticism is probably a fair reaction. But one could point to the presence of common lambic descriptors like funk, goatiness and of course “horse blanket”—all typically questionable in most other contexts but ultimately a key part of lambic’s nuance and appeal.
“It’s a reaction that’s creating a level of complexity,” Healey suggests. “When we think about these beers that are relatively simple in their composition, being able to layer in complexity is what it’s all about: the subtleness that slight change can add to the overall flavor of the beer.
“For me, my desire to do it was to capture that one element of flavor that I felt like in regular bottles we weren’t able to capture. Some people may not like it. Many brewers just think it’s completely a crime. But, for me, it was more about trying to create something that reflected the beers I was trying, and [using green bottles] was the one element that we weren’t doing.”
All signs suggested a well-known fault was the feature he was looking for.
Differences of Opinion
Chris Swersey serves as the Brewers Association’s technical brewing projects manager and has been competition manager of the Great American Beer Festival for the past 15 years. Swersey points to similarities in discussions about legitimacy in sour beers—particularly as brewers explore an increasing number of methods to create these types of beers.
“Within sours, there is this ongoing conversation at many different levels. What’s legitimate as far as how you refer to the beer? What’s legitimate as far as how you make the beer?”
By the same token, consumers are increasingly willing to follow brewers onto unfamiliar turf. “We have a modern and incredibly educated beer-consumer base now that expects so much but also accepts so much,” Swersey says. “They’re willing to try anything at least once. And they expect that it’s going to be something that they really like—and they’ll try it again—or they’ll move on.”
It’s particularly dicey for elements like skunkiness. It is one of the core sensory components one is often trained to look for (and avoid) as flaws in different types of beer. Green apple character generally constitutes a flaw, indicative of acetaldehyde and questionable yeast management. Ditto for the buttered popcorn of diacetyl. Or the cooked cabbage of dimethyl sulfide (DMS).
But it can also, ultimately, depend on context. For some styles, one could make an argument for small amounts of DMS or diacetyl being acceptable, or even a possible feature in certain limited cases. Sourness, now found presented as a feature in nearly every hybrid style imaginable, was, is and probably always will be a point of contention. Also: Societal acceptance of these things is also certainly subject to change over time.
The conversation is a good thing. “We went for an awfully long time in this country without thinking very much about our beer,” Swersey says. The fact that vibrant, nuanced beer discussions exist now is highly encouraging. “You can decide for yourself what you like.”
“I like to think back to conversations that I remember with Michael Jackson,” Swersey adds, referring to the late famous beer writer. “He was always very quick to point out that one of his absolute favorite British milds […] occasionally came with a little bit of diacetyl—just a little. And that was just fine by him.”
Green Mad Meg and More
Prairie isn’t the only brewery going green. “This came really from our biggest inspirations for Jester King,” notes founder Jeffrey Stuffings of his Austin, Texas, brewery’s decision to begin testing the limited use of green bottles. “For instance, Brasserie Thiriez in Esquelbecq, France: Their Thiriez Extra is just one of the formative beers for our brewery, as well as Dupont Avril, the table beer from Brasserie Dupont.” Jester King was built around a desire to create beers in a similar vein to the above, “using as many ingredients from around our brewery as we could.”
Other green-bottled inspiration: Cantillon, Blaugies, Fantôme, Cuvée des Jonquilles. …
Stuffings had recently been chatting with the folks at Prairie. “They made Prairie-Vous Francais, which I thought was just amazing. And they seemed, at least maybe I didn’t see all the reception, but it seemed like they got zero shit whatsoever about that beer. Whereas we got hammered for putting Petit Prince in green bottles,” Stuffings reflects, laughing about the experience.
“I think somehow Prairie flew under the radar with that one.”
Starting with a February 2015 batch of Le Petit Prince, its 2.9% table beer, Jester King has been experimenting with green-bottling its own beer. Thus far the brewery has packaged Mad Meg (“farmhouse provisions ale”) and Noble King (“hoppy farmhouse ale”) in green bottles, too. “We started with beers that are very, very simple—not in their fermentations, which are very complex—but in their hop bill and grain bill and water profile.” Twenty percent wheat. Unfiltered well water. (The brewery’s also packaged a collaboration beer with Live Oak, Kollaborationsbier, in green bottles.)
Jester King’s green bottles have mostly been sold on-site at the brewery, though the plan is to get some out into distribution and into accounts the brewers know can represent the beer well.
Contrary to how some have interpreted the news, they haven’t turned their entire production over to green bottles. Currently they’re working with quarter batches, bottling a four-pallet batch and making one pallet green. The brewers regularly check on the conditioning beer.
“We’re getting chances now to do side-by-sides every week with green and brown bottles.”
There’s a noticeable difference between the bottlings, with the sensory qualities of the green showing noticeable light-struck character, despite getting relatively minimal exposure to light during the packaging process. Stuffings finds the effect appealing in these particular types of beers: interpreting it more as musty, earthy funk than skunk, comparing it to certain types of Brettanomyces character. He wonders aloud if there might not be something more to it than just the standard skunking effect—particularly for the mixed-culture beers under discussion.
“Regardless: It’s just something that we love and don’t consider it an off-flavor.”
Healey recalls the first time he was able to order one of his own green-bottled beers from a local bar, where it had been stored in a lighted bottle case. It was only then that he realized he’d finally gotten the profile he’d been aiming for. “It felt like we really nailed it.”
He’s planning to package a lot of Prairie’s upcoming barrel-aged releases into green bottles.
Of course, folks taking this approach have also had their fair share of negative responses.
“People that I don’t know at all have reacted negatively. People who I highly respect in the industry, professional brewers, have not cared for the character that we get from the green bottles,” recalls Stuffings. “I would never say, ‘You’re wrong.’ It’s just a personal preference thing.” (He does find it a bit troubling when people try to suggest his opinion is wrong.)
He points to the increasing popularity of sourness as of late. “A decade ago, people would probably look at sour beer—at least in the United States—and say, ‘Oh, my god, what’s going on here? We can’t have this.’”
“Now it’s very much accepted as a good, enjoyable trait in beer.”
When Jester King made its initial green-bottle announcement, various brewers responded from their experiences with skunked pale German- and Czech-style lagers. “Maybe I agree with them,” Stuffings says. “I probably think that it is an off flavor in that context. But we’re specifically talking about mixed-culture fermentation: funky, tart, Franco-Belgian-style farmhouse ales.
“And I think,” he adds, “in that context, it’s a nice part of the flavor profile.”
It’s very likely just a matter of opinion. The Jester King motto, written on every bottle: “We brew what we like, drink what we want, and offer the rest to those who share our tastes.”
The following beers were tasted and reviewed by John Holl.
Prairie-Vous FrancaisABV: 4%
Tasting Notes: Hazy golden straw with a dense head that laces the glass. The light-struck aroma is unmistakable, but knowing that it was coming made it almost welcoming. This is lemony tart on the palate, with a soft body and creamy mouthfeel that gets a boost from moderate carbonation. Delicate earthy hops with some age are present and add yet another level of intrigue. A beer suited to be shared with friends and paired with interesting, thoughtful conversation.
Unibroue Éphémère AppleABV: 5.5%
Tasting Notes: The good kind of green apple. Before it’s even poured into a glass, roasted caramel apple envelops the room. It’s hard not to be reminded of a green apple Jolly Rancher candy, but the coriander adds a bit of a pielike element into the mix, creating a warming sensation that will make this one a fall favorite, especially for those who enjoy apple picking.
Saint Somewhere Saison AtheneABV: 7.5%
Tasting Notes: A luscious aroma that blends fruits like apricot, santol and tangerine. On the palate, there are tart lemon and the slight hint of light-struck character and watered-down orange juice, and aggressive carbonation. Murky golden yellow with a mousselike head that dissipates quickly. Grab a few bottles, call some friends and pair with a low-country boil with some gulf shrimp.
Ken Weaver is the beer editor of All About Beer Magazine. Follow him (and his latest beer arrivals) on Twitter and Instagram @kenweaver.