Those of us fortunate enough to have experienced the North American beer renaissance would never have imagined anything like this in the 1970s. But there was no stopping the growth of craft beer once the ball was rolling . Now that growth has taken us from a foundation of British, German and Czech classics through an era of extreme beer and barrel aging and into the cutting-edge realm of wild beers.
The North American tapestry is colorful. Devotees of wild beers will instantly recognize the earmarks of lambics and Flemish beers, but there are contributing features from other extinct and modern styles. These wild brews are not specifically a style as much as a philosophy. Summoning the many elements used to ferment beer throughout history, wild brewers offer a kaleidoscope of products. In just a short time, the ride has already been a wild and exhilarating one, and certainly there is no shortage of eager customers.
Not long ago, wild beer was considered beyond the realm of North American brewers. It was thought to be impossible to recreate centuries of European conditions; brewers dreaded the prospect of inviting the malicious microbes needed to make wild beers into the brewery. A bold and risky undertaking perhaps, but a few trailblazers were up for the task—equal parts mad scientist, brewing scholar, microbiological police officer and artisan.
The development of laboratory methods 150 years ago for isolating, cultivating and sustaining pure yeast strains was among the most important advances in brewing. Gone were troublesome wild yeasts and bacteria. But some brewers, thankfully, preferred a bit of nature in their beer, dismissing the refinement as boring and detached from stylistic roots. Some of these brews have persevered, such as the sours of Flanders and lambics, which many new wild beers are based on. And from a historical perspective, barrel-aged stock ales of 18th- and 19th-century England are also excellent prototypes.
The red and brown beers of Flanders are produced today with standard top-fermenting yeast glorified by additional fermentation and aging with one of three kinds of bacteria. Traditional lambics, on the other hand, are undomesticated beers, gaining unmatched complexity through spontaneous fermentation, aging and exposure to microflora that inhabit wooden casks. Another influential historical beer is English stock ale, the well-aged strong ale of Georgian and Victorian England that inherited stale character from their casks. It is from one of these casks that the brettanomyces yeast was isolated. Very important to the boom of English brewing history, this wildness was winnowed out of the product as brewers moved to other bacteria and nonporous materials for fermentation and maturation.
Jolly Pumpkin Oro de CalabazaABV: 8.0%
Tasting Notes: This Dexter, MI, brewery is small and unassuming, but thinks big in terms of cutting-edge brewing creativity. Many of its beers are ripe with the undeniable footprint of wildness, a product of open fermentation, barrel aging and bottle conditioning. Oro de Calabaza is recognizable as an excellent interpretation of the Belgian strong golden-ale style, accented with a crisp brett stamp. Bright gold, with a slight haze, it is peppery and herbal, with a delicate brett influence in the nose. Refreshingly light on the palate, the flavor is full of spicy yeast notes, floral noble hops, sweetish pale malt, faint citrus and a good dose of earthen must. The wildness in no way overshadows the base beer, serving as a firm complement instead. Oro finishes with a tannic and hop bitterness.
New Belgium Le TerroirABV: 7.5%
Tasting Notes: Le Terroir is part of the popular and experimental Lips of Faith series from New Belgium Brewing in Fort Collins, CO. Le Terroir pours light coppery orange, slightly hazy, with a billowing beige froth. The Amarillo dry-hopping is front and center in the aroma, with tropical fruit followed by tart lemon, vinegar and a hint of funk. The flavor is quite tropical along with citrus, spicy herbs and a peppery yeast footprint. The light caramel malt sweetness is cut nicely by a firm and complex sourness and a rich tapestry of musty, wild notes. Le Terroir spends lots of time in wooden foeders full of flavor-enriching eager bugs before bottling, all of which leaves an imprint on this complex wild beer.
Russian River SanctificationABV: 6.75%
Tasting Notes: The Russian River Brewing Co. in Santa Rosa, CA, takes a back seat to no one when it comes to producing wild beers in America. Sanctification is fermented entirely with brett, demonstrating the absolute depth, versatility and potential of these beguiling yeast strains, paradoxically mellow and funky, workhorse and jester. Sanctification pours bright golden, with a full, fleeting white head. It is finely carbonated, with a continuous stream of fine beads. The nose has light fruit and soft pinot grigio notes, lemon zest, and herbal hops. There is an omnipresent but mellow mustiness. The easy, pale malt sweetness is offset with a balanced hop bitterness. The finish is crisp and dry, almost Champagne-like, with high attenuation and bubbly briskness. Russian River makes an impressive assortment of wild beers, all of which are righteously coveted.
Allagash InterludeABV: 9.5%
Tasting Notes: Perhaps no brewery in North America has a more stellar portfolio of Belgian-style brews than does Allagash Brewing Co. of Portland, ME. Interlude is a potent farmhouse beer, fermented primarily with a classic farmhouse strain and finished with Allagash’s house strain of brett. Some of it is then aged in sirah and merlot oak barrels. It has a brassy orange color with a big tenacious and lacy head. The aroma is full of spicy cinnamon heat, toasted malt, summer fruits and damp, woody must. The flavor combines wine and oak with sweetish malt and earthy funk. The mouthfeel is rather full and silky, but I recall the strength and am not surprised. Less attenuated than expected, the finish is smooth with a little lingering honey malt and medium carbonation. The brett punctuates the finish in excellent fashion. Interlude is one to savor, for sure.
K. Florian Klemp is an award-winning homebrewer and general hobbyist who thinks there is no more sublime marriage than that of art and science.