The Rogue Gallery
North American brewers use the term wild somewhat liberally by purist Belgian lambic standards, though it is perfectly acceptable in nouveau microbrewing. A few brewers allow ambient organisms to settle into the cooling wort as the lambic brewers do and use inoculation with unconventional organisms. The main unconventional players are brett yeasts, and bacteria from the genera lactobacillus, pediococcus, and acetobacter. Brewers use carefully selected singular or multiple cultures and make important decisions on when to add them. They can be introduced at the primary or secondary stage. Alternatively, brewers can inoculate porous vessels used for fermenting or maturation to kick-start a spontaneous fermentation. They can influence the primary character, a secondary highlight or a background note. Fermentation generally involves traditional saccharomyces fermentation augmented by untamed organisms.
Brettanomyces, of which there are four commercial strains, may be the most commonly used organism with unlikely adjectives: Musty, moldy, horse blanket, barnyard, leather and sweaty are but a few. Oddly delicious, these funky components fit seamlessly in a well-made wild. Some are potently influential, while others are mildly so. Some brewers have taken the bold move of making a brett-only fermented beer, even employing both primary and secondary/maturation strains. Brett thrives after saccharomyces has finished its job, chewing up sugars that the latter is simply incapable of.
The next most commonly used untraditional organisms are the lactobacilli, those bugs responsible for the sharp and unmistakable lactic acid sourness found in Flemish sours and lambics, and the signature of Berliner Weisse. Fairly one-dimensional in character, they coexist nicely with brett, providing an intense counterpoint to the musty, damp notes. Pediococcus is used to a lesser degree, mainly for additional complexity, variability and uniqueness, or a closer approximation to the lambics or Flanders sours. Pediococcus is also a lactic acid producer, but offers depth that lactobacillus does not. The final, and least common, among the main uncultivated organisms is acetobacter, producer of acetic acid (vinegar) and a common bacterium found in lambic and Flemish beers. The acetobacter influence is best used as a complementary note. Wild beers heavy on lactobacillus, pediococcus and acetobacter are often referred to as sours.
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.