All About Beer Magazine - Volume 29, Issue 4
September 1, 2008 By Red Diamond

In a world of refined and sophisticated beercraft, the most cutting-edge beers today may also be the most reckless. They shun laboratory yeast strains. They scoff at sanitation. They are ancient, magical and funky—almost mythological. They are known as wild ales.

Wild ales are scarce and beautiful creatures, rarely imagined let alone seen. Few dare to brew them. Most brewers fear them. Even in Belgium, where spontaneous fermentation defines the great lambic beers of the Senne Valley, the process is only attempted seasonally when the right combination of microbes float in the vicinity. Under most circumstances, spontaneous fermentation is a destroyer of beer—something to avoid, not attempt.

Let’s be clear on what a wild ale is—and isn’t—as the nomenclature is often misapplied. Wild ales are beers into which no cultivated yeast strains are used. This contrasts dramatically with modern brewing, which has spent centuries learning to isolate and purify yeast strains and sanitize against contaminants. In wild ales, the wort (unfermented beer) is simply exposed to the open air and allowed to ferment spontaneously, courtesy of any ambient yeast or bacteria that wanders by.

Beers brewed with laboratory-cultivated Belgian-derived yeast or bacteria such as Brettanomyces or Lactobacillus share similar characteristics, but aren’t properly “wild.” Neither are beers aged in barrels inoculated with these or similar strains. Call them sour ales, Brett beers, or lambic-style—they’re causing enough stir to merit new categories in brewing competitions. But like animals in the controlled environs of a zoo, they’re not truly wild.

The trouble with attempting a wild ale is that the brewer is at the complete mercy of nature. Select your grains and choose whatever hops you care to, but with a wild ale, nature picks the yeast. And she’s known to be a bit fickle. There are thousands of yeast and bacteria species out there, the vast majority of which have no business in a beer. Opening up unfermented wort to the randomness of nature’s yeast portfolio is like spinning a roulette wheel in which the odds are disastrously against you. You’re either a fool for trying—or maybe you’re Phil Goularte.

Enter the Parrot

Phil Goularte is outwardly diminutive—barely five-foot-six—but with an inner fortitude that carried him through years as a firefighter and a stint in the navy. He and his wife Carlene opened The Grey Parrot Brewpub in Long Beach, WA on the Fourth of July 2005. It hasn’t been easy. In their first year of business the Goulartes lost their home to fire. Then Phil broke his leg fishing. (“It was a really big fish!” he recalls with a laugh.) Next came a brazen theft of equipment, followed by damaging windstorms. Finally, Phil required surgery. Complications forced him to stop brewing for months.

But if the Grey Parrot’s survival were unlikely enough, Goularte has achieved another notable triumph. He brews several highly drinkable ales spontaneously fermented by ambient microflora native to the Long Beach Peninsula—genuine wild ales.

Like most brewers, Goularte enjoys experimentation. He began as a college student in the late seventies, making wine in his dorm room closet. Then he gained a new housemate, a German exchange student who brought home surplus materials from the Anchor Brewery in San Francisco and taught Phil to brew beer. In the navy, he fermented molasses, honey—whatever he could find on board the ship. When friends suggested he take the next step and turn pro, he and Carlene opened the Grey Parrot.

The Call of the Wild

Every brewer has a moment in their career—usually more than one—when all the elements of a great beer recipe, diligent sanitary technique, and hard work synergistically combine…into a colossal failure. For Phil Goularte, it was the right beer at the right time with the wrong yeast. His Red Scotch Ale had seemingly fermented without difficulty. But when he tasted it a month later, it was unexpectedly sour.

A microscopic survey of his yeast culture revealed it to be entirely dead, suggesting that the red ale had fermented by way of wild yeasts. It’s not hard to imagine. Phil uses no heat exchanger to cool his wort. Instead, he lets it cool overnight in the fermenters. When he opened the fermenter to pitch his yeast, the wild bunch made its play.

But rather than dumping his “spoiled” beer, Phil let it condition. He sampled it monthly and after a full year found that its harshness had waned and the beer’s aggressive sourness had ripened into a tart complexity reminiscent of a Flanders red ale. Phil did what any self-respecting brewpub operator would: he stripped the beer of its “Scotch” handle, renamed it “Belgian,” and sold it to his customers.

Not everyone appreciates wild ales. Their funky, jowl-puckering sourness is an acquired taste that finds only a select audience among visitors to the small, coastal tourist destination of Long Beach. But eventually word got out. European visitors in particular were entranced by the refined artistry of Phil’s deceptively crude beer. He began to brew more.

All the Grey Parrot’s wild ales are brewed to conventional recipes, altering only the fermentation agent from what would otherwise be strong brown ales, Scotch ales, or imperial stout. The unfiltered wort is allowed to cool slowly overnight, creating a potent vacuum within the sealed fermenters. The next day Phil cracks open the top-mounted ball valve and ambient airs rush inside. Half an hour later, the valves are closed and the magic begins.

Fermentation is usually observed within hours. “When it happens, then it’s off and running,” notes Phil. “And when it doesn’t happen, well then you’re off and running.” If fermentation doesn’t take by the next day, the fermenters are fully exposed for half an hour, then resealed. Usually, that does the trick.

Secondarily Wild

Though spontaneous fermentation is rarely practiced in the United States, a few pioneers have incorporated wild native yeasts into select specialty beers. Russian River Brewing, long regarded as an innovator in interpretive Belgian-style ales, has experimented broadly with secondary fermentation in oak barrels. In 2004, owner/brewer Vinnie Cilurzo initiated the first in a series of beers that would later be blended, bottle conditioned and sold under the name Beatification.

Early production runs of Beatification were fermented with a commercial Belgian ale yeast, then aged in oak barrels previously used by New Belgium Brewing to condition their sour beer, La Folie. The result was a tart, golden ale of 40% unmalted wheat called Sonambic—a contraction of “Sonoma” and “lambic” first coined by Brian Hunt of neighboring Moonlight Brewing. Different vintages of Sonambic ales were blended to create Beatification.

Two years later, Cilurzo took Beatification to the next level by eliminating its primary yeast and allowing the beer to sit “horny” in tanks that expose the unfermented wort to the open airs. The beer is then fermented in oak wine barrels for up to 20 months. Though these barrels are too old to contribute oak tannins or wine flavor, they house “a cocktail of bugs and critters” that ferment Beatification into a sharp, acidic ale with native microbe character.

Meanwhile, in Colorado, Bristol Brewing Co. began experimenting in 2003 to create a series of barrel-aged sour beers under their Skull & Bones label. Their beers also undergo a primary fermentation with a commercial ale yeast, then age in oak Jack Daniels barrels inoculated with local microbes.

Bristol benefits from having a full-time microbiologist on staff. Ken Andrews collected a bouquet of local microflora from the fruits of raspberry bushes growing in Cheyenne Canyon outside Bristol’s 17-bbl brewery in Colorado Springs. The berries hosted two local strains of Saccharomyces, one Brettanomyces, and both Lactobacillus and Pediococcus bacteria.

Andrews grew a culture of these samples into a carboy of yeast slurry. Then he and brewer Jason Yester fed the mix to the barrels along with some honey to stimulate a secondary fermentation. Some beers get treated to further additions of fruit juices, caramelized apples or other inventive adjuncts. They then cask-condition for a year or more before serving.

Though not all of Bristol’s wild yeast beers are affected with prominent sourness, the unfiltered ales have been described as having, “lambic qualities” and their Cuvée earned a silver medal at last year’s GABF in the sour ale category.

We’ll Have a Barrel of Funk

The hard working microbes that transform malt-water into beer may be but humble single-celled organisms, but nature has equipped them with a potent survival mechanism—they’re amazingly adaptive. And, given enough nutrients, they’re all too happy to call the inside of an oak barrel home. As yeasts and bacteria reproduce, successive generations adapt to the particulars of their local biotic niche, modifying their own biochemistry in the process—they go native.

In the never-ending imperative of survival of the fittest, microbes living in oak barrels may compete against one another until a better-adapted or faster-growing strain comes to dominate its neighbors. For brewers, this means that beers brewed to standard recipes may assume notably different qualities from year to year and from batch to batch.

To account for this, brewers must taste their beer at frequent intervals as it matures and may opt to blend aged ales with younger ones to achieve consistency. They may clean barrels between batches and re-pitch native yeasts, or let the microbes go wild and accept whatever outcome nature would seem to prefer. The relatively few American brewers exploring these scenarios are still in their early stages of experimentation and discovery.

One such brewer is Ron Jeffries, owner and founder of Jolly Pumpkin Artisan Ales in Dexter, MI. Jolly Pumpkin brews Belgian-inspired, oak-aged ales exclusively. Most receive a primary fermentation with a laboratory-derived Saccharomyces ale yeast. Open fermenters assure some contact with native microbes.

But Jolly Pumpkin beers get their mojo from quality time spent in oak barrels. Jeffries acquires barrels from a number of sources, including bourbon barrels from Kentucky and from other breweries. He also uses wine barrels from local wineries that are likely to harbor both wine yeasts and local microbes. (Yes, there are wineries in Michigan.)

“All barrels have natural yeasts and souring bacteria,” contends Jeffries who has a science background at the University of Michigan. So, to properly balance the acidic tartness and barnyard funkiness they contribute, Jeffries employs a complex regimen of barrel conditioning, blending and bottle conditioning.

As with the original Belgian lambics, Jolly Pumpkin uses 30% non-malted wheat in its lambic-style ales. Most of their other ales also incorporate some wheat malts. “Wheat lightens the body,” says Jefferies. “Lambic-style beers shouldn’t be overly sweet.”

The Cool Ship

Production and sales of Brett-beers and sour ales remain marginal in comparison to more traditional styles. And taste descriptives for lambic-style beers such as “horse blanket” or “musty barnyard funk” haven’t done much to lure casual drinkers into the fold. But as the audience for craft beer continues to expand, the number of beer enthusiasts willing to explore the exotic potential of theses ales seems destined to grow.

One brewery investing its resources in the magic of wild ales is Allagash Brewing. In contrast to Phil Goularte’s happy accident with wild yeasts, Allagash has deliberately embarked upon a journey in their pursuit. And they’re using a cool ship to get there.

A “coolship” (koelschip in Flemish) is a traditional Belgian device used to hold the wort as it slowly cools overnight. The long, relatively shallow stainless steel tanks create optimal surface area for the wort to expose itself to the open airs. Ambient yeasts and bacteria soon step in to initiate fermentation and impart their distinct character.

Last year, Allagash built an entire “koelschip room” exclusively for production of wild ales. Hot wort from the adjoining brewery is piped in, the windows are thrown open, and the native microflora of Portland, ME are given free reign for 24 hours. The inoculated wort is stirred in a mixing tank for a day, then transferred to French oak barrels where signs of fermentation are generally seen the next day.

Allagash uses 40% unmalted wheat in their wild ales. Slow cooling in the coolship keeps wheat proteins suspended in the beer. This provides “food for (fermentation) bugs,” says head brewer Jason Perkins. “It gives them something to feed off for several years during long-term fermentation.”

Another traditional Belgian technique Allagash incorporates is the use of aged hops. Their wild ales have been hopped with whole flower German Spalt and Hallertau hops aged from 3-5 years. Older hops loose their bittering properties while still imparting flavor and preservative qualities.

Allagash hopes to release their as-yet unnamed wild ales sometime in 2009. Or not. “Certainly there’s a chance that beer will never see the market,” says Perkins. The unpredictable character of fermenting without pitched yeast makes every batch highly experimental. Brewers quickly learn that wild ales earn their moniker and come with no guarantee of success.

To assure quality, the beer is routinely tasted as it ages and matures. The final product of Allagash’s wild ale production may be a bottle-conditioned blend of aged beer and newer batches, perhaps with additions of ripe fruit. This shifts much of the artistry of creating wild ales out of the brew house and into the conditioning room, as is customary with similar Belgian styles.

Keep ‘em Separated

Wild ales may soon have their place among the offerings of American craft brewers. But that place may be distinctly separated from the rest of their ale and lager production. Yeasts and bacteria are opportunists with no respect for the boundaries of fine beer recipes. Should they cross the line, wild ale yeasts may ruin any beer in which they are unintended. Vigilant sanitary technique is necessary to keep them where they belong.

Ken Andrews takes diligent precautions to assure that the propagation of native microflora at Bristol doesn’t contaminate their production brewery. Beers receiving wild yeast additions are inoculated in a warehouse separated from the brewery and Andrews prudently insists that a tapline at their tasting room stays reserved for native-yeast beers exclusively.

Porous surfaces such as hoses and gaskets are never crossed between beers brewed with wild and cultured yeasts. “We’re very anal about it,” insists Jason Perkins.

Ron Jeffries takes a more carefree approach. “All our beers are wild and sour,” he asserts. So a constant welcome mat is kept in place for native microbial guests, inviting their distinct contribution to the complexities of his Belgian-inspired beers. Jolly Pumpkin does clean its oak barrels to remove inorganic residues. But the barrels are never steam cleaned or sanitized with sulfur compounds to eliminate living organisms.

Nano-Brewery, Macro-Beers

The readerboard outside the Grey Parrot proclaims it to be the smallest brewery in the United States. It isn’t. But with a brewing system whose capacities are measured in gallons, not barrels, the Parrot is more nano than micro. Phil Goularte built and assembled the 90-gallon system himself.

His wild ales are all big gravity beers with ABVs finishing between 8%-10%. According to Goularte, “Wild yeast sucks every bit of sugar from the wort and leaves very little behind.” But the potential harshness of the powerfully sour ales begs to be tempered with aging. “It takes a year to a year and a half before I like them,” he says. “The longer they go, the better they get.”

Goularte has experimented with different seasonal exposures to native microflora. Early spring tends to yield the best results, when he suspects wild yeasts hitchhike on pollen from local cranberry bogs. According to Goularte, “There’s too many things in the air in summer, not enough in fall and winter.”

Every local environment hosts its own distinct community of microflora. The Grey Parrot happens to benefit from being the northernmost brewery on the west coast of the contiguous United States. It’s within earshot of the surf. But Phil Goularte has never formally investigated which micro-bugs create the friendly mischief behind his wild ales.

Perhaps their hidden identity makes his ales all the more wild—the wildest beers in the west.

Red Diamond
Red Diamond lives in Portland, OR, where he writes for Beer Northwest Magazine. He is presently writing a guidebook to the craft beers of the Pacific Northwest.