Brettanomyces isn’t a dinosaur, nor is it a character in Plato’s republic, as one might think. Rather, it’s a wild yeast strain (often accompanied by lactobacillus) that imparts tart, sour and funky elements to your beer. When someone refers to “sour beer,” it can mean a lot of things, as there are many styles that carry mouth puckering characteristics. However, for purpose of this article, I’m going to specifically talk about “Brett beers.” Beer made with Brett, as you can presume, are beers that are fermented with a Brettanomyces yeast strain. This wild yeast strain lives naturally in the world, and in most beer production, they are considered a contaminant. Brettanomyces were originally discovered by the Carlsberg brewery in 1904 in an attempt to investigate beer spoilage. That being said, Brett yeast has been used in the production of Belgian Lambic beer for a very very long time, and although these brewers may not have known exactly what they were at the time, these little guys lived in the oak barrels that Lambic beer was aged in (and still is).
There are many styles of beer made with Brett, and most notable are the ones that originate from Belgium; such as Flanders Red, Oud Bruin, Gueuze, Kriek, and so on. All of these beers are aged in oak barrels and some are made using blends of older and newer batches. Although the “wild beer” movement in North America is relatively new (especially in Canada), Americans have been playing with wild yeast strains for some time now, and are creating some incredibly complex and interesting sour concoctions. New world sours involving wild yeast are generally classified as “American Wild Ales,” with the exception of those brewed to match a particular style. What I mean by that, is that if a brewery brews a Gueuze, they’ll call it a Gueuze, but if they brew a wild beer that doesn’t fall within the traditional Belgian Lambic nomenclature, then it’s usually called an American Wild Ale. Some of the Belgian brewing families have attempted to gain ownership over the term Lambic, using the argument that the yeast used in areas outside of their area is inherently different then any yeast strain found in other parts of the world. Why is beer so complicated you ask? I’m not sure, but it’s damn delicious.
So what do beers brewed with Brettanomyces taste like? Well, that’s a pretty big question, and it really varies depending on beer style. That being said, one thing that certainly carries across most, if not all Brett beers, is that they are tart and often can carry a certain “earthy funk,” which is kind of hard to describe. The level of sourness and “funk” can greatly vary depending on how the beer is made. A lot of the potent sourness found in certain varieties of wild ale can come from the bacterial infections (Lactobacillus) imparted on the beer through the long aging process in porous oak barrels – all kinds of things can happen during it’s time in the barrel. One thing to remember is that although the yeast used in a beer can drastically change its flavor profile, the other ingredients play an equally influential role, and it’s really the interaction and combination of the yeast, hops, and malted barley that make a beer what it is. So although all the beers I’m about to talk about will likely be sour, they will also be quite different from each other at the same time; I’m looking forward to schooling myself , and in particular schooling my palate, on how Brett effects beer.
I managed to get my hands on various wild sours over the last few months, and I plan on writing a couple articles in order to showcase these incredibly complex specimens. I have some examples from Quebec, the US, Denmark, and from Belgium – they are all different styles, but have one thing in common: Brettanomyces. For this article, I’ll be reviewing the following four amazing specimens:
Broadway Pub – Vent D’Ànges – American Wild Ale (Quebec)
Broadway Pub is a brewery from Shawinigan, Quebec; the same town as Trou du Diable, another fantastic Quebec based brewery. I’ve had several of their offerings, and have never been disappointed. They describe Vent D’Ànges as an extra strong ale aged in oak barrels, and to be honest, I didn’t know with was a sour until I did a bit of research before drinking it. Vent D’Ànges pours a beautifully clear amber-orange color with a crazy, almost volatile effervescence; it has a massive frothy head that bubbled constantly through the whole drinking experience. I could hear the bubbles from a couple feet away; like sparkling champagne.
The nose starts full of yeasty funk, with an earthy and dusty backdrop. Clearly there is Brett at work here. There is also a ton of sour fruit – cherries especially – with some candied strawberries as well. I got a slight chemical smell on the nose, almost a bit like hair spray, although it’s oddly not off-putting. There is a slight rubber aroma from the American oak it’s been aging in, mixed with a wonderful woody vanilla thing. There are lots of sour candies, cherry blasters in particular. This was kind of apropos given the fact that I had this one around Halloween.
The nose foretold much more sourness than there actually is. It was also a bit boozier than the aromas let on, and pretty dry – none of which is a bad thing. The oak was quite apparent, providing flavors of wood, vanilla, and rubber. It started off with a fruity profile, cherries again at the forefront, then was quickly cut down by a sour bitter combo, and a pretty hefty booziness. It was very dry and the finish lingers with fruit essence, just resting there, waiting for the next sip. As it warmed and my palate adjusted, the hefty ethanol presence subsided and blended in perfectly with all the other potent flavors happening in this beer. This is a fantastic beer, and although quite expensive, it’s worth it. This beer is available in Quebec, although only released in limited batches.
Mikkeller – Yeast Series 2.0: Brettanomyces Lambicus – American Wild Ale (Denmark)
Mikkeller is an amazing and innovative “phantom” brewery from Denmark whose beers are quite sought after within the beer community, and sadly cannot be purchased in Quebec. They started as two home brewers who wanted to push limits and show the public that traditional brewing rules could be broken. This one is a really interesting concept beer from a particular line of bottles that showcase different yeast strains for the same malt/hop base – a pale ale. This particular bottle uses Brettanomyces Lambicus, so I’m expecting some sour funk mixed in with all the typical “pale ale” flavors. The aroma starts off quite tart, with some inviting hops, which give off an amazing fruity grapefruit presence. There is also some funkiness mixed in with all this sour. As a whole, this is certainly a combination of aromas that I’ve yet to smell before. The malt, the Brett yeast, as well as the floral & piney hops all work together in an exceptional way. The sweet fruitiness is huge, with Strawberries and grapefruit at the front. There is pink grapefruit like I’ve never smelled in a beer, just like Ruby Red Ocean Spray!
The taste certainly mimics the aroma; there is no question that this is a American pale ale with Brett yeast. The body is a bit heavy with a slightly sweet malt base. It has a solid hop punch, resulting in a substantially bitter finish. The funky Brett is there, although in comparison to other Brett beers, it is only slightly sour. But what really makes this one stand out for me are the flavors combinations happening. This was my first hopped up sour, and I loved it. On both sides it’s a bit assertive, but subtle in comparison to an IPA or a Gueuze. Because it’s sour and bitter, the finish is tangy and quite reminiscent of eating a grapefruit with a tiny sprinkle sugar on top. You could have told me this was made with grapefruit juice and I would have believed it. Even the sweet malt playing a role in the grapefruit experience, adding balance to the pungency. I loved the balance in this beer, I think I could drink it everyday. Unfortunately this is not available in Quebec or Ontario, but you could probably find it just south of the border in the U.S.
Brouwerij Bockor – Cuvée Des Jacobins Rouge – Flanders Red Ale (Belgium)
Brouwerij (brewery) Bocker is a family run brewery that has been making beer since 1892. Jacobins Rouge falls under the style Flanders Red, which is a sour beer that has a pretty big malty backdrop. To start, the aroma was quite funky, with some strong cheesy yeast esters, tart cherries, sour apples, and a slight cinnamon clove thing as well. There was a little bit of a rotting meat component, which sounds awful, but it’s more that I can’t find a better descriptor. There was certainly a Cherry Blasters comparison here. The whole thing was extremely complex with Bretty yeast in front of it all. You could really smell the acidity in this one.
Immediately after the first sip, the sides of my tongue started to ache, as if it was asking “why would you do this to me!?” This was potently sour, at least for me; am I a sour lightweight? There were loads of cherries up front, some minor sweetness, brown sugar, some yeasty funk, and a lot of general fruitiness all around. I got some oak as well, with minors hints of vanilla – this beer’s got a nice thick body. Then very quickly it became potently sour, leaving echoes of acidity across my palate, and my tongue was left there, aching and defeated while at the same wanting another sip.
I’m not used to drinking sours of this magnitude, and I’m fully aware that this one isn’t necessarily even that potent, as I’ve had stronger. Part of me feels like someone who is discovering the bitterness of an IPA for the first time, like when their palate just got its ass kicked – I’ve been there. Whereas now, I crave that pungent hop bitterness, and I can down the harshest of hopped ales like water. Perhaps the same will happen to me with sours as well, but I’m not sure about that as the acidity can be too much for me at times. But don’t get me wrong, this was good, VERY good, and I’d have it again. They were available at the LCBO in Ontario for a brief time, hopefully they will be again soon!
Gueuzerie Tilquin – Oude Gueuze Tilquin à L’Ancienne – Gueuze – (Belgium)
Tilquin produces one of the highest rated Gueuzes in the world, so I’m quite excited to be able to have this bottle all to myself. Gueuzes are an interesting brew, composed of a blend of young and old lambics, which is then aged again in the bottle. In general, they are quite tart, fruity, and carry a lot of musty funk. This beautiful specimen pours out a relatively clear orange color with some amber highlights. There were some seriously powerful tart aromas happening; sour apples (green jollyranchers!), and general under ripe fruit smells. It is also very earthy and dusty, with some heavy barnyard and horse blanket, mixed with stale cigarette smoke. For those reading this who have had a good Gueuze, the notion of dusty barnyard as an aromas descriptor isn’t absurd. However, I can only imagine how odd this sounds for someone who hasn’t had one – but trust me, its there, and it’s actually a very inviting smell (kind of).
Right off the bat I got hit with some potent Sourness; it’s pretty acidic, and gave my palate a little jolt. This one is also extremely dry, delicate, and quite complex, although I didn’t get too much oak off the bat. This is a really easy drinker – very smooth. The fruitiness screams grapefruit rind, with hints of red berries in the background. There were remnants of a wonderful tart bitterness left on the back of my tongue after every sip, and as my palate adjusted, I got a bit more fruit, mixed in with the intense tart sourness. And although the fruit came alive,there was little to no residual sweetness. Wild yeast, and some oak started to come out as it warmed, with a lot of barnyard funk as well. This beer is basically perfection, I fell in love with it more and more after every sip. I managed to get it the States, but I’m not sure of the availability. If you see it though, you need to buy it.
So for now, that concludes my Brett adventure; although I’d like it to be a continuous journey. I still have a few bottles left, and I’ve procured a few more since starting this article, so look out for more articles soon! I’ve certainly gained a better understanding about sours in general, and I can safely say that I’m officially feeling the sour bug, which is much like the bitter bug I once had (and still do) regarding IPAs. There is just something about the smell of an Brett beer that is indescribably infectious – pun intended.
An Article by Noah Forrest