Examining Le Castor’s “Farmhouse Houblon” – What Brewer Dan has to say about their funky endeavor(s)

Microbrasserie Le Castor‘s “Farmhouse Houblon” is a hybrid beer of sorts. It’s a Belgian saison, whose primary fermentation is with saison yeast, but it’s then re-fermented with brettanomyces, and dry hopped like an IPA. I guess you can simply call it a hopped up wild Saison. On the label they explain that this beer was brewed to carry a hop forward presence when fresh, but can also be aged to allow the wild funk to take hold, and transform the beer into something else.

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Generally speaking, beer has four ingredients: malted grains (mostly barley), hops, yeast, and water. These four pieces are integral to its makeup, and if one of these pieces is altered, it can either subtly change the end result, or drastically change it to the point of almost non-recognition. Le Castor not only decided to create this exciting little specimen, but they also chose to make three different batches – each varying with regard to fermentation. All three have the same water, malt, and hop base, however the brett strains are different. I’m excited to see how much these subtle (or perhaps not so subtle) variations will ultimately change the end result. I got my hands on the three versions and, like always, I took one for the team and drank them all. I’m generous like that.

I caught up with brewer/co-owner Daniel Addey Jibb in order to ask some questions about Le Castor’s sexy new beer. The following conversation was done via e-mail.

1. On your website, you write about wanting to create a Brett beer that’s not barrel aged in order to somewhat simplify things, and provide your consumers with  a more accessible and more reasonably priced offering. What made you decide to start working with brett in the first place? And more specifically, why a hopped up Brett Saison?

“We got into Brett beers only a few years back. The first Quebec Brett beer that really inspired us to explore wild yeast in more detail was Dulcis Succubus.  We started putting Brett into barrels in 2013, but have had more failures than successes to talk about.  While all these trials and tests were going on, the brewery was expanding and we were quickly running out of space for barrel aging.  At the same time we had the chance to drink beers from breweries in the USA, that had really nice complexity, but were not always aged in oak.  So the idea came about to try to brew a complex Brett beer that was only aged in stainless and the bottle, without it touching oak – similar to the Orval process. This in turn would help keep the costs down and hopefully make it more accessible to beer drinkers.

The idea of the hoppy Brett beer was also borrowed from Orval. We liked the idea of it potentially tasting hoppy and less funky at first, then progressively more rustic if left to age.  As it turned out, we bottle conditioned the beer long enough (several months) to release it with the funk well established.”

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2. You created three versions of this beer, each with the same malt and hop base, but each with variations on their yeast profile. Why did you want to go down this route? Can you also provide us with the names of the different Brettanomyces strains that went into each one, and how you think they will differ as a result (taste profile, aromatics, etc…).

“Test batching can only get you so far – eventually you have to brew the beer for real.  So we brewed it, but still had some ideas we wanted to try out. So the first 5 batches or so will have slight variations as we experiment with the Brett strains used, as well as alcohol and carbonation levels.  The recipe should stabilize around batch 6 or 7.  We are fermenting the beer dry in the bottle, rather than bottle conditioning with sugar and brewer’s yeast.  So this is not always easy to predict – especially if specialty malts are used – and it takes longer.  We are learning how to predict how far the Brett yeast will ferment in the bottle.  They don’t all behave in the same way.  

The first three batches use several Brett strains including a couple Brux strains (including a Quebec Brux) and Claussenii.  We have other strains being tested as well in foudres.  We could talk in generalities about what each strain brings, but when mixed together 1 + 1 doesn’t always equal 2, and it’s more fun for beer drinkers to describe what they are experiencing without a lot of prompting.”

3. According to the bottle, the idea behind this beer was to provide the consumer with something that can be enjoyed at any time; Drink fresh to get the fruity hop-forward aromatics, or age it to allow the funky phenolic and estery Brett presence to shine. I think this is brilliant, however, I’ve had many hop forward brett beers where the brewery urged the drinker to consume the beer fresh for fear of ending up with an imbalanced mess. How is Farmhouse Houblon different? How can it hold up to the test of time?

“I’ve personally not had a beer that urged drinkers to drink it fresh other than IPA’s or ISA’s, so I’m not sure what their concern was.  Perhaps it had more to do with over-carbonation in the bottle.  If you put a hoppy Brett beer out on the market with a good level of residual sugar still available to Brett yeast, you could have an over-carbonated beer, or possibly worse.  We think the Brett aromas and flavours work really well with hoppy base beers, and enjoy the evolution that takes place over time in the bottle as the beer dries out.  We are experimenting with carbonation levels as well, and batch 4 will be quite bubbly.  The market is quite knowledgeable, and most beer drinkers know to refrigerate Brett beers before opening, and keep a glass ready when they pop the cap – at least we hope they do!   

Overall, we’re quite happy with our first Brett beer.  We are still learning a lot, and look forward to trying out more ideas soon, and should have a couple more out in 2015.  Sours are part of the process too, and you should see some results in the near future, including the collaboration we brewed with Dunham which is on the market now.  We will also be receiving a new bottling machine at the end of the year that will be dedicated to Brett and sour beers – so this should help us increase our production and distribution of wild beers.”

Well, that is certainly exciting news! Now, let’s get down to tasting these three variants.

Batch #1 (two strains of Brett – 7% ABV)

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Farmhouse Houblon batch 1 pours out a bright, slightly foggy orange colour with an ample, pillowing head (I left the sediment in the bottle). The nose wafts lots of dusty brett phenols, mixed with huge hoppy aromatics, like apricot, strawberries, and citrus fruit. Coupled with this, are big fruity esters, lending red berries to the mix. There is a bit of a tangy smelling saison yeast component, mixed with some slight barnyard – and again, loads of hops.

It is beautifully dry as expected, with a lingering bitter finish that seems to be more from the tannic-like brett phenols, rather than a resinous hop bitterness (although there certainly is some). This beer is all about symmetry, and its brilliance is in its ability to confuse the drinker’s palate. It provides a plethora of fruitiness from distinct, but equally potent variables – hops and yeast. Apricots, oranges, and general tropical fruit meet phenolic bitters, which remind me of grape skin, citrus rind or simply under-ripe fruit. It will truly be interesting to see how these pieces change over time as one fades and the other gains momentum.

Batch one really tastes a lot like a brett IPA or an all brett pale ale. There are some saison yeast elements, and a hefty drying and flavourful brett presence, but the hops are the stars of the show.

Batch #2 (three strains of Brett –  7% ABV)

number 2

Clearly, these three beers are going to be very similar (given that they are virtually the same beer), so I’m not going to rehash all the same tasting notes each time. That being said, there could be some overlap, so please bear with me. Batch two pours out the same colour as number one, but with less aggressive carbonation. Its got loads of dusty barnyard funk – substantially more than number one. Its more earthy in general, with lots of mineral-like aromatics. There are more of those tangy and big fruity saison yeast esters, with hops in there as well, but slightly muted in comparison to the yeasts.

After tasting it, it is less fruity for sure, with a pronounced phenolic bitterness. There are some slight vegetal properties, and it’s more boozy, but nothing off putting. The brett here is much more apparent, and this is definitely more aggressive than batch one. The tangy saison yeast is a bit more predominant as well, lending a helping hand to the drying brett characteristics. The hops are more on the sidelines here, providing a more muted fruitiness to this perceptively more bitter and funkier monster.

Although only 7%, if I had any complaint, it would be that the booze gets in the way of some of the subtle nuances of this delicate and complex beer. That being said, I absolutely adore this slightly funkier version, and it’s my favorite of the two so far.

The subtle tang of the yeast, coupled with the fruity esters and the hops, bring a perfect balance of flavours – it triggers all kinds of loveliness on my palate. Subtlety is something that I’ve truly fallen for. When first becoming a beer geek, one seems to need and crave intensity, but with time and experience, it’s the nuanced brews that steal your heart (at least for me). This is one of them.

Batch #3 (1 strain of Brett – 6.3% ABV)

number 3

Number three pours out virtually the same as one and two. The nose is reminiscent of the other two in most ways, but feels less complex and slightly more muffled and confused.

It’s extremely dry and bitter, with far less hop aromatics than the other two. This is odd given it’s the freshest example (as far as I know). It’s extremely bitter , with a lingering dry finish. I could be crazy, but I feel like the hops in this one are far more resinous than in the other two. There is less of that tangy yeast presence that I found in the first two – might be the driest of the three and seemingly the most refreshing.

It’s not as funky as its predecessors, but there is a lot of dry yeast phenols and earthy and dusty components. As it warms, the hops come out more, providing some fruitiness amongst the desert worthy dryness. However, this is certainly the more clean of the three, with a straightforward and very direct flavour profile. The brett, although still there, doesn’t give off any big barnyard flavours, but instead work towards that clean, bitter, and overall extremely dry finish. Although not my favorite of the three, this one is best balanced with regard to alcohol content. I found the 7% just a tad too high, lending a bit of an ethanol presence to the delicate flavours. However, here, the alcohol is integrated and undetectable.

Overall I’m really in love with all three of these variants, but number two is the winner in my eyes. There is just something about the combination of fruity hops, Brett phenols &  yeasty esters. Brett pale ales and brett saisons have infiltrated my brain, and there is no turning back. A friend of mine just said to me that there are too many funky Saisons coming out now. Screw that, bring me more. Bring me all the variations – whether it be the bacteria infected, Hill Farmstead inspired sour Saisons, like Saison Brett from LTM or Le Cerbère from Brasserie Dunham. Or new age hoppy Brett pale ales like Session Brett IPA from Pit Caribou, or Big Tom from Brasserie Dunham. I want them all in my face. It’s not overkill, it’s drugs for my taste buds, and I need brettanomyces, BAD!

An article by Noah Forrest

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