Good Beer Hunting

Into the Wild

America Gone Wild — How an Ancient Tradition Became the New Wave in U.S. Brewing

In 2004, Greg Engert worked at Washington, D.C.’s Brickskeller, perhaps the best beer bar in our nation’s capital at the time. During its heyday, the tavern offered more than 1,000 bottled beers sourced from around the globe, including plenty of Belgian beers. Too many, in fact.

“We could not give Cantillon away,” says Engert, now the beverage director of D.C.’s extensive Neighborhood Restaurant Group, including the influential ChurchKey. “Our back cellar was just overwrought with Cantillon bottles, and not just 375 milliliter bottles of Gueuze. There was Fou’Foune, all sorts of Lou Pepe, different vintages—people just didn’t want it.”

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At the same time, the Brickskeller, which shuttered in 2010, couldn’t keep its shelves stocked with enough Lindemans Framboise. It’s a low-alcohol, pasteurized, filtered, and slightly acidic wild beer rammed with raspberries, and sweet as candy. “People would just go crazy,” Engert recalls. Occasionally, the staff would try to steer drinkers in the direction of, say, a pricier Cantillon Rosé de Gambrinus, its fruity raspberry flavor balanced on a teeter-totter of acidity and funk. “It would get sent back as infected or because it didn’t taste right,” Engert says.

Beers deliberately infected with rowdy Brettanomyces yeast and souring bacteria, including Lactobacillus and Pedicoccus, were viewed as funky oddballs, sometimes served up as a joke to unsuspecting imbibers. “Seven or eight years ago, people thought it was funny to hand people a bottle of New Belgium’s La Folie”—a trend-paving Sour Brown Ale first produced in 1998—and say, ‘Try this,’” says Brandon Jones, the blender and brewer at Nashville’s Yazoo Brewing Company.

Kindness? Well, not exactly. Offering a singular, ahead-of-its-times beer like that was about eliciting shock and eww, like giving someone a piece of extra-fiery Nashville hot chicken. “It is different than anything you’ve ever been told beer is,” Jones says of sour and wild beer. “Visually and aromatically, it’s just completely different.”

We could not give Cantillon away. There was Fou’Foune, all sorts of Lou Pepe, different vintages—people just didn’t want it.
— Greg Engert, ChurchKey

As is drinkers’ opinions of sour and wild beer. The last decade has witnessed a steady about-face in public perception of these sometimes challenging, often misunderstood beers. They’ve gone from outcasts to lust objects, bottles of Cantillon revered as the high art of beer connoisseurship. Consumers now worship at the altar of Brettanomyces, flocking to festivals such as Crooked Stave’s What the Funk!?, Upland Brewing’s Sour Wild Funk Fest, and the Funk Collective Sour and Wild Beer Festival, which takes places in Charleston, South Carolina, this summer.

How did this ancient tradition take American taste buds by storm?

If you imagine yeast as one big family, Brettanomyces would be the anarchist cousin breaking every rule. While Lager yeast loves cold temperatures and ale yeast favors warm temperatures, both of those little buggers will stop eating when they reach their fill.

Brettanomyces has a fathomless hunger, making endless trips to the wort buffet. Given time, it’ll steadily munch sugars till a beer is bone-dry, creating flavors and aromas that might evoke lemon or leather, earth or tropical fruit. Crooked Stave’s Chad Yakobson, who wrote his PhD on wild yeast, once told me there’s more genetic diversity in Brettanomyces than Lager and ale yeast strains combined. It’s just a matter of harnessing its potential and educating the public, which are no small challenges.

In 2010, I was researching my first book, Brewed Awakening. American wilds were starting to percolate, so I interviewed Dann Paquette, then of the now-defunct Pretty Things Beer & Ale Project. In the mid-1990s, he worked at Boston’s now-bygone North East Brewing Company, inoculating beer in his underground “infection factory” with Brett and souring bacteria. He brought the liquids to 1998’s Great American Beer Festival, hopeful for accolades. “I thought it’d be insanely popular,” he told me in 2010.

We’re not relying on this as a revenue stream. It’s more, ‘Let’s have fun with this and do crazy, impactful things. Let’s see where it goes.
— Freddie Bensch, SweetWater

Shortly after attendees lined up for samples, festival volunteers brought a trash can to his booth. “People are spitting out your beer,” Paquette recalls a volunteer telling him. “I made the judgment that sour beers would never catch on in America,” Paquette says. “Of course, I was wrong.”

A few years later, he’d seem like a sage. In 1998, Peter Bouckaert (whose brewing career began at Belgian sour-beer legend Rodenbach) launched New Belgium’s wood-aged program, the birthplace of sours such as La Folie. Russian River’s Vinnie Cilurzo, the father of the modern double IPA, started making Brett beers in 1999. The one-time winemaker sourced wine barrels to make beers such as Supplication, a sour cherry-infused Brown Ale, and the spontaneously fermented Beatification. Its inspiration was Belgian Lambic breweries, notably Cantillon. (By then, importer Shelton Brothers was selling Cantillon countrywide, even if early returns were less than favorable as consumers had a hard time understanding the unique flavor.)

[Disclosure: New Belgium Brewing Company is the underwriter of this series.]

As America’s third-wave brewers started swelling in the early 2000s, beer makers began distinguishing themselves with decidedly different business plans. Today, no one blinks twice at Denver’s Black Project fixating on spontaneous fermentations, or Jester King brewing farmhouse beer with its own wild yeast sourced from its property in Texas’ Hill Country—though they may quibble with the terminology used to describe the latter. The scene was less specialized in 2004, when Jolly Pumpkin Artisan Ales opened in wee Dexter, Michigan, population of about 3,000 at the time, with a focus on oak-aged sours. It was America’s first of its sort.

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Jolly Pumpkin founder Ron Jeffries took a mashed-up approach to brewing, mixing Hefeweizen yeast with wild yeast and sour bacteria to make Weizen Bam. “We’re not trying to create straight-ahead flavors—I want subtlety and hints,” he told me during a Brewed interview in 2010.

Modern American brewing’s beauty is that you can make whatever. But selling it is a different story. “Dexter’s a little village,” Jeffries said at the time. “You can’t go to the little pub and say, ‘You have to sell some sour beer.’” Jolly Pumpkin signed with Shelton Brothers and became a native-born import, its wild creations seeding stores and bars nationwide.

In 1990s America, many Belgian beer bars adhered to a similar template, serving mussels and frites alongside monk-made Dubbels and Tripels, Stella Artois, Leffe Blonde, and their ilk. But by the mid-to-late 2000s, America started seeing stirring of a different model of Belgian-inspired beer bar, one that embraced less-known brands such as Orval and Rodenbach, and the American brewers following in their funky footsteps.

We’re a society that wants to explore, wants to learn and wants to experience new things and not just eat vanilla ice cream all the time.
— Brandon Jones, Yazoo

Brooklyn’s Spuyten Duyvil (opened in 2003) served Lambics to a clientele more accustomed to PBR. Ebenezer’s Pub, in rural Lovell, Maine, debuted in 2004 with a focus on Belgian beer, the cellar stuffed with rarities such as 1994 Cantillon Kriek. In 2006, Decatur, Georgia’s influential Brick Store Pub opened an upstairs addition specializing in Belgian beer, its vintage beer list novel-like in length.

Portland, Maine’s Eric Michaud opened Novare Res Bier Café in 2008, spurred by youthful Belgian adventures. “In my early 20s, I was drinking Cantillon at the source,” he says.

“When we opened the doors at Novare, we literally had the world. People were really hip to try everything,” Michaud says, noting selections from Orval, 3 Fonteinen, and Cantillon. He was an ideal host. “I was able to speak to my experience from the source.”

Michaud’s interest turned to brewing, and in 2013, he opened In’Finiti Fermentation and Distillation, later renamed Liquid Riot. On Portland’s working waterfront, where lobster boats bob and fish processors gut out each day, he and his crew began by brewing IPAs, Porters, and Ambers. In time, Liquid Riot started augmented its clean brews with Brettanomyces-laced Wits, Saisons, and Pilsners, most notably the peach-packed Blushing Star—it grabbed gold in the Brett Beer category at 2016’s prestigious World Beer Cup.

This winter, Liquid Riot installed a coolship on the waterfront, allowing bugs in the salty air to settle into steamy wort. Michaud is giving these spontaneous ferments ample time to evolve inside oak barrels. They’re important to Liquid Riot’s creative evolution, just not its immediate bottom line. “Sure, there are some people who have based a business plan solely on wild stuff, but that takes a lot of planning and personal finance,” Michaud says.

Breweries balance paying the bills with faster-fermenting beers, such as IPAs, while giving wild beers plenty of time, measured in months and years. Crooked Stave, which started as a Brettanomyces-driven brewery, currently offers canned Kellerbiers and Baltic Porters alike. Firestone Walker started as a clean brewery before spinning off the wild-focused Barrelworks in 2013.

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Atlanta’s SweetWater started in 1997, building a successful business on the back of its easy-drinking flagship, 420 Extra Pale Ale. Last year, the brewery constructed a 37,000-square-foot structure—stitched to SweetWater’s packaging room—dedicated to barrel-aged beers agog with Brettanomyces and souring bacteria.

The Woodlands Projects lets SweetWater “continue to push the envelope and add beers to our portfolio that are completely different,” says owner Freddy Bensch. The initiative gives brewers broad freedom for flavorful exploration. “We’ve got some of the best brewers in the country. It’s just continuing what we’ve done. It’s having fun and being creative.”

SweetWater’s sour trials are also benefiting its core production lineup. Woodlands lead brewer Nick Burgoyne put test batches of Tropical Lover—a Berliner Weisse with guava, mango, and passion fruit—on tap, and the positive feedback led SweetWater to release it in cans this spring. “It’s getting people’s feet wet to the idea of sour beer,” he says.

While Lover will see wide distribution, Woodlands beers such as Through the Brambles, a blackberry sour ale, are released in limited batches. (SweetWater created just 928 cases.) Scant quantities mean the beer will never fuel SweetWater’s economic engine—and that’s OK.

“We’re not relying on this as a revenue stream,” Bensch says. “It’s more, ‘Let’s have fun with this and do crazy, impactful things. Let’s see where it goes.’"

Adding a sour and wild program can also lend prestige. Cincinnati’s Rhinegeist was founded in 2013, growing to America’s 33rd-largest Brewers Association-defined craft brewery on the strength of its Truth IPA. This April, Rhinegeist unveiled its Outer Reaches Sour Ales program, featuring beers such as the nicely acidic Infinite Dawn Blonde.

The program’s roots date to Rhinegeist’s early days, and the brewery even isolated a particularly fruity Brett strain from its building. However, Rhinegeist decided to bide its time until it could enact sanitation protocols.

“We weren’t going to scale this up until we had a better plan about how this wouldn’t infect the rest of the brewery,” says co-founder Bryant Goulding, the brewery’s vice president of sales and marketing. “That’s a piece that stops a lot of breweries.”

Rhinegeist installed operations in its basement, the production a blip in the brewery’s big picture. “We’ll push 100,000 barrels this year, but we’ll do less than 200 barrels of sour beer,” Goulding says. “It’s not a volume play, it’s a credibility play.”

Today, breweries may endear themselves to beer enthusiasts by making hazy, soft IPAs, but that’s no longer enough to hold an always-wandering consumer gaze. Great IPAs are everywhere. Great wild beers, well, they’re not so common. They’re an important marker of top-shelf fermentation talent, a brewery that cares enough to take months and months to make a beer, not just another double dry-hopped whatever brewed, canned, and sold in a couple-week timeline.

ChurchKey’s Engert sees another reason why beer makers may enter this sphere.

“Many of these breweries are finding ways to spread out their excess volume, in ways that are still limited and delicious,” he says. That means looking at beers that might travel best. “If you’re sending a palette of beer once a quarter to New York City, you’re more likely to send your mixed-ferm stuff instead of IPAs.”

Homebrewers have been particularly wild at heart for Brett beer. They’re cranking out five or 10 gallons at a time, messing around with wild yeast in their backyard or garage, never certain where each fermentation might bring them.

For Jones, it was a new career. He started homebrewing in earnest in 2002, falling beneath the spell of wild and sour beer. Information was tough to come by in those days, so he asked Russian River’s Cilurzo for advice. He received plenty of that, plus the cabernet barrel that contained the first batch of Consecration, a dark sour aged with black currants. So began Jones’ wild-beer journey, leading him to launch the influential Embrace the Funk blog in 2010.

Fast forward to 2012, and Jones was working at a TV station, homebrewing still a hobby. His friend Linus Hall, the founder of Nashville’s Yazoo Brewing, had just returned from a trip to Belgium, smitten by its indigenous beer. He sent Jones an email that caused him to literally jump for joy.

“His quote was, ‘I want you to do what you do in your garage, but I just want you to do it here,’” Jones remembers.

He started the Embrace the Funk beer program, making wine barrel–aged Brett Saisons at the brewery on lunch and dinner breaks, plus pre- and post-work. “We started seeing it sell and were like, ‘Cool, we’ll make some more,’” he says.

Soon, Yazoo was selling 600 bottles in four hours. People were bugging out over Jones’ wild creations, the new wave of Brett beers clearing a new career path for the homebrewer. Yazoo relocated the burgeoning program to a new building.

“I went there one day and looked around and was like, ‘Oh my god, this is a lot of beer. And there is so much stuff to do,’” Jones says. “I remember sitting down on a keg, getting a beer and going, ‘I’ve got a new career.’ The next week, I put in my notice.”

In addition to steering Yazoo’s wild and sour program, Jones oversees Yazoo’s annual Embrace the Funk festival, now in its sixth year. The 500 or so tickets always sell out, a strong consumer signifier of a “a thirst, so to speak, for something different,” he says. “We’re a society that wants to explore, wants to learn and wants to experience new things and not just eat vanilla ice cream all the time.”

People just want to call everything sour. Sour is a flavor descriptor, not a style.
— Jason Perkins, Allagash

New York City’s Anthony Accardi didn’t want to brew IPAs all the time. He and his friend Rob Kolb, who met while racing bicycles, began homebrewing together with a focus on wild beers. Their amateur obsession turned professional when they opened Transmitter Brewing in early 2014, a farmhouse-inspired brewery in industrial Queens.

“It gave us some strength in both focus and a sense of direction for marketing,” says co-owner Accardi, Transmitter’s fermentologist. “It felt like there was an opportunity to do something a little different in New York City.”

Doing something different, beer-wise, also required deeper education. Transmitter’s labels clearly describe ingredients and expected flavor profile.

“Because we have beer that’s funky and has potential to have what could be considered an off flavor in any other beer, it was important to have full disclosure,” Accardi says. “The worst thing that can happen is someone can have an expectation of a beer and it’s completely different from what they imagined.”

Accardi performs a sort of linguistic sleight of hand when discussing his beer with customers. “If you can switch the language subtly, you can then move to the word sour once they’ve tasted it,” he says. “Using brightness and acidity as descriptors goes a long way to keeping people engaged and not build preconceived notions about beers that have gone sour.”

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Sour is also a word that’s so broad and overused as to be meaningless, brewing’s version of “artisanal.”

“People just want to call everything sour,” says Allagash brewmaster Jason Perkins, who experiments extensively with wild beers and spontaneous fermentations. “Sour is a flavor descriptor, not a style. If we’re only going to talk about these beers as sour, then you get into the ‘more sour is better’ situation.”

Perkins sees acidity as a tool, not the finished product, used to create interesting flavors and lend complexity. It can work in concert with wild yeast, or wild yeast can toil alone, another point that often requires clarification.

“There are still folks who associate Brett with sour, which really isn’t all that accurate,” he explains.

Most of Allagash’s Brettanomyces–influenced beers are limited releases, scarcity dictated by barrel-size and time. Fans queue up for brewery-only sales of the spontaneously fermented Coolship beers, treated with coffee and donuts while biding their time. One outlier is low-alcohol Little Brett, a once-a-year release that I’ve bought at my local Brooklyn grocery store. The beer sells for around $13 or $14 per 12-ounce four-pack. That might elicit sticker shock from cost-conscious customers who may not be considering the beer’s production demands.

“It takes us nearly three months to make that beer,” Perkins says of Little Brett. “It’s a challenge to find a fair price to sell it for and still make it worth a brewery’s while.”

If a wild beer does sell like, well, wild, demand would soon decimate supply. “You can’t open a wild brewery tomorrow and start producing 10,000 barrels for sale,” says Liquid Riot’s Michaud, noting that it takes serious time and investment to build inventory. “I see this section of the market having a slow, steady growth.”

Here’s the thing: forecasting beer’s future is tough. Forty years back, IPAs were essentially a historical footnote. Now, they’re modern craft brewers’ biggest moneymakers. Who knows what will be in style 40 years from now. Wild beers will likely not ride that lucrative rocket ship. The flavors and aromas are just too foreign, a funky tributary from the mainstream.

Remember, though: what may seem weird today was commonplace yesterday. Wild beers nod to beer’s very beginnings, when raw ingredients and happenstance created a happy little buzz. Belgian brewers kept time-cobwebbed traditions, brewing idiosyncratic beers that can’t be cranked out en masse, guaranteed to taste the same any time, anywhere. American brewers are building on these traditions, making beers with distinct flavors, driven by a brewer’s distinct point of view. If that’s not already the current wave, it very well could be the next one.

“These beers give you a sense of place and time,” says Yazoo’s Jones. “You can’t get that with an IPA.”

Words by Joshua M. Bernstein
Illustrations by Charlotte Hudson