Sour beers have been gaining immense popularity and intrigue here in the US over the last few years, with interpretations of classic Belgian and French styles popping up at breweries everywhere. New style fusions and challenging concepts are emerging plentifully as well. Sours and brett beers are certainly on the “hot list,” sought out by seasoned consumers as well as buzzword-toting trend followers. So really, what is all the fuss about?
First let’s get friendly: brettanomyces or brett, for short, is a type of wild yeast commonly found in nature, frequently lounging on the outside of fruits such as grapes. It’s an acidogenic organism that enjoys eating glucose and other sugars, producing acetic acid in return. Not all sour beers utilize brettanomyces cultures, and many sour beers showcase multiple yeasts and bacteria including but not limited to: lactobacillus, pediococcus and other possibly unknown or unnamed wild yeasts. Brettanomyces acts and interacts differently from typical beer yeast and produces specific flavors that some enjoy and some detest. While it is possible to use brettanomyces by itself in a primary fermentation, it’s more often added after the first round of fermentation is complete. This primary fermentation could be via typical beer yeast (saccharomyces, the workhorse!) or in concert with saccharomyces. Brett is a particularly slow worker with certain nutritional needs and demands on environmental factors. Its flavors in aged beers can take months or years to be ready to drink. Of course, it’s the brewer and/or blender and finally the consumer who decides what “ready” is. How to tell? A difficult question to answer, but Wyeast Laboratories says that 1-2 years is a common timeline for thorough brettanomyces development. The process is somewhat comparable to winemaking which requires a diligent tasting regime, patience in aging and a deft hand for blending.
It’s important to consider the risk set forth by undertaking a brettanomyces beer. Brett is extremely tenacious and can be nearly impossible to remove from brewing equipment, which is why breweries that make sour beers often have entirely different sets of equipment, systems in different buildings, or at the very least keep their aging area substantially segregated from non-wild beers. Unintentional infection by brettanomyces or other wild yeasts and bacteria can mean a huge loss of product and surrender of equipment. Thus, a high level of surveillance and caution is necessary in commercial mixed-culture breweries. Kettle sours like Berliner Weisses and Goses are faster, safer options that many American breweries are choosing to experiment with. While brettanomyces is sometimes used in those styles, it’s not a necessary element.
Flavors introduced by brettanomyces vary, but common descriptors include spicy, funky, barnyard-like, cheesey, band-aid-like and horse blankety. Yes, many of these terms sound unpalatable, but the right amount and combination is striking, complex and often complementary to the malt profile, especially when fruits are also added. And certainly we can’t forget the eponymous sour flavor, which also ranges from lightly tart to pungently acidic. Ultimately, you can’t ever be sure of what you’re going to be tasting in a mixed-culture beer, and this makes sampling and home cellaring of bottles exciting (and sometimes a bit of a crapshoot).
Luckily there are a number of American breweries that are devoting all or most of their production to brettanomyces beers, so choices for drinking are many. But to begin, I’d suggest trying a classic Belgian brew, Orval Trappist Ale. Orval is dry hopped with continental landrace hops and aged very briefly with brett. Its light-handed maturation period provides a restrained yet very present brettanomyces character. For bold American creations, try Seizoen Bretta from Logsdon Farmhouse Ales in Hood River, Ore., which won gold at the Great American Beer Fest 2012. If you’re in the Seattle area, it would be a crime not to mention Holy Mountain Brewing, whose lineup changes frequently but typically features mixed-culture and brett-fermented ales. American-brewed sours are relatively young as a trend, so I’d recommend a wide sampling of styles across multiple breweries. Regardless of personal taste, it’s a fantastic opportunity to try a variety of beers brewed with unique processes, inspirations and market focus.
Autumn has rolled in, make no mistake. It’s the end of September and across the country consumers are already welcoming new groups of seasonal beers: herb and spice beers, brown ales, dunkels, bocks and Märzens. Most of these styles have one key ingredient in common: Munich malt. You likely know the malt well already–in fact, its characteristic flavor comes from a compound called maltol which is what most people associate with the concept of “maltiness” as a whole, although it’s a pretty broad spectrum. Munich malt is rich-flavored, slightly sweet, bready and sometimes nutty. Every type of malt is responsible for an often wide variety of flavors that ultimately end up as the backbone of a finished beer, but Munich malt is especially notable for a few reasons. First, though, a little background.
Malts similar to today’s Munich malt have been produced for hundreds of years, but the current specs and methodology were probably refined around the same time pale and pilsner malts became more widespread in production throughout Europe–from the 1840’s onward. Malting technology, all-around industry and a slew of other modern developments lead to improved standardization and consistency of malt even for styles dating back far before that period. Better transportation options and the availability of glass also meant that more beer could be exported and distributed around Europe and beyond, which put additional pressures on maltsters to produce consistent, high-quality malt.
To really understand the signature flavors of Munich malt, a little dive into the malting process itself is also helpful. Munich malt is considered a specialty malt and undergoes particular treatment during malting. Specifically, it’s held for a longer period of time in the kiln than the average pale malt is under a blanket of warm, re-circulating air. This slows down the evaporation process and allows the grain to retain more reducing sugars and amino acids–both of which lead to additional color and flavor formation. The final color level depends on how high the temperature is set during the final stages of kilning. For Munich there is a range of options produced from rather light (close to pale malt) to fairly dark amber-brown. Depending on style and vision, brewers can choose the best fit for their recipe.
Munich is also unique for a specialty malt in that it retains diastatic power. This means it has the ability to change its own starches into fermentable sugars without another malt present to help out (like pale malt or pilsner). The same thing can be said of Vienna malt, a key ingredient in Vienna lagers and many Märzens as well. When these types of malts are used at a high percentage, the mashing conversion is usually much slower and yields a less fermentable wort, but the end result is often more stable over time due to its higher levels of color rich melanoidins. A few styles do call for a large amount of Munich malt (unsurprisingly, many originating from Munich) but the majority of brewers use the malt at a smaller percentage of a total recipe to supply a rich, malty flavor with a little more restraint.
Because so many beers incorporate some Munich malt into their profiles, you’ve undoubtedly already consumed a large amount of the stuff–but to really experience the full flavor, a few styles and examples stand out. Munich’s classic darker styles are a great place to start, but we also have some quality American options now. Heater Allen uses 90% Munich malt in their classic Dunkel brewed at their lager-focused McMinnville, Ore. brewery. Victory Brewing Co.’s Dark Lager (released seasonally) is another great example. And no list would be complete without a mention of the Dunkel Lager from Chuckanut Brewing in Bellingham, Wash., which has won numerous awards. However you get your hands and lips on any styles heavy on the Munich malt, I suggest you take an extra moment to appreciate that warm malty goodness that so many recipes aim to showcase.
It’s here again–the harvest season. Specifically, it’s hop harvest time, which runs from August through October depending on varietal, growing location and weather. Living here in the lovely state of Washington, we have a fantastic amount of hop products easily available–we are, after all, the producers of 77% of the country’s hops. But what especially excites brewers and drinkers about this proximity this time of year is the availability of fresh or wet hops. As you know, brewers use a number of hop products–dried whole-leaf hops, dried pelletized hops, hop oils and hop extracts. Hops do not store well fresh, so all these products are preserved versions that will be available for months after harvest provided proper handling and storage. The window for utilizing fresh hops just picked is extremely short–and in fact, breweries farther from the hop fields frequently will overnight a shipment directly to the brewery. Seattle is only a few hours’ drive from the Yakima Valley growing area, so brewers will merely drive and pick up a load, usually brewing with the hops as soon as they arrive on site, whatever time of day or night.
So what’s the fuss about wet hops, if most of the beer we consume doesn’t ever involve them?
Different expressions of flavor
Some flavors and aromas are expressed differently or are unique to wet hops–depending on type, this could mean a brighter flavor, an earthier flavor, or a more green, dank and herbal flavor. It’s a great chance to experience the full range of potential that hops offer. And don’t forget, this is the very first time anyone is able to use and taste the year’s new crops. While growers strive to maintain a similar end product year after year, hops are of course an agricultural product. Which means they are naturally susceptible to sometimes drastic flavor differences depending on seasons, weather, water availability, etc.
Probably the best and most interesting part of the fresh hop season is the chance for brewers to leave their cave-like facilities and embrace the work of the hop farmer. Hop harvesting season is a fast-paced, sometimes frenzied event that employs hundreds or thousands of workers to help pick, process, kiln, bale and package hops 24 hours a day until the crop is complete. Brewers and owners frequently take a trip to sample and discuss the year’s offerings and are able to witness and appreciate the reality of the harvest. This can only help facilitate good connections within the industry, putting the spotlight on the greater craft beverage community, all the different things that go into the delicious beverage you enjoy. I imagine it must be very satisfying for the farmers and processors to see (and drink) the culmination of the year’s effort.
Freshness and on-site drinking
Fresh hop beers are particularly poor for storing, so you’re almost always more likely to see them on tap at a brewery or nearby pub. When you see them in bottles or cans, do consider the age–most beers have a fair shelf-life of about 90 days before flavors start to subside drastically and staleness sets in. And anything with a lot of hop matter should be consumed as fresh as possible. This necessity of freshness means you’ve got to get out and say hello to local breweries in person! Which means that you also are getting a better connection to growers, seasonality, and the industry as a whole.
Hoping for fresh hop beer recommendations? Well, as I mentioned, each year is somewhat different, and breweries often choose to highlight different hops as the season goes on. If you live anywhere with a large beer community near a growing region, you won’t have any trouble finding one or two wet hop ales to try. Around here we eagerly await Fremont Brewing’s Cowiche Canyon Fresh Hop Ale, which uses organic hops from Cowiche Canyon to make a smaller-batch ale celebrating a particular farm in the region. Schooner EXACT Brewing Co. hosts an annual trip to Virgil Gamache farms for a group of enthusiastic drinkers who get to brew a beer right on the farm. Hale’s Ales in Seattle hosts a fresh hop beer festival, featuring fresh hop beers from 20 different breweries. You have so many ways but not a lot of time to sample the season, so you’d best get started soon!