One of the most curious publications in the history of lambic beer, and I suspect, the history of beer, is Hubert van Herreweghen’s ‘Geuze en Humanisme.’ Its full title translates to ‘Geuze and Humanism: presumptuous reflections on the excellence of the beer of Brussels and Brabant, and the people who drink it, embellished with illustrations by Maurits van Saune.’ In 1955 Leo van Hoorick asked Flemish poet Hubert van Herreweghen (1920) to speak about geuze and humanism for the Vlaamse Club in Brussels and the text was later by published and offered to the club members as a 1956 New Year’s present in an edition of 400 copies. Since its publication, Geuze en Humanisme had become something of a rarity and collectors’ item until it was reprinted in 2010 by the Belgium province of Vlaams Brabant and Uitgeverij P. on high quality paper with the original illustrations.
The title Geuze en Humanisme sounds rather pretentious and in a sense it is because the author starts his lecture with reflections on the death of the Dutch humanist Desiderius Erasmus in Switzerland and his final longing for the countryside of Brabant. This permits van Herreweghen to praise the people of Brabant and, of course, the beer known as geuze. Van Herreweghen entertains a number of theories about the name ‘geuze’ before he dismisses them, including the curious theory that the word geuze refers to the Geuzen who opposed Spanish rule in the Netherlands the 16th century. These freedom fighters used to carry beer on their belts and induced a second fermentation as a result of the shaking of the beer while walking in the sun! More likely, he admits, is that the name refers to the politically classical liberal brewers who released the beer in bottles. Notwithstanding the secular origin of lambic beer, the author confesses that the taste of the beer is quite catholic in nature.
Hubert van Herreweghen then resumes his treatment of geuze by characterizing the beer and its production. As do many historical writers on lambic, he emphasizes that the magic that spontaneous fermentation contributes to lambic is only possible in Brussels and its surrounding rural areas — and then only when brewing occurs during the winter months. We do now know that this is not entirely correct and this view has been replaced by the more modest perspective that spontaneous fermentation expresses the regional microflora and the Brussels area is quite favorable for the production of lambic. Without being too technical and boring to his audience, the author attempts to relay the microbiology that gives rise to lambic and concludes by observing that the production of lambic with all its (micro) struggles and uncertainties is like life itself. He also alludes to the subtle (regional) changes between various lambic brewers and the corresponding preferences and loyalties this phenomenon produces.
The most memorable part of the lecture is where he discusses the health benefits of lambic, part sincere, part ironic. He start this topic by pointing out that geuze is not a drink of alcoholics but a beer meant to be consumed at home with family or to socialize with friends. We also know about the old doctor’s recipe of blending two eggs and geuze to create a medical potion to stimulate healthy blood cells – one of the illustrations features this concoction sitting on a nightstand. Outright hilarious is his description of a seriously ill farmer (Baldus) who was brought to the hospital for surgery. But upon opening the man the surgeons conclude that there is little hope for recovery and sent him home to die among his family. When the agonal farmer is asked if there is still something he wants he answers…”lambiek,” which is honored. After giving the dying man a young lambic the light slowly returns in his eyes. This lambic treatment continues for days and now the man still walks around as the living proof of the healthy and healing nature of lambic beer.
As can be expected from a poet ,Van Herreweghen concludes his lecture by reciting geuze poetry by other (Flemish) poets and contributes his own ‘Litanie van de schone uithangborden,’ which takes the listener through a list of renowned lambic establishments, many of which no longer exist:
Een Bundelke Wissen,
In het nuchtere Kalf,
Den ouden Sinte Pieter,
Bij het Varken,
Bij den Bult,
Den Spaanschen Bempt,
Het Huis van Oostenrijk,
In den Hazenwind,
Het Stroblommeke van Papier,
Den grooten Hof van den
ouden edelen Handboog,
Den ouden spijtigen Duivel,
In de Slek,
De groene Boomgaard,
Den subieten Dood.
After this extensive introduction to the virtues of geuze, he invites the audience in attendance to drink geuze with him and celebrate the health of the lambic brewers in attendance. Testament to the health effects of geuze is that Hubert van Herreweghen is still alive at 92 years old and even revisited the topic of geuze again at a Flemish event in 2010!
The recent Lost Abbey and New Belgium Lips of Faith Brett Beer has produced a number of interesting exchanges on internet forums and beer rating apps. Some reviewers are disappointed that the beer is not sour. Clearly, this is a misunderstanding of the brew because 100% brettanomyces beers are not necessarily supposed to be sour. They can be slightly tart as a consequence of acetic acid production by the brettanomyces yeast, but for a real sour beer the brett needs to work in conjunction with souring bacteria. A more understandable concern is that New Belgium filtered out the brettanomyces yeast prior to bottling. This is not speculation but has been actually confirmed by Lauren Salazar from New Belgium in an interesting and candid interview for Embrace the Funk. Lauren not only confirms that there is no living brett yeast in the Brett Beer, but also goes into quite some detail about their use of flash pasteurization for their sour blends.
To me such a development actually reflects how far sour beers and wild ales have come. If New Belgium would be one of the few producers of such beers, I could imagine some people being really concerned about such a procedure. In the current situation I suspect that many craft beer lovers who strongly prefer bottle-conditioned wild ales will just look for a release of any of the other 100+ craft brewers that do sour and brett beers. In fact, if you look at Flemish Reds you will note that pasteurization is not beyond the pale in this style at all. Clearly, there is a whole world out there between traditional spontaneously fermented lambics and pasteurized sweetened beers. As long as a traditional beer style is not on the brink of extinction (such as traditional lambic was not that long ago), I think that respecting the artistic, business, and practical decisions a brewer makes is the most welcome approach.
Lauren does make a point about flash pasteurization that draws attention to different views people can have about what makes a style a style (or what makes a beer a beer). She says that pasteurization has “a side effect, but it’s a wonderful side effect. It locks the blend that I produce into place. ..You know some people store beers like Geuze for a really long time and what they don’t realize is that blender painstakingly made that blend. The blender tasted all their barrels and said “This percentage of this barrel, this percentage of this one etc..”. That person brought all those together, tasted it and said “Perfect.” But 3 years later, who knows what it’s like if its not pasteurized. So when you pasteurize you can definitely lock in the blend, but it can also oxidize.” This surprised me because it is well known that some lambic brewers and blenders do actually encourage people to age their geuzes and even highlight the qualities that the beer will pick up over time – just attend a vertical tasting of geuzes to experience this. When these brewers blend, the evolution of the beer over time and its aging potential is one of the things on their mind. Yes, the beer can get oxidized but that is something that both the drinker and the producer recognize – just like people with a wine cellar recognize their (expensive) wines may turn out fabulous, mediocre, or past their prime.
Lambic connoisseurs often have clear affinities with the (natural) wine crowd. No lambic or gueuze is the same year after year, but this is seen as a feature of lambic brewing and not a bug. It is one of the things that makes spontaneous fermentation and natural wine making so interesting and fascinating (even from a biochemical perspective). It mimics life. It is as much about taste as it is about process and acceptance. Clearly, this is not an approach that is suitable for all brewers and as the craft beer revolution keeps on going we are going to see more safer and “consistent” approaches; filtered brett beers; pasteurized sours; changing the ratio between young and old base beers in a blend to make it more marketable; carefully cultivated “wild” yeast; and perhaps even sour beers that have never been in contact with bacteria at all! But there are also going to be the new craft- and home brewers who install coolships or use “infected” barrels to ferment their beers.
Speaking for myself, I increasingly have a hard time keeping up with and tasting, let alone reviewing, all the wild ales (and not so wild ales) that are being produced by American craft brewers. To keep things interesting and manageable for myself, I will now mostly confine myself to brewers that do spontaneous fermentation or who do something really interesting (such as gin barrel aging of sours, producing sour gruits etc.).
Although the theme of this website does permit it, I have never published on German sour styles such as Berliner Weisse. But a recent visit to Portland’s Belmont Station rewarded me with no fewer than four sour German beers: Bayerischer Bahnhof Berliner Style Weisse, Bayerischer Bahnhof Berliner Style Weisse Brettanomyces Lambicus, Dr. Fritz Briem’s 1809 Berliner Style Weisse, and Dr. Fritz Briem’s Piwo Grodziskie Grätzer Ale.
One of the intriguing theories about the origins of Berliner Weisse is that the style might have been brought to Germany by migrating Huguenots who were influenced by the sour reds and browns of Flanders — Belgian beer styles that have a rather complicated history themselves. As is virtually the rule with old beer styles, one can only speculate about how those ancient Berliner Weisse beers might have tasted, but beer writer Michael Jackson’s suggestion that traditionally these beers were buried in warm earth seems to indicate that the distinct lactic note may always have been a part of this style. Berliner Weisse (‘the Champagne of the North’) has survived but in terms of popularity it has been mostly replaced by sanitized bitter beer styles.
The Bayrischer Bahnhof Berliner Style Weisse beer that I tasted first has a low alcohol percentage of 3.0%, which is characteristic for the style. As far as bottle and label design is concerned, I will confine myself to the observation that German beers rarely excel in this area. Bayrischer Bahnhof Berliner Weisse pours a cloudy light golden color and has attractive crisp notes of peach, tropical fruits, wheat, and lactic acid. The refreshing dry lactic tart flavor gives way to a short Hefeweizen-like finish. Naturally, this beer is an easy drinker and I followed it with their Berliner Style Weisse Brettanomyces Lambicus release, which is a special edition of their classic style that received additional Brettanomyces Lambicus fermentation. This version produced an even bigger head after a vigorous pour, but also dissipated more quickly. The presence of brettanomyces is unmistakable in the aroma and it reduced the tropical complexity of the original version quite a bit. Although brettanomyces by itself produces little sourness, the presence of this yeast seems to amplify the lactic tartness of the beer by furthering drying it out, which is also evidenced by the thinner mouthfeel. In this case I think that the brettanomyces yeast took more away from the standard beer than it added, in particular the crisp fruity lactic notes. The finish is a little bit longer though.
Dr. Fritz Briem’s “historic” 1809 Berliner Style Weisse is quite a bit higher in alcohol (5%) and its production involved transferring the heated, un-boiled malt to open fermenters, after it was “pitched with yeast and lactic acid bacteria (isolated from malt) at 18°C.” The aroma suggests that wild yeast must have participated during the fermentation of this beer. This cloudy, yellow beer has a musty, honey-like aroma and is super carbonated. Whether intentional or not, there is little lactic tartness. Instead this beer is more similar to a traditional German wheat beer, albeit a little more rough around the edges. There was no finish to speak of.
Going by the label alone, Dr. Fritz Briem’s Piwo Grodziskie Grätzer with its sour mash and smoked malt looked quite appealing to me. My own readings of the native lambic literature support the idea that some lambic producers used smoked malt, and since Schlenkerla’s Märzen is one of the few non-lambic beers that really gets me excited, this obscure German style held great promise. The aroma of this golden, translucent beer certainly revealed its ingredients, although the smoke was not nearly as pronounced as I prefer. What struck me about this beer was how restrained all the different notes were; mild tartness, mild smoke, milt bitterness, and a nutty, medium-long finish. What surprised me the most was its smooth, cask/ESB-like mouthfeel. Although this beer turned out quite different from what I expected, it was the most refined and complex of the four sour Germans.
In traditional lambic, brettanomyces and lactic bacteria go hand in hand, but it was rather refreshing (literally!) to taste a wild beer (the standard Bayrischer Bahnhof Berliner Style Weisse) in which the emphasis was on the sour bacteria instead of the “brett.” I am personally at a loss to understand the contemporary preference for bitter over sour beers, but at least there are now numerous breweries experimenting with sour beer styles, and even uncovering some forgotten sour styles like Grätzer. The aim of resuscitating old, historical beer styles invariably produces debates about what the “real” or “authentic” style might have tasted like. The implicit fallacy, as recently discussed by Jeff Alworth, is that most beer styles were not made from scratch to conform to some kind of Platonic Ideal; beer styles often have a chaotic past and keep evolving, although it can be admitted that some styles have a more complicated and confusing past than others. The best brewery in the world, Cantillon, is an interesting example of the interplay of tradition and innovation. Cantillon is extremely traditionalist (non-interventionist) in its approach to brewing but also has an interesting record in experimentation with (or beyond) the lambic style, from the use of 100% malted barley and dry hopping (Cantillon Iris) to blending lambic and natural wine (Cantillon Pinot D’Aunis).
In closing, it is interesting to draw some attention to one of the unorthodox aspects of Berliner Weisse brewing; the no-boil (or short boil) method. Not boiling the wort can confer (or enhance) a number of characteristics of the beer; a lighter color, a “raw” dough character, cloudiness, reduced hop bitterness, participation of wild yeast and bacteria, and more sourness. The no-boil method is now almost exclusively associated with the Berliner style but has a more varied history (it used to be a popular method in Norwegian brewing, too), a topic that will be treated in more detail in the future.
One of the pleasant surprises for those who utilized the HORAL buses during the 2011 edition of Toer de Geuze is that the organizers distributed a reproduction of the 1560 Halle ordinance for lambic brewing. The accounting document that includes the ordinance does not explicitly refer to “lambic” yet, but the proportions of grains and the fact that all historical beers involved spontaneous fermentation prompted researchers to establish a link to modern lambic. This 1560 text (1559, according to other sources) was discovered by Médard-Jules Van den Weghe in 1930 but it was not until 1971 that the link to lambic was made by Marcel Franssens in the journal “Verhandelingen van de KGOKH.” Since it was custom to include older ordinances in the accounting books there is good reason to assume that the ordinance itself is much older than 1560, going back to at least 1400.
The ordinance concerns two issues: enforcement of decrees concerning the required amount of grain in wort and specification of the proper proportion of wheat and barley.
The original French text is as follows:
Item Est statue et ordonne pour le plus grant prouffit de la ville que doresanvant on brassera keute et houppe sur le pegele et selon la valleur des grains ainsy que lon est acoustume de vielz temps. Et qui brassera oultre le pegele tel fourfera une amende de vi L ts pour la premiere fois et ne porra faire son mestier durant lespace de xl jours. Et la cervoise quon trouvera estre brassee plus q’le peghele contient seroit confisquie au prouffit du Sr. Et pour le seconde fois sur lamende de xn L ts Et pour la me fois sur paine destre prive du mestier a la volente du Sr. De laquelle amende le Sr auera ung tierch. L autre tierch sera au prouffit de la ville. Et lautre tierch au prouffit du Rapporteur. Et polre les maltoteurs aller avec le peghelere sil leur plaist pour enquerir et scavoir si laditte cervoise est brassee trop longhe. Que les brasseurs qui voldront enthoner leur cervoise ilz fourferront lamende de XV S ts pour chune fois au prouffit du Sr. Et le peghelere sera creu par son serment tant de lamende cue de la cervoise et leike.
Item Que nul sadvance de faire de bree sans y mettre xvi Rxes de grains Assauvoir vi Rxes de fourment et x Rxes dorge et dave qui font ensamble xvi Rxes ainsi quon a este acoustume du temps passet pour le faire mesurer dedens le moulin quant on sera requis par le mayeur et eschevins.
The last part of this ordinance concerns the proportion of wheat and barley.
The relevant passage to lambic brewing is (my translation):
Nobody shall make a wort without 16 raziers of grain, 6 raziers of wheat and 10 raziers of wheat and oat, in total 16 razieren, according to custom and to be measured in the mill upon request from the major and the members of the municipal executive.
A “razier” is an old unit for measuring grain corresponding to 50 liters and the ratio of 37.5% wheat to 62.5% barley corresponds roughly to today’s lambic brewing practice and regulations, which require a minimum of 30% wheat. Also note the mention of “oat” in the ordinance.
The reproduction of the ordinance that was distributed at Toer de Geuze 2011 is double printed and contains some information about the historical context and significance of the ordinance in four languages.
I am reproducing the English text here:
Over 600 years of tradition and quality
Authentic old Lambic beers
The ordinances required for a clear understanding of the recorded revenue were written down in the old accounting books. The obligation to brew exclusively in a controlled fashion with regards to quantity, kinds and proportions of cereal grains applied, had a direct impact on the revenue of the lord. In dire times of war such quality obligations were temporarily lifted. Later, such as in 1560, when the former quality regulations were again enforced, this became apparent in the revenue, and the ordiance was reminded in the books.
Old examples of negotiations about the enforcement of the old prescription are found in the accounting books of the city of Halle, dating back to the years 1400 and 1402. This means that the regulations are much older. In 1400 Albert, duke in Bavaria, was also count of Hainaut-Holland-Zeeland. Perhaps Bavaria drew inspiration from the Halle regulations for the later German “Reinheitsgebot” (purity law, 1516) on beer brewing.
Pajottenland & Senne valley: home of the authentic old lambic beers
The city of Halle is the urban centre of the “Pajottenland & Zennevallei” region, just south of Brussels. Lambic brewing is strongly related to the application of an important portion of wheat. The starch contained in wheat is very slowly converted into sugars and subsequently into alcohol. This starch constitutes the breeding ground for the yeast cultures required for the highly specific lambic maturation which can take several years. This process yields a very special beer which can be kept for a long time and whose taste even improves with overtime. The economic and natural conditions required for the production of such a prized product can only be found in fertile agricultural areas in the vicinity of a metropolitan selling market and are needed in order to survive the economic crises for a millennium.
Ever since 21.1.1997 lambic beer denominations have been protected within the European Union for beers which are produced in accordance with the traditional recipe and the principles of craftsmanship – albeit modified to accommodate current regulations, of course.
One of the most interesting developments in the Pacific Northwest has been the increasing popularity of gin barrel aging of beer. In particular, gin barrel aging of sour beers produces an interesting combination. This should not be surprising. Whereas whiskey, bourbon, and rum barrels can confer an overwhelming, “oppressive” note to beer (which is not always unwelcome, as in the case of imperial stouts), the pale ales and sour beers usually require a lighter approach, and the herbal and dry character of gin is an obvious choice in theory. In practice, the choice to age a beer in gin barrels is not so obvious because gin usually is not produced or aged in barrels.
The origins of gin go back to Dutch jenever (genever), a juniper-based spirit from which gin originated. Supposedly the tradition of adding juniper berries to distilled malt wine was to mask the poor flavor. When distillation methods improved, the use of juniper berries and other herbs was retained and jenever has been a popular drink in the Netherlands and Belgium since. Contemporary jenever can range from industrial neutral “jonge jenever” made with whopping amounts of sugar and juniper extract to authentic “oude jenever” made from 100% grain and fermented juniper berries, aged in barrels (unfortunately, modern oude jenever is often colored and sweetened with caramel). Naturally, only the rarer practice of using wood aging in jenever and gin produce barrels suitable for barrel aging of beer.
There are at least three approaches in which gin (or jenever) and beer can meet. Gin can be blended with beer, such as in the making of beer cocktails. Beer can be brewed with juniper berries and herbs that are typically used for gin to give a gin-like property to beer. Finally, beer can be aged in used gin barrels to impart the flavor of gin during barrel aging of beer. I will leave a treatment of beer cocktails to the side except to note that I once got reasonably interesting results from mixing gin and a pale ale (one needs to experiment a little for arriving at the right proportion). Distillerie Claeyssens de Wambrechies in France actually makes a top fermented beer blended with gin during the brewing process called La Wambrechies.
In Oregon, Rogue Ales makes a Juniper Pale Ale that has some subtle gin connotations. Of much greater interest is Rogue’s limited John John Juniper, which is aged in spruce gin barrels. Unlike Rogue’s regular Juniper Pale Ale, this beer had an unmistakable dry and spicy gin character. Another beer that was inspired by gin is Midnight Sun’s Bathtub Gin Gruit Ale.
But the most interesting application of gin barrel aging, in my opinion, is for wild and sour ales. Gin barrel aging can greatly enhance the aroma and taste of sour beer. Lambic is traditionally associated with the use of fruit but brews such as Cantillon’s Mamouche show impressive results for blending herbs into sour beers.
One of the pioneers in gin barrel aging of beers, and sour beers in particular, is Portland’s Upright Brewing. Aside from being the most innovative sour beer brewery in Portland to date, Upright has done gin barrel aging for a number of its beers using Ransom Old Tom Gin barrels. In fact, Upright seems to like the idea of a meeting between beer and gin so much that they brewed a special beer to be matched with Dutch jenever called Kopstootje Biere. Kopstootje is a Bière de Garde made with the same botanicals as Bols Genever. This beer was launched to great enthusiasm at special pub events where it was consumed in a challenging one-two punch with jenever, according to Dutch ritual.
Other recent and upcoming gin-inspired and gin barrel aged releases include Breakside’s Gin-Barrel Double Wit, Soursop Wheat, Citra Gin IPA, and Simcoe Gin IPA; Ninkasi’s Ransom Old Tom Gin Wood Barrel Aged Maiden the Shade; Oakshire’s Gin Barrel Saison and Gin Barrel Aged Imperial Overcast Stout; some beers in B’ United’s Zymatore series; and Stillwater’s Artisanal Kopstootje.
One of the common observations about beers that have been aged in gin barrels is that the aromatic properties this procedure confers tend to produce some variability in detection. There is little information to date how the “gin” character of gin barrel aged beer evolves over time. For example, I recently sampled a bottle of Belmont Station’s 14th Anniversary Commemorative Ale and Upright’s Special Herbs (a gruit aged in Old Tom Gin barrels) and I could not detect much gin character — in the case of Upright’s beer less than I recall originally tasting on tap. In the case of Rogue’s John John Juniper I was struck by the difference in gin character between the bottled and draft version. Such observations about gin barrel aged beers are not confined to my own, and I have read similar statements from other people. These complexities notwithstanding, gin barrel aging and brewing with traditional jenever herbs offer great potential for producing exceptional sour beers and lambics.
Cantillon is my favorite brewery in the world, but I have a weak spot for gueuze blender Hanssens Artisinaal from Dworp, Belgium. Everything about Hannsens screams “authentic.” The brewery goes back to 1871, it is a part-time, wife and husband farmhouse operation, and there are few concessions to modernity. Seeing the archaic equipment, including the 1954 bottling machine, at Hanssens during a Toer de Geuze is one of the highlights for many visitors.
The first beer I ever tasted from Hanssens was their geuze, with its characteristic wildness and raging acidity. Their kriek is one of my favorites; when young – vintage Hanssens kriek can get very sour. Despite its traditionalist, hands-off approach to making beer, the owners are not shy to experiment. For example, in one of their experiments Hanssen’s geuze was blended with English mead (fermented honey), culminating in an intriguing concoction called Mead the Geuze, which I was fortunate to experience some years ago. Supposedly, some exploding bottles have been reported for this beer, according to Tim Webb in his book LambicLand.
Another experiment that has become a more permanent feature in their line-up is their strawberry lambic Oudbeitje, a young lambic blended with whole strawberries, matured for one year. With little refermentation going on in the bottle, this rather pale beer has little carbonation. Jeff Sparrow’s report a pH of 2.8 (!) for this beer in his book Wild Brews.
When I saw the export-only Hanssens Experimental Raspberry and Hanssens Experimental Cassis in 2010 I wasted little time ordering a bottle of each. Some complicated logistical problems prevented me from tasting them until December 2011. The labels of the beers are virtually identical, with only slight color differences and, of course, the “raspberries” and “black currents” (sic) on the two labels being the other difference. Interestingly, Hanssens seemed to have arrived at exactly the same alcohol percentage (6.0%) for both beers… There is little information about the how this beer was produced (“matured in oak barrels”) but Hanssens might have just followed the same procedure as for Oudbeitje.
Hanssens Experimental Raspberry pours a dark orange and is relatively clear for a lambic. No one should have problems recognizing the raspberries in this one! The aroma is round and fruity and, if one is not familiar with the style of Hanssens, one would not expect the sharp, pungent, lactic, sourness that follows upon drinking. My drinking partner characterized the beer as “drinking a bacterial culture.” Carbonation is absent and the beer is weightier on the palate than I expected. The beer ends on a very dry note. The fruit and dry sourness make this beer ideal for a hot day. I would have preferred some carbonation in this one, though.
Hanssens Experimental Cassis pours a dark red / purple, and a beautiful, bright red when held up to the light, which reminds me of oxygenated blood. As with the other beer, no head and as “flat” as a straight lambic. I find this blackcurrant lambic more mellow and less funky than the raspberry lambic. The taste is more vinous and there is a subtle sweet note and some bitterness. There is also a nice astringency to this beer, reinforcing its earthy wine-like character. Not as sharp as the raspberry lambic, this medium-bodied lambic ends on a similar dry note. I think the lack of carbonation is less of a problem in this one.
I would not recommend any of these beers to lambic novices or lambic drinkers who like a balanced, carbonated gueuze or fruit lambic. As for myself, I cannot help immensely enjoying Hanssens “savage” lambics, although it is doubtful that all their experiments will end up being classified as historical, complex lambics. Looking forward to future Hanssens experiments!
Chris White and Jamil Zainasheff’s Yeast: The Practical Guide to Beer Fermentation is a thorough review of the subject of yeast, with the practical (home)brewer in mind. It is mostly a treatment of commercial brewer’s yeast but there are some interesting observations about wild yeast, too. The authors define wild yeast as yeast “that is not in the brewer’s control.” For example, commercial Brettanomcyes is not wild yeast but native strains of Saccharomyces that (unintentionally) are introduced during cooling of the wort or barrel aging would be. Of course, today’s commercial strains of Brettanomyces may still have a lot in common with yeasts that are found in the wild, but one could imagine a scenario where the use of Brettanomyces becomes so popular that commercial yeast sellers increasingly select these strains for certain properties. As a consequence, wild yeast is not characterized by its aroma and flavor properties (such as tartness or funkiness) but by its involvement in (ambient) spontaneous fermentation.
There are a number of distinct traits that have been retained in wild yeast. Wild yeasts are usually diploid, form spores, and are still capable of mating. Commercial yeast, in contrast, has lost this ability because mainstream brewers desire consistent characteristics from their yeast. Wild yeast usually has low flocculation, which can produce higher attenuation because the yeasts will not quickly drop or rise in the wort. In commercial yeast, however, such a property is not desirable for many beer styles, where a quick and clean beer is the goal. Unlike wild yeasts, which have evolved to compete against each other, commercial yeast can often co-exist and ferment at similar rates.
The book also includes sections on Brettanomyces and capturing wild yeast. Although the name Dekkera is often used interchangeably with Brettanomyces, it is only Brettanomyces that is of the non-spore forming type. One of the intriguing things about Brettanomyces, much to the chagrin of wine makers, is that it produces the enzyme Beta-glucosidase, which can convert the wood sugar cellobiose into glucose, a phenomenon that is more prevalent in new barrels that have higher concentrations of cellobiose. Brettanomyces is quite sensitive to oxygen, with moderate concentrations most favorable to its growth, and lower and higher concentrations, unfavorable. Increased oxygen produces more acetic acid as a fermentation product.
Instead of inoculating wort with commercial Brett, some (home)brewers aim to capture real wild yeast for fermentation. There is no shortage of methods for doing this, including ambient exposure of the wort, fermentation in “infected” barrels, the use of wild fruit and herbs to start fermentation, or using dregs from the bottles of traditional lambic brewers. Of course, such methods usually introduce souring bacteria as well, and the art is to discover and perfect a method that leads to consistent, favorable outcomes. Because many brewers prefer not to waste multiple batches of wort on spontaneous fermentation experiments, and the yeast captured in the wild may not be sufficient to start a healthy fermentation, one approach is to create ambient spontaneous starters (there is a lot of information about creating conventional starters in the book). At this stage, such efforts are still largely the work of some adventurous (home)brewers, and documentation of such efforts is still in its early stages (the Mad Fermentationist blog is an excellent resource). In the case of spontaneous starters it is important to avoid sampling at an early stage, where aerobic conditions, higher pH, and low alcohol still permit the presence of dangerous pathogens.
Because the book is mostly written for brewers who have control over their yeast and fermentation, a lot of information is not completely applicable to brewers who use spontaneous fermentation or incorporate spontaneous fermentation. But there is some information that is interesting for “wild” brewers as well. For example, proper wort aeration is important for healthy yeast growth but brewers who use barrels for (primary) fermentation may have problems in getting enough dissolved oxygen at the start of fermentation. The authors report on a New Belgium method where olive oil was added to the wort to supply the sterols that yeast cell membranes require for proper structure and function. One also wonders how the use of coolships (with their large surface to volume ratio) influences initial wort aeration. Temperature is another topic that affects conventional brewers as well as those using wild yeast. As far as I am aware, traditional lambic brewing does not necessarily exclude temperature control, but I think it is safe to assume that most fermenting lambic wort is subject to substantial seasonal and overnight temperature changes that would be contra-indicated for conventional brewers (Cantillon’s Jean-Pierre Van Roy once looked horrified when I asked him about active temperature control). It would be quite helpful to quantify and characterize the effect of ambient temperature fluctuations on wild yeast and bacterial growth, fermentation, and flavor.
Much of the information on yeast growth, handling, storage, and labs is not applicable to spontaneous fermentation but some of the techniques (such as wild yeast tests and forced fermentation) can be used by adventurous brewers to study wild yeast and the conditions that influence spontaneous fermentation. Ultimately, there is an increasing need for an extensive book treatment on (home)brewing with non-conventional and wild yeast. Modifying or ignoring (!) procedures for brewing with domesticated yeast will only take you so far, and the homebrew recipes that can be found in some classic lambic and wild beer books give little guidance about expected fermentation behavior and troubleshooting. Of course, no matter how much our knowledge about spontaneous fermentation grows, beer that is produced in this way will always have more variability than beer that is produced with domesticated yeast under highly controlled conditions. But this is also one of its strengths, and like authentic wine, can lead to surprising results. Many readers of this blog will agree that the best beer in this world remains a product of spontaneous fermentation. If you brew conventional beer in addition to wild beer, Yeast is an invaluable resource.
Jamie Goode and Sam Harrop’s Authentic Wine: Toward Natural and Sustainable Winemaking is the most extensive (technical) review of natural wine making to date. The authors prefer the term authentic wine to recognize the fact that wine is not a spontaneous product of nature but requires a competent winemaker. As the authors point out on many occasions, “natural” is a matter of degree. So why aim for non-interventionist wine making in the first place? The answer that appeals most to the authors is that it allows for the purest expression of terroir. A fair degree of non-interventionism is a necessary, but not sufficient, condition for making good wine. As such, the authors do not reject, and in some chapters seem to strongly support, some manipulation of the wine to allow for the best expression of terroir, a perspective that no doubt is controversial with those who practice natural wine making because they value non-interventionism as such. One could argue that the writers are terroirists first, and non-interventionists second.
I think the rejoinder to such a “terroir through manipulation” perspective would be to argue that if non-interventionist wine making leads to a poor expression of terroir, then either the wine maker is not creating the proper conditions for the grapes and wine to develop, or one is trying to make wine in an area (i.e., soil, climate) that is simply not suitable for their choice of grape, style, or even wine making at all. The authors actually seem to be quite sympathetic to this outlook because the book is full of examples of how many wine “faults” can be avoided without manipulation of the end product. Ultimately, the implied verdict seems to be that natural wine making is an advanced form of wine making for a specific subset of consumers, and does not permit a lot of room for errors or ignorance. I think there is a strong parallel with spontaneous fermentation in beer making here. Despite the rhetoric about letting nature take its course, lambic brewers usually have a deep and thorough understanding of the conditions and variables that affect their beer, even if they do not always express this in the technical language of brewing science. In today’s world, natural wine making and spontaneous fermentation of beer is a choice and one that is usually made by people who accept and embrace the challenge — hence the (mostly) superior results.
One of the most interesting chapters in the book is about ripeness and alcohol levels. The authors show how syrah performs in cool and warm climates, and how picking times influence terroir expression. Picking the grapes too early will result in low alcohol, unripe, and harshly tannic wines, and picking the grapes too late will produce high alcohol, low acid and uncharacteristic “soupy” wines. Of course, personal preference matters and that is why the authors show an “optimum window for terroir expression” instead of one single time point. For example, I personally prefer wines that are very dry, lower in alcohol, with good acidity and tannins, with restrained green notes, which requires relatively early picking of the grapes. As a general rule, writers on natural wine agree that (excessive) new oak and high alcohol overwhelm the expression of terroir. The authors quote winemaker Scott Burr: “alcohol is a masking agent…so taking it away reveals what’s there.” I am inclined to think that this applies to many beer styles as well. For example, a high gravity beer with a lot of post-fermentation residual sugar is not ideal for showcasing the differences between different fresh hop varieties. It may not be a coincidence that most lambic producers, and Cantillon in particular, keep their alcohol percentages on the lower side of the spectrum and generally avoid new oak.
This book stands out for a relatively detailed discussion of yeast and fermentation in wine. In contrast to brewing, the use of the indigenous (“wild”) yeast on the grapes has never really gone out of style in wine making, despite the increasing popularity of inoculating wine with commercial yeast. I suspect that, aside from the more traditionalist culture associated with wine, a major reason is that the differences between the results of spontaneous fermentation in wine and the use of commercial yeast in wine are smaller than the outcomes for beer. As a general rule, spontaneous fermentation in beer leads to distinctively dry, tart and funky beers that do not appeal to the average beer drinker. In wine, spontaneous fermentation can produce funkier wines, but the degree of funk is not of the magnitude that we see in beer – although it strikes me that it should be possible to “direct” a natural wine towards a far more funkier expression, something I suspect some French natural wine makers deliberately aim for.
Brewing with brettanomyces, or even 100% brettanomyces, is now quite popular in craft beer brewing. In wine making, brettanomyces is considered a “fault,” even among many natural wine makers. The reasoning is that brettanomyces inhibits the expression of fruit and blurs the distinctions between grapes and terroir. Having said this, some of the most prestigious red wines have a faint brett character that some feel adds complexity. Even the authors consider the possibility that the presence of brettanomyces might work in some specific wine styles. I have tasted a number of wines where the presence of brettanomyces was unmistakable — in some wines I agree that it impoverished the wine, in others I think it positively amplified the dark, brooding, and rustic character of the wine. As far as I am aware, unlike beer drinkers, wine drinkers never express an explicit liking for brettanomyces. Whether this psychological barrier reflects a fundamental, and correct, recognition that brett generally has no place in good wine, or a reluctance to embrace the unorthodox results of spontaneous fermentation, remains to be seen. What is clear, however, is that brewers of funky and sour beers have a (practical) knowledge about the complexities of brettanomyces fermentation and expression that is usually absent among wine writers.
There has been a recent spike in books about organic and real wine making. I was intrigued to read about Katherine Cole’s Voodoo Vintners: Oregon’s Astonishing Biodynamic Winegrowers because it does not just aim to provide the story of the peculiar world of (Oregon) biodynamic winemakers, but I also hoped it would enable me to get a better grip on who is doing natural wine making in Oregon.
Like the author, I have mixed feelings about the “black magic” that is biodynamics. To the degree that it refers to a form of mixed agriculture that emphasizes biodiversity, self-nourishment, interdependency of organisms, and health of the soil, I find little to object to. But when Rudolf Steiner informs us that “a cow has horns in order to send the formative astral-etheric forces back into its digestive system” it is hard to remain serious. What becomes quite evident in Katherine Cole’s book is that many biodynamic wine makers (which include some of the most prestigious wine makers in France) who practice biodynamics are simply common-sense business people who just get better and more sustainable results from this approach. Another factor is that some of its methods go back a long time in the history of human agriculture, which creates a sense of historical continuity, something that is important to many Old World wine makers, and those who are inspired by them.
The chapter ‘Science..or Sci-Fi’ has some amusing observations about the attempts of some biodynamic practitioners to square their approach with quantum mechanics. As the author correctly observes, quantum mechanisms has become the ‘go-to’ branch of physics to explain mysterious things and grandiose ideas (other examples are the fields of consciousness research and religion). But this produces an odd situation for biodynamics. Writes Cole, “They tell us that modern science can’t calibrate their style of farming. At the same time, they draw from one of the most youthful and arcane branches of science, quantum mechanics, to claim that praying for their plants is a valid way to go about running a farm.”
Of most interest to me was the chapter ‘The Neo-Nateralists,’ where she draws some useful distinctions between organic wine making, biodynamic wine making, and natural wine making. Both biodynamic and natural wine making go “beyond organic” but biodynamics does not necessarily exclude irrigation or manipulation of the end product (acid adjustment, micro-oxygenation, etc.) provided that the label simply confines itself to saying that the wine is “made with biodynamic grapes” instead of using the stronger certification “biodynamic wine” (which still permits irrigation). It strikes me that most, if not all, that is good in biodynamic wine making is also practiced in natural wine making and to the extent that the two approaches differ, natural wine making is more explicitly aimed at capturing the expression of terroir.
Quite characteristically, organic wine making is so common in Oregon that it is often not even mentioned on the bottle. Similarly, there are a non-trivial number of biodynamic wine makers in the state, some who have chosen not to be certified by Demeter, the official biodynamics certification organization. And there is the Deep Roots Coalition, an advocacy group for the production of wine sourced exclusively from non-irrigated vineyards.
Organic wine making in Oregon is more prevalent than organic beer making, which seems quite typical for the rest of the world. Aside from demographics, wine makers are directly exposed to the effects of their farming methods whereas beer making has mostly disappeared as a farm-associated source of income, even among lambic brewers.
Voodoo Vinters is a witty little book about Oregon’s burgeoning biodynamic and natural wine movement. I personally would have preferred more emphasis on “plain” natural wine making but it would have been only half the fun without the hilarious, but not disrespectful, treatment of the mysterious biodynamic “preparations” and the role of the moon. It is not a guide to Oregon wines, but following the leads in the book will allow the reader to identify some great local wines. And — big plus (!) — when the writer ventures beyond the topic of wine, she is quite modest and level-headed, too.