Lambic, Wild Ale

The domestication of beer

Traditional lambic brewers are among the few remaining producers of alchoholic beverages that  allow spontaneous fermentation and the unruly behavior of  bacteria and yeasts to influence their brews. Such practices have been increasingly rejected by modern brewers who want complete control and a consistent end product. This development is not the first step in the “domestication” of beer, as evidenced by the history of “gruit.” As Theodore Schick writes in “Beer and Gnosis: The Mead of Inspiration” (in the collection Beer and Philosophy: The Unexamined Beer Isn’t Worth Drinking):

In the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, many Europeans began to look askance at the lavish and hedonistic lifestyle of many church leaders. Their promotion of the highly inebriating gruit was emblematic of their decadence…So the movement toward hopped ale was in part an anti-drug movement. The passage of the German beer purity laws in 1516 which mandated the use of hops was a form of prohibition not unlike that passed by the US congress in 1919.

Because for hundreds of years all beers were brewed using spontaneous fermentation, there must have been beers that combined the sour character of the traditional lambic and the herbal characteristics of medieval gruit. A recent attempt to create such a beer is Old Odense Ale, a collaboration between Denmark’s Nørrebro Bryghus brewery and Delaware’s Dogfish Head.

The use of wild yeasts does not have to be confined to lambic beers. For example, in his book Grape vs. Grain Charles Bamforth writes:

It is often not realized that, while some bottled beer was shipped, by far, the bulk of the beer sold to India was in casks, for bottling locally. Hop bitter acids by no means kill all organisms, and the most prolific inhabitant of those casks bouncing on the ocean waves was Brettanomyces. The typical flavor notes produced by this organism are “barnyard” or “mouse pee.”

The author continues to write that, unlike the barnyard IPA’s of old, modern IPAs “happily, lack this touch of authenticity…..” But some traditional lambic brewers are experimenting with all malt brews and  fresh hops though. The best known available example is Cantillon’s Iris, which is made from 100% malted barley, 50% fresh hops (Styrian Goldings) and is “cold hopped” (dry hopped) before bottling. Because Iris does not contain wheat, this beer is not a lambic beer in the traditional sense of the word, but a spontaneously fermentented ale. Cantillon has even brewed an experimental concoction with fresh US Cascade hops. And in the United States, some innovating brewers are collaborating on “wild IPA” style beers.