A beer by any other name

Brettanomyces used to be a pox on brewers’ batches, but now it’s joined the beer fermentation party. Here’s the scoop on this “wild” beer.

Orval: a good introduction to Brett beers. Photo via Flickr

What’s a beer drinker to do after exhausting the sublime hoppiness offered by the boldest IPAs, or the rich roastiness and velvety sweetness of the strongest Imperial stouts? The most adventurous among us are increasingly migrating to the territory of so-called “wild” beers — those fermented not with traditional beer yeast, but a variety of other organisms.

The notion of a wild beer seems to imply that brewers are simply throwing the dice and letting some natural processes have their way with the product of their labour. One well-hyped craft brewery, Mikkeller of Denmark, markets a beer called “It’s Alive,” suggesting that such beers are out of the control of those who created them. But the wildness of such beers is often exaggerated; as with the traditional beer yeast, brewers go to great lengths to work with these organisms in order to obtain very specific desired results in the finished product.

Beers fermented with non-traditional organisms present flavours and aromas that are decidedly un-beer-like to the newcomer. The beers may be very sour, thanks to the kinds of bacteria that also sour your favourite yogurt, Korean kimchee or even Modena balsamic. They may also present flavours and aromas that range from richly fruity to funky, and even dank, flavours that recall a country field or even a horse stable. These latter are often derived from a fungus called Brettanomyces, or Brett for short.

Brett is simply another form of yeast, with certain qualities that make it distinct from traditional brewer’s yeast. Most brewers regard Brett as an infectious agent and its detectability in a beer’s flavour as a serious flaw. Having first been isolated from English stock ale in the early 20th century by researchers seeking to identify spoiling agents in the aged beverage, Brett is notorious for its tenacity once it gains a foothold in a brewery’s ecosystem. It occurs naturally in the environment, often collecting on the skins of fruit; like most vintners, most brewers don’t want to hear anything about Brett.

Most commercially available beer is fermented with one of hundreds of known strains of brewer’s yeast: either cold, bottom-fermenting lager yeast, which tends to give a crisp, clean profile, or warmer fermenting ale yeast, which often imparts various flavour compounds that can have a mildly fruity profile. Brett is different in that it does its work in smaller numbers, but over a longer period of time — months and years — consuming sugars that are inedible to traditional beer yeast and drying out the beer considerably.

A great introduction to Brett is through a beer that is regularly available at SAQ outlets across the province for a reasonable price: The Trappist beer Orval. It’s fermented with a standard strain of ale yeast, but then bottled with Brett, which develops its carbonation during a refermentation period of a few weeks. Orval is a refreshingly dry and aromatic beer (it’s dry-hopped) when served shortly after bottling, but if cellared for a few years, its flavours will change as the Brett develops — the hop flavours give way to earthy, barnyard and dark fruit flavours accompanied by an increase in acidity. Delicious!

Brett in Quebec

A number of Quebec breweries are now producing beers that employ Brett as a signature ingredient. Michaël Parent, brewer at Boquébière in Sherbrooke, interned at Orval and seems to have taken much away from the experience. Apart from their excellent Rouge des Cantons, a sour beer in the style of a Flanders Red that surely contains a strain or two of Brett, Boquébière also produces Saison Brux. It has the light, dry finish and the firm hop presence of a Saison, but adds to it the complex funkiness and fruitiness derived from the Orval Brett strain.

Perhaps the most pronounced Brett beer available in Quebec is Trou du Diable’s la Bretteuse, an excellent barrel-aged IPA dosed with Brett. It’s probably the most successful Quebec-made Brett beer I’ve tasted; the hop bitterness recedes with aging to reveal bright acidity, melding wonderfully with Brett’s deep fruitiness and the barrel’s wood flavours.

Finding a Brett beer on tap is usually a bit more of a challenge, but there are occasional offerings. Brasserie Dunham recently collaborated with Danish gypsy brewer Anders Kissmeyer to produce la Résurrection de Broderus, a pomegranate Christmas beer that is still available in bottles and occasionally turns up on tap at pubs like Vices et Versa and Brouhaha. As well, Beneluxhas had the occasional Saison with a secondary Brett fermentation and recently featured a good Bière de Garde (a strong French farmhouse ale) with a strong Brett component. 

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