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Wild Ales Rule, Say Our Beer Experts, Sally and Michael Snell

 

Ron Jeffries of Jolly Pumpkin

More and more American craft brewers are venturing into the beguiling seas of wild ales. But for the uninitiated customers anticipating their first hoppy sip, the sour flavor profile of wild ale may send their taste buds spinning in unexpected directions.

Jolly Pumpkin Artisan Ales, based in Dexter, Michigan, has been producing wild ales since it opened in 2004. Brewmaster and founder Ron Jeffries describes his beer styles as ‘fusion,’ inspired by Franco-Belgian beers. “We make a very distinct type of beer.  We run the gamut of styles, but we pass all of them through the oak [barrels],” Jeffries says. “There’s wild yeast. There’s souring bacteria in all the beer that creates a lot of very unique flavors and complexity that could be interpreted as ‘challenging’,” says Jeffries.

Traditional craft beer is predominantly made using a combination of hops, grain and cultivated yeast strains to create each beer style, while wild ales—also known as sour ales—utilize a playground of wild yeast strains, bacteria, and other ingredients that are aged and conditioned to create an end product of deep complexity.

Belgian brewers have used wild yeast for centuries to create lambic-style ales, by setting out shallow trays of wort to cool in the night air where it is naturally inoculated with microbial flora, including wild yeast and bacteria. Afterward, the wort is transferred to oak barrels to be aged or conditioned up to two years to allow the flavors to fully develop.

New Belgium began in Fort Collins, Colorado in 1991 after co-founder Jeff Lebesch, took a “now legendary bike ride through Belgium when he really got excited about Belgian-style beers,” says Bryan Simpson, Media Relations Director for New Belgium Brewing. When the brewery launched, “No lesser authority than [beer critic] Michael Jackson told Jeff Lebesch, our founder ‘You’re crazy. No one in America is going to drink Belgian beers‘,” says Simpson. Twenty years later, Belgian brewmaster Peter Bouckaert brews and distributes over twenty-two styles of beer, and the brewery annually draws tourist traffic equal in number to the population of the town of Fort Collins.

“We have one of the earliest wood beer cellars in the country,” says Simpson, which they use to produce many of the beers in the brewery’s Lips of Faith program. “They’ve been aged for three years in oak barrels. They use a lot of interesting microbiogy like brettanomyces, so they’re sour beers,” says Simpson.

La Folie, a Belgian Red-style ale, was “one of the first American sours to come out,” says Simpson. “That’s a beautiful beer aged in French-oak barrels.”

The popularity of Fat Tire has freed up New Belgium to be experimental in other areas. “It almost compels us to be very experimental on that end,” says Simpson. “and do sour beers, and do beers that are extreme. Because if you want your portfolio to be in balance, you definitely want something that is sessionable and a great approachable beer, but you also want things that are really interesting.

When Doug Odell launched Odell Brewing in 1989 in Fort Collins, Colorado, one of his biggest challenges was to educate people on what craft beer was, “trying to convince them that a beer that was a dark amber color—90 Shilling—was drinkable and better than bathtub homebrew,” says Odell head brewer Joe Mohrfeld. “That was a challenge that a lot of the founding brewers in the ’80s had to overcome.”

As the craft brewing industry has grown, American palettes have become more refined, creating a market thirsty for culinary adventures.

“In recent years we’ve started branching out into wild ales, and playing around with the brewing process a lot more,” says Mohrfeld. The first in the line was Deconstruction.

“Deconstruction was a beer that we really played around with the brewing process,” says Mohrfeld. “Rather than brewing a beer on our 50 barrel main system, we actually brewed parts of the beer on our pilot system, aged those in different types of oak, and some of it in stainless. And then we captured yeast right on the brewery grounds, and we used that for the fermentation. We ended up with a beer that was extremely complex, but a very drinkable strong golden Belgian ale at the same time,” says Mohrfeld. “I think it was a big departure from what we had done in the past, and one that I’m really proud that we produced.”

Characterized as a “New American Wild Ale,” Hiveranno is the third Odell ale fermented with the wild yeast strain first harvested for Deconstruction,  “It imparts these great grapefruit flavors and tropical fruit rind characteristics.” says Mohrfeld,

“What was really unique about this beer is, like most barrel aged beers we had a component that was barrel aged,” says Mohrfeld, “but we also wanted to blend in that real strong IPA characteristic.” To accomplish that, Odell brewed and barrel aged the wild yeast ale, and blended that with a freshly brewed double IPA. “What you’re left with is the complexities of a long-term barrel aged beer with a fresh IPA nose and flavor,” says Mohrfeld. “It ends up being a really cool, complex beer that blends elements of the Belgian tradition and American brewing tradition, and makes it uniquely ours.”

For wine aficionados, sour ales serve as a gateway to the world of craft beer.

“We find a lot of crossover with different wine drinkers who maybe drink red wines and appreciate a lot of the complexity in some of those wines,” says Jeffries. “They’ll really appreciate some of our sour ale-styles—La Roja in particular,” a sour Flanders beer. “It’s a blended beer. It has a lot of complexity, a lot of body, and a lot of acidity,” says Jeffries.

The wild yeast strain brettanomyces is widely blamed by New World vintners for spoilage in red wine, but it is prized by traditional Belgian brewers who use it to create Flanders red ales, Kriek, Gueuze, as well as Lambic-style ales. It’s a strain that Odell relies on to produce Saboteur in its Single Serve Series. Saboteur is a brown ale aged in oak barrels giving the ale an earthy character, with vanilla and pineapple notes over what the brewery describes as a “sour silhouette.” This, as well as others in the Single Serve and Woodcut Series, are sold in 750ml corked and caged bottles.

“Sour beers in general seem to be a love it or hate it relationship no matter what you’re used to drinking,” says Jeffries.

Sally and Michael Snell travel the world as a writer/photographer team seeking great beers for their vidcast, Travel by the Pint. When not on the road, they’re often brewing up a batch of all-grain beer inspired by their adventures.

 

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