During Eugene Beer Week in June, Alesong Brewing & Blending threw a soiree that included more than samples of rare beer and complimentary charcuterie. Attendees enjoyed a rousing panel discussion about all things wild between Brian Coombs (Alesong), Shilpi Halemane (Logsdon), and Trevor Rogers (de Garde).
The discussion was guided by questions from the audience and elicited candid, accessible responses from the brewers, whose diverse experiences and backgrounds inform how they brew and blend. This article is an exploration of the process of producing spontaneously fermented beer as gleaned from the minds of three of Oregon’s foremost wild
Funk is in the Air
The trio of breweries utilize spontaneous fermentation, but to varying degrees. All of de Garde’s beer goes into a coolship (a wide, shallow metal vat) after the boil to get exposed to the wild yeast and bacteria that waft around Tillamook. Some of Logsdon’s beer is spontaneously fermented, and is often used in a final blend to add complexity. Alesong used the native yeast in pinot noir must to start a fermentation for its 2017 release Pinot Spontanee, and has more spontaneous beer aging for future releases.
Using the air as a source of inoculant is inherently risky, but also a time-proven technique for making beer and other delicious foods. Spontaneous fermentation used to be the only way to start fermentation, as yeast’s role was scientifically unknown until the 1800s. The inspiration for the tradition today comes from the lambic producers of Belgium.
The three brewers danced around a question about the specific “terroir” of Tillamook’s air, and illustrated how their processes aim to find a balance of control.
Rogers described the commonality between spontaneous beer and wine. “You can recognize that a different vineyard or winery, often in close proximity, can add quite a different taste to the wine itself. Terroir is the default term we use for that, but really it’s just the location; the yeast and bacteria on the grapes, the soil that they’re grown from. We chose our location, and we chose the process to make our beer because we wanted to represent where we’re making the beer. Like our favorite wines, we wanted to make a beer that had a sense of place.”
Halemane, with a degree in food science, tacked on a practical approach. “We’re still brewers, so we control as much as we can in the brewhouse and downstream. So if I want the beer to go into the barrel with more sugar for wild yeast to consume, then I will mash the beer higher, or undermash or under-convert the mash. If a particular cask had aggressively acidic beer coming out of it, I might dry hop that cask so there’s some level of control on the bacterial culture in there. So we’re not just winging it.”
Lessons From the Wood
After the wort is cool, when it’s received the hungry microbes from the breeze, it typically goes into barrels. Because the process takes significantly longer than modern beer fermentation, holding all of the beer in stainless vessels would be a huge expense. Additionally, oak barrels happen to have some other beneficial qualities.
“For some reason, oak barrels, while not only being the best wood for the vessel, taste good,” Halemane chimed in.
Rogers got a little deeper into the grain: “The barrels have carried over to our breweries because of the micro-oxygenative properties that they offer. They’re somewhat porous to gas, and it turns out that larger barrels are a perfect amount of gas exchange and produce a balanced beer when it’s fermented with a diverse array of yeast and bacteria.”
And while winemakers get rid of barrels that have gone “oak neutral,” brewers are more than willing to buy them up because beer, being more delicate, can take on both the wine and wood flavors.
But aging beer in wood can be a challenge for a number of reasons, including its porosity. “Too much oxygen is the problem. The problem with the problem is how do you define too much oxygen?” Rogers’ framing of this catch-22 illustrates the blurry line of control a wild beer brewer walks, and how much attention must be paid not only to the recipe, but to the variables of each individual barrel. That’s part of the reason that a good stock of beer in barrels is recommended for a barrel-aging program; not all of the beer makes it.
“Ten percent of our beer going into oak will not be bottled. And about five percent of our bottled beer will not be sold,” said Rogers.
“We try to control it as much as humanly possible with good techniques and taking care of barrels,” confirmed Coombs, “but inevitably something happens; a barrel gets too hot in an uncontrolled temperature warehouse, and you do sensory and it’s got to go away.”
The culprit is often acetic acid, or vinegar, which is created by bacteria that thrive on oxygen. Beer can be ruined by a single cell of bacteria in the right environment. Yet small amounts of acetic acid can play a key role in adding depth of flavor. This is where the brewer steps in, to blend and package the beer.
A Captive Audience: Bottle Conditioning
The final step before beer leaves the brewery is packaging. Since the beers spent time aging in different barrels, each of which has its own personality, careful foresight is needed to create a good blend.
Coombs has a favorite barrel, and it’s proven itself in Alesong’s blends. He discovered it while working at King Estate, just up the hill from Alesong’s tasting room. “I put a big star on it — that was the one I wanted. We put the first Touch of Brett into it, which did well at GABF, the second Touch of Brett went into it, did well at GABF, and then this next year’s Touch of Brett went into it as well. It’s really romantic.”
But blending isn’t as glamorous as it may seem. Sometimes a brewer has to be cutthroat. “You can’t take a beer you don’t like and fix it by blending it with a beer you like. You’ll just ruin the beer you like,” said Halemane.
A final blend will be pumped into a stainless tank very carefully to avoid unwanted oxygen or other contamination. In keeping with Old World tradition, bottle conditioning is the preferred method of packaging. Basically, the beer is bottled with a small amount of sugar, and possibly dosed with yeast, and then capped or corked. When bottling wild beer, Brettanomyces yeast and time are the brewer’s friend. The blending process can sometimes upset some of the delicate flavors, resulting in what winemakers call “bottle shock.”
“This is a stage at which you can have this beer that tastes awesome in the tank, and then you package and that little bit of oxygen can just change everything,” said Coombs. “But, thanks again to Brett that cleans the beer up over time.” •