In the back room of a hipster bowling alley in Brooklyn, Tim Stendahl stands onstage with a 10-year-old bottle of beer held high above his head. Once the crowd, about a hundred strong, recognizes the beer in his hand, it surges toward Stendahl, aching for an ounce of the strange elixir that has been slowly maturing inside its bottle since before we invaded Iraq.
After he pours, Stendahl and Jeff Halvorson— who co-founded this event, called “Where the Wild Beers Are”—acknowledge the man who brought the bottle, a mustachioed fifty-something named Glenn. For a moment, he is the hero of the room for sharing one of his treasures. A miniature receiving line forms, Glenn at the head of it; there are handshakes, toasts, and the exchange of tasting notes. And then the crowd moves on to other beers brought by other guests, beers with hand-drawn labels that, incredibly, almost everyone in the room can recognize, beers older than the adolescent children of the people who brought them.
The crowd surges, aching for the strange elixir that has been maturing inside its bottle since before we invaded Iraq.
Stendahl and Halvorson’s event is a celebration of a once-marginalized style of beer called “wild ale.” Wild beers present a range of aromas and flavors whose common descriptors include “tart,” “jolly rancher,” and the ancient funk of “horse blanket”. Until recently, the style would have been unfamiliar to even many American craft beer drinkers. But that is changing rapidly—as more breweries push the limits of their craft, they are focusing on wild ales, and beer geeks are responding.
Most beer is fermented with a single, highly controlled strain of yeast in a well-sanitized environment, allowing for industrial-style control and batches that all taste the same. But wild ales include other organisms, such as lactic acid producing bacteria, which contribute a vinegary sour note, and brettanomyces, a prolific yeast variety that occurs naturally on the skins of fruit and turns beer funky.
Pasteurization was invented in part to keep these organisms out of our beer and wine; they are unpredictable, and they continue to change the beer over time as they do their microscopic dance inside the bottle. But these same qualities that once befuddled brewers are inspiring a new set of American craftspeople and drinkers who embrace the excitement of never knowing exactly how a beer will mature over time, even with the risk that a batch might come out undrinkable.
This is what Stendahl and Halvorson envisioned when they started Where the Wild Beers Are five years ago: a room full of aficionados who share their prize bottles—a community-driven festival devoted to sour beer. Many of the beers sacrificed are brought in suitcases and padded carrying cases from Belgium, whose lambics mark the style and have inspired beer pilgrimages for years. Others are one-offs, never to be seen again, such as the bottle from a small run commissioned by a beer distributor for his wedding.
But one of the most sought-after beers in the room, an ale brewed in the Belgian lambic tradition called Resurgam, comes from Allagash Brewery in Portland, Maine. It is so rare it isn’t even announced with the others, instead moving quietly through the crowd, a whisper between friends.
On a cool downeast Maine night, the stained-glass windows of a small shed behind Allagash Brewery’s main building are tilted open, letting in a crisp breeze. Inside and outside mix, and, on a microscopic level, a unique combination of yeast and bacteria comes together, a microbiological fingerprint of this room in this place.
In the middle of the shed is a large, shallow tub called a coolship, full of a sweet red liquid: a steaming hot vat of wort—unfermented beer. Over the course of the night, the wort cools and enters the range of temperatures in which yeast can survive. The room’s unique microbial mix begins its work, and before long, the wort will begin its transformation into beer. Later, it will be put in wooden barrels to age, and then blended with other batches produced in the same way and bottled. Four years after the process begins, it will be ready to drink.
Once you put the wort out there, any type of shit can happen. It’s like magic.
This process is known as spontaneous fermentation. Because it does not involve any intentionally added yeast, to most people it sounds nothing like making beer. But the Belgians have practiced this method for more than five hundred years, making a variety of wild ale called lambic that is at once sweet, sour and funky. It is a slow, expensive, artisanal process, a carryover from a time when yeast itself had not yet been discovered. It runs counter to the prevailing winds of the brewing industry, which has focused maniacally on consistency and the elimination of all “unwanted” flavors.
Spontaneously fermented beer, on the other hand, embraces variability and its biological “terroir,” as well as the risks of entrusting a consumer product to the whims of single-celled organisms. As Glenn put it to me at the festival, “Once you put the wort out there, any type of shit can happen. It’s like magic.” The results can be divine, the perfect balance of sweet and sour. But if the microscopic critters run wild, the beer can pucker your face like a candy that kids will only eat on a dare.
In 2006, five American brewers, including Rob Tod, founder of Allagash, and Vinnie Cilurzo, who owns Russian River Brewing Company, took a seminal trip to Belgium. They toured the great lambic producers of the Senne Valley, and were inspired by the artistry of the style. When they returned, Tod vowed to start his own spontaneous fermentation project—to make a true American coolship ale (out of deference, the term “lambic” is usually used to refer specifically to the original Belgian producers). His brewmaster Jason Perkins says that the project was always intended as an experiment: “This was entirely a passion project for us, to make a style that no one else was doing in the U.S., and no one really knew for sure would work here.” Perkins says that the goal was never to create lambics exactly as they taste in Belgium, but rather to learn what spontaneous beers would taste like when produced in Maine.
Inside and outside mix, and, on a microscopic level, a unique combination of yeast and bacteria comes together, a microbiological fingerprint of this room in this place.
There was some doubt that they would taste like much—purists have long argued that the combination of unique microbiology and climate of the Senne Valley in Belgium is what makes lambics taste so incredibly complex. Scientific analyses of Belgian lambics have shown that the different wild yeasts and bacteria of the area march in and out of play over time, creating a staged fermentation that leads to the layered flavors that mark the style.
But it is now widely believed that most of the yeast and bacteria that make lambics are inside, not outside, the brewhouse—they like to live in wood, meaning that you can’t really make the same beer without the actual building it’s brewed in. As a result, things can get even more complicated for neophyte spontaneous brewers, because it takes time for a new building to build up a microbial community conducive to spontaneous fermentation. At the brewery Cantillon, the standard-bearer for lambic, the wood directly above the coolship is never cleaned. Many believe that the steam from the wort condenses on the ceiling and, when it drips back down to the coolship, brings yeast and bacteria with it that have been living in the rafters—a set of literal house strains. Some of the old lambic breweries have been using the same barrels since the 1800s, and the brewery Boon has a cask that it claims comes from trees planted in the late 17th century. They know the flavors that different barrels impart. Many breweries do not clean these barrels between uses, allowing each barrel to grow its own set of microbes. It is not wrong to say these buildings and barrels are alive, and the more time they have to mature, the more they develop their own unique characters.
But these, admittedly, are finer points of lambic making. The main question Tod and Perkins set out to answer was whether the proper organisms to make a successful coolship ale would be present at all in Allagash’s brewhouse without doctoring their environment. Luckily, scientists were on the case, and recently, a graduate student named Nick Bokulich from UC Davis reported the results from an analysis of several samples of Allagash’s coolship ale: The sequence of yeast and bacteria were similar, though not identical, to what had been found in Belgian lambic. “Our work showed that it’s true what they say—you can’t really brew lambic beer anywhere in the world,” Bokulich told me. “But you can brew beer very much like it.”
Because the beers are expensive to produce, require time to age, and don’t always work out, consumers must be willing to pay well for what eventually goes on sale.
Perkins and Bokulich both hope that these results will encourage other American brewers to make spontaneous beer, leading to a new era of innovation and risk-taking at American breweries. Still, they both agree that it won’t be any question of microbiology that really determines whether the style will catch on, but rather whether beer drinkers want them: Because the beers are expensive to produce, require time to age, and don’t always work out, consumers must be willing to pay well for what eventually goes on sale.
On that count, they are certainly succeeding: When Allagash announced the release of their first coolship beer, people drove from all over the Northeast to get it straight from the brewery. “We never expected that,” Perkins told me, “and it’s been totally overwhelming. To us, this is just something that we never expected to make us any money.”
And this isn’t an isolated event. Earlier this year, I stood in line outside Russian River’s brewpub in Santa Rosa, CA to be one of the first to taste this year’s Beatification, their coolship ale, which can only be purchased there. It was raining, but the line still snaked down the block and around the corner. People talked about past batches of the beer, how they had aged, in tones simultaneously coolly detached and extremely nerdy. Later, my wife carefully wrapped our eight precious bottles in clothing for the flight back to New York.
I am thinking about that long, wet wait as Tim Stendahl announces my bottle of Beatification to the crowd. It is a small bottle, coming in at only 12.7 ounces, and when he holds it up for the crowd it looks silly in his hand compared to the large bottles that have come before, like a kid version of a real beer. Yet its size only compounds its rarity, and I can feel a sudden electricity take over the room as people move to take a taste, quite literally, of what Russian River is made of.