The United States of Spon­tane­ity

Craft Beer & Brewing Magazine - - Contents - By John Holl


Brew­ers a re­forg­ing their own paths from the long-trav­eled spon­ta­neous fer­men­ta­tion road. Where they will end up is any­one’ s guess, but it’s shap­ing up to be a re­mark­able jour­ney.

The word “spon­ta­neous” con­jures up al­most ro­man­tic thoughts about beer, hear­ken­ing back to the days when the prayer to Ninkasi was first writ­ten and then re­cited reg­u­larly. This nat­u­ral oc­cur­rence plucks the good stuff out of the air, in­oc­u­lates the sweet liq­uid that is gath­ered in a pool, and then Poof! Beer!

Even though brew­ers have un­locked much of the science be­hind this magic, there’s still a rev­er­ence for tra­di­tion and re­spect for the brew­ers, es­pe­cially those in Bel­gium who have been us­ing na­ture to cre­ate their liq­uid art. Still, here in the United States, where cen­turies of brew­ing tra­di­tion were turned on their head over the course of a few short decades, there’s been a shift on how brew­ers ap­proach spon­ta­neous fer­men­ta­tion and what its fu­ture might be.

Back to the Fu­ture To see where the road might be headed, look to New Jer­sey where James Priest is mak­ing beers at The Ref­er­end Bier Blen­dery in the state’s more bu­colic coun­try­side. Work­ing with lo­cal in­gre­di­ents (typ­i­cally raw wheat and floor-malted bar­ley) and brew­ing wort at var­i­ous brew­eries in his geo­graph­i­cal area, he brews tur­bid mashes and cools each batch overnight in a por­ta­ble cool­ship be­fore tot­ing it back to his bar­rel­house.

“When we started, our pri­mary in­flu­ence was tra­di­tional lam­bic pro­duc­ers, the ones mak­ing dry, au­then­tic lam­bic,” he says. “But the more you start to do it your­self and as you fer­ment spon­ta­neously in a new area and start to use in­gre­di­ents that are lo­cal to and na­tive to your area, new ideas and fla­vors arise, and over time, you just start to nat­u­rally do things your own way. If you own that, you’re forg­ing a path.”

Brew­ers and blenders al­ways need to pay at­ten­tion to and re­spect his­tory, even if they seek to dif­fer. And at The Ref­er­end, Priest is quick to high­light both, stat­ing on the front page of the com­pany’s web­site that “The Ref­er­end spe­cial­izes in the pro­duc­tion of spon­ta­neously fer­mented beers, as prac­ticed by an­cient cul­tures and ush­ered into moder­nity by the lam­bic brew­ers of Bel­gium’s Pa­jot­ten­land.”

“Our beers share early process roots, but we bend over back­ward to make sure we don’t use the word lam­bic,” he says.

This is ex­actly what the tra­di­tional lam­bic pro­duc­ers of Bel­gium want to see. Much in the same way that French wine­mak­ers pro­tect the word “cham­pagne,” Bel­gian lam­bic pro­duc­ers say the beers they make can’t be repli­cated else­where.

Ter­roir of Beer To help to­ward that end and to bet­ter foster an un­der­stand­ing of these styles and pro­cesses here in the United States, a new guild of brew­ers was re­cently cre­ated—the Sour and Wild Ale Guild (SWAG). The mis­sion is to “pro­mote the brew­ing, fer­men­ta­tion, and drink­ing of sour and wild beer. With a fo­cus on ed­u­ca­tion and di­a­logue, SWAG is com­mit­ted to pro­mot­ing qual­ity and in­tegrity and pro­vid­ing guide­lines for best prac­tices and nomen­cla­ture.” The board of di­rec­tors in­cludes such brew­ers as Jef­fery Stuff­ings of Jester King Brew­ery (Austin, Texas), Ben Ed­munds of Break­side Brew­ery (Port­land, Ore­gon), and Jay Good­win of The Rare Bar­rel (Berke­ley, Cal­i­for­nia).

The Ref­er­end’s Priest says that be­ing in­spired by tra­di­tion but not be­holden to it is re­ally where spon­ta­neous beer in Amer­ica, and be­yond, is head­ing. From adding all man­ner of in­gre­di­ents to build­ing cooper­age to bring­ing in new lo­cales, there’s so much room to grow with so many new fla­vors to be dis­cov­ered.

Talk to brew­ers with cool­ships and the ones who work with spon­ta­neous fer­men­ta­tion, and they’ll talk about their at­mos­phere. From the wooded area out­side of Al­la­gash Brew­ing Com­pany’s wild space in Maine to Dove­tail Brew­ery in an old ware­house in Chicago where the cool­ship is in­oc­u­lated with “what­ever the ‘L’ brings” (re­fer­ring to the nearby CTA tran­sit line) to the fields of cen­tral Texas where Jester King calls home or north­ern Wash­ing­ton where Gar­den Path Fer­men­ta­tion does its thing, where brew­ers en­cour­age spon­ta­neous brew­ing mat­ters.

“We’re at the be­gin­ning of map­ping the ter­rior of beer in Amer­ica,” Trevor Rogers of de Garde Brew­ing in Til­lam­ook, Ore­gon, says. “Ascer­tain­ing what works well and where means a lot of ex­per­i­men­ta­tion. Here at the brew­ery, we’re work­ing on nar­row­ing what recipes work well with what is around us, and we have an ex­cit­ing fu­ture be­cause of that.”

The more that brew­ers learn what their area has to of­fer and are able to do the same and work with the spon­ta­neous yeast strains that thrive in their area, the bet­ter the even­tual beer can be. This is the best rep­re­sen­ta­tion of a place a per­son can have in beer, says Rogers. The in­ter­play of lo­cal yeast can make a noted dif­fer­ence.

“Our lo­cal Sac­cha­romyces strains, for ex­am­ple, have a beau­ti­ful con­tri­bu­tion of fruity char­ac­ter to the beers,” he says. “We’re al­ways ex­cited to pro­duce bet­ter beers, and for our beers, the lo­ca­tion speaks loudly. We’re ex­cited about the rep­re­sen­ta­tion of lo­ca­tion and the process be­cause each beer is a true sense of place.”

Left » The Ref­er­end’s spon­ta­neous brew­ing process shares some early process sim­i­lar­i­ties with Bel­gian lam­bic brew­ing, but Founder James Priest in­sists on adapt­ing his tech­niques to the lo­cal ter­roir to pro­duce de­sired fla­vors in his beers.

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