THE FEAR FACTOR
Historically, beer had lots of critters in it. That’s not to say it was unsafe: Because of beer’s alcohol level and relatively low pH, no known pathogens can live in it. However, before humans understood the concept of microbes, most beer probably contained Brett, souring bacteria, and other weird-tasting stuff.
“Brettanomyces used to be found in the India pale ales shipped over from Britain to India,” says UC Davis’s Bamforth.
But eventually brewers learned how they could eliminate wild-occurring yeasts and bacteria through sterilization, and for the most part they did. The main exception being lambics, a rustic, ultrasour style of beer still made the old-school way in the Senne valley of Belgium, by exposing unfermented beer to the air so that naturally occurring yeasts and bacteria can transform it into tart alcohol.
Part of the allure of making funky beers is the unmodern thrill of allowing nature to take its course. Some beers, like Russian River’s Consecration and Southampton’s Trappist IPA, are made with Brett and bacteria from a lab. Others, like all of Jolly Pumpkin’s beers (after an initial fermentation using normal brewer’s yeast), utilize naturally occurring Brett and bacteria found in the oak barrels used to age the beer. Whether or not it comes from a lab, Brett is unpredictable.
“Brett keeps going where other yeasts stop, so you just don’t always know what you’re going to get,” says the Lost Abbey’s head brewer, Tomme Arthur. “There’s a fear factor.”
Cilurzo is one of the only brewers in the United States who has gone all the way. His Beatification beer is fermented entirely via the open air, like a lambic. (He calls it a “sonambic,” because it’s made in Sonoma County, California.) Like a lambic, however, it has a really challenging flavor. Even Cilurzo thinks it’s too sour.
FUNKY BEER ON THE BLACK MARKET
Funky beers are not the next IPAs, that much is clear.
“You go to Joe Bob’s Pub, and they might actually have an IPA on tap. No way are they going to have a Brett beer on tap,” says Alan Jestice, co-owner of the Blind Tiger Ale House in New York City. Brett beers are too weird. Too pricey. (A 12-ouncer will run you at least $8, and extra-special ones
like Beatification can be upward of $30.) And, according to one brewer, “Anyone can make a beer back at his brewery and throw a boatload of hops into it. Working with Brett is harder.” Most Brett beers are seasonal, regional, and made in extremely limited batches.
But the perversity, challenge, and controversy of funky beers make them a shoo-in for cult status. A common (quasi-legal) way people get their hands on them is by trading: On websites like BeerAdvocate.com, people post lists of rare beers they have alongside beers they want, and if a match with another user is made, the beers get mailed. Russian River’s beers are on nearly every list.
A few years ago, Vinnie Cilurzo participated in a side project of what was, essentially, a funky beer supergroup. He and the brewers from Avery, Allagash, Dogfish Head, and the Lost Abbey got together in San Marcos, California, and created a wild ale together. They each contributed oak casks for aging, so that each of their respective native funks would culture the beer. At the end, the casks were blended together.
Before it was released last year, Isabelle Proximus had already become like ultra-collectible rare-release vinyl, with beer geeks fretting over the fact that there were only 20 barrels, and anxiously strategizing about how and where they’d get a bottle. Its awesomeness was a nearly foregone conclusion.
Golden-colored, lemony, cheesy, wool horse blanket–y, it was dry as champagne and mouth-puckeringly tart. One beer blogger wrote: “Isabelle Proximus smells like foot but tastes delicious.”
In a single day, it was gone.
Ten Great Funky Beers
As is typical of wild ales, these beers aren’t easy to find: Some are only available in certain states, or during certain seasons. One (Isabelle Proximus) isn’t for sale anymore. You may have to hit the black market to find the more obscure ones. (The BeerAdvocate.com community is a good place to start.)
Band-Aids, straw, sour horse-blanket, roasted coffee.
By: Brewery Ommegang, Cooperstown, New York
Dark, musty, yeasty, sour. Based on a Belgian saison/farmhouse ale.
By: Jolly Pumpkin, Dexter, Michigan
Lips of Faith Dark Kriek
Slight cherry flavor, lightly tart, and only a little bit funky. A bunny slope of a wild ale.
By: New Belgium Brewing Company, Fort Collins, Colorado
Strong cherry flavor (from the currants), champagnelike effervescence, thirst-quenching sourness.
By: Russian River Brewing Company, Santa Rosa, California
Tart fruit, wood, slightly medicinal. A riff on a Flanders-style brown ale.
By: Deschutes Brewery, Bend, Oregon
Amber-colored, fruity, spicy, and funky.
By: Allagash Brewing Company, Portland, Maine
Rosso e Marrone
Very dry, heavy oak, winy.
By: Captain Lawrence Brewing Company, Pleasantville, New York
Dry, fruity, leathery, lemony-sour.
By: The Lost Abbey and friends (see main bar), San Marcos, California
Earthy, raisins, figs, smooth, thick.
By: The Lost Abbey, San Marcos, California
Malty, chocolaty, with dark fruit and a dry, tannic finish.
By: Avery Brewing Company, Boulder, Colorado