Novice brewers generally learn how to avoid making beer that tastes like old, dirty socks. In the University of California–Davis brewing science program, students are taught to guard against contamination by Brettanomyces, or Brett for short, a wild yeast often found in the air that’s nearly impossible to get rid of once it invades your equipment, and that makes your beer taste goaty, sweaty, and a little like the way Band-Aids smell.
“It’s seen as a spoilage organism,” says Professor Charlie Bamforth, head of the UC Davis program. It’s also the newest “It” ingredient in American craft brewing. Led by outfits like Russian River Brewing Company in Santa Rosa, California; Allagash in Portland, Maine; the Lost Abbey in San Marcos, California; and Jolly Pumpkin in Dexter, Michigan, a growing number of small breweries are defying convention, using Brett rather than, or in addition to, traditional brewer’s yeast to produce beers with “funky farmhouse” flavors, as they’re often described. The breweries are also experimenting with souring bacteria—another class of infectious agents you learn how to avoid in school—to make beers that are bracingly acidic. More often than not, these beers are both sour and barnyardy.
“Brett is almost a taboo sort of a thing,” says Phil Markowski, brewmaster at Southampton, New York–based Southampton Ales & Lagers, whose Trappist IPA is brewed with Brett. “There’s an allure because there’s an unpredictability to it, and that’s exciting.”
Dubbed “American wild ales,” or sometimes simply “funky beers,” these brews are inspired by Belgian ales like Orval, lambics, and Flemish reds, which are brewed with Brett and bacteria. But American brewers are taking it one step further, mixing and matching microbes with beer styles that don’t usually get soured or funked up, experimenting with barrel aging, and throwing in unusual ingredients like chestnuts and figs. Their results have excited many in the beer geek community.
“It challenges the palate … sort of like nice strong blue cheeses,” says aptly named wild ale fan Brett Danahy from San Diego. At City Beer, a specialty beer store in San Francisco, customers come from all over Northern California when new wild ales are released. “Once you get a taste for them, there’s nothing else that can satisfy,” says owner Craig Wathen.
But with flavors and aromas that can range from “passion fruit” and “citrus” to “wet dog hair” and “moose urine,” these funky beers aren’t for everyone. When Avery Brewing Company in Boulder, Colorado, produced last year’s Avery Fifteen, with hibiscus flowers, Black Mission figs, pepper, and 100 percent Brett, the brewery actually got hate mail. (It also got rabid fan mail.)
“Some people call Brett ‘baby diaper’ flavor, which you wouldn’t think is good, but if the beer surrounding it is good, then it really works,” says brewmaster Adam Avery. It’s not appreciated by everyone; it doesn’t taste “like beer,” continues Avery. “I’m not sure who it’s for—the über–beer geek like myself, I guess.”
Funky-beer-lover Francis Kaluga from San Francisco gets a charge out of watching the reactions of the uninitiated when they try a beer like Lost Abbey’s Cable Car or Russian River’s Beatification.
“They think that the beer is bad, spoiled, rotten,” he says. “Everyone has the right to like what they drink and to drink what they like. … They are just leaving more wild, funky goodness for us!”
Who Wants to Get Funked Up?
Producing funky beers is a perverse act. Brett takes a long time to work, so the beers take months to make and are therefore expensive. Nobody has found a way to market them. (“I don’t like the term funk, because it makes me think of the band Parliament, and I can’t really think of any of my beers that remind me of Parliament,” says Jolly Pumpkin brewmaster Ron Jeffries.) Brett can contaminate your brewery and ruin all your beer if you don’t know what you’re doing. It’s never clear what flavors you’re going to get, and quality differs from batch to batch, even from bottle to bottle.
On a rainy day last December, Russian River Brewing Company brewmaster Vinnie Cilurzo drained oak wine barrels two at a time into a stainless steel tank using a forklift. The 39-year-old brewer is arguably the leader of the funky beer movement: He produces several highly regarded barrel-aged Brett beers with really-hard-to-tell-apart names like Temptation, Beatification, and Consecration. They’re sold in large bottles with cork closures and classy labels depicting drawings of antique farm equipment. Everything about the beers—from the way they look to the way they taste—is, as Brewers Association Craft Beer Program Director Julia Herz describes it, “intellectual.”
Inside Cilurzo’s barrels is a newer funky beer called Consecration: a dark ale flavored with currants that’s been fermented twice—once with the traditional brewer’s yeast Saccharomyces, then again with Brett. It’s also been dosed with souring bacteria—which Cilurzo got, along with the Brett, from a lab—and aged in Cabernet barrels for six months. It’s pleasantly tart, lightly effervescent, and has earthy notes of bandage and hay.
Cilurzo could make more money and produce more beer if he devoted less of his brewery to these oak barrels. But “funky beers are my passion,” he says.
Everything Cilurzo uses today will be sterilized before he begins working on any of his non-Brett beers. “I tell my employees not to wear any of the same clothes to work the next day [that] they wore the day before if they were making funky beer,” says Cilurzo. If Brett got into Russian River’s best-selling double IPA, Pliney the Elder, “we’d be screwed.”
Like most of the other wild ale–making brewers, Cilurzo ages his Brett beer in oak barrels for several months. This gives the yeast more time to do its thing: Brett is so strong, it can actually metabolize the complex sugars found in the wood.
“It’s almost impossible to kill. It just wants to keep on eating,” says Cilurzo. “And while it is, it’s [producing] all these interesting flavors.”
A raunchy, rocking Tom Waits album is playing, loudly, over the brewery’s sound system.
“We play music like this,” says Cilurzo in his deadpan fashion, “because we like to say the yeast needs to [get it on].”
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.)
Tasting Notes: Band-Aids, straw, sour horse-blanket, roasted coffee.
By: Brewery Ommegang, Cooperstown, New York
Tasting Notes: Dark, musty, yeasty, sour. Based on a Belgian saison/farmhouse ale.
By: Jolly Pumpkin, Dexter, Michigan
Lips of Faith Dark Kriek
Tasting Notes: 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
Tasting Notes: Strong cherry flavor (from the currants), champagnelike effervescence, thirst-quenching sourness.
By: Russian River Brewing Company, Santa Rosa, California
Tasting Notes: Tart fruit, wood, slightly medicinal. A riff on a Flanders-style brown ale.
By: Deschutes Brewery, Bend, Oregon
Tasting Notes: Amber-colored, fruity, spicy, and funky.
By: Allagash Brewing Company, Portland, Maine
Rosso e Marrone
Tasting Notes: Very dry, heavy oak, winy.
By: Captain Lawrence Brewing Company, Pleasantville, New York
Tasting Notes: Dry, fruity, leathery, lemony-sour.
By: The Lost Abbey and friends (see main bar), San Marcos, California
Tasting Notes: Earthy, raisins, figs, smooth, thick.
By: The Lost Abbey, San Marcos, California
Tasting Notes: Malty, chocolaty, with dark fruit and a dry, tannic finish.
By: Avery Brewing Company, Boulder, Colorado