Beer marketers will try to tell you that their venerable Old World lager has been made the same way since 1753, but we beer geeks know that can’t be true. First of all, lagering was not invented until the 1840s. More importantly, however, is the yeast factor. The much touted Rheinheitsgenbot, or German Purity Law of 1516, does not include yeast among the allowable ingredients. That’s because brewers were unaware of the role played by yeast in fermentation until Louis Pasteur observed the little beasties under a microscope in the 1850s. Prior to that, beer was left out in the open and shit happened. Literally. Wild yeasts in the air landed in the beer, ate up the sugars, and shat out alcohol and carbon dioxide. No one knew how it happened, but they knew what to do. Sort of like caveman sex. Oh, crap. Now I’m going to have the Geico caveman on my ass.
The point is that until specific yeasts were isolated, all manner of microorganisms found their way into beer, and the resulting flavors must have varied wildly, pun intended. Yeasts come in a variety of types, including acidophilus (found in yogurt), saccharomyces (typical brewers yeast), and brettanomyces (or bretts), a type of wild yeast that imparts a funky “barnyard” character that, since the isolation of cleaner yeast strains, is considered an undesirable quality in a beer. But now it seems the time is right to bring back the funk. Say it with me, “We want the funk!”
In Belgium and northern France, bretts and other wild yeast strains are still used to produce lambics, gueuzes and country ales, usually with yeasts produced in a laboratory for consistency. Open fermentation is also used, particularly by monasteries, which produce flavors that cannot be duplicated because of the unique wild yeast strains indigenous to the area around the brewery.
The interest in the Belgian brewing arts and sciences in this country has emboldened American craft-brewers to attempt Belgian styles, even (blasphemy!) try to improve on them, or at least put an American interpretation on them. Recently, this has included open fermentation and the use of bretts to create earthy, “sweaty” flavors, albeit somewhat toned down from the less-than-appealing “horse blanket” and “dirty gym sock” aromas that some wild ales proudly tout.
Brewery Ommegang in Cooperstown, N.Y., specializes in Belgian-style ales. It has recently re-introduced its “farmhouse” ale with bretts called Ommegeddon. Beautifully packaged in a 750-milliliter bottle with a cork and wire closure and a picture of a mushroom cloud on the label, this golden elixir is actually refreshingly low impact. Earthy, estery aromas of bananas, clove and hops temper a slight funkiness. The taste is mildly sour and lemony tart, but with a mellow sweetness that suggests melon or muscadine. Diacetyls, a yeast byproduct, give the beer a buttery taste reminiscent of a chardonnay. The finish is oaky and moderately dry. The 8 percent alcohol is well hidden, but asserts itself after half a glass. This is a very easy-drinking ale and a good introduction to the funky goodness of wild yeast strains.
Jolly Pumpkin Artisan Ales in Michigan is another of the bold breweries turning out hand-crafted beers using intense techniques like barrel aging and open fermentation. Their highly rated beers include an American wild ale, a saison, and a Belgian-style witbier among others. Their Oro de Calabaza is this week’s beer pick.
Talking Head columnist Jeff Holland can be reached at email@example.com.