Brewers, by nature, are tinkerers. Whether it’s new hops, new malts, or a slight tweak of technique or timing, there’s almost nothing that brewers today won’t experiment with in the name of science, flavor, and the joy of exploration. Over the past decade, that sense of adventure has pushed American brewers in another new and interesting direction—exploring the effects of yeast on their beer, and in particular the “wild” strains of Brettanomyces found primarily in sour and funky beer.
Credit for the first comprehensive survey of Brett and its effects on wort must go to Crooked Stave Artisan Beer Project’s Chad Yacobsen, whose master’s thesis was a touchstone for Brett-loving brewers and lives on at brettanomycesproject.com. Crooked Stave’s “Wild Wild Brett” series (with seven beers named for the colors of the spectrum—ROYGBIV—released from 2011 through 2013) took those various Brett strains that Yacobsen isolated and brewed different beers with them, exploring the flavor possibilities in 100 percent Brett fermentations.
In 2015, Trinity Brewing in Colorado Springs released a series of its own named “The Magical Brettanomyces Tour,” which took a single base-beer recipe and fermented it in oak wine barrels with seven different strains of Brettanomyces. At the same time, California’s The Bruery embarked on a series of four beers, named “Elements of Funk,” with the same idea—one base beer fermented with four different strains of Brett. Several strains used in these series overlapped, offering points of comparison, so in the interest of science, we offer our tasting notes of these Brett strains and the beers made with them.
B. Bruxellensis, var Drie (or Drei)
The Bruery’s Elements of Funk variant showcases the soft fruit nose of this wild yeast, with a mild sweetness and light raspberry notes. The flavor pulls familiar Brett notes of tree bark and wet mulch, but it appears to attenuate slightly less than the other strains leaving slightly more residual sweetness along with more mellow and faint raspberry and strawberry notes. It’s a bit like an all-natural fruit popsicle (with no sugar added)—not sweet, but hints in that direction.
Trinity’s take on Drie exhibits even more heightened sweetness, and the wine-barrel character tends to overpower the Brett notes, leaving the beer closer to a farmhouse cider or under-carbed champagne than a dry, Brett saison.
The Bruery’s version hints at stone fruit—apricot and peach as it warms—with a slight melon sweetness and a moderate bitterness (relative to the other variants) that’s still significant. A retronasal fruitiness mixes with the rustic Brett character to lend a note of grilled peaches. But the beer makes it very evident why B. Bruxellensis is the go-to Brett strain for most brewers—it provides a perfect blend of fruit-forward notes and the dry and crisp character that is Brett’s signature.
Trinity’s B. Brux variant is a very different experience than their Drie—it’s sharper and cleaner with crisp and dry wine notes in proper balance, and the added attenuation crackles on the tongue like pop rocks.
In The Bruery’s iteration, B. Lambicus brings the woodsy, hay, and earthy character to the forefront, with slightly lower attenuation and a soft lingering bitterness. Think baked sweet potato with the skin on and a faint dusting of ground black pepper.
“Afro Brett” is Trinity’s closest corollary to The Bruery’s Lambicus. This beer had a subtle nose and showcased a decent balance between the funk and wine notes—it was dry and aromatic with a woody tree-bark character, but that subtlety may be overplayed as it had less character overall than others in the series.
In its Bruery variation, B. Clausenii was very distinct, with a crisp linen and mild lemon character initially that evoked more fruit as it warmed. The incredibly high attenuation was evident—it was dry, sharp, and very effervescent (bubbling out of the bottle after the first pour), and the strong punchy bitterness lingered long into the aftertaste. Think of a salad with bitter greens and a light olive oil and lemon juice dressing.
This Trinity variation was wildly effervescent, leaping from the bottle into the glass. The strong white-wine character was complemented by the full attenuation, and that dryness helped pull forward interesting lemon, lime, lemongrass, and Thai basil notes.
B. Bouckaertii, B. Nardensis, B. Anomala
Let’s lump these Trinity variations into one header because, frankly, there was little to learn from them. B. Bouckaertii exhibited sharp stale vinegar notes initially that settled into an equally fragrant and pungent lily-like character with an off-putting cider-like note. B. Nardensis led with a promising soft rose note, but the heightened bitterness in the flavor only amplified the slight butyric character. B. Anomala attacked the tongue with the fervor that only Brett can, but offered little interest beyond that.
One thing that became immediately apparent when tasting through these beers is just how much the base recipe (and impact of other elements such as wood fermentation) can change the flavor. If your goal is to perform your own brewing experiment with various Brett strains, keep the recipe straightforward and minimize additional inputs such as wood, specialty grains, aggressive dry hopping, or adjuncts that can cover up the flavor of the Brett itself. In terms of evaluating the flavors of each Brett strain, The Bruery’s series was more effective because of that recipe restraint.
It’s also worth noting that as each of these beers decanted, the individual character that each expressed initially then morphed into a much more general “Brett-ness.” We found a significant difference in perception with fresh pours and the strong aromatics released by that initial head compared to our return to those samples ten or fifteen minutes later.
But despite these caveats, adventurous beer drinkers interested in developing their own palates are well-served by sampling through these beer series, exploring the nuanced flavors that the various Brett strains produce.
For a More Humorous Take On The Magic of Brett
For much more irreverent tasting notes on the Magical Brett Tour series, read “Don’tDrinkBeer Digs In To Trinity Brewing’s Magical Brettanomyces Tour” where the beer world’s most iconoclastic blogger reviews each variant while pairing it with an item from the Wendy’s Right Price Right Size Menu.