Spontaneously fermented beer is a representation of place. It offers a unique voice to the drinker, one that can’t be replicated in a different location. The recipe, the ingredients, the people, the processes, and the tools are not static. The expression of location does not translate equally.
That’s not to argue that there’s some unadjudicated superiority in this method of beer production. Ultimately, any judgment of intrinsic or extrinsic quality rests in the individual.
The beer is good, or it is not. That’s up to you.
On the Voice of a Place
When Linsey and I started our small brewery, we wanted to produce something unique. We were both passionate about wine long before beer, and the specificity of grapes grown in a particular, and often quite small, region or even vineyard was something we found, and still find, beautiful.
You can grow a grape varietal in any number of locations, and it should probably taste like what it is. But, for example, the Provence-grown Mourvèdre—probably my favorite grape—is definitively and drastically different from the same clonal selection within that varietal from The Rocks District AVA in Oregon. They’re both lovely. They both speak to the animality of Mourvèdre in the wine (or beer) that they make. The difference, excluding the variables mentioned above, is location.
How cool is that?
In an era where most beer can be fairly accurately translated among breweries, cities, states, or even continents, how do we as brewers find a way toward a similar singularity?
I’d argue that it’s via complex fermentation, by a diverse array of microorganisms unique to specific environments. It comes from getting funky. It comes from getting to know a place.
That’s certainly the idea upon which we wagered our brewery.
I believe that there’s value in a glass of beer having something unique to say. The mapping and delineation of prestigious, high-quality vineyards and regions has been progressing for millennia. Similarly, I think it’s safe to say that there’s a reason the small area around Brussels was the last stronghold of this manner of beer production, and I’d wager that reason is equitably qualitative. There’s a voice in that area. It’s expressed through the beers made there. They’re subjectively damn good and objectively damn unique.
We wanted that. We sought it out, and we settled on a region and ultimately a location that we believe provides for it. There may be numerous places in the sprawling expanse of this country that can provide a unique representation of their locations. Ours is where we purposefully planted our flag.
There’s a reason we love working with Oregon wine grapes in our beer. That sense of place or terroir inherent in the best vineyards and wines is relative to our own pursuits. It’s a combining of our passions, for sure. And Oregon grows some of our favorite grapes. However, taking the two media and melding their acutely individual interpretations of our region has the potential to elevate both.
It’s still a song about here, only now you’ve got a band, instead of just pissing off your neighbors playing that one harmonica.
So, how do you then coax out that voice? Because that’s the challenge, right? That’s the drive behind our perpetual process changes. Behind the continual exploration of ingredients. Behind the modifications to the equipment and brewery. Those moveable components of beermaking are still incredibly important, but in our circumstance, they assist in the delineation of inherent character—they aren’t for defining it. Honestly, it’s enough of a process not screwing up what nature provides.
Our job is not largely a creative one. It is (for me, at least) a nail-biting balancing act of coaxing and gentle prodding while simultaneously trying to leave our fingerprints out of the end product.
Here’s What We Do.
A brew here is not that much different from the majority of other breweries.
The recipe we brew most often is comprised of 58 percent pale malted barley and 42 percent unmalted/raw wheat—all regionally grown.
While the predominant influence and inspiration for our beer and process is undeniably from Belgium, we’ve found that any attempt to precisely emulate the procedure and ingredients of those icons—in the pursuit of our own best purely local expression—is ill-advised. For example, we use a slightly higher percentage of wheat than our friends do. It gives our beer a better mouthfeel, and the harder-to-ferment wort provides for a longer and more biologically complex fermentation than we would see otherwise.
Similarly, we use a lot of hops. Specifically, we favor two pounds per barrel of whole-leaf, Oregon-grown Cascade and Willamette. They’re representative of our location, being two of the historic and Noble-derived varieties of the region. More importantly, they make the beer that we like the best. We bring in freshly dried bales each year and break them down into woven bags. Unromantically, this usually involves baseball bats and crowbars.
They’ll age in their newly exposed format for at least three to four years. They’ll “degrade,” changing expression from bright and pungent citrus and forest into freshly tilled dry earth. They’ll be boiled for about three hours on brew day. Ultimately, they’ll inhibit bacteria, and their potent oxidized beta acids will provide a necessary astringent balance.
The goal is to make a wort that is relatively unfermentable, offering some delicate and deliberate structure for nature to chew on. It sets the stage for our location to express itself.
Here’s What It Does.
It’s worth reiterating that everything here is in a continuous, if incremental, state of flux. There’s never a beer, blend, batch, or bottle that is perfect. There is better, and there is worse. There is always an intangible target. There is the ideal of “right.” The vagaries of the seasons and the expressions of each harvest alone require adaptability. You have to bend. (Unless you’re my back, sometimes.)
Spontaneous fermentation is a progression of actors.
Wort is run straight from the kettle, boiling hot, into our coolship. It’ll rest there, cooling (of course), and ultimately gleaning native yeast and bacteria from the air, overnight. Then it goes into oak barrels the following day.
These native yeast and bacteria reproduce and ferment at different rates and stages in a beautifully complex blossoming of nature. We see fermentation initially dominated by Saccharomyces along with a small yet diverse cast of bacteria and other yeast. The bacteria quickly expire in the progressively hostile environment while the yeast continue to eat a large share of the fermentable substrate. As the months pass, some lactic acid–producing bacteria appear. Saccharomyces forfeits the lead.
Then, the first break in the chrysalis occurs.
It’s not a unique notion that Brettanomyces defines spontaneous beer. Yes, it takes all of the diverse yeast and bacteria to provide the aroma and flavor precursors, the acidic and nutrient-starved environment—the literal corpse-fodder for Brettanomyces to best express itself. However, it is ultimately Brett that condenses and refines this. The alchemist has a name.
It’s there the whole time, and it’s slowly doing something, but the beer only starts to become its own final, beautiful self after about a year in the barrel. That’s when our protagonist begins aggressively reproducing, becomes noticeably active and dominant, and undeniably carves the beer into something entirely new, and entirely more faceted.
It is a strange, beautiful process.
That is ours. Or rather, that is the one we service.
We’ve found that for us, five-hectoliter (4.25-barrel) puncheons along with 10- and 20-hectoliter (8.5- to 17-barrel) horizontal casks provide the character we’re looking for. Lower rates of oxygen ingress, because of the lower surface-to-volume ratio and typically thicker staves, provide for a more graceful fermentation and aging. The character is less aggressive than standard barrels—there’s less acid, and more importantly, softer acids. The tradeoff is that the maturation timeline extends progressively as the vessel size increases for us. Because of this, we have barrels from batches brewed as long ago as early 2017 that we haven’t ever sampled. We should probably check in.
About Those Barrels …
Barrels are a necessary part of this process. They need and deserve our love.
They’re the vessel that cradles and nurtures our beer—from the initial introduction through fermentation and for the two-years-plus average that each of our components will spend in them. They are home. You don’t want to gamble with your cooperage.
Over the past eight years, we’ve found a number of things that work well for us. I don’t have enough digits to count out the things we’ve found that absolutely do not.
Spontaneous fermentation, or even mixed-culture fermentation, is a really, really difficult balancing act already. We’re not in control. There is no more direct route toward forfeiting the feigned possibility of input or qualitative influence than by putting wort into a vessel that has already been populated with microorganisms or one that is structurally compromised. Something good may come out. It will likely never offer the same depth of character as a properly prepared vessel that goes through the complex and prolonged fermentation described above. It’s increasing the odds that a specific yeast (or bacteria) will assert dominance at the expense of beneficial diversity.
Great beer is about balance, right? Sure, it’s capable of screaming in the streets of a strange country from the top of a lion statue that it definitely wasn’t supposed to climb and throwing something in your face that you really don’t want in your face. But, usually, it’ll hug you at some point afterward. Unsound barrels, on the other hand just set the stage for the face-throwing—and damn your hugs. You probably aren’t going to get the high, low, and mid notes, and certainly no orchestra.
We keep our cooperage as clean and sanitary as is possible. Before first use, and after each subsequent use, we run an extended high-pressure wash with a three-dimensional, high-impingement nozzle (a normal rotary spray-ball hasn’t proven sufficient) at 185°F (85°C) until the barrels are clean. We then extensively steam the interior of the barrels until they’re hot through to the exterior. Finally, each is washed again in case the steam has further leached any residue from the wood. It takes an entire day to prep 2,000 liters (528 gallons) of cooperage for a single brew day. That’s in addition to the full day of brewing and another half-day for coolship emptying and cleaning.
More Time in the Cellar
We perform a lot of barrel maintenance, topping and other various things during the years that the beer spends in these newly cleaned and freshly filled barrels. It’s an intensive process, despite the seeming tranquility of the cellars most days. Cellar practices might be the most individualized of the components in making spontaneous, wild, or barrel-aged beer, with no real consensus on best practices. Suffice to say, we keep finding ways to spend more time in the cellar here. I believe it’s been to good effect.
After all of it, we’ll blend. Either into one of our 10-hectoliter (8.4-barrel) upright oak tanks onto fresh fruit or some other local bounty, or into a tank for packaging. The intricacies of each of those processes and selective decisions are such that I’d need more words than the too-damn-many I’ve already written.
Perhaps there’ll be an opportunity in the future. Craft Beer & Brewing Magazine® publishes an issue on fruit beer, right?
New Old Directions
We’ve recently been working with amphorae (you know, those clay jars with a large oval body and narrow neck?). Our friend Andrew Beckham at Beckham Estate Vineyard doesn’t just make excellent wine, but he also makes some gorgeous and finely crafted clay vessels. He kindly sold us some 350-liter and 700-liter (92-gallon and 185-gallon) amphorae, and we’re really liking the development so far. At a little less than a year in on the first fills, there’s a wait ahead until anything comes to fruition—the “early” character is incredibly promising though.
It’s rare to have an opportunity to rethink the entirety of your process. Removing what we’d thought a fundamental tenet of this type of beer-making is strange—but exciting. Working with good folks and a very local new component in the process is intrinsically valuable to us as well.