The word coolship conjures thoughts of nature, wort steaming in the open air, maybe under moonlight, being cooled by the air and inoculated by wild yeasts. There’s a rustic charm that is perceived with these spontaneously fermented beers where it’s hard not to think of wide-open fields, sprawling farmland, and wildlife roaming nearby.
Brasserie Cantillon in Brussels is perhaps the most famous coolship-driven brewery in the world, and there’s no denying the skill that goes into the gueuzes and lambics that bear the iconic chair- tipping logo. The beers are romantic, and because of the brewery’s age and place in history, it can be easy to forget that it’s in an industrial part of Brussels—the nearest Starbucks is a 5-minute walk away.
In the United States, while you will find breweries with coolships in more rural areas (think Jester King), from Queens, New York, to Washington, D.C., to Chicago, Milwaukee, and just about any other city in the country where the weather conditions are suitable for coolship brewing (that is, autumn and winter low temperatures in the 20s and 30s Fahrenheit), you’re likely to encounter one turning out a multitude of mixed-fermentation ales.
In Portland, Maine, Allagash Brewing Company was one of the first American breweries to install a coolship, way back in 2007. The brewery is situated on a partially wooded area on Industrial Way, in a—yes—industrial part of the seaside city.
Brewmaster Jason Perkins says he believes that the beers produced have less to do with what’s outside and more to do with the room where the coolship is housed.
“We could take a bucket of wort and just put it outside, and it would pick up what’s in the area, but it would be totally different from what comes out of the coolship,” he says. “It’s the room, it’s the porousness of the wood, how the steam opens up, and how all the previous beers contribute to the microflora of the room.”
That’s a refrain repeated by several other brewers who say they spray bottles of finished beer on the wood walls of their coolship rooms to encourage growth and help along future batches. But that can take time to develop, so the breweries that have recently opened need to rely on what’s naturally occurring in the area.
Dovetail Brewery in Chicago recently released a kriek that started life in a coolship housed in a ninety-year-old building near the city’s mass-transit system. “We’re using whatever the Brown Line brings us,” Co-owner Hagen Dost says, in a reference to the L-train.
The Bluejacket brewery in the nation’s capital has a beautiful coolship room on the top level of its modern brewhouse, just a short stroll from Nationals Park, a place teeming not only with peanuts and Cracker Jacks but, with…well, you’ve been to a baseball game. Maybe that’s one reason it’s easier to think about the countryside when it comes to coolships.
“That’s why my theory that the room matters is important,” says Perkins. “The more you brew in that space, the more it creates beers unique to that space, regardless of what’s outside. You don’t see a tree or a blade of grass when you visit Cantillon.” He points to how even during the brewing season, the beers change. They find that the beers are more predictable and achieve faster fermentation in late November and early December, as opposed to the beginning of November, because previous batches have opened up the room a little.
Walking the floor of the annual Craft Brewers Conference, you see multiple coolship manufacturers trying to sell to brewers, and it’s an item on many brewers’ wish lists, even if all they make is hazy IPA. As more coolships wind up in the cities, it’s possible that we’ll begin to see specific flavor traits by region. I mean, if we perceive the taste of Brussels in each bottle of Cantillon, who’s to say we won’t one day say the same about the Big Apple or the Windy City?