In “The Many Faces of Brett: Overview,” we offered up a broad overview of the three most popular strains of Brettanomyces for homebrewers and what they can do for (and to) your beer. But once you’ve decided you’re ready to ride that horse out of the barnyard and into the funky sunset, where do you start?
Don’t worry, we’ve got you covered . . . with a sweaty blanket.
Contamination and Sanitation
Brewers are part mad scientist, part artist, and we’re not immune to a little superstition. So perhaps it’s no surprise that brewing lore often dictates that beers fermented with Brettanomyces be kept strictly asunder from those made with Saccharomyces to avoid contaminating the latter with the former. It’s also commonly claimed that Brett is harder to get rid of than other microbes, which does have some truth to it, but reality is probably less apocalyptic than legend implies.
Yes, Brett can create a biofilm that aggressively clings to surfaces and resists disinfection efforts, but if you are extra diligent with your cleaning and sanitation protocol, you can probably handle Brett without having to buy all new equipment. To put your mind at ease, Greg Doss of Wyeast delivered a talk at the 2008 National Homebrew Conference (“Brettanomyces: Flavors and Performance of Single and Multiple Strain Fermentations with Respect to Time”) in which he notes that “Brettanomyces dies like everything else” and that excellent sanitation techniques are sufficient to deal with it.
That said, it takes only a little Brett to spoil a batch. Cross-contamination between Saccharomyces strains probably won’t ruin a beer, but rogue Brett cells are likely to be noticed. So some caution is warranted. The simplest approach is to fully clean every piece of your fermentation and bottling equipment after use and then sanitize all glass and plastic pieces with a dilute bleach solution (bleach should never be used for stainless steel equipment). One part bleach to 250 parts water by volume, or a touch stronger, for half an hour or as long as you need to feel comfortable, should do it. Rinse thoroughly, and then follow your usual sanitation schedule when you next use the equipment.
Perhaps the most practical solution, though, is to simply maintain separate plastic hardware for Brettanomyces. Stainless steel, glass, and other non-porous surfaces are less likely to host a renegade colony of spoiling yeast, and you should be able to safely use such equipment for all fermentations. Plastic, though, is prone to scratching and harder to keep clean than other materials. Keeping separate plastic pieces offers a reasonable compromise between paranoia and flagrant neglect, and many brewers have great success doing it this way.
Ultimately, you get to decide how much work you’re willing to do to reduce your risk to a level you find acceptable. Worst case scenario? It’s only five gallons of beer . . .
Pitching Rates and Behavior
When discussing Saccharomyces pitch rates, the general rule of thumb is about 750,000 yeast cells per milliliter of wort per degree Plato of original gravity (cells/ml•°P) for ales and twice that (1.5M cells/ml•°P) for lagers. But what about Brettanomyces?
Well, it depends on how you use it. For a 100 percent Brett fermentation, Chad Yakobson of Crooked Stave aims for a lager-like 1.25M cells/ml•°P. But when you use Brettanomyces as a secondary strain for conditioning, you can get away with far, far less. In Yeast, Chris White and Jamil Zainasheff recommend aiming for about 200,000 cells per milliliter when pitching to secondary (one smack pack or vial should be just fine for 5-gallon batches).
Somewhat counter-intuitively, 100 percent Brett fermentations are generally cleaner than beers that use Brett only in secondary. So if you want funk, leather, and horses, ferment first with the ale strain of your choice, and then follow it up with some Brettanomyces in secondary. But for a somewhat cleaner beer that may slowly develop some of those classic Brett-y characteristics with time, go ahead and pitch a good starter’s worth of Brett, and nothing but, into fresh wort.
No doubt Brett’s diet has something to do with its reputation as a persistent microbe that stands ready to contaminate anything within your neighborhood. Unlike Saccharomyces, which gives up after it has gotten its fill of wort sugars, Brett is voracious and will slowly but steadily ferment straight through even the thickest of wort. In fact, lacking sugar, Brettanomyces will even begin to break down the sugars present in wood, which is one reason it’s so commonly associated with barrels. Interestingly, however, Michael Tonsmeire reports that 100 percent Brett fermentations will often exhibit apparent attenuations of 80–90 percent, while saving the Brett for secondary is more likely to push attenuation closer to 100 percent.
Experimentation Is Key
It’s one thing to read about Brettanomyces, but another thing altogether to work with it yourself. The very first time I used Brett, my wife deemed the resulting beer the worst thing I had ever made. Fortunately for her, all of the bottles exploded before we had a chance to see how it aged. My mixed fermentations have since improved.
Things don’t always go right when working with Brett. But when they do, they can go exceedingly well. So the next time you retire an old piece of brewing equipment, don’t just throw it out. Repurpose it for Brett, and open yourself up to a whole new world of bugs and possibilities.