The word “spontaneous” conjures up almost romantic thoughts about beer, hearkening back to the days when the prayer to Ninkasi was first written and then recited regularly. This natural occurrence plucks the good stuff out of the air, inoculates the sweet liquid that is gathered in a pool, and then Poof! Beer!
Even though brewers have unlocked much of the science behind this magic, there’s still a reverence for tradition and respect for the brewers, especially those in Belgium who have been using nature to create their liquid art. Still, here in the United States, where centuries of brewing tradition were turned on their head over the course of a few short decades, there’s been a shift on how brewers approach spontaneous fermentation and what its future might be.
Back to the Future
To see where the road might be headed, look to New Jersey where James Priest is making beers at The Referend Bier Blendery in the state’s more bucolic countryside. Working with local ingredients (typically raw wheat and floor-malted barley) and brewing wort at various breweries in his geographical area, he brews turbid mashes and cools each batch overnight in a portable coolship before toting it back to his barrelhouse.
“When we started, our primary influence was traditional lambic producers, the ones making dry, authentic lambic,” he says. “But the more you start to do it yourself and as you ferment spontaneously in a new area and start to use ingredients that are local to and native to your area, new ideas and flavors arise, and over time, you just start to naturally do things your own way. If you own that, you’re forging a path.”
Brewers and blenders always need to pay attention to and respect history, even if they seek to differ. And at The Referend, Priest is quick to highlight both, stating on the front page of the company’s website that “The Referend specializes in the production of spontaneously fermented beers, as practiced by ancient cultures and ushered into modernity by the lambic brewers of Belgium’s Pajottenland.”
“Our beers share early process roots, but we bend over backward to make sure we don’t use the word lambic,” he says.
This is exactly what the traditional lambic producers of Belgium want to see. Much in the same way that French winemakers protect the word “champagne,” Belgian lambic producers say the beers they make can’t be replicated elsewhere.
Terroir of Beer
To help toward that end and to better foster an understanding of these styles and processes here in the United States, a new guild of brewers was recently created—the Sour and Wild Ale Guild (SWAG). The mission is to “promote the brewing, fermentation, and drinking of sour and wild beer. With a focus on education and dialogue, SWAG is committed to promoting quality and integrity and providing guidelines for best practices and nomenclature.” The board of directors includes such brewers as Jeffery Stuffings of Jester King Brewery (Austin, Texas), Ben Edmunds of Breakside Brewery (Portland, Oregon), and Jay Goodwin of The Rare Barrel (Berkeley, California).
The Referend’s Priest says that being inspired by tradition but not beholden to it is really where spontaneous beer in America, and beyond, is heading. From adding all manner of ingredients to building cooperage to bringing in new locales, there’s so much room to grow with so many new flavors to be discovered.
Talk to brewers with coolships and the ones who work with spontaneous fermentation, and they’ll talk about their atmosphere. From the wooded area outside of Allagash Brewing Company’s wild space in Maine to Dovetail Brewery in an old warehouse in Chicago where the coolship is inoculated with “whatever the ‘L’ brings” (referring to the nearby CTA transit line) to the fields of central Texas where Jester King calls home or northern Washington where Garden Path Fermentation does its thing, where brewers encourage spontaneous brewing matters.
“We’re at the beginning of mapping the terrior of beer in America,” Trevor Rogers of de Garde Brewing in Tillamook, Oregon, says. “Ascertaining what works well and where means a lot of experimentation. Here at the brewery, we’re working on narrowing what recipes work well with what is around us, and we have an exciting future because of that.” The more that brewers learn what their area has to offer and are able to do the same and work with the spontaneous yeast strains that thrive in their area, the better the eventual beer can be. This is the best representation of a place a person can have in beer, says Rogers. The interplay of local yeast can make a noted difference.
“Our local Saccharomyces strains, for example, have a beautiful contribution of fruity character to the beers,” he says. “We’re always excited to produce better beers, and for our beers, the location speaks loudly. We’re excited about the representation of location and the process because each beer is a true sense of place.”