Wild Lager: An Experiment in Collaborative Co-Fermentation | Craft Beer & Brewing

Wild Lager: An Experiment in Collaborative Co-Fermentation

A recent collaboration brew between Wolves & People farmhouse brewery and lager brewers Heater Allen offered the opportunity to try partnering homegrown wild yeast with a lager strain to produce a mixed-fermentation lager.

Jamie Bogner 2 years ago

Wild Lager:  An Experiment in Collaborative Co-Fermentation Primary Image

Christian DeBenedetti and Jake Miller, Wolves and People

Forty five minutes outside of Portland, Oregon, in the tiny Willamette Valley wine country vale of Newburg, sits Wolves & People—the farmhouse brewery conceived and launched by Christian DeBenedetti (pictured above with Head Brewer Jake Miller) on his family’s 20-acre farm. DeBenedetti is known to most as a journalist, first and foremost—he’s authored books, edited the Weekly Pint newsletter, and written features for major media outlets such as The New York Times, Outside Magazine, Esquire, and Men’s Journal—but for many years expressed his love of beer through homebrewing as well as writing about it.

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Wolves and People Head Brewer Jake Miller has many fermentation projects underway and is actively culturing other wild yeasts from various parts of the farm.

In 2014, he set in motion the plan to open Wolves & People, to reconnect with the farm and focus on beers that engage with the land around him. One of his first projects was collecting wild yeast to evaluate for brewing, and one strain—captured with an open mason jar covered in cheesecloth filled with a low-hops saison-style wort and set up in the crook of an old Italian plum tree—proved particularly viable, yet slightly temperamental.

“I sent the sample down to White Labs, and they isolated the main wild yeast in that fermentation—a wild Saccharomyces strain that we now call ‘Sebastian,’” DeBenedetti says. “Sometimes it throws flavors we like, and sometimes it doesn’t, but it tends to be pretty interesting nonetheless. When it’s on, we get nice mandarin and orange peel. The less desirable flavors are banana and clove phenols, although they’re pretty understated. I look at it as a good base for mixed fermentations here, and it’s a part of the mixed culture we use for our grisette, Landbouw.”

“It tends to tear into wort pretty fast and can knock down about a third of the total Plato in 2–3 days, but then it goes into a sleepier lag phase that we don’t love, but a lot of wild Saccharomyces strains will do that once they do the heavy lifting.”

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This “house” wild yeast has been the foundation for a number of collaboration brews they’ve done—with Jester King Brewery (Austin, Texas), with The Commons Brewery (Portland, Oregon), and also with local friends and brewers Heater Allen Brewing (McMinnville, Oregon).

“Heater Allen is one of my favorite breweries in the world. Rick Allen and his family are good friends. When I was starting the brewery, they let me buy their old equipment—the old brewhouse and fermentors—when they expanded. We always wanted to do a collab together, so soon after we got licensed, we started talking,” DeBenedetti says.

The collab beer was slated to celebrate the second anniversary of The Bitter Monk, a local Belgian-forward beer bar, and as the brewers sat at the bar and discussed it, a strange idea spontaneously emerged.

“We all started discussing whether we could make a hybrid of wild ale and lager by pitching our wild strain first and letting it do its work for a bit, then bringing in a classic house lager strain to clean up and finish up the beer while rounding out the fermentation. [It would take] mixed fermentation to the next level.”

“We all burst out laughing,” DeBenedetti says, “and thought ‘what a funny idea—no one has ever tried that because it probably won’t work.’ And then we talked more and more and asked ourselves ‘why wouldn’t it work as long as the conditions were right for the yeast?’”

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With a brew date on the calendar and a big propped culture of Sebastian, they brewed a big, dark, caramel-forward bière de garde with six specialty malts for color and flavor, and classic hops character from Columbus and Hallertau for bittering to a very moderate 17 IBUs.

After chilling, they pitched Sebastian, and as expected, it tore into the wort quickly. After three days, they crashed the tank and held it low for a little while to drop the wild yeast out of the beer, then brought it back up and pitched Heater Allen’s house strain—A Bohemian Pilsner strain.

“That was a hold-your-breath moment where we didn’t know what was going to happen,” DeBenedetti says. “But just like a heartbeat that strain went to work, pulsing with regular bubbles 24-7, knocking down the rest of the beer.”

After lagering for 4–5 weeks, the beer was ready to keg and serve. DeBenedetti describes the resulting beer as having the character of a “wild dopplebock”—chocolaty toffee-like notes, but wrapped around a tangy mandarin-like burst of flavor driven by that initial wild-yeast fermentation.

“The interesting thing was that the lager yeast didn’t clean up or resolve the characteristics from the wild side or from the nature of some of those big fruity malts. The Munich malt especially throws some really fruity notes.”

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The beer, dubbed “Collaborative Damage,” was a hit at The Bitter Monk and at the Wolves & People farm. But the biggest takeaway for the brewers was the fun of bending the rules of brewing and coming up with something that is not only intriguing in its process but also in its flavor.

From sanitation and inoculation to propagation and fermentation, Craft Beer & Brewing Magazine®’s online class Care and Feeding of Yeast has everything you need to build a healthy population of yeast and make the best beer possible.

PHOTOS: JAMIE BOGNER

Jamie Bogner is the Cofounder and Editorial Director of Craft Beer & Brewing Magazine®. Email him at [email protected].

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