The holidays seem to sparkle a little brighter with Champagne. A few fine bottles can add fizz to any festive occasion.
So what’s a brewery to do in December? Rather than cede every celebratory occasion to wine, breweries have created their own bubbly alternatives by fermenting beers with Champagne yeast. They fuzz the lines between beer and wine with beverages that draw a delicious Venn diagram intertwining two different drinking worlds.
“It is a great crossover style perfect for beer lovers and non-beer fans to enjoy together,” says Scott Hovey, founder and brewmaster of Adelbert’s Brewery, of its limited-release Sundowner. The Belgian-style bière brut is brewed with Champagne yeast, which creates an effervescent jewel that’s drier than a desert.
A Champagne strain offers several unique upsides. The yeast handles alcohol well, and it can take levels above 15% abv. Most ale and lager strains top out at 10–12% abv. Moreover, the microorganisms can clean up any cloying sweetness.
“They’re very hearty eaters,” says Mike Siegel, research and development manager at Goose Island. “They’ll really dry out a beer.”
Many brewers deploy Champagne yeast in tandem with another strain. For example, Goose Island’s Gillian farmhouse ale is first fermented with Belgian yeast before being finished with wild Brettanomyces and Champagne yeasts.
“We like our beers to be very dry,” says Siegel.
Champagne yeast is now being added to a range of beer styles. Minnesota’s Surly has used it to make Frisson, a wine-inspired lager that’s loaded with black currants, while Florida’s Funky Buddha adds the yeast to its tropical, mango-mobbed 3 Years and Brewing IPA.
Other breweries opt to make Champagne yeast the headliner. In California, Calicraft uses the strain for a range of “sparkling ales,” sometimes with the addition of grapes or other fruits and aged in wine barrels.
Another style to use the yeast in singularity is bière brut (a k a bière de Champagne). Belgian breweries like Malheur and Bosteels pioneered the category. It borrows Champagne-production techniques that include multiple fermentations and the remuage and dégorgement process of yeast removal. (A bottle’s neck is frozen and the cap is removed. Then the pressure forces out the yeast and sediment.)
The most widely available example is Bosteels’ DeuS Brut des Flandres, which finishes its aging in France’s Champagne region, but the refined style is catching on elsewhere.
Cloudwater Brew Co., from Manchester, England, has made multiple bière bruts that include one aged in, fittingly, Damy white wine barrels.
5 More Beers with Champagne Yeast to Try
Transmitter Brewing OH1 Dry Hopped Pilsner
In Queens, New York, Transmitter focuses on farmhouse ales. In Brooklyn, Other Half excels at IPAs. So when the breweries collaborated, they devised a German-style pilsner lagered for eight weeks, then bottle-conditioned with Champagne yeast for a brisk effervescence. It’s a pilsner fit for a flute.
Calicraft Brewing Co. Buzzerekely
At Calicraft, founder Blaine Landberg utilizes native California malts, hops and fruit (which occasionally includes grapes) in tandem with Champagne yeast to create his “sparkling ales.” Featuring star thistle honey, Buzzerekely drinks dry and lightly tart, with a flavorful nod to dark fruit that’d make it a fine friend to dessert.
Adelbert’s Brewery Sundowner
In Austin, Texas, this brewery takes deep cues from Belgian tradition in its collection of corked-and-caged dubbels, saisons and tripels. Here, brewmaster Scott Hovey tackles the bière brut, as he uses Champagne yeast to fashion a crisp sparkler evocative of white grapes. Raw seafood would be Sundowner’s finest friend.
Goose Island Brewery Gillian
Strawberry, white pepper and honey swirl around this Belgian-style farmhouse ale that’s partly aged in wine barrels alongside both wild yeast and Champagne yeast. Expect a tart, sweet and riotously bubbled-up joy ride. Fun fact: The beer is named after The X-Files star Gillian Anderson, who was one of Goose Island’s first employees.
Brooklyn Brewery Sorachi Ace Saison
Decades ago, Japan’s Sapporo brewery developed a hop variety with a unique profile of lemons, lemongrass and dill. The hop was largely forgotten until Brooklyn Brewery made it the centerpiece of this unfiltered saison, finished with Champagne yeast.