Who's Afraid of the Big Bad Brett?
Brewers are experimenting with the wild yeast winemakers often scorn.
Band-Aid, barnyard, horse stable, cured meat… these are not typically considered the best descriptors for wine or beer. They're also the kind of qualities you're likely to encounter when dealing with a libation "tainted" with brett.
Brettanomyces, or brett for short, has long been considered a winemaker's worst enemy. At lower levels, the wild yeast can produce positive flavors of smoke, spice and complexity; higher levels can result in the more unappealing animal and antiseptic characteristics that many associate with flawed or spoiled wines.
Brett might have found a new home outside of the winery—one more amenable to the attributes it has to offer: the brewery. While brett has long been a significant part of Belgian brewing, the wild yeast has been making more appearances stateside.
Brewers across the nation have decided to have a go at the notoriously tricky and often uncontrollable strain. Known for brewing traditional and experimental Belgian-style beers, Rob Tod from Allagash in Portland, Maine notes that "The strain of yeast a brewer uses to ferment beer with is extremely important. During fermentation, each different strain of yeast contributes its own unique set of flavors and aromas. Brett yeasts can contribute entirely n e w and different layers of flavors and aromas."
Tomme Arthur from Lost Abbey Brewing of San Marcos, California agrees: "We choose to include Brettanomyces in our beers because we love to embrace the wild child inside each of us. Brewing with the Big Bad Brett affords us flavors and layers in the beer we can't get from pure yeast cultures."
While most brewers use brett in addition to many other fermenting yeasts, others are going for the full experience.Vinnie Cilurzo of Russian River Brewing in California produces Sanctification and Adam Avery from Avery Brewing in Boulder, Colorado brews Avery Fifteen, both beers fermented solely by brettanomyces. Adam adds, "I just like to experiment with different kinds of beer and 100% brett is an area that few brewers have wandered into (purposefully that is!). The benefits are mostly aromatic for me."
A Look at Some of Our Favorite Bretty Beers:
Avery Fifteen - Clear, golden yellow color. A nice, decently sour nose with subtle barnyard aromas backed by floral notes (presumably Hibiscus as noted on the front label) and subtle fruity esters of granny smith apple. Lighter mouthfeel with zesty effervescence and hints of horse, wild spice, cinnamon, pepper, flowers, and fresh baked bread. The finish shows riper fruit flavors and ends on a remarkably clean finish with subtle hop presence. Would pair divinely with Blue Cheese and fresh fruit. 7.68% abv.
De Proef Brouwerij Signature Series Les Deux Brasseurs Belgian Ale - A collaboration brew between Jason Perkins of Allagash Brewing in Maine and Dirk Naudts of De Proef Brouwerij in Belgium fermented with multiple strains of Brettanomyces (each brewer picked one preferred Brett strain). A complex, beautiful nose full of ripe pineapple, apple, sweet spice, and barnyard. The mouth, medium full with moderate carbonation, is fairly intense and sweet with significant graham cracker, raisin, and animal notes, followed by a nice bitterness on the finish from the dry hopping. Definitely a beer to share with friends. 8.5% abv.
Russian River Brewing Sanctification - Again, this beer is fermented with 100% Brettanomyces. Being a Blonde Ale style, this is a bit more light, lean and acidic. Light barn notes with loads of citrus supported by green apple, yellow flower, and yeast on the nose. The mouth is lean, vibrant, and very acidic with loads of tart lemon and gooseberry backed by hints of animal hair. The finish is dry and clean with riper tropical fruit nuances developing on the back. An unbelievably refreshing brew that's easy to drink and perfect for the warm weather. 7.0% abv.
Isabelle Proximus - This is the so-called "pièce de résistance" of Brett Beers. A collaborative effort from the "Brett Pack" dream team that is Rob Tod of Allagasah Brewing, Adam Avery of Avery Brewing, Sam Calagione of Dogfish Head Craft Brewing, Tomme Arthur of Port Brewing/Lost Abbey, and Vinnie Cilurzo of Russian River Brewing, and appropriately labeled as "Allaverdogportrush" (a playful combination of all of their breweries). The brew, inspired by a trip to Belgium that the group had taken, is based on the countries' infamous spontaneously fermented sour ales. The nose is beautiful, with loads of sharp, sour acidity backed by a distinct oaky toastiness (the beer is aged in oak barrels for 16 months). Once you move past the assertive acidity, notes of yellow flower, lemon, nuts, and Brett-typical horse blanket develop on the nose. The mouth is quite tart and acidic, with lovely subtle animal notes backed by bracing lemony acidity, watermelon rind, and delicate bready goodness. A crisp, clean finish, this is a beer that is delicious now or can be laid down for years to come. 7.0% abv.
Lost Abbey Cuvée de Tomme - Dark brown in color, this is a strong ale, both in alcohol and flavor profile. The base of the beer is a brown quadruple with raisins and sour cherries that is then aged in Bourbon barrels for one year with sour cherries and Brett. Loads of vanilla, raisin, toast, and oak on the nose with a subtle Brett funk, sour note. A ton of things going on in the mouth: flavors of bourbon, sour cherry, coffee cream, walnut and more all balanced by appropriate acidity to counter the weight and heft of the flavor profile. An infinite finish with minimal carbonation and a high abv makes this an excellent sipper to be shared among good friends… or a perfect candidate for some time in the beer cellar. 12.0% abv.