American Wild Ales
Some American brewers have embraced wild yeasts, bridging the gap between beer fans and wine lovers.
While many may assume that lines need to be drawn and sides taken in the timeless beer versus wine debate, others choose to believe that the path to enlightenment lies in our ability to become cross-drinkers, embracing the best of both worlds and never limiting oneself to just one or the other. I am a huge fan of this concept.
However, it seems like an increasing number of brewers are looking for ways to bridge the gap between hardcore beer fans and serious wine lovers. Whether it is with the ingredients or equipment that they use, or the style in which they choose to brew their selections, their experimentation is resulting in the hybridization of beer and wine.
Enter the wild. Although wild ferments are famously rooted in Belgian brewing tradition, American brewers have created a new style of their own: American Wild Ales. “Wild” yeasts or bacteria, such as Brettanomyces, Saccharomyces, Pediococcus and Lacto-bacillus, are introduced into ferments, leaving a distinct imprint on the beer. Often, these are sour notes as well as barnyard, Band-Aid, animal or earthy characteristics.
Many brewers also add fruit—or as we see from some of the selections reviewed this month, traditional wine grapes—to these ales. These additions augment the acidic, vinous characteristics that these brews often exhibit, and make amazing options for pairing with food, especially hearty entrees like braised meats and fatty steaks.
These limited-edition, high-end beers are highly sought after and sell out within minutes of release; consumers feel like they’ve obtained something special and unique, and they have.
While these beers are definitely different, intriguing and enjoyable to many, they are not for everyone. But for all you winos out there, try them and you might find yourself slowly creeping over into cross-drinker status, too.
American Wild Ales
98 Allagash FV 13 (American Wild Ale; Allagash Brewing Company, ME). This is Allagash’s first foray into the world of foudre (giant oak tanks used for aging) beers, and man, did they come out of the park swinging! FV 13 is a blend of wild yeasts and bacterias, a malty base beer and, “about four years of patience.” The brewery’s patience was rewarded, as the finished beer is a masterpiece, complex and layered yet nuanced and balanced. Initial aromas are tart and vinous, with upfront scents of sour cherry, plum and citrus supported by accents of lightly-toasted oak, walnut shells and forest floor. The palate is smooth and lively, with mouthwatering acidity and ample carbonation that lifts the rich characteristics. Notes of caramel malt, vanilla bean and browned sugar add decadence to the red-fruit flavors, accented by hints of tobacco and wine-soaked oak that linger on the slightly-tannic finish.
abv: 8.9% Price: $13/375 ml
98 New Glarus Wild Sour Ale (American Wild Ale; New Glarus Brewing Co., WI). Husband-and-wife team Dan and Deb Carey have been producing some of the most sought-after craft beers since establishing New Glarus in 1993. They have been at the forefront of craft-beer innovation for decades now, and this wild selection—an homage to traditional European wild-ferment ales but sourced entirely from within Wisconsin—proves that they have no intention of slowing down. Naturally soured by farm valley winds blowing wild yeast into the brewery’s oak casks, this sour brown ale pours frothy and thick. Fruity scents of green apple and underripe plum, peach and white cherry unfold, but are quickly overshadowed by pungent notes of plain yogurt, hay and sourdough bread. These notes carry through to the sweet-and-sour palate, alongside glimmers of lightly toasted oak, dried leaves and white pepper. The texture is smooth and creamy, with medium carbonation and a dry yet sour finish. While remarkable now, this would also age well, evolving and maturing beautifully over the next few finish.
abv: 5% Price: $10/12 oz 4 pack
98 The Bruery Oude Tart (Flanders-style Red Ale; The Bruery, CA). The Bruery has a killer line-up of sour ales, but this classic really takes the cake. Aged in red-wine oak barrels for 18 months, this is the brewery’s take on a Flanders red. The nose leads with an upfront, overall sour aroma, complemented by scents of tart cherry, red grape and green apple. Spicy, earthy accents of fresh tobacco, leather and cocoa nib dance in the background, weaving in and out of perception. The medium-weight mouthfeel is dry and sour, with a lemony-citrus flavor and vinegar-like acidity lifting the core caramel malt and woody spice flavors. The finish is long and satisfying, with oaky tones and subtle tannins that linger.
abv: 7.5% Price: $20/750 ml
94 The Bruery in Collaboration with Fess Parker Winery Confession (American Wild Ale; The Bruery, CA). This is a sour blonde ale that’s fermented with juice pressed from Fess Parker’s Riesling grapes. It pours a slightly hazy gold color with a fleeting white head. The bouquet immediately shows the beer’s vinous character, with upfront aromas of musky white grape, apple cider, underripe peach and sweet lemon, as well as a soft funky, sour note. These notes carry through to the medium-weight mouth, along with sweet malt, ripe-fruit and oaky flavors. The carbonation is brisk, lifting the palate and leading into a clean, mouthwatering finish.
abv: 8.25% Price: $25/750 ml
90 Uinta Crooked Line 20th Birthday Suit Sour Cherry Ale (American Wild Ale; Uinta Brewing, UT). This sour brown ale pours a gorgeous auburn color. Bright, tart cherry and raspberry aromas are immediate and assertive, with secondary scents of brown bread, banana, honey and cocoa. The flavors are acidic and tart, but refreshing and very lifted, with bright tones of cherry, white currant and sour plum. Hints of caramel malt and chocolate provide some sweet relief, and a kiss of toffee lingers long on the close.
abv: 7.4% Price: $13/750 ml
97 Trappistes Rochefort 10 (Quadrupel; Trappistes Rochefort, Belgium). An authentic Trappist product, brewed at one of only seven Trappist breweries in the world, this is Rochefort’s boldest and strongest offering. The bouquet is seductively rich, with dense aromas of roasted malt, brown bread, figs and barely-shriveled prunes, all accented by spicy notes of cigar box, coriander, pepper and cocoa nib. The palate is round and lush, with a full, creamy texture that goes down remarkably smooth. The alcohol is balanced, and nowhere near as noticeable as it should be, with flavors of caramelized malt, overripe apricot, plum, brown sugar, peanut skin and just a hint of mocha that all carry through the long finish. Merchant du Vin.
abv: 11.3% Price: $7/11.2 oz
93 New Glarus Anniversary Strong Ale (Quadrupel; New Glarus Brewing Co., WI). This special anniversary ale, celebrating the brewery’s 20 years in business, is big, bold and flavorful. A dark amber color, this leads with rich notes of brown sugar, fresh caramel, banana, prune, raisin and yeasty spice. The palate offers more of the same, with the robust malty core taking center stage, with dominating flavors of caramelized sugar, sweet bready malt and toasted nuts. Medium carbonation prevents the mouthfeel from feeling too sweet or heavy. The fruity notes return on the close, with hints of plum preserves, fig and spiced banana pudding that hang on through the lengthy finish.
abv: 10.2% Price: $7/500 ml
92 Samuel Adams Barrel Room Collection Tetravis (Quadrupel; The Boston Beer Co., MA). Tetravis is a big, bold beer that also shows remarkable balance and restraint. While the alcohol is high, it’s never overpowering or upfront; its only tell is the lush, weighty mouthfeel and slight warmth on the finish. Decadent, assertive aromas of caramel, dark berries, currants and spicy banana bread fill the bouquet. The caramel malt core really shines on the palate, grounding the flavors of cherry, plum, brown sugar, vanilla bean, clove and oak. A slight vinous character unfolds in the back and carries through to the long finish.
abv: 10.2% Price: $15/750 m