Wild ales have been around since the beginning of beer.
When sweetened water was exposed to natural yeast in the air, fermentation occurred, and the resulting liquid was found to have a pleasing effect on the drinker. Over the centuries since, recipes have been developed, yeast strains have been identified and harvested, and beer has emerged as the beverage we know and love today.
The majority of the beer brewed around the world is done in sterile locations, where brewers know the kind of yeast they add to their sweet brewing liquid, known as wort, to achieve the desired flavor outcome.
As the craft beer industry has evolved over the last few decades, a handful of brewers began to experiment with “wild” ales, or spontaneously fermented beers. This can come from breweries exposing their wort to the open, ambient air, allowing naturally occurring yeast to inoculate the beer. This is usually done through the use of coolships, which are shallow stainless-steel pools where hot wort is pumped from the brewhouse and allowed to cool in a room that is exposed to the elements, usually through a few open windows.
Usually this means healthy amounts of Brettanomyces or Pediococcus aid in the fermentation, along with the more standard Saccharomyces Cerveceria. Over time, if a brewer chooses to reuse barrels for aging these beers, a distinct house culture develops, giving a beer a taste specific to the brewery. Most brewers will also add yeast to the bottle before packaging to help with additional flavor evolution and provide an extra pop of carbonation through secondary fermentation.
Brewers can also use mobile coolships that can be transported to far-flung locations, like parks, mountain tops or even nearby vineyards to pick up local yeasts, giving the beer a true sense of place. While there are many fine examples of brewers that are using cultivated strains, there’s a certain romance that comes with opening a bottle that was created by the environment. Cheers!
Speciation Laurentian Series: Lake Michigan; $32, 93 points. Lilac and orange blossom greet the nose from the first sniff. It’s delicate, like a spring breeze with a touch of daffodil in the background along with a little lemon and earthy meadow grass. Dark golden in color and clear, it has a tart funk that appears on the back end of the sip, which encourages more to follow. The brewery named this series of beers after the Great Lakes watershed, and each batch is brewed and cooled near one of the massive bodies of water. This one, created at Lake Michigan, was aged in a single oak puncheon.
Allagash Windfall; $16, 92 points. The playful nose evokes white peach-ring candy, the first sip reveals so much more than a penny candy-store treat. The sugary but still tart fruit, fuzzy skin and all is there, adding a lip-smacking quality and eagerness for more. It’s like late summer in a glass, with a graham cracker sweetness, a little vanilla and a salty caramel ribbon that weaves between it all. It’s the peaches that will bring you back to this beer time and time again, and all is forgiven if, based on the freshness of the fruit, you think there’s a little juice running down your chin. Finishes dry with just a little spice and hay, and a kind dose of acidic citrus.
Russian River Supplication; $13, 92 points. This tastes like settling into a comfortable leather easy chair. Bottled in 2014, this is soft and worn and has improved with age. You can feel the curved edges of this ale that has spent the better part of a year resting in Pinot Noir barrels and sour cherries. The fruit gives it a pleasing tartness that isn’t harsh. Mellow tobacco notes appear at the top, it has a bit of a salty middle, and finishes dry and a little wood ashy.
Barrique Recolté Blanc; $NA, 91 points. Slightly acidic and bursting with savory white grape, this copper-colored ale ignites the salivatory glands. With a subtle oak finish, this ale was fermented on handpicked white Muscadine grapes for a year, and has a soft, slightly prickly carbonation from bottle conditioning. As it opens up, white peach, kiwi and starfruit emerge to add additional complexity.
New Glarus 2019 Flanders Sour; $13, 90 points. A lovely combination of ripe black cherry, sprightly balsamic vinegar and a dash of sweet cola form the bouquet. Garnet in color with a thin tan head, an apple tartness comes and quickly goes with each sip. The 2019 version of this spontaneous ale is a combination of young beer and three-year-old stock and was carbonated in the bottle. It deserves to be paired with a hearty stew.
Odd Breed El Cuate; $28, 90 points. A sweet earthiness, full body, and dry finish are the pillars of this beer. It’s peppery and dry, with a strawberry candy-like sweetness that would otherwise be out of place, but here it works to bring together many different building blocks. At times an aged lime character emerges and then quickly retreats. The brewery used barrels that originally held California Sauvignon Blanc and then later Tequila. The result is a high-octane wild ale that doesn’t reveal its boozy character until well after the bottle is empty.