Modern Brewers Are Embracing An Ancient Winemaking Apparatus

A man brewing beer in an amphora
Photos courtesy of Boulevard Brewing and Wolves and People
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Amid the gleam of steel fermentation cylinders, the cloudy plastic jugs and rustic barrels that populate today’s brew rooms, there are new residents starting to take up space: freestanding, upright vases of rust-hued terracotta clay with decorative markings etched on their sides. An entire person could fit inside one. Yes, they’re amphorae.

They’re objects that look better suited to cavernous wine cellars and museums than modern-day breweries.

Although still used today, amphorae are associated mostly with ancient winemaking. These clay vessels were first used as early as the Neolithic era. They evolved into the cylindrical style we’re currently familiar with during the Bronze and Iron Ages as the Greeks, Romans and Phoenicians used them to store and transport wine.

“It throws back to when people were doing fermentation in the ancient world…fermenting with honey or dates and barley…it’s so cool to tap into that,” —Christian DeBenedetti, founder/head brewer, Wolves & People

But amphorae have now evolved again, into large statement pieces that a handful of breweries across the U.S. and in countries like Belgium and England use to brew and ferment small-batch beers and beer-wine hybrids.

“It throws back to when people were doing fermentation in the ancient world…fermenting with honey or dates and barley…it’s so cool to tap into that,” says Christian DeBenedetti, founder/head brewer of Wolves & People Farmhouse Brewery in Newberg, Oregon.

Oregon is the epicenter of an amphora boom, thanks to local winemaker Andrew Beckham. His seamless terracotta amphorae, crafted from 600 pounds of clay, are the first such commercially produced vessels in North America for wine and beer making.

Andrew Beckham, Christian Debenedetti, and Nathan Paddock standing by large amphora
Left to right: Andrew Beckham; Christian Debenedetti; Nathan Paddock / Photo courtesy Wolves & People Farmhouse Brewery

Wolves & People is one of three Oregon-based breweries to which he’s supplied amphorae, along with Bend’s The Ale Apothecary and Tillamook’s de Garde Brewing. But breweries like Boulevard Brewing (Kansas City, Missouri), Southern Brewing Company (Athens, Georgia) and Benson Brewery (Omaha, Nebraska) also work with amphorae sourced from international producers or local ceramicists.

The modern amphora trend is often credited to Brussels-based Brasserie Cantillon, which began to craft an amphora-brewed traditional lambic beer in 2012.

“Making historical beer styles and using Old World techniques has always been interesting to me,” says Ryan McNeive, head brewer at Boulevard Brewing Company. A background in history and interest in natural wine led McNeive to work with 210-gallon amphorae from Tuscany that he lines with beeswax.

“It’s been a thing in brewing lately to take old styles, even ones that are extinct, and revive them or put your own spin on it.”

Such experiments, as well as research performed by Patrick McGovern, Ph.D., a biomolecular archaeologist known as the “Indiana Jones of ancient ales,” showed that the clay used in amphorae allows flavors and terroir to be better preserved and expressed in beer. It’s led brewers who work with amphora to use local ingredients and a low-intervention fermentation model to create of region-specific or estate-only brews.

The exact flavor profile, color and nose on an amphora beer can vary widely, based on ingredients and fermentation time, but the vessel’s use adds several distinguishing elements.

“You get what you get. It’s gonna do its own thing.” –Ryan McNeive, head brewer, Boulevard Brewing Company

The earthy, iron oxide-rich terracotta clay imparts a “brick-like flavor” and strong minerality that creates a softer mouthfeel. The porous clay walls, which maintain a constant cool temperature, also allow for slow, controlled micro-oxygenation.

To work with amphorae is to be truly hands-off, as most aren’t made with sampling ports. There’s only the vessel’s mouth, which brewers can cover with bubbler-equipped, stainless-steel lids, airlocks and other modern brewing contraptions.

To prevent extra oxygen from seeping in during sampling, brewers only check their amphorae once or twice before packaging. The results feel straight out of history: untouched, all-natural, primeval.

“You get what you get,” says McNeive. “It’s gonna do its own thing.”

With the goal of creating a lighter, farmhouse saison-style beer, DeBenedetti kicked off his first batch of amphora beer last October. He added his own farm-grown triticale (a wheat and rye hybrid), Mount Hood hops, Mecca Grade malt, Wolves & People estate honey, honeycomb, apples and whole clusters of Aligoté from Beckham’s nearby winery. These were fed directly into his 90-gallon, 350-pound vase.

After first sampling it four months ago, DeBenedetti said that the pale gold liquid had an interesting character. The fruits added “bright, high-toned lemony and citrusy acidity,” he says, while the malts and hops contributed a cracker-like underlay.

“We just went totally wild on it, with no added yeast,” he says. “Fermentation kicked off immediately. It’s like a witch’s brew.”

Taking a different approach, McNeive—who has done two different “fills” of amphora beer and is currently on his third—starts fermentation in stainless steel containers for the first week before transferring the beer to the amphora. There, he adds about half a ton of Midwestern Vignoles or Vivant grapes from nearby Les Bourgeois Vineyards.

With heavy use of Brettanomyces and Lactobacillus, combined with house Belgian or saison yeasts to produce mixed cultures, McNeive’s first experiment in 2018 aimed to be similar to an orange, or skin-contact, wine.

He aged it around six-and-a-half months. The result was an amber-yellow brew with strong minerality and heavy Brett notes. His current beer, a mix of saison yeast, Lactobacillus, Brettanomyces and Vivant grapes, is another stab at a sour saison-like, wine-reminiscent drink.

Man shoveling ingredients into an amphora
Photo courtesy Boulevard Brewing

While the brewing process is pretty straightforward, amphorae can weigh hundreds of pounds, cost thousands of dollars and be unwieldy to maneuver. It presents some challenges, especially when it’s time to drain the beer and clear out the amphora.

“You gotta shovel the grapes out, which is challenging,” says McNeive. “We don’t have to clean it, per se, as long as we spray it with water to get rid of the leftover grape skins and yeast. It’s pretty labor-intensive.”

DeBenedetti agrees. “We need to order a special, self-priming, positive-displacement pump because we don’t want the amphora to crack,” he says. “And we don’t want to siphon because we don’t want to introduce oxygen and spoil the beer. It presents a really healthy challenge, helping us think outside the box.”

Yielding only a couple barrels of booze at a time, amphora beers aren’t well-suited for large-scale production and distribution. But this does make them ideal for limited-edition, small-batch releases. Both McNeive and DeBenedetti plan to package the beer currently aging in a month or so, after they’ve completed roughly a year of fermentation.

You can probably count on two hands how many breweries are working with amphorae right now; it’s that niche. But that also makes it an exciting opportunity. The results are different each time a brewer throws a bunch of ingredients into clay and lets nature do its thing.

“We’re constantly amazed at what fellow brewers are coming up with,” says DeBenedetti, adding that growing interest in sour and more experimental types of beer has opened drinkers up to such different brews. “Beer lovers have always been curious and interested to try what’s new.”

Published on August 31, 2020
Topics: Beer