"'And now,' cried Max, 'Let the wild rumpus begin!' " — Where the Wild Things Are
Last week saw the loss of Maurice Sendak, probably the most-beloved children's author and illustrator of the past half century. Who hasn't read Where The Wild Things Are and not been instantly pulled into another place? And if you haven't read it, why not? It is as good as it gets! My beer-loving brother has always been enamored with Sendak's brilliance and Where The Wild Things Are and I am confident the photo with this note confirms it. I also loved reading Where The Wild Things Are to my kids at bedtime, it was simply so easy to become part of the story and to fade with Max from his bedroom into other worlds.
So, in honor of Maurice Sendak's genius and as thanks for a romping good read, this post is about Wild beers. These beers are in many ways tightly tied to the origins of beer brewing. They use natural wild yeasts in the brewing process unlike every other beer in the world that uses specific strains of cultivated yeast. By using a particular yeast, brewers can easily insure consistency between batches of beer. There is a hugely complicated science of brewing microbiology that goes into using yeast. Many breweries closely guard their yeast against corporate espionage that steals and copies proprietary flavor profiles.
Wild beers are different and use untamed "blowing in on the wind" yeast. Before yeast science and cultivation, brewers would simply expose their beer to the natural yeasts that are borne by the atmosphere, causing spontaneous fermentation. Beer Advocate describes this process as: "Beer that is exposed to the surrounding open air to allow natural/wild yeast and bacteria to literally infect the beer, are spontaneous fermented beers. One of the typical yeasts is the Brettanomyces Lambicus strain. Beers produced in this fashion are sour, non-filtered and inspired by the traditional lambics of the Zenne-region."
Wild beers are often described as "funky" and "sour," owing to the flavor imparted by the natural yeasts. Some years ago, I travelled with my brother and some friends to Belgium on an awesome beer trip. One of the most famous wild beer breweries is Cantillion in Brussels, and it is now the only one left in the city. We made our pilgrimage to the brewery and had an amazing tour. We saw the cold sill room in the uppermost level, where the beer is exposed to the wind and natural yeasts via open-slated walls, exploding bungholes in casks undergoing secondary fermentation and we were "treated" to an end of tour tasting in a ramshackle tasting room filled with casks of fermenting beer.
The tour was one of the best brewery tours I've ever been on. The beer on the other hand was some of the worst (or at least strangest) I've ever tasted. It was simply tart, sour, funky, nasty, just all the flavors I really don't want in my beer. Like many wild yeast beers, Cantillion brews beer with and without fresh fruit, like strawberries, peaches and cherries, resulting in beer styles such as Kriek, Lambic and Gueze. My recollection is that some of Cantillion's fruit beers weren't bad, but they certainly werent my favorite. In all fairness, since the trip was a long time ago and I cant typically remember what I had for lunch most days, I decided I'd try a few of these wild beers again.
So, for this post I tried a few wild beers from Belgium where historically and even today most wild beers are brewed and one from the United States where wild beers are gaining some footing. Maybe my memory was playing tricks on me because I actually found them interesting and for the most part very drinkable.
The beers I tried were Lindemanns Framboise Lambic, Reinaerts Flemish Wild Ale and Anchorage Brewing Whiteout Witbier. The Framboise was a beautiful ruby red and like a mouthful of raspberries. The sour taste from the wild yeast was evident but only as an undertone that gave it a really interesting flavor and buffered the sweetness of the berries. All in all, really delicious and refreshing. The Reinaerts Flemish Wild Ale on the other hand was completely different. The sour notes came through pretty clearly but it was light and refreshing and highly drinkable. I actually drank it while mowing the lawn and couldn't wait to pass by the glass for another sip or two. My wife also liked it so it couldn't have been too sour or funky. And on to the Anchorage Witbier. This beer is actually brewed with wild yeasts that are added to the beer instead of allowed to float in on the wind and then aged in French Chardonnay casks. It was light and the flavor was interesting, but I didn't really want to go back for more than a few small glasses. Not my favorite beer, but interesting to try.
“And the wild things roared their terrible roars and gnashed their terrible teeth and rolled their terrible eyes and showed their terrible claws.” Where the Wild Things Are