In the European Middle Ages, women made small batches of ale by steeping crushed barley in heated water. Herbs and/or fruit were often added to this concoction to counteract harshness of the tannins and base flavor of the grain. This ale is now known as Gruit Ale or “herbed ale”.
Fermentation, considered a gift from God, was a mystery to the population during this period (one of many reasons that religious references are still found associated with beer today). So, how did fermentation happen if they didn’t know how it occurred? The answer is in the prevailing natural conditions of these early households and breweries. Wild yeast is present in most settings, even today. Modern breweries have to take precautions to avoid the introduction of wild yeast strains and bacteria that will compete with the domesticated yeast strain that they use (Saccharomyces). The early brewer had no knowledge of this microbiology, just that the barley liquid (wort) would ferment if left alone under the right conditions. Wild yeast (Brettanomyces and Kloeckera) were in the air of the historic building and on the ingredients of the early brew itself. Pediococcus, Lactobacillus and other bacteria were also present and ended up partially fermenting the ale.
Historical records show that the ale “soured quickly”. Without modern sanitation and refrigeration, ale in the Middle Ages had a short lifespan of around 17 days. Early ale continuously fermented throughout its short lifespan; this continuous fermentation continually changed its taste profile. The common folk of this era were used to drinking ale with varying levels of acidity, due to the aforementioned yeast and bacteria. Often, the older beer was blended with younger beer to balance the taste and the acidity.
The origins of modern “sour ales” or “wild ales” were born in these conditions. They are the direct descendants of earlier brewing traditions that did not include industrial processes like rigidly controlled yeast strains and pasteurization of the beer. Nowhere is this tradition stronger than the geopolitical crossroads of Europe: Belgium. Starting with the Belgian motherland, let us track these wild ales through the lands where they roam.
Lambic (lom – BEEK) beer has changed little in its 500 year lifespan in the rural region of Pajottenland (West of Brussels, Belgium). It could be considered the grandmother of all modern sour beer. The last major change to Lambic occurred centuries ago with the addition of dried hops as a natural preservative. Pure (unblended) Lambic is a dry, vinous, and pungently sour unfiltered ale with little to no carbonation. Gueuze (GURZ-ah, GURZ, and many other regional pronunciation and spelling variations) is a blend of young Lambic, matured around 1 year in wooden barrels, and old Lambic, mature three years and longer. Secondary fermentation in a bottle, historically done in Champagne bottles, gives Gueuze carbonation and a smoother, more balanced flavor than pure Lambic. Gueuze is light blonde to amber colored ale that is semi-dry, acidic, cidery, and sometimes musty flavored.
A Gueuze that undergoes secondary fermentation with whole sour cherries is called a Kriek (pronounced “Creek”) beer. Other versions of Lambic also exist, such as Mars (a lower alcohol version made from a second rinse of the grains) and Faro (a lower alcohol version to which some form of dark sugar is added). Lambic and its various offspring have many layers of flavor—not just sour—deriving from the complex and lengthy fermentation and maturation processes. Some modern mainstream versions of “Lambic” are sweetened with various processed fruit syrups, processed quickly, and have little to no historical similarity to actual Lambic beer.
Flanders Red Ales have a similar development process to Lambic beers; fermented with wild yeasts and bacteria, they are barrel aged and often blended to achieve a balanced flavor. These ales are very complex with tastes that range across oak, vanilla, plum, cherry, currant, raisin, red vinegar, steak sauce, and tart citrus. A darker version of Flanders Red Ale called Old Bruin (Brown) or Flanders Brown is also produced. Often Flanders Brown is not barrel aged, has a more pronounced malt flavor, and is typically not as sour as a Flanders Red Ale.
Gose (GOSE-uh) is a sour German beer from the North-Central German town of Goslar and the style is rumored to be at least 1,000 years old. Although hugely popular in the town of Leipzig in the 1800s, the style almost vanished in the early-to-mid 20th Century. Gose was originally a spontaneously fermented (wild yeast and bacteria) beer made using barley and unmalted wheat, sometimes including oats, with added coriander and salt. The ale was delivered still fermenting in barrels to pubs, where the owners would put the Gose into characteristic long necked bottles. The yeast would rise to the top of the slender neck of the bottle, causing a natural yeast plug (Flor) to seal the beer. Like many modern wild ales, the modern version of this beer is inoculated with the selected combination of domesticated yeast, wild yeast, and bacteria. Currently only a handful of breweries produce Gose.
Berliner Weissbier is a Northern German (mostly Berlin) wheat beer that dates back to the 16th Century. Although the current version is brewed with domesticated yeast, Lactobacillus is added and gives the beer a tart acetic acid finish. This beer is light yellow to golden in color with quickly fading head and low alcohol content (2 to 5% ABV).
American Wild Ales: Often Belgian inspired, these American made beers are partially fermented with wild yeast and/or bacteria, either by an inoculated wooden barrel, a combination of domesticated and wild yeast/bacteria being pitched in the unfermented liquid (wort), or by using soured grain. The basic beer recipe (grain bill) that makes up the loose category of “American Wild Ales” can vary greatly, producing tart “porters”, Flemish Red-like ales, sour golden ales, and any variety that imagination can provide.
The first wild ale I ever tasted was also the first Flanders Red Ale I drank; it was Vichtenaarfrom Brouwerij Verhaeghe in Vichte, Belgium. I remember being stunned by the complexity of the beer, the high (Champagne-like) levels of carbonation, and the unique sour-sweet taste profile. Vichtenaar was followed by Duchesse De Bourgogne, a blended Flanders Red Ale, also by the Verhaeghe Brewery. “The Duchess” is still one of my all-time favorite beers. I worked my way through this beer style, growing an appreciation for Rodenbach beers (Brouwerij Rodenbach, Roeselare, Belgium), considered central examples of Flanders Red Ale. The first American commercial example of a Flemish-style Red Ale I tasted several years ago was an earlier batch of La Folie by New Belgium Brewing Company in Fort Collins, Colorado. La Folie is indistinguishable from a Flemish-made Flanders Red Ale and is far from being mere folly (folie).
Brewery Ommegang in Cooperstown, New York, has produced two versions of Flanders Red Ale (some say Old Bruin): Ommegang Rouge (2008), a collaboration with Brouwerij Bockor N.V. in Bellegem-Kortrijk, Belgium,and Ommegang Zuur (2010), a collaboration withBrouwerij Liefmans inOudenaarde, Belgium. Both were excellent but the Rouge was my favorite, being more dry and tart. Even Boston Brewing Company (Samuel Adams) produces a Flanders Red Ale as part of their select Barrel Room Collection. The Stony Brook Red is a good solid beer, better than several other beers of this style that I have tried. I would love to see Unibroue in Chambly, Quebec, Canada produce wild ale some day, as all of their beers are both unique and well done in the Belgian style.
A few years after discovering Flanders Red Ale, I was fortunate to try La Roja by Jolly Pumpkin in Dexter, Michigan. Both the beer and the brewery have become hands-down favorites. Founded by Ron Jeffries in 2004, Jolly Pumpkin Artisan Ales produces beer that is matured in wine barrels, Bourbon barrels, or any other barrel they can get hold of. Once the barrels have a living culture going, the beer takes on the flavors of the wild yeast, of bacteria, and of the wood. All of their beers are produced in this manner, making Jolly Pumpkin one of the most unique breweries in North America.
My first exposure to Berliner Weissbier was at The Map Room in Chicago, Illinois. I had a Weihenstephan & Doemens 1809 Berliner Weiss. This is the best Berliner Weissbier that I have had to date—a really tasty wheat beer with the tartness as an unexpected bonus. Bell’s Brewery’s Oarsman Ale is also a decent Berliner Weissbier, although lacking the complexity of the 1809 Berliner Weiss; Oarsman is often a session beer of mine.
The only brand of Gose I have ever tasted is Leipziger Gose by Gosebrauerei Bayerischer Bahnhof in Leipzig, Germany. I first had this beer at The Porter Beer Bar in the Little Five Points area of Atlanta, GA with my friend Mike. We knew ahead of time it was a sour wheat beer similar to a Berliner Weissbier. What took us by surprise was the salt. This style has a distinct salty flavor, which is not unpleasant (sort of like the salt accent to potato chips). My mouth is watering just from the memory of this beer. Other brands of Gose are on my immediate “to do” list.
Good traditional Lambics and Gueuze are often cost restrictive. A lot of time, care, and resources go into these beers and they are expensive. Therefore, I often have Oude Boon Geuze from Brouwerij Boon, Lembeek, Belgium (yes, Lembeek…nudge, nudge, wink, wink… “Lambic”, Belgium). It ‘s 12 ounces of 100% wild fermented, barrel aged, and blended Lambic beer—a complex punky, funky, sour wave of goodness at less than $10 a bottle.
Call them Sour Beers, Wild Ales, Tart Beers, Mother Funk or whatever. The wild ones will whack you in the face and then kiss you with complexity. No apologies from these beers: You are on their turf (an ancient one at that). Don’t be afraid of descriptors like wet hay, barnyard, wet goat, musty, cheese, vinegar, sour apples, steak sauce, and so on. Let the beer warm up, sip it, and try it slowly. These beers are like sauerbraten, kimchi, funky cheeses, tart desserts and all the other dishes we were not sure about but fell in love with. They will dare you to try them and if you love these flavors, stalking them can become a wild ride.
Jackson, Michael, Great Beers of Belgium,Running Press Book Publishers, 1998.
Sparrow, Jeff, Wild Brews: Culture and Craftsmanship in the Belgian Tradition, Brewers Publications, 2005.
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