Tempting Fate: When the Wild Things Are in Your Beer

BYOB by | Nov 2007 | Issue #11
Illustration by Scott Murry

Digging deeper into the world of Belgians, American craft brewers find themselves in scary, dark caves, smelling the hot breath of nightmarish monsters. The glowing red eyes of beer destroyers peer out of the black foreboding shadows. In these European caves lurk those dark fungal creatures—critters that have been as integral to civilization as fire or the wheel—that we call yeast. Taming these wee fearsome beasties rewards the daring brewer with untold flavor and character, but they require vigilance to use safely in your brewery. This month, we look at one of my experiments with these creepy crawlies. The beer has not even finished the aging process, but the already stellar taste compels me to let you get started on your own expedition to … where the wild things are.

After a visit to Santa Rosa earlier this year, a friend brought back two rare small bottles of Russian River’s Temptation Ale Batch 2, a Belgian Blonde Ale aged using Chardonnay wine barrels with Brettanomyces. Popping the cork released an explosion of tropical fruit, Brettanomyces’ earthy funky notes and CO2. My gustatory reaction began with stunned and roared past flummoxed. The little part of my brain responsible for planning swung into overdrive: How would I do this beer for myself? After all, as a brewer myself, what else could I do? Maybe cry if I could never have this beer!

There’s a not-so-secret secret among American brewers: Vinnie Cilurzo of Russian River is flat out one of the most helpful people in the business and has a long-standing rapport with homebrewers. After all, he got his start as a homebrewer, convincing his family to host the early years of the Southern California Homebrewer’s Festival on their old Temecula winery grounds. His commitment to homebrewers continues to this day. Emailing Vinnie yielded a wealth of info on Temptation, getting me started with this “inspired by” project.

Temptation’s base recipe is 100 percent domestic two-row brewed to 1.062, hopped to 27 IBU with Styrian Goldings, and finished with Sterling. Russian River’s house Belgian Ale strain carries out the primary fermentation. The real magic begins when Temptation hits the five- year-old Chardonnay barrels. There it sits, infused with Brettanomyces bruxellensis and B. claussenii, and ages for a year or more. Micro amounts of oxygen diffuse through the oak, aiding the slow-growing wild yeast. Oxidation speeds the transformation from pale yellow to a richer gold. More Brett and the house wine strain to condition in both bottles and kegs. Vinnie benefits from brewing in scale, blending multiple barrels to achieve a desired mix of wood, Chardonnay, beer and funk flavors. Thanks to the voracious appetite of the wild yeast, the final gravity drops below 1.010, giving the beer a dry finish and a moderate 7.25% ABV.

For the home audience version of Temptation, we require a few substitutions. To emulate the color and the toasted characters of a full oak barrel, we add a small portion of Aromatic and Caramel Pils (Belgian C8). This addition rounds out the beer’s body and adds the impression of kettle caramel. Skipping Vinnie’s final charge of Sterling accentuates the wild yeast characters.

Mashing low produces more accessible sugars for the Saccharomyces and Brett to chew through, leaving a dry finish. A long primary fermentation of about a month with a classic Belgian Ale or Trappist Ale strain yields clean, pleasant-drinking Blonde Ale. Stop here if you have the fear!

Like Saccharomyces strains, Brett strains produce the strongest flavor and aromatic characteristics under stressful conditions. Achieve final exam-type stress levels by using your specially ordered Brett cultures straight from the package. Be forewarned that this beer takes longer to mature. For more rapid results treat your Brett and make starters. For this attempt, I used two half-gallon starters and pitched the decanted slurry after racking into secondary.

Now you must practice patience. For several months, nothing seems to change. By the three-month mark, earthy and tropical fruit aromas and a bright acidity infuse the beer and only continue to develop. Again, you must practice monk-like patience. When the Brett characters are perfect, add 2 ounces of French Oak cubes that you have been soaking in Chardonnay while waiting for the beer to ferment. (Nothing fancy! Two Buck Chuck suffices here.) Age for 2–4 weeks or until the spicy oak and wine just suffuses the beer. Keg or bottle condition the beer in Champagne bottles. Age and enjoy over time, appreciating the changes as the Brett continues to dry the beer. Because of the endless Brett activity, the Champagne bottles are critical. For a refined touch of class, dress your beer with corks and cages.

A note on equipment: The rule for Vinnie, and for my brewery, is that any plastic used for fermenting,racking and serving sour beer is dedicated until time immemorial to wild beers. Like Vinnie, I ferment in a separate area and all metal or glass gets a thorough disassembly, cleaning and extra-vigilant sanitation before being used for a more normal beer. To separate my funkified drafts, I use pin lock kegs for wild ales only. My ball lock kegs remain pristine for regular draft service.

Is the time and worry worth it? Should you go traipsing about in the land of scary monsters? Ales of extraordinary and unique character are the reward for chasing the wild dragons. Proceed with care, a lot of patience and a wary respect for the beasts, and you won’t get singed and can still claim your prize!

5.5 gallons at 1.055, 20 IBU, 4 SRM

10.00 lb. Belgian Pilsner malt 95.0%
0.25 lb. Biscuit malt 2.5%
0.25 lb. Caramel Pilsner (crystal 8L) 2.5%

Saccharification Rest: 150°F for 60 minutes (1.33 quarts/lb.).

1.25 oz. Styrian Goldings (pellets) | 4.2% AA | 60 minutes

Wyeast 1214 Belgian Ale (1/2 gallon starter)
Wyeast 5112 Brettanomyces bruxellensis (no starter)
Wlp645 Brettanomyces claussenii (no starter)

2 oz. French oak beans (soaked in chardonnay for 6 months)

Oxygenate after cooling to 63°F, pitch ale yeast. Ferment for 1 month at 68°F. Rack to secondary and add one quart of 1.047 starter wort. Pitch Brettanomyces (straight from pack/tube). Wait six months. Add oak cubes and wait for two weeks to one month and bottle/keg to a high CO2.