The Wildest Beers in the West

From the Source by | Feb 2009 | Issue #25

Photo by Red Diamond

From the parking lot of the Grey Parrot Brewpub, you can hear the surf of the Pacific Ocean pounding endlessly at the sands of the Long Beach Peninsula. The beaked profile of a one-eyed parrot hanging from a signboard keeps watch over the doublewide prefab home that serves as brewery and pub. Inside is a restaurant, brewery, bar, kitchen, gameroom, office and a conditioning room—all in a space designed and built as a mobile home.

Phil Goularte, co-owner, brewer and cook, used to keep a reader board outside proclaiming the Grey Parrot as the smallest brewery in America. When they opened in 2005, the place was so small that the grill had to be pulled from the kitchen on brew day to make room for the brew kettle. Since then, Goularte has added a covered porch to accommodate an expanded brew house that now produces all of 90 gallons per batch—just under three barrels. The beer menu lists a Porter, an Amber, an ESB and a genuine American Wild Ale fermented entirely by wild yeasts native to the coast of Washington state.

Few breweries in America attempt what Goularte has achieved with native yeasts. Wild Ales are the province of Belgian specialists who, after centuries of experimentation, have mastered the art of neglecting sanitation to willfully “contaminate” their beers with native yeasts and bacteria living at large in the open air about their breweries. Brewers more typically use purified, laboratory-grown yeast strains and hurl buckets of sanitizing chemicals at every inch of brewing surface to keep wild yeasts and bacteria from gaining the slightest edge. They ignore sanitation at their peril, lest their beers turn rancid. Phil Goularte ignores sanitation for fun and profit.

It began with a happy accident. Goularte had brewed a batch of Scotch Ale that appeared to ferment without difficulty. But when he tasted it a month later, it was unexpectedly tart. A microscopic survey of his house yeast slurry revealed it to be entirely dead, suggesting that uninvited microbugs had hijacked his beer. And they were souring it with a vengeance.

It’s not unusual for small breweries to lose a batch of beer now and again to the intrusion of renegade microbes. What’s less common is for the brewer to let the beer age for a year to see if the native yeasts contribute some desirable enhancement. And what’s downright miraculous is for those native yeasts to transform a “spoiled” Scotch Ale into a masterful sour beer comparable to the best Flanders Red ales from Belgium. But that’s what happened at the Grey Parrot.

Phil Goularte is nobody’s fool. He’d spent years in the Navy, worked as a wildlands firefighter in California and built the Grey Parrot’s brewery himself. After more than a year of patiently conditioning his infected beer in a steel 55-gallon drum, its taste had arrived at a pristine junction of jowl-puckering sourness and refined drinkability. He rechristened it “Red Belgian Ale,” listed it on the house beer menu and watched as customers lined up to savor it.

Since his first successful Wild Ale back in 2005, Goularte has let a number of other beers go wild. Most are high-gravity ales brewed to conventional recipes that would otherwise be Strong Brown ales, Ambers or Imperial Stouts. The one difference is the fermentation agent: His wild ales are not fermented with any cultivated yeast strains, leaving the entire fermentation process to the whimsy of Mother Nature.

“I don’t know what kind of bugs are in there,” he says while examining a glass of Wild Winter Ale. “I’ve never sent a sample to a laboratory.”

But after years of walking the wild side, Goularte has informed opinions on the viability of local microflora. “Springtime is best,” he says. “There’s too many things in the air in summer. Not enough in fall and winter. I think the wild yeasts hitchhike in on pollen from the local cranberry bogs. They’re hungry devils, too. Wild yeast sucks every bit of sugar from the wort and leaves very little behind.”

Goularte opened the Grey Parrot with his wife, Carlene, who serves grilled rib eye and Black Forest ham sandwiches to customers in the Grey Parrot’s single tiny dining room. If, at first glance, Carlene reminds you of Betsy Ross, it may be the Colonial “serving wench” dress she wears from time to time. “I like to have fun with it,” she says with a smile.

Behind the kitchen, Goularte brews on a system of his own design. “I’m just a homebrewing operation on steroids,” he insists while raking the mash with a canoe paddle. Goularte uses no commercial mash tun. Instead, the mash is cooked in two 55-gallon steel drums operated side by side. Each is fitted with a false bottom, allowing the wort to flow by gravity to a 90-gallon kettle originally designed as an industrial soup kettle. After boiling, the wort is pumped to several 35-gallon conical fermentors.

Racking to the fermentors plays a supporting role in creating the Grey Parrot’s Wild Ales. Goularte uses no heat exchanger to chill his wort, nor are the beers oxygenated or filtered. The wort is allowed to cool slowly overnight inside the sealed fermentors. Slow cooling creates a potent vacuum and allows extra proteins to stay suspended in the wort. The next day, Phil cracks open a top-mounted ball valve and the ambient airs of the Long Beach Peninsula rush inside.

This swift influx of unfiltered seaside air is usually all it takes to initiate fermentation. If an active ferment isn’t noted in 24 hours, Goularte reopens the fermentors to let in more air. “When it happens, then it’s off and running,” he observes. “And when it doesn’t happen, well then you’re off and running.”

Many brewers have lamented recent hops shortages and the rising cost of materials. For Phil and Carlene, these issues would appear to be the least of their troubles. A year after first opening, their home burned to the ground. Next, Goularte broke his leg fishing. (“It was a really big fish!” he jokes.) Burglars stole expensive kitchen gear. Then a windstorm tore off part of the roof. Finally, a complex case of appendicitis forced Goularte to stop brewing for months.

For his Wild Ales, however, the delay was no problem. “It takes a year to a year and a half before I like them,” says Goularte. “The longer they go, the better they get.”

The Grey Parrot also serves a mix of more traditional styles—that is, if you call an “Alt Porter” or “ESB Pale Ale” traditional styles. But it’s the Parrot’s Wild Ales that are most notable. And the fact of being the first commercial brewery in America to produce spontaneously fermented Wild Ales with local native yeasts is a significant accomplishment. These aren’t “Brett beers” or “barrel bug beers,” but the American version of the great Lambic ales of Belgium’s Senne Valley. In fact, “Lambic” is actually the Flemish word for “Long Beach.”

(Ha! That last line was complete bullshit. Had you going there, didn’t I?) Phil Goularte’s secret to brewing America’s first great Wild Ales? He’s not shy about sharing it.

“Don’t ask me,” he says. “But it works though.”

The Grey Parrot Brewpub
Opened: July 4, 2005
Owners: Phil and Carlene Goularte
Head Brewer: Phil Goularte
Brewing Capacity: 90 gallons
Brewing System: Homemade. Two 55-gallon stainless steel drums as parallel mash tuns, 90-gallon brew kettle converted from industrial soup kettle, multiple 35-gallon conical steel fermentors, 10 55-gallon steel drum conditioning tanks
Annual Production: 200 bbl
Core Brands/Styles: ESB Pale Ale, Alt Porter, Winter Weissen, Honey Blonde Ale, Red Belgian Ale, Wild Winter Ale
Notable: Northernmost brewery on the West Coast of the contiguous 48 states. First brewery in America to commercially produce spontaneously fermented Wild Ales with native yeasts.