From out of the bleu

12 February 2010
By Tom Mansell

Ithaca Beer Company Excelsior! Le Bleu

Style: Wild American Ale with Blueberries
Color: A translucent red stream leaps from the bottle, recalling a Lambic almost instantly. Pinkish foam forms with large bubbles and dissipates quickly.
ABV: 5.0%
Price Point: $17 (Note: this beer was very limited production. I am told that it is sold out. -Ed.)
Technical Notes: Fermented with Brettanomyces and finished with champagne yeast. Blended from several sour beer barrels.

Hedonic Notes:
Bubbles rise up the length of the glass and seem to spring forth out of the glass as the beer sits. A sour smell dominates the aroma, calling up images of {Brettanomyces} and {Acetobacter}. Hints of blueberry and champagne appear in the background. Slight red fruit scents are present throughout and mask blueberry notes.

The first sip is very sour initially and fades into sweetness. Faint blueberry notes are masked yielding to Brett horse-blanket. Blueberry mingles with and is virtually indistinguishable from red fruit in a sweet finish. The precise balance of Brett sour and fruity sweet make for an almost sour fruit candy taste. Indeed, the funky flavor of Brett does not overpower any single characteristic of the beer, merely reminding the drinker of its presence. Champagne notes form an ever-present backbone, conjuring images of a sparkling fruit wine. Very high levels of carbonation combined with a specific sweetness make for a champagne mouthfeel.

The beer is light overall, but the effervescence makes it easy to overlook the nuances of its body. The technique using Brettanomyces, and a variety of barrel aged samples is characteristic of Lambics. Indeed, the flavor reminds me a great deal of Lindeman’s brews, a delightful balance of sweet and sour. As an aside, the Wild American Ale category is largely underdeveloped and it is nice to see a brewery pursuing an often overlooked category. The beer, as most of the Excelsior! brews, is very well balanced. Surprisingly, the beer offers a distinct Brettanomyces flavor without being off-putting. It is magnificently palatable overall, and like the aforementioned Lindeman’s beers, may form a delightful introduction to beer and wild beer for the uninitiated.

Rating: corkcorkcorkcorkhalfcork 4.5 out of 5 corks .

Prior to the advent of defined yeast strains and careful genetic management, brewers of wine and beer often used blending techniques to produce consistent and reliable final products. The techniques of blending select not only yeast strains for desirable qualities, but involve the mixing of young and old beers or wines with very different characteristics and compounds in solution, exposing old microbes to new materials.

Microbes may exist in solution or on the surface of the fruit (many wild yeasts reside on the skins of fruit), but rely on molecular diffusion for sugars and nutrients to reach the cells. Compounds must diffuse through the fruit’s cellulosic matrix to reach the yeast cells. In the case of Lambics, fermentation may demand up to three years to completely mature.

Depending on the time of year and immediate conditions at the time of brewing or preparing grapes (especially the amount of time since the last rain), different wild microbes may infect the wort or must. Add in the very long maturation time and these fermentations require either very precise control of the fermentation process or a number of different permutations of a particular fermentation, each with different flaws and strengths.

Mixing these different permutations has the potential to produce a consistent and desirable product. The often unpredictable nature of fermentations necessitates such approaches in large-scale endeavors. Mixing old beer with young beer (a three year and one year fermentation is often used when making Gueuze) reinvigorates fermentation. Certain oxidative yeasts (Brettanomyces, most notably) take a very long time to ferment completely, often in excess of 8 months before the yeast fully start autolyzing and/or falling out of solution.

For comparison, Saccharomyces are bred to be rapid fermenting yeasts and typically finish their work in two weeks before they start dropping out of solution and begin fining the product. Some other participants in the fermentation process (e.g. Pediococcus taking up to 4 months) also are slow fermenting, necessitating long maturation times. Most bacteria in wild fermentations, however, tend to work very rapidly and play little role in aging. Indeed, it is very often that the dominance of the bacteria reproducing very quickly that makes controlling the process difficult and introduces undesirable flavors. Blending different vintages is almost always necessary in making wild ales that are consistent and perhaps merely even palatable.

Further Reading: Sparrow, Jeff. WildBrews: Beer Beyond the Influence of Brewer’s Yeast. Brewer’s Publications: Boulder, CO. 2005.

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One Response to From out of the bleu

  1. Malt Monday: Wild Thing | Ithacork on 5 April 2010 at 9:51 pm

    [...] addition to fermenting over longer time periods than S. cerevisiae, Brettanomyces yeasts are able to metabolize a wider range of carbon sources.  [...]

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