Malt Monday: Wild Thing

5 April 2010
By Richard Pliny

Style:“American Wild Ale”
Color: Gold
ABV: 7%
Price Point: $10 for 750 mL
Technical Notes:
From the Ithaca Beer website: “Brewed with vintage local hops, American Barley, Wheat and Corn, Brute is fermented on Oak for many months with Brettanomyces, then finished with a blend of three Champagne yeasts.  Enjoy the turbid citron hue, mature aroma, brash tartness and dry, quenching sparkle.” Bottle-conditioned.

Hedonic Notes:

Brute pours a brilliant orange gold with a slight opacity and a great deal of carbonation.  A tall white foam forms instantly with large bubbles and dissipates quickly as well.

As soon as the cork is pulled, tart Brettanomyces barnyard scents mixed with champagne notes fill the room.  Orange peel and lemon are noticeable upon further inspection, perhaps with a hint of pineapple.  The effervescence tickles your nose as you reach for a stronger scent.

The first sips remind one of a sour candy as sweet citrus and sour Brettanomyces flavors mingle.  Champagne with a clear grape flavor fills the middle of the palate, bringing balance to the mouth-puckeringly tart Brettanomyces flavors.  The oak used to age this brew is quite faint, masked almost entirely by the drink’s sourness, but lingering on the palate a bit longer.  A hint of caramel malt eases the transition from citrus sour to lingering faint oak.

This beer, more than most others, drinks like champagne.  The high carbonation adds a distinct lightness to the body that is reinforced by prominent champagne notes in the flavor. Despite the apparent sweetness, the beer feels quite light.

In all, this beer is very drinkable.  It is very nice to see more American brewers pursuing American wild ales, with Ithaca Beer Company offering several beers featuring Brettanomyces.  That said, this beer lacks the distinct Brettanomyces character that one may expect from beers in this category.  However, its balance should be commended as a way to make an introduction to an often difficult to understand beer category.  At times the beer is more like a sour candy champagne than a beer.  The faintest hints of malt remind one that it is indeed a beer, while the champagne texture and flavors remind the drinker that it is something unique.

Rating: corkcorkcorkcorknocork 4/5 corks. Ithaca’s Brute is a great introduction to wild ales and a good example of an American wild ale.


Lambic aging in barrels. Thanks to cizauskas on Flickr.

In addition to fermenting over longer time periods than S. cerevisiae, Brettanomyces yeasts are able to metabolize a wider range of carbon sources.  In addition to the smaller dextrins that nearly all microbes eat, Brettanomyces is able to break down beta glucans and even structures like cellobiose.  Indeed, beers brewed with Brettanomyces are often observed to have a lower final gravity.

Brettanomyces is used almost exclusively in a very narrow category of beers: sour ales.  Traditionally these are Flanders ales, Lambics.  Flanders red and brown ales are, as the name may suggest, brewed in the Flanders region of Belgium.  Lambics, too, hail from Belgium, and are typically fruit ales.  Berliner weisse is a unique style of sour wheat beer, but relies on Lactobacillus rather than Bretannomyces to lend a sour flavor.

Flanders red ale is a traditional style from west Flanders, while brown ales hale from east Flanders.   The red ales are often aged for up to two years in used barrels that contain a variety of microorganisms that give the beer its unique flavors.  Brown ales, however, are not aged in oak and are typically served young.  The Flanders brown ales tend to be based as very light ales with some caramel malt for color, where red ales are made largely of slightly darker malts.  In either case, low alpha content hops are used.

Brettanomyces photo from Cal State Fresno: Note the formation of chains that contributes to their ability to form biofilms.

Lambics are often made using a Flanders brown ale as a base malt, but with the addition of large amounts of unmalted wheat.  Traditionally these are made almost the same way as red wine, with large open slate casks serving as primary fermentation of fruit and wort mixtures, after which the fruit is pressed and the remaining liquid is fermented and aged in barrels.

In addition to the classic styles, Brettanomyces has been the subject of interest recently in brewing.  Brewers like Ithaca, Russian River and New Belgium have started Brettanomcyes to make unique sour ales that are quite distinct from their classic forefathers.  Branching out from S. cerevisiae has lead to a return to classical brewing styles and emulating wild fermentation.

Careful management of fermentation time and conditions allows one to make very complex beers with Brettanomcyes.  In wines, the yeast is notorious for destroying delicate fruit aromas and flavors, but in beer it lends a degree of complexity that is difficult to replicate with S. cerevisiae.  They are known for their ability to create ranges of flavor from earthy to spicy and from fruity to sour all at once and sometimes at levels that do not offend or obfuscate the beer’s character.

Though very useful if used properly, Brettanomcyes is notorious for being very difficult to eliminate when not desired.  Because it is able to eat nearly anything and is very durable to a wide range of conditions (even very high alcohol content) and ability to make biofilms, Brettanomyces is able to elude many cleaning strategies.  Many brewers who use multiple types of yeast tend to use different sets of equipment for each yeast genus in an effort to avoid contamination.

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 Malt Monday: Wild Thing

  1. Tom Mansell on 5 April 2010 at 9:55 pm

    Last year’s batch of this was VERY sour. They toned it down a little bit in subsequent batches and it did a lot for the balance.

    I also agree with the grapey flavor. I definitely get that. I love that our local brewery is so cutting edge with these brews.

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