Tuesday, October 2, 2012

Book Review: Wildbrews

“Why do all of these breweries own a cat? To keep the Brettanomyces under control” (vi).

Jeff Sparrow’s Wildbrews: Beer Beyond the Influence of Brewer’s Yeast is a primer on brewing beyond Saccharomyces cerevisiae; while this is of course the subtitle of the book, I nonetheless feel compelled to reinforce this point, as it is, I think, one of the keys to understanding the Belgian approach to brewing. As Peter Bouckaert notes in the “Foreword,” Belgian brewers “are making their beer, not a style” (ix), and Sparrow expands on this point, observing that Belgian brewers “aren’t terribly obsessed with the concept of style” (9). Sparrow continues: “At one time, all beer exhibited some level of tart, sour, acidic character. Modern brewing methods helped to virtually eliminate those characteristics in beer. Only several traditional styles of wild beer exist, still brewed using traditional methods in Flanders, Brussels, and the surrounding countryside” (4). This hewing to traditional methods, along with an understanding and intentional implementation of wild yeast and beer souring micro organisms, is what makes Belgian brewing Belgian. These “hedgehogs,” as Bouckaert calls them, cling “furiously to the good old stuff” (ix). And in reading Jeff Sparrow’s well-written, clear, and detailed book, you can find the information necessary to transform yourself into as much of a hedgehog as you’d like to be when brewing.

Not surprisingly, to understand the beers, we need to understand the history that created them. Sparrow spares no detail in providing the influence of history on Belgian brewing. The traditional combination of barley and wheat in many Belgian beers dates back to, well, a long time ago: “Duke Jean IV of Brabant decreed in 1420 that all brewers in Brabant were required to use wheat to improve the quality of their beers” (40). And lambic turbid mashing traces back to an 1822 Dutch law that “fixed a duty upon the capacity of the mash tun [...] The mashes of early Belgian brewers were, therefore, turbid. This type of mash, full of starches and dextrins, is still common in the production of lambic” (40). The law, however, did have one loophole: “This law made a provision for raw grains not directly mashed with the malt in the tun, this giving a financial advantage to the use of corn, oats, or wheat in a separate cereal cooker” (49). Thus, while 400 years separate these two legal decrees, they both push Belgian brewing in similar directions.

Terroir is also a significant contributor to many Belgian breweries; process has been shaped by locale as well as the law. Chapter 4, “Beer-Souring Organisms,” offers a rundown of the different organism that contribute characteristics to beer: “Four dominant types of microorganisms commonly ferment and acidify beers: Brettanomyces, Lactobacillus, Pediococcus, and Saccharomyces. Several other important players also merit a mention, including Acetobacter, Enterobacter, and various oxidative yeasts. A wide variety of different strains of Saccharomyces cerevisiae ferment beer, and they all have different requirements and characteristics. This same fact applies to wild yeast and bacteria” (99). While broadly interested in all of these, my current interest is specifically in Brettanomyces. Thus, the several pages that Sparrow dedicates to N. Hjelte Claussen’s 1904 discovery are excellent reading: “The five currently recognized species of Brettanomyces include (with several synonyms): B. anomalus (B. claussenii), B. bruxellensis (B. abstinens, B. custerii, B. intermedius, B. lambicus), B. custersianus, B. naardensis, and B. nanus. Many different strains of each species exist within the genus Brettanomyces” (106). Next month, I’ll be making Brettanomyces-only beers with the four different Brettanomyces commercially available to home brewers; from Wyeast there is B. bruxellensis (5122) and B. lambicus (5526), and White Labs carries B. claussenii (WLP 645) and B. bruxellensis trois (WLP 644), the last which is a seasonal release and is, I am guessing, a specific strain of the B. bruxellensis species (it is, according to the Mad Fermentationist, the 3 Fonteinen strain). Thus, according to Sparrow’s list, I’ve bought three versions of B. bruxellensis and one of B. anomalus; one further distinguishing characteristic Sparrow does point out, however: “B. bruxellensis often refers to a strain obtained within Brussels, B. lambicus to strains cultured in the Payottenland. Individual strains all exhibit different characteristics” (106-7). Mainly, it looks like I’ll have to wait and compare the final products to get a sense of the similarities and differences between the four different Brettanomyces listed here, but then again, that's part of my interest in performing the experiment (and another side note: Al B. from East Coast Yeast offers B. custersianus as ECY 19). There’s also an interesting (and valuable) chart at the end of Chapter 4 that maps out the alcohol and pH tolerance of all the common wild buggies in the chapter, as well as which ones produce alcohol, lactic and acetic acid, and the temperature ranges and response to oxygen for each (115). [Brettanomyces graphs from Eureka Brewing]

Equally valuable is “Production Methods,” Chapter 5, which offers the nuts and bolts of how to produce wild beers. Of particular interest is the discussion of fruit: “Four factors to consider when choosing fruit include sugar content, acidity, the type of acid, and the level of tannins in the fruit” (130). The previous page has another helpful chart, listing fruit and ranking all four of these categories. As well, the extended discussion on turbid mashing was helpful in understanding the processes and purposes behind the practice. In regards to fermentation, Sparrow discusses three different methods: “inoculated, spontaneous, and mixed” (151); he also traces the fermentation dynamics of both Lambics and Flanders Reds, providing a sense of the complex and inter-related microbial sequence of events required to produce these beers.

The chapter on “Fermentation and Maturation Vessels,” Chapter 7, covers the characteristics of barrel and wood aging, along with information on selecting the appropriate barrel. Thus, the “designation ‘oaky’ refers to the aroma or flavor of a liquid that has interacted with the oak while in a barrel. More than 200 components of wood may directly contribute to an alcoholic beverage, although only about a dozen are detectable by the human palate, and three deserve closer attention. One of the primary compounds contributed in vanillin. This compound will lend a vanillalike aroma and corresponding sweetness, even in barely detectable amounts. Oak also contributes tannins. This compound adds a drying, astringent, acidic character often present in red wine. A third—the unique spicy character contributed by methyloctalactones—differs according to the origin (country, region, and even forest) of the wood” (191-2). The information on preparing a barrel for use (205-8) offers information I hope to be able to make use of some day.

Sparrow’s book concludes with a discussion of finishing beers and blending, an important part of Belgian brewing, and a section of recipes to get readers started. Thus, a “brewer blends beer for two basic reasons: to change the character of the beer and/or to produce a consistent result not possible from a single batch” (225). I do like this carefully and most certainly intentionally placed observation: “Anheuser-Busch carefully controls every step of the brewing process and still blends to achieve an extremely high level of consistency” (225). Rreowww!  
From here.

And finally, my new vocabulary word from this book: caveau, the name for the large stacks of bottles of gueuze, stored on their side and usually against a wall, which brewers use to age individual blends of their beer (245). Love live the caveau!


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