Science and nature inspire a new generation of beer series.
By Christopher Staten
Every fall, when the air turned crisp and the central North Carolina landscape shed its green hue for a shimmering gold, the McConnell family watched as the ripened fruit of its two persimmon trees dropped to the ground—much to the delight of the McConnells’ two dogs.
“We’d talked about making persimmon pudding, but never actually did anything with them,” remembers Sharon McConnell. That is, until Fullsteam brewery founder Sean Lilly Wilson began changing the way local residents view the flora around them.
Wilson’s a rare breed, a natural leader bursting with enthusiastic creativity and magnetic charm; through the power of Facebook, Twitter and blogs, he had the Internet buzzing about Fullsteam years before it ever poured its first drop of beer. A North Carolina native, Wilson remembers his first job waiting tables at a high-end restaurant, where seasonal, locally sourced dishes were the chef’s raison d’etre. That notion stuck with him, and when he began hashing out Fullsteam, he made it his mission to treat beer-making agriculturally, “using local Southern food traditions to remind [people] that beer is agriculture,” he notes.
So, two years ago, to the dismay of her dogs, McConnell responded to a Facebook post from Wilson inquiring about where he could find locally grown persimmons. “In my backyard,” she wrote. A few days later, Wilson was crouched beneath the McConnells’ persimmon trees, scrounging up the fruit that would go into his first batch of Forager beer, a series of beer brewed with local fruits and vegetables. Today, locals don’t wait for Wilson to ask before bringing over baskets of their fallen fruit.
On its surface, Fullsteam’s Forager series is something of a grassroots, local movement; Wilson puts out a call for a local wild fruit and offers market price to anyone who delivers. The project is a culmination of his passions: Southern brewing tradition, social networking, micro-commerce and North Carolina’s oft-overlooked bounty.
“It’s really rewarding for us because people don’t know what persimmons or paw-paws are, and they should,” says Wilson. “That’s what gets us excited about the Forager series—we’re getting them to discover what grows in the earth around them.”
Like the McConnells, families hear about the Forager collection through Twitter, Facebook, Fullsteam blog posts, or simply word of mouth. During harvest, they deliver bags and buckets of produce, such as figs for Wilson’s Surprise Fig Beer, to the brewery, where the fruit is inspected and weighed. Wilson then cuts them a check—a major part of his mission to build what he calls “a Southern beer economy.” Should a family decline the offer, he donates the money to a local community garden.
“It’s nice we have a useful thing to do with the fruit of a tree we’ve always admired,” notes McConnell. “For years our property was a farm, and in a small way it’s agriculturally productive again.”
Specialty beer series, collections of beers brewed by one brewer around a theme, have captured imaginations since brewers began releasing limited-edition bottles of their barrel-aged experiments in the early 2000s. But the most interesting series—like the Forager line—often speak to brewers’ personal passions, and let them step away from their less creative but more lucrative flagship beers. Dogfish Head’s Sam Calagione and University of Pennsylvania’s Patrick McGovern galavant around the world Indiana Jones-style, resurrecting historic and pre-historic fermented beverages. Brooklyn Brewery’s Garrett Oliver manipulates his beer ingredients to replicate classic cocktails, while Flying Fish’s Gene Muller is well on his way to brewing a beer for every exit on the New Jersey Turnpike. And right now, a years-in-the-making series is quietly unfolding in Fort Collins, Colo., under the microscope of Crooked Stave’s Chad Yakobson.
A few years back, if you wanted to find Yakobson, the best place to look was in his makeshift laboratory at Heriot-Watt University’s International Centre for Brewing and Distilling in Edinburgh, Scotland. At the time, he was slogging his way through a master’s dissertation even his professors didn’t understand: “Pure Culture Fermentation Characteristics of Brettanomyces Yeast Species and Their Use in the Brewing Industry.” In short, it was a trailblazing study on how Brettanomyces—a wild yeast used sparingly in beer styles like Belgian lambics, and considered a rogue agent in brewhouses—can be harnessed as a sole fermenting yeast. Anyone schooled in brewing science and having an abundance of free time should peek at the research, posted open-source-style on his Brettanomyces Project website.
He opened Crooked Stave brewery last year, and his Wild Wild Brett (W.W.B.) series is his first achievement: It’s a collection of 100-percent Brett beers brewed with ingredients inspired by the color spectrum. “Beer primarily fermented with Brett is a whole new beer; it’s not an ale or a lager, it’s a style or category of its own that doesn’t really exist yet,” explains Yakobson. “Right now, I’ve got 10 different types of Brett yeast, and I’m choosing different strains that pair with the colors and ingredients.”
First came Rouge, brewed with two Brett strains, rose hips, hibiscus and Hawthorn berries, giving the final brew a reddish hue. Next was Orange, brewed with four Brett strains, fresh tangelos, bitter orange peel and citrusy Indian coriander. Yellow was inspired by the flavors of Indian cuisine, with turmeric, tart mangos and coriander—and so forth.
Yakobson’s experiments have allowed him to pull out flavors from the yeast that were once unimaginable. “I’m selecting Brett for its fruit-forwardness, and less of the barnyard characteristics,” he points out. His scientific wizardry shines in beers like the one-off experiment Petite Sour, packed with fresh guava notes derived from the yeast.
“I’m trying to reeducate. People automatically assume Brett is sour, and while it will produce a tiny bit of tartness, it’s a clean yeast that can produce fruity esters,” he says. “Its diversity is even greater than Saccharomyces [the genus of ale and lager yeast], and there’s a potential to have 1,000 different yeast strains.”
In a way, all of the brewers are scientists, testing their theses with each new batch. The takeaway for drinkers is the opportunity to explore a single theme with every installment.
SERIES PREMIERE: Watch for these new beer series this year.
Aspen Brewing launches its Temerity Series this spring, a collection of sour, Brett and spirit-aged brews. Elysian Brewing preps for the end of the world with its new Twelve Beers of the Apocalypse, released on the 21st of each month. Great Divide’s Yeti beers—all riffs on the famous imperial stout of the same name—transition into an official series this year, with new packaging and a formal release schedule. Thirsty Dog releases the big guns with a new barrel-aged series in 750mL bottles, including a Belgian-style tripel, dubbel, imperial stout and strong Scotch ale.