The unpredictable yeast Brettanomyces (alias Brett) has been used to ferment beer overseas for more than a century, and has gained popularity in American over the past few years. It’s used to ferment wild ales, a varied group of tart and funky brews that span the flavor spectrum. And these sour and wild ales are in-demand. They’re highly sought-after from breweries like Side Project, de Garde, Crooked Stave, Wicked Weed and Jester King. (When made by Belgian breweries, Brett-fermented sours generally include styles like gueuzes, lambics and oud bruins.) But wild ales, for all the love they get from the geekier end of the beer fan spectrum, still won’t win a popularity contest against IPAs. What if the two could combine forces?
They have. Brewers continue to push the stylistic boundaries, and some have lately produced a sort of hybrid wild ale-IPA fermented by the funkmaster Brettanomyces. Hops and Brett seem, at first blush, like strange bedfellows. In theory, these Brett IPAs combine the variable aromatics (including hay, barnyard and tart fruit) of Brett with complimentary hop aroma and flavor. It’s a daunting brewing challenge, best left to those who can rein in this unpredictable yeast. Tasting four Brett-and-hops beers side-by-side revealed just how wide a range of flavors the combo can produce. Here’s a quick rundown of the four we tried, ranked from most like an IPA to most wild:
Manayunk Dr. Drei Brett IPA: This was the darkest beer of the four, pouring a deep, clear golden color. The duo of Brett and earthy hops produced a perfumey, incenselike aroma with light spice around its edges. The sip was also the smoothest of the four beers, with a pleasantly weighted mouthfeel and dank, floral hops wrapped in a lightly funky blanket. If you’re an IPA fan just dipping your toes into the Bretty waters, start here. It’s mostly an earthy IPA, slightly skewed by Brett’s more pleasant characteristics.
Avery Twenty Two: The 22nd anniversary release from Avery is labeled a “100% Brettanomyces drie-fermented dry-hopped wild ale.” Let’s parse that out: Brett drie is the specific strain of Brett (the yeast has different species that all produce different flavors in beer), and the beer is dry-hopped with Lemon Drop and Hersbrucker, meaning hops are added after the boil to produce maximum aromatics. OK. On to its characteristics: The Brett produces complex aromas of light red wine vinegar and some sweaty sock (in a good way!), while the hops express themselves more on the tongue. There’s a light grapiness and peach from the Brett drie, and the hops contribute complimentary citric tartness that riffs on the fruit theme. It’s pleasing despite its complexity, and doesn’t veer too far toward Brett’s stranger side.
Crooked Stave Hop Savant Citra: Crooked Stave has released multiple versions of this Brett-fermented pale ale brewed with different hop varieties; we tried the Citra-hopped version. In this beer, hops and Brett intertwine expertly: hay and barnyard scents coat a juicy grapefruit aroma, while the sip reveals even more prominent, fresh citrus pith flavor with just a touch of Brett mustiness underneath. Despite its grapefruit-forward flavors, the sharp aroma of a horse stable might not be everyone’s cup of tea. Share this with the adventurous drinkers in your life.
Green Bench/Trinity (collaboration) Sauvage Blanc: There’s a “Sauv” theme running through this 100% Brett-fermented saison—Nelson Sauvin hops, sauvignon blanc grape must, and the beer’s been aged in sauvignon blanc barrels. Yes, there’s plenty going on in this tiny bottle. This is the haziest of the four beers, with a white wine hue that’s almost tinted green when held up to light. Aromas jump off the pour: a nearly manurelike funk lets you know you’re in for something earthy and, well, kinda weird. Nelson Sauvin hops mimic some of the flavors of white wine grapes, which connect with Brett’s rustic, wet earth flavors to create the impression of a vineyard after a storm. Sound quite poetic? That’s what the intense side of the Brett spectrum inspires.