The race to create the next popular beer style—a wholly American beer—is under way. Dubbed native ales, these beers harness ingredients and flavors from the brewery’s backyard.
By Christopher Staten
For the past 20 years, Russ Klisch has had a conversation lodged in the recesses of his memory. At a Craft Brewers Conference dinner in the 1990s, the Lakefront Brewery president overheard an American brewer questioning a visiting Belgian brewing veteran ad nauseam about his craft. Exhausted with the barrage of queries, the Belgian brewer finally put an end to the conversation with an abrupt, dismissive, “Why don’t you just find your own local ingredients and brew with them?” Klisch took note.
“You can walk into any liquor store in the United States, and every beer is brewed with yeast originally grown in Europe,” he points out.
In a sense, it’s true. At its core, U.S. craft beer is essentially an extension or amalgamation of European brewing styles. We’ve pushed the envelope with new hop flavors and bittering levels, but the imperial IPA still owes its existence to the English. The fruited saison? That’s still Belgian. We romanticize the origins of centuries-old English IPAs on the high seas and pious monks silently crafting abbey ales, but in 200 years’ time, what story will drinkers tell about the American beer style? Actually: What is American beer, anyway? Klisch and a growing number of brewers are beginning to answer that question. It all begins with yeast.
Back in 2011, during the Craft Brewers Conference in San Francisco, I attended a panel discussion featuring Dogfish Head’s Sam Calagione. During the talk, Calagione broke off on a tangent about the creation of native American beers—that is, brews constructed from locally grown ingredients, including yeast, which sets them apart from any previous existing beer style. It wasn’t a far-out idea: A year prior, both Colorado’s Odell and Texas’ Jester King released small-batch beers fermented with local yeast captured in their respective backyards.
Calagione wrapped up with a pretty inspired wish: to one day see a native beer festival with each state represented. Later that year, Dogfish Head released its first version of D.N.A. (short for Delaware Native Ale), which was made entirely from ingredients grown in the First State. He even managed to get the governor to declare the yeast, captured on a local farm, the honorary state strain. As if on cue, that year, the Brewers Association added the Indigenous Beer category to the Great American Beer Festival competition, which includes “beers made wholly unique by use of multiple local ingredients and/or techniques, with the resulting beer being highly representative of location.” Whether coincidence or kismet, the idea of native beer was brewing. Today, it’s spreading.
When I first emailed Bryan Greenhagen of Boston’s Mystic Brewing about his Vinland Series, a still-in-progress line of beers that showcase wild yeast from each New England state, he replied, “Have you found anyone else using isolated yeast?” It was a fair question: Despite a growing number of native yeast beers, microbiology doesn’t seem to inspire a lot of press. But that doesn’t mean it isn’t interesting.
Case in point: Vinland One. For the series’ first release, Greenhagen isolated a yeast strain from a Massachusetts plum he bought at a local farmers market. Called Winnie, the wild yeast imparts plum, mango and touches of spice to the saison base, giving it character more akin to wine. Technically, One isn’t an ale or lager; it’s something unique. Greenhagen’s also working on developing yeast cultures from blueberries in Maine for Vinland Two, slated for release this September, and berries and grapes from a family farm in Vermont. While the lack of local ingredients suited for his recipes (mainly noble hops) prevents him from brewing a complete native beer, his use of local, wild yeast makes Vinland exclusive to his region.
“Biodiversity can help us make our own unique beer,” he says. “Even though we work within the Belgian tradition, how can we bring that back to make things that are actually distinctive and, in some cases, beer you couldn’t make anywhere else?”
Halfway across the country in Milwaukee, Klisch finally exercised that long-remembered exchange between the two brewers when Lakefront released Wisconsinite, made solely with ingredients grown in the Badger State. To formulate the beer, he teamed up with Jeremy King of Northern Brewer, who has a Ph.D. in biochemistry, to isolate a strain of yeast off of crushed Wisconsin-grown grain. They sent the culture to Wyeast Laboratories, a commercial brewing yeast outfit, for development.
When their yeast returned, they started brewing. As it turned out, the yeast showcased clove and hints of banana—common flavors of the classic hefeweizen ale yeast. Given Wisconsin’s strong German heritage, Klisch was pleasantly surprised, so he sourced local malted barley, wheat and hops to brew an American weissbier, the brewery’s new spring seasonal. Klisch understood that to further the discussion of native ales—and just as important, the new, indigenous strain of brewing yeast he helped discover—he couldn’t keep the yeast under lock and key. He released the Wisconsin strain to both Wyeast and Northern Brewer so professionals and homebrewers could use it in new recipes—a pretty important first step toward proliferating a new American style of beer.
“[Yeast] is the next frontier of craft brewing,” Klisch says. “That’s where all the previous styles came from, just someone brewing with wild yeast. There are only so many malts and hops to play around with; yeast is going to be the next big thing.”
But just how plausible is the success of these native beers? According to both Greenhagen and Klisch, the growing interest in local consumption (i.e., the locavore
movement) means there’s already a built-in demand: “People are drawn to local ingredients, and we’re trying to do that with beer,” says Greenhagen. “And in culinary terms, people are looking for variety and more interesting beers.”
But in terms of the big picture—that “what story will they tell in 200 years?” question—native beers have the potential to define the American craft beer industry’s legacy. The array of yet-to-be-cultivated yeast strains floating past our windows could even mark new, distinct American brewing regions, not unlike Belgium’s Senne River Valley, which became famous for its spontaneously fermented lambics. The rub? Isolating those yeasts isn’t easy. For Vinland One, Greenhagen brewed roughly 100 batches of beer with individual yeast strains—most to disastrous results—before hitting on the right one.
Still, companies like Wyeast are simplifying the process: Jess Caudill, a Wyeast microbiologist, says for $150, the company will analyze a sample and isolate any yeast strains viable for brewing. Breweries like Mystic, Lakefront and Virginia’s Lost Rhino, which released a native yeast beer called Wild Farmwell Wheat last fall, use those labs or ones they build themselves to propagate the yeast they use to invent new beers. And Dogfish Head continues to release D.N.A. annually. It seems we’re inching toward the next popular beer style, one that’s completely, utterly American.
“If you look around the world at historic styles, what we don’t have is that sort of fine development of a style; we’ve got a ways to go,” notes Greenhagen. He says the brewery that develops the next successful native ale will certainly survive the shake-out of a potentially saturated industry. “We all shouldn’t be trying to make the perfect pale ale.”
SAMPLE THE LOCAL FLAVOR WITH THESE 5 NATIVE ALES:
Allagash Coolship Red: Instead of sending strains off to the lab, Allagash just opens its windows: Beers like Red, a funky, fruity sour ale aged with raspberries, are inoculated by ambient wild yeast and bacteria while inside the brewery’s open-air fermenter.
Lakefront Wisconsinite: This American-style weissbier’s possibly the only bottled beer made with 100-percent state-grown ingredients, right down to the yeast. It washes back with subtle clove, banana and bready notes and a sessionable 4.2% ABV.
Mammoth Wild Sierra Mountain Farmhouse Ale: This California brewery used the wild yeast found on local Pinyon Pine branches to ferment its farmhouse ale; the yeast lends a slightly earthy, lagerlike character to the beer.
Jester King Das Wunderkind!: Before the brewery even opened in 2011, brewers had already captured wild yeast floating in the Texas Hill Country wind and cultivated it at Colorado’s Brewery Science Institute. Today, it’s used in this rustic saison.
Odell Deconstruction: In 2010, Odell captured a wild yeast in Colorado that became known as the Fester strain. Today, you can taste the citrus flavor it lends to beer in releases like this blended, wine-barrel-aged brew.