Odds are that you, like me, were not able to attend this year’s Carnivale Brettanomyces in Amsterdam, one of my favorite fests in the world. That’s OK. We make our own fun.
Besides an array of truly strange beers in an appropriately strange host city, this event has a strong educational component: a series of lectures and tastings hosted by people who really know their stuff. This year’s series included talks by Jean Van Roy of Cantillon and Chad Yakobson from Crooked Stave, among others, so I was sad to miss it. But while visiting family in Missouri and browsing one of the St. Louis area’s more voluminous liquor superstores, I noticed something: There are enough Brett beers populating the shelves these days to make our own Carnivale Brettanomyces at home. So that’s what I did⏤and so can you.
And I noticed something else: A lot of these beers are fucking expensive.
They are cheaper than a flight to Amsterdam, sure. But considering these beers are made in our own country and sold for home consumption, they’re a splurge. I mean, if you’re used to paying for fancy wine, maybe they don’t seem that pricey to you. Or, if you’re the type to build an evening around tasting one or two beers but but not drinking several, then maybe it’s a cheap date and you’re fully entertained.
Personally, I like to taste beer⏤but not as much as I like to drink beer. Perhaps I fear that I will really like one of these dainties and want to buy lots more of it.
For comparison: To have some stuff to enjoy during a hot sunny weekend of swimming, fishing and grilling, we bought a sixer of IPA, two four-packs of pint cans (pale ale and fancy lager) and two half-liters of imported German pils. The total: $38.22.
But for our blind tasting⏤our own Carnivale Brettanomyces⏤we bought seven individual bottles, ranging in size from 375 to 750 ml (or, 12.68 to 25.36 ounces). The total for these seven beers: $85.24.
I understand that these beers are special, and that we as drinkers have shown willingness to pay more for this sort of thing. But consider where we were likely to find Brettanomyces in beer, historically speaking: old British porter; Belgian lambic and saison; Berliner weisse, etc. In their home contexts, none of these would have been upper-class drinks. They were only beer, after all.
So, while I wish for a new wave of unpretentious, reasonably priced Brett beers, maybe I can help you shop.
In picking out the beers for our blind tasting, I had only two rules: It must say “Brett” or “Brettanomyces” clearly on the label, and it must have no spices listed on the label. We rather easily found seven beers and probably could have picked out more.
Back at the farm, my wife Kelly deftly handled the pouring from behind a screen, randomizing the beers for us. We did not know what we were drinking. My fellow judges were her parents, occasional homebrewers who enjoy tasting all sorts of things. They’re not geeks and had never taken notes on beers before. I’ve included some of their comments; the scores are my own. Even so, we found an easy consensus on the top three beers and order of preference. If we had been a judging table in a competition, we could have assigned gold, silver and bronze medals without debate.
Judging was hedonistic. We noted the appearance and aroma and mouthfeel and so on but in the end, our scores were based on a simple question: How did you like it and to what degree would you enjoy drinking more of this?
The results included plenty of surprises. I list the beers alphabetically. Warning: There will be highfalutin descriptors.
Anchorage Mosaic Saison with Brettanomyces, 6.5%, 750 ml, $13.99 ✭✭✭1/2
Pours clear, pale gold with lush, sudsy white foam. Distinct notes of dry cider, Chardonnay and pineapple with underlying straw, nuts and cellar-must. Taste brings a firm smack of bitterness, with rough resin building on the tongue with repeat sips. Dry, but not to the bone. Brutish bitterness gets in the way of this being a really entertaining beer, depending on how you feel about brutish bitterness. The in-laws said: “Just didn’t care for it.”
Boulevard Saison-Brett (2016), 8.5%, 750 ml, $11.99 ✭✭✭
Brilliant yellow-gold with some evident sparkle and resilient meringue-like foam. Vaguely artificial lemon-lime scent, like a half-full soda can left out after picnic. More: lime leaves, light nutty malts, sourdough. Tastes quite sweet, not quite balanced by a snap of bitterness, with more than a bit of alcohol burn. Ethanol and gin more evident in aftertaste. Lovely nose but off-balance with unpleasant alcohol. The in-laws said: “Not much nose. Like a bitter Budweiser. It was pretty, though.”
Crooked Stave Brett d’Or, 7%, 375 ml, $9.99 ✭✭✭✭1/2
Very pale yellow-gold, lightly hazed, its white foam sticking just a bit. Smells of unripe pineapple and musty lemon, with a bit of goaty, tangy sweat. Flavor is quite tart, lemony and grapefruity with low bitterness. Lambiclike but simpler; not as dry as an oude gueuze but nearly as complex. A fine, lemony, tart, tangy summer drink. The in-laws said: “Sweat socks, but I like this. Refreshing.”
New Holland Mischievous (2015), 5.5%, 22 oz., $13.99 ✭✭1/2
Deep, old gold color, lively, with geometric bubbling like octagons unless you look closely. Smells of mushy, musty, overripe apples and tomato jam drizzled in syrup from a can of tropical fruit cocktail. Potent but not entirely pleasant. Flavor leans sweet with not quite enough bitterness, accented with woody tomato. Odd beer, too challenging to want more. The in-laws said: “Like apple cider. But something ain’t right about it.”
Prairie Vous Français, 3.9%, 750 ml, $7.99 ✭✭✭1/2
Very pale yellow, hazy, polygon bubbles stacking down as lots of sparkles fall up. Nose of lemon, cider must, wine barrels and sweet spillage. Utterly bony-bone dry, floral like chamomile in a soap shop, fairly thin body but lively. Compelling beer but wanting a light touch of sweetness or acidity to balance the impression of drinking dried flowers. The in-laws said: “Very light. Fruity aftertaste. OK but not great.”
Stillwater/Oliver Tuppence, 7%, 22 oz., $9.99 ✭✭✭✭
Black beer with lush tan foam, ruby highlights if held up to the sky. Smells of lightly sweetened dark roast coffee and toasted nuts. Moderately roasty-bitter, nicely balanced with light sweetness, finishing fairly dry with more coffee and nuts in the aftertaste. Lovely roast malt does the talking while brett is a silent partner, though no doubt that would change with age. Superb porter, as it is, and more pints would come easily. The in-laws said: “Too much coffee.”
Urban Family Through the Eyes of Babes, 6.89%, 375 ml, $9.99 ✭✭✭✭1/2
Not so pretty: Looks like murky apple cider, a dull brown-tinted orange-amber, but with a sturdy layer of pale foam. Smells a like canned pear syrup, fruit cellar, cider must. Lightly tart with a elegant bitterness that is earthy and spicy, sparkling on the tongue and splintering into a parching dryness that wants another gulp. A complex beer with false promises of sweet fruit that slides through pepper and finishes in the cobwebs. The in-laws said: “Tasted like blackberries. A little sour in the nose. Rich-tasting.”
A footnote: We shared a year-old Orval afterward, though not blindly, and it was ✭✭✭✭✭. To me. The in-laws didn’t care for it.