When I agreed to be the brewmaster at Kent Falls Brewing Co., the first thing that Barry, the co-owner and brewery manger, told me was: "Make sure the beer is as confusing as possible. I don't care what you brew. I don't care what it tastes like. I just want everything to be the maximum amount of confusing."
We're working at all sorts of inventive, cutting-edge ways of confounding beer consumers, like making a lightly-sour saison one of our core beers (for the mainstream Connecticut market), and releasing a refreshingly soft table saison that clocks in at only 3.8% and is dry-hopped with American hops, so if you want to call it a saison, that's fine, but if you want to call it a table beer, that works too, or if you just want to consider it a farmhouse ale, technically yes, it's that also.
Actually, those two beers have been received shockingly well, even the incredibly low-ABV saison. One of my Things lately is that over-explaining this stuff to people from the very start can be detrimental; just give the beer to them, they will taste it and realize it tastes very good, and not have to try to pretend to care about all the style complexities your inner nerd is dying to spit out in exhausting detail at them. Start with flavor and educate based on what they like and their interest level. Unfortunately, though, that only works when you're starting from a blank slate. When the person drinking the beer has half-formed preconceptions, things get trickier.
Brett IPAs are weird. Often, the very people that need to be educated on what a Brett IPA is supposed to taste like, what makes it tick, are those same beer nerds who actually sort of understand what Brettanomyces is. Lots of beer drinkers know: Brettanomyces makes beer funky. It's associated (confusingly, it turns out) with sour beer. But it isn't usually responsible for the acidity in beer, just the funk — and maybe a bigger push of tartness due to the low residual sugars it leaves behind. Brett is as weird and hard to pin down as it is intriguing and complex.
I've written about this before, but now that I'm commercially brewing a 100% Brett beer that, theoretically, thousands and thousands of people (oh shit whoa wait that's weird) are going to taste, I feel like I need to get it out there again: what is a 100% Brett beer supposed to taste like? What is it? Why is it?
100% Brett beers, in general, do not follow the rules that aged, mixed-culture Brett beers do. Being already a mouthfeel, that's hard to explain to someone over a shouted bar order. A year in a barrel with Brettanomyces simply changes a beer in ways that a quick 2-6 week fermentation (our Brett IPA only takes 7 days to ferment out completely, now that the culture has adapted) won't match. Faster, in beer, usually means less intense, sometimes possibly simpler. 100% Brett beers, fermented quickly, are in no way inferior, just different. They bear a different flavor profile. Their funk is a different kind of funk. They're maybe less intense, but their impression of Brettanomyces character is distinct and readily apparent to anyone familiar with it. I've drank enough 100% Brett beers that I think I could still pick one out of a lineup if my hair was on fire and someone was trying to put it out with a dirty hiking sock full of old trash. Trust me, 100% Brett character may be subtler, but it is unique and identifiable, just different from its aged incarnation.
In many 100% Brett beers, you will find crisp notes of zest, possibly some phenols (though most seem to prefer these beers without much of the phenolic notes), usually a hard-to-pin fruit character, and something like dried sweat. That dried sweat is tastier than it sounds, like berries that are cooling off after running a marathon. But this sweaty note, usually what I perceive as the most funky element of a 100% Brett beer as compared to an aged Brett beer, is still fairly tame and subtle, in the way that an anthropomorphic fruit sweating would be far more appealing than an actual human sweating, But, most importantly, 100% Brett beers don't usually approach full barnyard. And they might be mildly tart, at best, but not actually acidic. Brett doesn't make beer overtly sour. It may create an impression of tartness, but a 100% Brett beer is not going to be full-on sour.
That's the general gist, but each 100% Brett beer will of course be slightly different, depending on the brewer's preference and how they steer it. The general consumer is very likely not to know all this upfront, as a lot of confusion regarding Brettanomyces remains. I've heard from many brewers that this has broken them on the style. They've gotten so much misguided negative feedback, often from the very beer nerds that seek out Brett beers, they simply stopped brewing the beer. This is deeply frustrating and sad to hear. And as with any matter of education, it's up to us handsome, knowledgeable few to address this.
Personally, my goal for a Brett IPA is to have that same juicy, aromatic, fruity, refreshing, accessible, not-very-bitter-at-all-actually beverage that I already seek in a good clean IPA, but with a slight edge of Brett pushing the fruit hop character down minor paths tangential from the usual. The brunt of hops, with an undercurrent of something just slightly strange but equally refreshing. I've been working on a Brett IPA recipe for years as my perfect hiking beer, because that's what I want on top of a mountain. Refreshing, but a little wild, a little disorienting. Not cloying or clobbering or overly severe. I want a beer that tastes like a glass of juice from an unknown alien species of fruit.
That, to me, is what Kent Fall's Waymaker Brett IPA tastes like. I'll write more about this specific beer and the history behind my brewing it more extensively in the future, but for now, I just want to write about how it doesn't taste how you might expect. It's probably not nearly as funky as you'd think. While unfortunately I'm sworn to secrecy about the particular strains of Brett we're using (it's a blend of a number of strains, not one single Brett), these particular Bretts are rather clean as a primary fermenter, with just a bit of that funky zest I find in 100% Brett ferments. They work fast: the first batch was a bit funkier due to me knocking out too cold, and the batch taking longer than expected to ferment, but since then, this beer finishes up just as quickly as a Saccharomyces-fermented ale. There's an edge to the beer, like a weird glass of orange juice spiked with some guava juice, but the fruit and the citrus and the juice is very much the focus. It recreates much of the flavors of an IPA, but many of those flavors happen to come as much from the yeast as from the hops. That's the point. I can't decide whether that's the point of a 100% Brett beer to some hypothetical consumer; I can only offer that that is the point of this particular 100% Brett beer to me, as a brewer.
One Untappd review amusingly said, simply: "I've been had." I'm not even sure in which direction they were insinuating they'd been tricked, misled, which is the frustrating aspect of such things: did they think this wasn't enough of an IPA, or wasn't enough of a Brett beer? Too funky, or not funky enough? My favorite thing about this beer is how much it balances both aspects of what it is in equal portions, but maybe that's a negative to you. Either way, in either direction, I really just can't particularly allow it to bother me, because Waymaker tastes exactly like I want it to. And my job, then, is to help show drinkers what a 100% Brett beer can be, what new things it can offer, rather than playing to whatever misconceptions and erroneous goals they may have formed for it. In my mind, this is a style of beer that did not and could not have existed before, I don't know, ten years ago. Naturally, it will lead to some confusion.
What it tastes like is far more important than all the nerdy details surrounding its fermentation. What it tastes like, I hope people agree, is refreshing and juicy and interesting. Wild enough for the top of a mountain, unique enough for a tulip at the bar. So wherever it is that you drink it, whether or not it tastes like a glass of weird orange juice to you too, I just hope that you enjoy it for what it is. The same should probably be true for all beer, come to think of it.