Wednesday, June 24, 2015

What is Brett IPA Supposed to Taste Like?



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.



25 comments:

  1. Excellent post, Derek. I really hope to try your beer one day.

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  2. Do you do any secondary fermentation for your Brett IPAs or is it ready to bottle/keg after just 7 days in the primary? I've been considering doing a Brett IPA homebrew but I guess I have some additional reading to do.

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    1. To be clear, the total turn-around on the beer is about 3 weeks in all. The primary fermentation is usually done in just a few days, but our brew schedule allows me to give it a full two weeks to condition before I harvest yeast and dry hop. In general, the beer gets about a week(ish) with dry hops then before packaging.

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  3. Barry sounds like the greatest boss ever.

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    1. In all fairness, he didn't *explicitly* say that, literally and in those words, but I assumed it was just implied.

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  4. Looking forward to my first visit to the farm/brewery!!

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  5. This comment has been removed by the author.

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  6. I have 5 gallons going in a fermenter in my basement right now. 100% Brett Brux - Pale and Pils base malts with Centennial, Amarillo and Mosaic hops. I would love to try yours in comparison.

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    1. Sounds nice! I wish I had enough Mosaic or Amarillo to use on a regular basis with a beer like this. Sadly, they're nearly impossible to acquire, so I'm saving them for small-batch clean IPAs. Waymaker uses Centennial, Chinook and Glacier. They fit the yeast character really nicely, though.

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  7. So glad to see this. I have had my IPAs ding in comps for tasting weird. I took a test batch for the brewery of 2 strain Saison to a BeerAdvocate bottle share and had someone tell me it wasn't funky enough to be considered a Brett Saison. With going 100% Brett all the time at my brewery I am going to face a lot of this... all the time. May just have this right up printed and sitting at the bar in the tasting room for patrons to read while drinking my beers. Need to work out a way to swap some bottles too.

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    1. Yeah, it's tough to forge a new path (and confuse the hell out of people), but someone's gotta do it! If you're doing it right, I think it certainly pays off once you've successfully conveyed to people what you're trying to do.

      Haha, feel free to print away if it helps. Would be happy to swap some bottles, especially once I have a few more fun things packaged!

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  8. Thank you! I'm glad someone else can clarify that brett does not mean sour.

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  9. Your Brett ferments out in 7 days? Wow. Have you made sure it's only Brett in there?

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    1. This isn't really uncommon with re-pitched 100% Brett beers, in my experience. The first generation can be pretty slow (this one was) but they get much stronger and adapt to their environment after that. I think this culture is also just particularly well-suited to 100% Brett fermentations. I've brewed with it on both the hombrew scale and the commercial scale a decent number of times now, and it just performs very consistently.

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    2. When pitched alone as a primary yeast, at a proper pitch rate, Brett ferments just as quickly as sacc. The fermentation even looks the same in the carboy. This is exactly why this article was written. You are assuming Brett can only be used as a secondary yeast and takes months to ferment. Not true.

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  10. Really awesome read. Writing up the story on you guys right now. Trying to make it as nerdy as possible.

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  11. Derek, great read and the beers sound delicious. 100% Brett definitely has some intangibles that are hard to describe. I know you're strains are proprietary, but could you disclose how many generations you have and plan on using before ordering new cultures? Also, with Brett typically being a low flocculator, how are you harvesting practices?

    P.S. I know brewing professionally is probably very time consuming, so thanks for posting as often as you do. It is great insight into professional brewing & funky and farmhouse style beers.

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    1. Thanks Jon! I'm starting to find more time to blog as I wrap up my book, which I'm very happy about -- I love interacting with other brewers this way, and I'm just thrilled that anyone wants to read what I have to say.

      Since we've only been in production since February, I actually have not had to re-order any yeast yet. Everything is still going strong from our initial pitches. The Brett is now on generation 4. The last brew with it is a dry-hopped gose ("sour IPA") so I'm curious to see if the different wort composition changes anything, but I doubt it will.

      At least with the Brett and saison strain, I plan on using our cultures until something forces me to re-order. I would love to allow them to simply adapt to this environment and maybe develop some house character, as long as they taste awesome.

      I was worried about harvesting, but so far it hasn't proven to be a big deal. It kind of worked out nicely that both house strains so far are low flocculators, so I'm on one rhythm for both of them. After the 1st gen, the Brett culture behaves basically like a Sacch culture, and I've never had any issue collecting enough yeast to repitch. Granted, all beers with these strains are a little cloudy, but not outside what you'd expect for a farmhouse beer. But I don't do anything special, just cold crash at around 40 F for a few days and harvest. Some more will drop out later in the brite tank, and more still once it's kegged, of course.

      Feel free to shoot me an email if you have any other questions, happy to help!

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  12. I live in Bethel Ct. and would like to volunteer at the Kent Brewery farm on a weekend day!

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    1. Hey! Thanks for the offer, that's very kind! Very much appreciated. You can email us at info@kentfallsbrewing.com

      We don't really operate on weekends, however, at least not at the moment, but certainly stay in touch!

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  13. I live in Bethel Ct. and would like to volunteer at the Kent Brewery farm on a weekend day!

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