Red Red Wild
Friday 16 June 2017
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It could be the setting for some Blumenthal- inspired culinary adventure. On a table in the staff kitchen, a bewildering array of ingredients is arranged strikingly against slabs of grey slate: Saffron, star anise, seaweed, a lobster. On another, a pile of young beech leaves that might be hedge trimmings destined for the compost heap.
In fact, we’re at one of Britain’s most daringly creative breweries and everything on the table in front of us has been deployed in their tireless pursuit of flavour.
In the four years since Andrew Cooper and Brett Ellis founded Wild Beer Co, they have brewed with shellfish, mushrooms and miso paste. They’ve raised dubious eyebrows and teased palates with candied violet petals, pink peppercorns and smoked tea.
They’ve eschewed mass market appeal to champion wild yeast fermentation and barrel ageing, crafting sour ales with a depth and complexity rarely found in the UK.
It is this unswerving dedication to such seemingly niche tastes that has propelled Wild from a two-guy start-up to a team of 30, with a projected turnover of £4.5m for this financial year. A £1.79m crowd- funded expansion to a purpose-built destination brewery is on the cards for 2018, and Andrew and Brett have nailed their foodie colours to the mast by opening Wild Beer bar-restaurants in Cheltenham and Bristol.
“Food has always been an inspiration,” says Andrew, fresh from a day’s filming for BBC’s Countryfile. “Brett and I come from culinary backgrounds, we love food and flavour, it’s part of everything we do. We often talk in terms of culinary principles when we create a beer.”
The duo, both alumni of Bristol Beer Factory’s brew team, struck out together after realising a shared passion for Belgian beers fermented with wild yeasts native to the Senne Valley – the Lambic sours brewed only in the Pajottenland region southwest of Brussels.
Setting up on the Westcombe dairy farm near Shepton Mallet, they drew on their own unique terroir – the natural environment surrounding their base – to develop a house yeast culture, one still used today in their Somerset Wild sour. It drinks with the crisp tartness of a craft cider or homemade lemonade, but with a subtle funk that belies its wild origins.
Stuart Winstone – one of Wild’s ‘beer people’ (“we don’t really have job titles”) – explains: “That yeast culture has been harvested from apple skins, fruit from local orchards. You could do something similar elsewhere, but you’d end up with a different beer. We isolated strains of yeast and bacteria and identified some that are only found in local Somerset cider. Location and sense of place are a massive part of our beers.”
I follow him through to the brewery lab, where a larder fridge houses flasks of chilled yeast vibrating on stir plates. Elsewhere, there are petri dishes streaked with yeast cultures grown from Wild’s beers.
“Traditional Belgian techniques don’t worry too much about why things happen, they’re just happy that they do,” says Stuart. “In the States, they’ll break everything down and analyse it to the Nth degree.
“Our approach is somewhere in between – we might send samples off to a lab to check everything is OK, but the focus is on getting the flavour right. We’re quite happy to embrace these wild strains and let them do their thing – why try and control them?”
Such gleeful abandon is the polar opposite of most mainstream breweries, where the focus is on quick, clean and predictable fermentation with traditional brewing yeast, Saccharomyces.
Location and sense of place are a massive part of our beers
Wild fermentation looks to more esoteric critters to do the dirty work: there’s the slower-acting Brettanomyces yeast, which brings a slight tartness, with notes of fruit, spice and – sometimes – that infamous ‘wet horse blanket’ funk. Pediococcus bacteria, meanwhile, impart a deep and often earthy sourness, though sometimes not without drawbacks.
“We had a problem with one of our beers getting pedio ‘sickness’,” explains Stu. “It temporarily makes the beer thick and viscous – you have to give it time and wait for the Brettanomyces to chew it down. There’s a little pedio there in all our wild beers, often unintentionally, but we’re more than happy – it’s added a lot of positive character.”
If you hadn’t guessed it already, the other entirely out-of-their-hands factor vital to almost half of Wild Beer’s output is time – and lots of it.
While 55% of Wild’s beers are drink- fresh, crowd-pleasing IPAs, pale ales and stouts, the slow-beating heart of the brewery is the ever-growing barrel store, now complemented by five giant foudres (huge wooden vats used for maturing wine) imported from a Napa Valley winemaker. Resting in wood, Wild’s beers will age or slow ferment from as little as three months to several years.
Starting out with just one Bourbon and one Burgundy red wine barrel, Andrew and Brett now have a library of over 500 to draw upon when crafting blends like their flagship Modus Operandi old ale. The beer is chocolate and berries on the nose, with flavour notes of fig, a little tobacco, then more berry fruits all layered against an initially striking balsamic hit.
“Barrel ageing, blending, different yeast strains – all these things give us a wider palette to work with, bringing more interesting styles and flavour.
They enable us to turn something everyday into something truly special,” says Andrew, cautioning that sour beer virgins should approach the style with an open mind.
“Forget you’re drinking beer, and forget about the pub. You often hear people say: ‘It’s OK, but I couldn’t drink a pint’, but they’re missing the point.
Like a good wine, sours and wild beers are about slow appreciation – try pairing them with food, and drink from a wine or Teku glass. It’s not obligatory to drink a pint!”
Self-titled ‘barrel wrangler’ James Bardgett is the man charged with organising, monitoring and occasionally sampling from this barrel store sweet shop.
“We try not to taste too much because it lowers the level of the beer in the barreland lets in oxygen,” he says, explaining that Wild’s annual Modus release begins with the oh-so-tough task of sampling beers from some 60 barrels, then painstakingly whittling them down to 26 for the final blend.
“We go for first and second use wine and Bourbon barrels. We’re looking for tannins and wine character, and a juicy, cherry sourness from the bacteria. Bourbon brings some char and warmth, and just ties it all together.
“Blending is another layer of skill, and in the same way that wine vintages differ, each new batch is slightly different from the last. It’s a very creative process – it’s an art.”
James wrestles a nail – a makeshift bung – from the face of one barrel and jets a stream of young, golden sour ale into a glass. There are notes of peach, maybe some melon, a soft mouthfeel and some gentle acidity. I’m thrilled to learn I’m drinking Wild’s base beer for this year’s Rainbow Project, which sees seven top UK breweries paired with overseas partners for colour-themed brews. For 2017, Wild are teamed with Missouri’s Side Project.
I’m curious: What else is going in the beer? “We drew red,” says Stuart. “So it’ll be red, for a start.” Any other clues?
But he shakes his head. “I’ve already said too much!” he laughs.
In time, all will be revealed – we just need a little patience. A virtue Wild has in spades.
How to capture your own wild yeast culture
Wild yeasts and souring bacteria are all around us – in the air, on the leaves of plants and on fruit, even on our own skin.
Bakers use these naturally occurring – and entirely free – microbial wonders to make sourdough bread. Given time and the right conditions they can turn cabbage into sauerkraut, milk into yogurt or vegetables into kimchi. And for brewers, these bugs represent an open book of flavour possibilities full of exciting – and sometimes frustrating – unpredictability.
If you’ve got some basic homebrew experience, you’re ready to have a crack at capturing your own wild yeast, and one way is to simply emulate a tried and tested commercial brewing technique used to spontaneously ferment wild beers – albeit on a smaller scale.
A coolship is a large, open-topped fermentation vessel which leaves cooling wort exposed to the air – and any pass ing bacteria and wild yeasts. It’s the traditional method used by Belgium s Lambic breweries. In the UK, Elgood s brew a Coolship Blonde using the same technique, and Burning Sky installed a coolship in their East Sussex brewery earlier this year.
Wild Beer Co carried out their own coolship experiment in January and are now patiently ageing 15 barrels – but it’ll be another two years before we get to taste the results.
To capture your own wild yeast, half fill a sterilised jar with a weak solution of freshly boiled wort – use a 1/10 ratio of malt extract to water or aim for a gravity of 1.040. Boiling with a small amount of hops will inhibit growth of the souring bac teria Lactobacillus – but if you’re after a clean, surface-level tartness maybe you want that bug along for the ride?
Tie a muslin cloth over the top of the jar and leave it overnight somewhere with plenty of vegetation – in a veg patch, under a fruit tree, anywhere it won t be disturbed by creatures.
The next day, tip your wort into a fresh container fitted with an airlock and leave it in a dark place at room temperature.
You should see signs of fermentation within a few days, and your mini wild brew should ferment out in a couple of weeks. Use your common sense – if it looks and smells OK, you’ve probably got something you can brew with.
Step up your tiny yeast starter to a pitchable volume by progressively adding more and more wort in stages, allowing it to ferment out each time. Finally: use your wild yeast in place of a commercial strain in your next homebrew, and revel in your wild side! Good luck!
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