Our friends, at home in their stunning Somerset brewery
Saturday 19 November 2022
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I only realise the accuracy of this brewery’s name when we pull into what would have seemed a farmyard surrounded by fields and farm machinery. The Wild Beer Company calls a rustic farm building home, its cement skimmed walls matching those of the adjacent barrel library, acquired from the Westcombe Dairy once its premises migrated across the yard to the impressive cheese cave overlooking the site. This has been Wild’s home for 10 years now, and is punctuated with milestones marking its evolution from farmhouse to working brewery. I get the distinct feeling that for Wild to be wild, it must reside here, under nature's wing, where it can woo wayward yeasts with its unequivocal charm.
We meet head brewer Sam Shrimpton in the yard outside the brewery building, and together meander through the yard into an office where we huddled around a large table. He disappears while we all catch up, and returns carrying a jug of freshly centrifuged Mile Maker Oat Pale Ale and a tray of glasses. He and Beer52’s head brewer, Carlos, discuss the minutiae, running through the process and technique giving rise to the beer’s colour, clarity and taste while the rest of us sip and slip between stories of life in the Somerset countryside.
In many ways, these stories are told through the 10 birthday beers Wild has brewed to celebrate its journey over the last decade. Co-founder and brewer Brett Ellis says “there isn’t something borrowed, something blue” to the selection, and while I accept that might not have been the intention, one doesn’t have to look too hard to see how each tells a part of Wild’s story.
Hay June is a pilsner that’s been infused with fresh hay harvested from a nearby farm and inspired by a collaboration with Merlin Labron-Johnson, the mind behind Osip, Wild’s local Michelin Star restaurant. Visiting the brewery, Wild's interest in all things epicurean is immediately apparent, there’s a profound fondness in how the team speaks about the neighbouring Westcombe Dairy, and cheesemonger Karina even lets us taste some cheese before we leave.
Also featuring in Wild’s 10th Birthday box is Ensō, a beer brewed with apricots and Wild’s first “pure wild yeast”; the strain was located in an abandoned wasp nest found at the brewery, then isolated, propagated and transported to White Labs, Copenhagen, for development and storage. Brett tells me the team began investigating the wasp's nest after wondering what wild yeasts do in the winter, when there’s little to no heat, sugar, movement? Their findings revealed that similar to nesting insects and animals, yeast finds somewhere safe to hide and hybridise during the winter, predominantly inside organisms that are themselves hibernating.
Whether or not you want to afford the title of “wild” to a yeast hailing from a wasp's belly but now residing in a Danish laboratory, the results of this experiment are delicious. This yeast brings a sweet and unique honeyed quality to the beers it produces and has shown the potential to be used in brewing alcohol free beer, though Brett says this last part is still in early trial phases.
Beyond this, many of the remaining brews pay homage to the brewery’s roots in sour, spontaneous and mixed fermentation beers. Brett tells me that Wild was barrel ageing before it had a brewery. “John at Arbour Ales let me brew a batch of beer there,” says Brett. “We ordered three bourbon barrels, filled them up, drove ‘em down here and just sat them in the middle of the small space we rented, and which had no equipment in it. By the time we opened the barrels three months later, we had beer in-tank and our first ever version of Modus Operandi.”
Now, the brewery’s barrel library contains about 500 barrels, all of various woods, from various places, containing various beers from various years. While Wild’s intention has always been to brew both modern styles and beer that follows in the footsteps of cask and traditional European methods, the colour coded brewery is a testament to just how separate “wild” and “clean” facets of this brewery’s identity still is; blue tags and toggles indicate a tank is dedicated to brewing beers using known, controlled, single strain yeasts, red indicates that a vessel holds wild cultures, harvested in coolships, or aged in foeders or barrels.
Standing by one of four enormous foeders, Sam tells us what’s in each, how they’re made of oak, were coopered in France and then sent to California to hold pinot. He describes pouring a rustic wort of malted and raw grains into the adjacent coolship, a practice that can only occur between November and March, when the night air is coldest. The ritual requires that all doors to the brewery be flung open and icy winter airflow welcomed into the building so the wort is inoculated and cooled quick enough that bacteria doesn’t have the time to manifest.
There is artistry in moments that the ritual of coolshipping feels closer to folklore than science. Brett seems to share the sentiment in likening the product of brewing to the creation of paint that will find canvas in the blending of barrel aged beers. “The idea with many of these beers is that the product isn’t created on the brew sheet recipe, or on the brew day, or in the first fermentation, but after all those things have happened, and we blend the product of that second, barrel aged fermentation. With all the knowledge, experience and spreadsheets in the world, working with wild yeast still means you don't know what the end result is going to be like or how long it's going to take to get there.”
Standing in Wild’s barrel library, a building that feels somehow sacred in smelling like the sunny corner of a forest, and being stacked floor to ceiling with barrels of all ages, I ask him if having this enormous investment tied up in what’s essentially an experiment, ever scares him. He pauses, and then says, “No”.
“What we make from these barrels is probably only 5% of what we sell, and some people don’t even know that we have this library; but these beers speak the language of those that buy them and are willing to pay for the time and energy that’s gone into making them. We didn’t set out to make, say, an IPA, we set this brewery up to discover what wild fermentation tastes like in Somerset; we didn’t have an end goal in mind so much as our challenge has always been to see what we can make with what we have.”
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