A pint of the tart stuff
The success of Wide Street Brewing heralds a sour new age for Ireland’s beer lovers, writes Katie Mather
Monday 23 March 2020
This article is from
The Island of Ireland
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In Ballymahon, something funky is happening. Where pints of Carlsberg once spilled frothily onto beer mats and carried locals through happy weekends, a taste for something weirder has multiplied.
“There’s a romantic notion that Ireland’s beer scene has this core of perfect craft and cask beers, all red ales and stouts,” says Sean Colohan, head brewer and co-owner of Wide Street Brewing, “But we grew up on Budweiser and Heineken.”
Ballymahon, in County Longford, is in the heart of the Irish midlands, a plain of flat, shining rivers, ancient woodlands and grassy boglands. The town itself is a tight-knit community, growing larger each year, which means there are more people available to drink local beer than ever. For Sean and his partner Carla Naltchayan who also runs Wide Street Brewery (“the money manager, the organiser”), this strong local community is part of what’s helped their Brett-based beers take hold of what would stereotypically be a naturally suspicious audience.
“Thirty per cent of our beers go to our local market, it doesn’t even leave Ballymahon,” he says. “We’re not huge, but that’s about 200-300 litres of mixed fermentation beer being bought and drunk in Ballymahon. It’s crazy really, when you think about it.”
The beers Carla and Sean make are all mixed fermentation. Every single one of them. Even their Citra Pale Ale, a juicy, fresh, dry little number is made with a combination of Brettanomyces, saison yeasts and lactobacillus. You’d never guess.
“I whirlpooled it with citra, and there are none of the spicy flavours or aromas from the yeasts or bacteria, so you just get what tastes like a super dry IPA,” explains Sean, as if this is quite a normal way to create beer.
What’s interesting is that the people drinking Wide Street beers aren’t hyping up this unique take on mixed fermentation. There’s no countdown to release days, and there are no queues outside local bottle shops — if there were any. They’re not even bombarding Sean with questions about his processes. To be honest, they’re just interested in drinking the stuff. I’m surprised at this. The weird and wonderful world of wild and mixed fermentation is, as far as I had understood, populated by the enthusiast. When was the last time you heard of someone drinking a Bretted saison not because they were interested in the style, or that they already enjoy the dry, farmyard flavours of brettanomyces, but simply because it’s there — because it’s delicious, local and available?
Sean agrees it’s slightly bonkers, but has some explanations at hand that he’s been mulling over since they started selling out of lacto sours in their local pub.
“We don’t get many people enquiring about the yeasts we use or the techniques or anything,” he says. “People who are really interested read the blog — there’s a lot of stuff on there — but the rest, the majority of people to be honest with you, just drink it and enjoy it without thinking too much about what made it taste the way it does.”
It helps if make your beer accessible to the people most likely to drink it. In Ballymahon, people drink pints and cans. So for the most part, Wide Street makes beers that are sessionable, and every beer they make is available in cans too.
“There’s a big can culture here, so we can our beers” he says. “It made sense to us because it made sense to the people who were going to be drinking it. They want to drink out of cans, so we had to figure out how to do it.”
To do this means working around the general nightmare that is convincing a brewery to let you use their canning line when your beers are heaving with potential contaminants. In the end, they had to get their own kit. The cheapest way to do this was to get an Oktober seamer. My gasp of horror makes Sean laugh.
“Yeah… we buy the lids and cans and fill each by hand, then seam ‘em individually.”
To get that satisfying chk-pffsss in each can, Sean and Carla add priming sugar and fresh champagne yeast to recondition the beer in the can itself — you’ve heard of bottle conditioning, right? It’s the same thing here, just in metal. It takes about three weeks for the residual yeast in each can to create the carbonation we crave, and then it’s good to go.
I asked him about their decision to sell all their, let’s face it, unusual beers in 440ml cans. Do people really want just shy of a pint of farmyardy beer? Isn’t it risky?
“Honestly, the cans are flying out. We don’t know why!” he laughs. “We wanted the Bretted saison in 330ml cans for aesthetics and for a better carbonation, but people love standard can sizes here, you can’t complain!”
The crossover of demographics has become as blurred as the yeast and bacteria combinations in each of Sean’s cans. Wine drinkers are picking up his sour beers, and folks who’d only ever drink lager are carrying home crates of the stuff.
“There’s an old guy who buys our sour by the slab to take home and drink it watching the football.” Sean is laughing as he tells me the next bit: “He mixes it with Fanta.” Brilliant.
At Skellys Bar on Main Street, Ballymahon, the landlord there has chosen to put three of Wide Street’s beers on at all times, no matter how funky they might be.
“Other bars in our little town that stock all our mixed ferm cans and bottles are Cooneys Hotel, Nally’s Bar, Murray’s Bar and The Rustic Inn. Then there's take away from the local Centra and Skelly’s. Whether anyone realises it or not, there’s a good spread of mixed ferm available in this little town!”
The “whether anyone realises” part is a pretty vital point. Wide Street Brewery’s slightly eccentric business model relies on creating delicious beers — so far, so obv — but it also leans heavily on the previously unseen (or ignored) demand for local beers, whatever they were. Drinkers in Ballymahon and the surrounding area are giving Carla and Sean their full support, no matter what they make, just as long as it continues to taste good. In return, Wide Street beers are made with their actual drinkers in mind, rather than based on the projected image of what a mixed fermentation beer drinking scene might be.
“We’re not pricing high because we want to make our beer accessible,” Sean explains. “We don’t overthink or over-educate either. It’s beer, after all. People want to drink it, not take a lecture about it.”
The accessibility of Wide Street’s beers to local people is vital to keeping them afloat, and Sean acknowledges that importance wholeheartedly.
“People are drinking our beers, seeking them out, asking landlords to stock them, because they’re local. Local support is such a huge part of how we can do this.”
How Wide Street Began
The first time Sean Colohan knowingly drank a beer created with brettanomyces, it hit him like a lightning bolt, probably because he was lucky enough to begin his mix-ferment odyssey with a cold can of Allagash’s Little Brett.
“A mate brought it to me after he’d been on a trip to America,” he explains. “I’d always heard that Brett was something good, but everything I’d learned had told me otherwise. Brett was evil. It’ll ruin your beers, destroy your equipment.”
“This beer was delicious, and I could see within it how that brett was interacting with the other ingredients, and how it had worked with the hops. I wanted to try it for myself.”
As a homebrewer, Sean was rigorous in his geeky research. He spent five years experimenting with yeasts and bacteria at home, and spent his spare time poring over resources from the Institute of Brewing and Distilling online course, eventually taking their exams too.
When he started creating Bretted beers in his kitchen, Sean was reading all the horror stories, but he didn’t seem to care.
“Basically, from everything I saw online, I was getting told that once I’ve infected my kit with Brettanomyces, I’ll never be free from it. That’ll be it. That’s a load of shit, by the way. You just clean it with caustic and peracetic acid. It’s fine.”
I thought maybe part of the reason he loves brett is that he feels he’s tamed it. He’s domesticated this unruly infection into a mere ingredient that can be erased or inoculated at will.
Not quite. “You don’t really know what Brett’s gonna do, you don’t know where it’s gonna finish up” he admits. “We never make exactly the same thing twice.”
So, for the moment at least, rather than a consistent core range of identical beers, Wide Street Brewing make concessions to their microscopic overlords and each batch offers slight variants depending on the whims of those tiny despot cultures.
“The goal is to end up with one house culture and we’re slowly adding fresh Brettanomyces to it and different lactobacillus strains every time; eventually we’ll be able to make our saisons and our brett pale ale more consistent.”
“We’re harvesting wild yeast too — bio-prospecting, what a term, isn’t it great? [readers, I do not love it - KM] — which we’ll be slowly introducing to our beers. We’ve got the yeast we collected in a couple of labs in case it goes missing.
“We’ll been working it in over 7 or 8 batches over the next 2-3 years. After that, it’ll be a natural part of all of our beers.”
Good things rarely exist in isolation and Wide Street is no exception — across the island of Ireland, highly regarded and respected breweries have been establishing barrel projects and playing around with styles for a number of years, and Wide Street have been able to learn from their experience.
“My number one influence and who I go to for any answers is Tom Delaney from Land & Labour over in Galway,” Sean says. “Over there he’s had a coolship for about three years, I’d say he’s Ireland’s pioneer for mixed fermentation beers. He’s kinda a mentor to me.”
“Other big influences on us are Declan Nixon from Otterbank and Yellowbelly in Donegal, who does brilliant weird ferments, and Joe Kearns from White Hag. Going up four or five years ago and tasting his beers as a homebrewer was a formative experience.”
“And, obviously, Boundary from up in Belfast. They’ve been such big influencers of the scene and I love what they do. They invited us up to be at their festival in May and it’s like, why do want us there?”
We're not pricing high because we want to make our beer accessible
He’s laughing as he says this last part, but it’s easy to understand Sean’s incredulity. Wide Street Brewery on the same platform as Boundary? It’s a dream come true for them, and it’s only taken them a few years to achieve it.
Back in County Longford, local breweries are adopting their own ideas of what Irish beer is all about, and they are very different to Sean’s. They might try Sean’s beers, but they admit they wouldn’t be seen dead making anything like them.
“The majority of the reactions I get from brewers, or people who own breweries, is that it's a pretty brave move to open a wild beer brewery in such a small and ‘uneducated’ (from a beer perspective) market. A lot of brewers here see releasing a batch of Brett beer as a kind of daring thing to do and over-stress about it.”
“Related to this, the reaction from some old-school brewers is that they would have to burn down the whole brewery and surrounding villages if Brettanomyces got anywhere near their brewery.”
Wide Street Brewery has somehow created a movement within a movement, without it feeling much like a movement at all. It’s more of a continuation and evolution of the current status quo. People are heading to the pub to drink beers they enjoy drinking, only now those beers come with lactobacillus. They’re buying cans of local beer to take home instead of a crate of Carling.
“We sometimes get the odd person asking us ‘why did you make a beer that tastes like that?’ and I just ask them, did you like it though? The point is that we can make beer that people enjoy drinking in a way that we’re passionate about.”
“It brings me back to explaining why we can-condition and package the way we do. This way we can brew to our exact style and not have the canning or bottling company dictate what we do. Our heart and soul is in the wild and wonderful, and if we die still trying to educate and convey that message, then at least we tried.”
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