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Brettanomyces: That “Funk” In Your Beer

01.09.2013 11:30 AM

Everyone has that one friend who is… a little bit “off.” He says and does often unpredictable things that cannot be explained by any rational human being. He is often kept around for sheer entertainment value, if nothing else. Some people call him “the wild card.” Hunter S. Thompson would call this friend “some kind of high-powered mutant never even considered for mass production – too weird to live and too rare to die.” Women will *try* to date him and tame his wild, unfettered spirit. But at the end of the day, this friend is an “American Original.”

In the beer brewing world, this friend is called “Brett” – Brettanomyces [Pronounced: Brett-ano-MICE-ees], to be exact.

Brettanomyces is the wild cousin of domesticated yeasts that we’ve been using in our brews for thousands of years. This type of yeast grows on fruit skins and can be quite volatile to brew with. You never really know precisely what will happen. Perhaps your beer bottles will gush over with foam. Maybe the aroma of your beer will turn out bizarre and “funky.”  

Most brewers work hard to keep all equipment sterilized and free from Brett, but there are a select number of brewmasters who love the challenge of harnessing the power of this strange little yeast – and making it work for them in some of the rarest tasting beers known to man.

According to Wyeast Laboratories, “Brewing beer with wild yeast and bacteria adds a new level of complexity to an already complex process. Making beer with these specialty cultures is less precise and much less predictable than brewing with a single yeast strain. The rewards however can be tremendous if a brewer has patience.”

You can find Brett in Belgian saisons, sour red ales, and lambics. The variations among Brett-brewed beer are tremendous. They can be bitter or mild… light or dark… acidic or only slightly tart. Many of these beers are barrel-aged like wines to produce sour cherry, lemon or vinegar notes. Depending on the strain and fermentation conditions, wild yeast can produce the banana and clove notes of a German hefeweizen, or it can create an earthy, spiciness of a Belgian saison.  Brett beers often intensify their flavors in the bottle as the complex sugars slowly metabolize.

“It’s all about the flavors -- great flavors that you can’t get anywhere else,” says Jolly Pumpkin’s Ron Jeffries.

You can try Victory Brewing Company’s “Wild Devil,” Brewery Ommegang’s “Ommegeddon,” Russian River Brewing Company’s “Sanctification,” Jolly Pumpkin Ales’ “Maracaibo Especial,” or Allagash Brewing Company’s “Confluence Ale,” Deschutes’ “The Dissident,” Ithaca Beer Company’s “Brute,” Surly Brewing Company’s “Pentagram,” or one of Crooked Stave’s Wild Wild Brett Series beers that come in every color.

Truth be told, Brett – when done right -- is one of those mind-blowing beer flavors that makes connoisseurs and snoots rave. If you were to look up all the aforementioned beers on review sites like RateBeer and BeerAdvocate, you’d see that they are all ranked in the high 90s.  

“The flavors are just a little too far out there” to be mainstream, says Russian River Brewing’s Vinnie Cilurzo. Besides, it’s expensive to make wild beers, which age longer and require dedicated equipment to avoid cross-contamination. However, a number of brewers will always be passionate about pushing boundaries, educating consumers, and discovering new flavors.

“There’s so much complexity that’s gained from Brett usage,” Port Brewing’s Tomme Arthur told The New York Times. “We just looked at it as an opportunity, and that’s what you’re seeing with craft brewers these days: they’re not, as we say, being afraid of the big bad Brett.”

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