Brett who? A Look Into the Wonderful World of Brettanomyces

by Matt A on May 24, 2011

Meet Brett. He's a little shy. Photo Credit: California State University

Yeast is such an amazing thing. It’s what makes beer, beer. Brewers are just the cooks of the brewing world, creating tasty food (sugar) for the yeast to eat up. Today, there’s one particular strain of yeast I’d like to talk about, and his name is Brettanomyces (aka Brett). Brett’s becoming more and more popular among brewers now. Why? you might ask. Well let’s look into this tiny phenomenon.

Brettanomyces is a fairly newly discovered strain of yeast, discovered in 1904 by N. Hjelte Claussen at the Carlsberg Brewery. Claussen was actually investigating what was causing some English ales to spoil. He found this active bacteria and appropriately named the strain Brettanomyces (Greek for ‘British fungus’).

However, this strain of yeast has been used for quite some time (we just didn’t have a name for it until 1904). The Belgians have been creating beer with this strain for around 500 years now. The most widely known style created with Brettanomyces is the Lambic.

So what’s the big deal?

Lambics are a very unique style of beer, utilizing a method of fermentation called spontaneous fermentation (aka open-air fermentation). This means that instead of using a specific and controlled strain of yeast in a closed environment, the beer is actually exposed to the open air, allowing for bacteria (most notably Brettanomyces) to eat the sugars and convert the sugars to alcohol. This is what gives lambics their distinct aromas and flavors (dry, sour, fruity, vinegar-y).

Lambics aren’t the only style of beer that utilize this strain of yeast, though. The Belgian style Flanders red ale is also known for using Brettanomyces (a Belgian sour ale from the Flanders region in Belgium). Duchesse de Bourgogne is a classic example of this style. For most styles, though, the result of Brettanomyces would be considered an ‘off-flavor’ (hence the investigation into beers going sour). However, many consider the sour characteristics that Brettanomyces provide to be both flavorful and refreshing, which is why many brewers are now experimenting with using Brettanomyces in different styles.

Some examples of US brewers experimenting with Brettanomyces:

Boulevard Brewing – Saison-Brett
Jester King Craft Brewery – Boxer’s Revenge Farmhouse Provision Ale
New Belgium – Lips of Faith La Folie

These are all different types of sour/wild ales that you can find right here in Texas. I urge you to go out and try one. If it’s your first time having a sour ale, you’ll probably feel like there are a lot of little minions with jack hammers going to town on your taste buds. This might be the case, but keep sipping. Eventually, you’ll probably find sour ales to be very refreshing and complex, especially great during the hot Texas summers.

Have you tried a sour ale? What’s your favorite one?

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