What in the World Do We Call These Wild Beers Anyway?

I've been thinking a lot about Wild Beers lately, appreciating them more and more, and also wanting to stay educated about them. I've heard brewers say they don't want people going around calling all wild beers 'sour beers' because, well, they aren't all sour. Take Trinity's TPS Report, Oakshire's Skookumchuck, or any of Crooked Stave's Wild Wild Brett series as an example, many of these could be described as delicate, rosy, lightly citrusy, and some of them have light acidity. These beers are neither Ales nor Lagers in the yeast-sense of those words, here's what Chad Yakobson says, "Brettanomyces is not ale or lager because those designations refer to a species of yeast, when you boil it down, Saccharomyces Cerevisiae ale yeast and Saccharomyces Carlsbergensis as lager yeast. Brettanomyces Bruxellensis and other species variants are a different type of yeast thereby not making ale or lager beer." So it's actually a bit strange to call one of these beers a 'Wild Ale' because it is not an ale if it's fermented with Brett...or is it an ale if it's fermented at ale temperatures? It get's confusing eh?

Chad forwarded me an email he recently sent around to some of his colleagues. He goes on,

...But what can we call it? Brettanomyces, that's the yeast.. So how to properly designate what it is like in Belgian Ale...Belgian Brettanomyces? That doesn't fit for me...But what is going to? Maybe nothing because we are so ingrained in ale and lager. Brett isn't even much of a top fermenter...and it is aged for a while (you should or else it keeps eating away in the bottle and the bottles gush unless carefully opened...(All of our beers sadly do this.. I'm working on it..) So my best comparison for Brett is actually to lagers. That is more reasonable. Flavor wise, no.. but it's not about flavor it's about fermentation characteristics and genetics.

So then, what do we call these beers? I've seen more and more brewers calling a beer a Wild Beer, or a 'Beer fermented with Brettanomyces,' or '100% Brettanomyces Beer,' or even something like 'A Porter with Brettanomyces.' Perhaps I appreciate the latter the most because it tells me a lot about the base style of the beer and that I can expect something on the funky side at the same time. The only problem I have with this is that I want some sort of sexy word, rather than a sentence description. Perhaps there are problems with this though, which I'll write about momentarily. Perhaps 'Wild' is that word? I'm not thrilled about the word, but others have come to accept it. Here's Matt Van Wyk of Oakshire on the term 'Wild' on a writeup on Brewpublic:

To me that’s a term that covers a wide range of beers aged on or fermented with organisms other than, or in addition, to the regular Saccharomyces strain of brewers yeast. Using a more broad term than “sours” will cover funky, sweaty, barnyard beers fermented with Brett, and also sour beers with Lactobaccilus of all levels of acidity. Some will argue that the term “wild” doesn’t really tell me much about the beer either, but I respond with Kolsch, Pilsner, Porter, Gratzer, Marzen……. What do these tell you about the beer you are about to drink? We’re smart creatures. We don’t need to use reds, whites, stouts, bitters, sours. Some also will argue that Brett and Lacto aren’t actually wild. They can be controlled. True, once you know how they behave and what they will do in your brewery they become much more predictable. But I might invite you into my barrel room where we can taste from about 36 oak barrels and each one is doing something different and has a different expression. The critters I’ve added are making their own schedule, and they often do it at what ever rate they want. To me, they are still wild.

And here's Chad on the topic:

Then there is all about the styles and distinguishing of these beers. On ratebeer they are 'wild/sour ales.' Not really...well, "wild" yes. That is a term I have come to grips with. No, my beers are not wild, I intentionally use Brettanomyces just as everyone else intentionally uses Sacch strains. But Wild has come to mean anything with Brett in it, but also includes bacteria and the sort. But [the beer] does not have to be sour...So wild is a very broad grouping of beers which have yeast previously thought of as and traditionally called wild yeasts... So does Wild make sense for the designation of these beers? Even if it is not crazy wild.. and actually a delicate complex beer.. historically a wild yeast.. now used purposely.. This to me makes the most sense.

So, perhaps now I can begin appreciating a bit more term 'Wild' because at Matt says you can automatically think about those Brett characteristics beyond just acidic or sour. It's just not as iconic sounding as Ale or Lager. It doesn't have the history but it's just missing that umph for me. I almost like "Brett" more as a word that comes off the tongue easier, as a word that does a good job sounding like it's delicate, rosy, and citrusy. Plus 'wild' could be debated on both sides, the yeast was historically wild, we control it pretty heavily now, but still don't know what it's going to do...and most brewer's go to great lengths to keep this yeast away from everything in the brew house. Whatever, maybe I'm just being silly wanting a sexy word. I'll have a Wild Beer please! The only problem with wanting a broad term like that is the same problem we have with people saying "I'll have an Ale please!" The problem is that there are an infinity of ales from thousands of breweries and they all taste different. We're not celebrating the craft or staying educated if we want the generic. I'll finish up with this great quote from Peter Bouckaert of New Belgium Brewing, quoted on the blog Divine Brew:

It’s interesting and a dangerous proposition to believe that the style will help the customer. Look what wine has done to itself. People are asking now for Pinot or a Sauvignon Blanc, they are not asking for a sustainable winery or Chad’s wine. All the wine's marketing investment has lead customers to ask for generic? Imagine the unimaginable that this would happen to us! That our customer would one day ask for an IPA instead of for Ranger. I think this would be our collective dead bed...

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BeerEric Steen