Or rather, what is brett? I assume most of you reading already know the answer to this, but it seemed like a catchy title (and a better beer name). For a while now, something has been bothering me about the way we categorize beer, but before I get into my ranting, I’d like to take a minute and note the obvious: These are my personal, in the moment, opinions expressed on this here blog. As such, they are not the end all be all, and should be taken as the flawed ramblings that they are. I’m more interested in starting a discussion here than in actually fully establishing facts.
Anyways, on with the rant…
In beer education, it is a common practice to declare that there are only two different types of beer: ales and lagers. This is taught in every tasting room and by every ‘beer learning organization.’ It’s a tried and true motif that nearly everyone in the industry says, but I don’t think it’s quite true.
In terms of biology, ales are the result of fermentation by Saccharomyces cerevisiae, and lagers are the result of a fermentation by Saccharomyces pastorianus –which is actually a hybrid of ale yeast and a wine yeast. Most common beer styles can be classified as either an ale or a lager, and for the general public, this will encompass nearly all of the beers that they know of. Wild ales, however, are not so easy to classify, and sometimes undergo mixed fermentations featuring neither Saccharomyces cerevisiae nor Saccharomyces pastorianus. Such a fact really throws a wrench in the whole “two types” theory. That is without even mentioning the various ale-lager hybrids, and then there are the 100% Brett beers –which I’ll be discussing later in this rant.
I understand that from a ‘learning perspective’ no one wants to confuse people by mentioning this. Some of these breweries (like Sam Adams), however, make wild ales right next to where they are giving their “only two types of beer” talk and then they go on to try and explain their wild ales. Such a setup seems like it would be even more confusing for beginners.
Ten years ago in America, this would not be a problem. Back then, wild ales were so unique and rare that they weren’t really on any ones radar, and only the true Beer Nerds knew anything about them. Since that time though, wild ales have been exploding in popularity and are becoming more of a household name. The New York Times is even talking about them! With this rise, I think it is really time to start admitting their existence, especially since saying there are four different types of beer is not that much different than saying there are two, and explaining the types is not too difficult.
I began this rant not to talk about the nomenclature of wild ales, however. I think that wilds, or sours, or whatever you want to call them, are their own unique and unidentifiable category that can contain any slew of mixed fermentations, but it still can partially be called an ale or a lager. Instead, I started this rant to discuss a yeast that brewers have started to brew with exclusively, much like ale and lager yeast. This yeast is, of course, our friend brett.
Brettanomyces (brett) is an entire genus of yeast that seems to have also developed over the millennia as humanity cultivated wild yeasts to be ideal for fermenting grains. Brett used to be present in many different beers, but with the dawning of pure cultures and the sanitation of modern brewing, brett was slowly taken away from the brewing process. Today, brettanomyces is making a comeback, and is known to create funky weird flavors in beer, is used in many different types of beer, and has several different species that have been recognized as pleasant fermenters.
Brett has long been a part of many beers in Europe, ranging from British colonial porters to modern Lambics and Flanders ales. Only in recent times, however, has much concentration been put into fermenting exclusively with a clean culture of brett. Chad Yakobson, owner and brewer of Crooked Stave Artisan Beer Project out in Colorado, is spearheading such concentrations. Mr. Yakobson based his Masters dissertation on a study of Brettanomyces as a fermenter in beer. Much of his research can be found over at brettanomycesproject.com, and can be seen continuing in the beers that Crooked Stave produces.
Crooked Stave is fermenting most of their beers with just brettanomyces. In fact, a majority of their beers go through primary fermentation with just brettanomyces. Such experimental beers have been happening for quite some time, but Crooked Stave is the first brewery (to my knowledge) that is doing this for nearly all their beers. Mr. Yakobson has become a big supporter of ‘100% Brett’ fermentations, and has given quite a few lectures on just how to brew with brett. The trend has been catching on, and now lots of breweries across the nation (and the globe) are trying out ‘100% Brett’ beers. Near me, Night Shift Brewing in Everett, MA has introduced a ‘100% Brett’ series, Sean Hill has dabbled his toes in ‘100% Brett’ fermentations, and nearly everyone is thinking about it out.
Sure, this could just be a new fad in brewing, and it could die out. Such possibilities make the type not worth naming quite yet, but in a biological way of looking at it, these beers are neither ales nor lagers, and in this way they are different from popular new ‘styles’ like the session IPA’s, etc… In fact, these beers have nothing to do with the Saccharomyces genus at all. They are ‘100% Brett’ beers, meaning they are fermented 100% by only the Brettanomyces genus of yeast. ‘100% Brett beer’ is a thick an unwieldy thing to call them, however. I think it is more than time that we came up with a short simple name for them and I suggest we call them bretts.
Most people in the beer world are already familiar with what ‘brett’ means, so this distinction would not be a major leap in language, and would make it much easier to discuss this type of beer. It would still be easy to distinguish between beers with Brettanomyces in their primary fermentation versus those with Brettanomyces in their secondary fermentation (we already have oodles of names for those) so I can’t see this name doing anything but allowing us to better distinguish and bring to attention to the art of brett fermentations.
There are, of course, some issues with distinguishing bretts as there own type, but that is to be expected. For one, they are an entire genus of yeast types whereas lagers and ales are species found within a genus. Such a distinction, however, seems silly in the little-distinguished category at this point in its life. The distinction in flavor and overall experience between B. anomalus and B. bruxellensis seem more like the difference between Belgian and American yeasts compared to the differences in general between ales, and lagers (and bretts). Perhaps in the future the difference between anomalus and bruxellensis will be so distinct that they will become two different types of beer, but for the time being it seems an unnecessary distinction.
For me, I am enraptured with the concept of bretts for a number of reasons; the funky flavor, the ageability, the vintages, the breadth of possibilities, etc… I want to see the type develop and evolve so that bretts are as regular as ales and lagers, and I suppose that is why I want to establish it as its own type of beer. A name creates a distinction, allows the general public to establish the type in their minds, and allows for more breweries to take an interest in brewing bretts, which is exactly what I want.
What do you folks think? Are bretts just a sub-style of ales (in terms of nomenclature, not biology)? Or is the “Two-Types of Beer” model out dated and incorrect? Should we start naming these new categories? I know I personally wold love to start seeing a distinction between wild stouts, wild reds, brett IPA’s, etc… so that more brewers took an interest in each individual style. Let me know what you think if you made it to the bottom of this rant.
Cheers and beers.
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