What you may or may not know about Wild Ales

Just a warning, this is going to get geeky and quickly at that.  Fair enough?  OK, here we go.

So, what is a “Wild Ale”.  Essentially, it’s a beer that has been fermented with a wild yeast, typically of the genes brettanomyces.  In practical terms, they’re beers that have a bit of funk, are nearly always dry, and sometimes sour as well.  Mind you, any sourness actually comes from yet another fermentation the beer may undergo, but we’ll get to that later.

However, it does bear mention, right off the bat, that these beers aren’t necessarily “sour” as they are often incorrectly termed.  Rather, they’re simply not sweet.  And there is a difference.  Dryness is simply the absence of sugar, sourness can actually exist despite the existence of sugar.  Think of all those sour candies that are absolutely loaded with sugar.  Actually, this confusion is not unlike the confusion that leads people to order a “dry” wine when what they really want is a high acid wine.  After all, the vast majority of wines out there are technically dry, even if they’re not high-toned and crisp.

So, what does define nearly all wild ales is the absence of sugar and this is due to the brettanomyces.  Unlike wine, which, being made from a juice is composed of simple sugars that are easily digested by common yeast, the malts that produce beers are far more complex.  Sure, there’s plenty of simple sugar, and that’s what is turned into alcohol in all beer.  But there’s also complex sugars that are indigestible by typical yeast and that is why nearly all craft beer remains sweet to a degree.  However, brettanomyces can digest these complex sugars and picks up where the more common yeast leaves off, resulting in a beer in which all the sugars have been digested.  Hence, a truly dry beer.

This means the beer can be abundantly refreshing.  For many of the same reason a crisp, bright Sauvignon Blanc can be more what you’re looking for on a hot day than a big, butter Chardonnay, the same can be true here.  They’re sort of “summer ales” in disguise.  Well, sort of…

Of course, there is a “cost”.  The brett can inspire some funky elements that may not be everyone’s cup of tea.  I love ‘em but am also happy to live in a world where my beer doesn’t always taste like that.  It’s the same with wine.  Stylistically, I absolutely appreciate both a wine that is clean and “correct”, but also one that has some earthy nuance.  In fact, one of the world’s most revered wines Chateau Beaucastel owes some of its unique charm to brettanomyces.

So, are there any that are truly sour?  Absolutely, but this is a process above and beyond simply inoculating the beer with brett, these beers, typically patterned after the Flanders-style Red ales actually go through another fermentation, typically involving Lactobacillus, that actually sours the beer.  My suggestion; get comfy with wild ales first, then try your hand at the sours.  They are certainly an acquired taste.

At any rate, we’ve got a pretty good selection of them and just got a shipment in from one of the few breweries in the country who specifically specializes in the style, Jolly Pumpkin.  Try the Oro de Calabaza or Firefly if you want to see how pretty these can be.  Try La Roja if you truly want to see what “sour” ale tastes like.

Mind you, those aren’t the only wild ales we have.  Come on in and have a look.  Also, if you want to check out a bunch in one place at one time, go by Sam’s Quik Shop on Saturday, August 20th for “Sour Fest” and taste a bunch of wild ales, both sour and not.