June 09 2015
A funny thing happened on the way to making Bossa Nova.
Sometimes things aren’t what they seem. For example, I always thought Pluto was a planet – now apparently it’s not. Go figure.
Almost exactly a year ago, on a trip to the States, I dropped into the White Labs tasting room on Candida Street, San Diego. White Labs is a yeast bank who commercially culture and distribute yeast to breweries, wine makers and anyone interested in fermentation (I don’t know if the street was named that before they were there, but I will ask).
A quick word about yeast. Yeast is the real star of brewing. When people talk about beer and brewing, yeast often gets upstaged by flashy talk of hops and malt. This is a travesty. For starters, without yeast there would be no beer, no wine, no cider or spirits, and then, as if that wasn’t depressing enough, your bread would be all flat and lifeless. Things would be altogether a bit shit really.
This aside, yeast also has a truly profound impact on the flavour of beer. Imagine if you were to divide up a batch of wort (the name for the liquid that with yeast’s help will become beer) into a dozen different vessels, pitch each vessel with a different strain of yeast and allow them to ferment – when you tasted the finished beers in many cases they would be so radically different that you’d be hard pressed to pick them as having come from the same base liquid.
At the White Labs tasting room you really don’t have to imagine this because it is exactly what they do. There are over 30 taps, offering base beers fermented with different yeasts from their catalog of over 100 strains. A bit geeky you might think, but this is catnip for brewers. The impact of the different yeast strains on the flavour of the beers was amazing – sometimes the effect created subtle nuances, sometime the result was astoundingly different. The whole experience was fascinating, but the undisputed highlight for me was undoubtedly a beer fermented with 100% Brettanomyces Buxellensis Trois.
You may have heard of Brettanomyces, perhaps in hushed tones. If you have not, Brettanomyces is the unruly cousin of brewers yeast. If brewers yeast is like domesticated livestock then Brettanomyces is more akin to a wild mountain goat. If you’ve ever watched a shepherd at work you’ll know it’s hard enough trying to herd domesticated sheep – imagine what it’s like trying to control a mob of their wild cousins.
It’s exactly the same for brewers. Conventional brewing wisdom suggests that Brettanomyces is not something you want to invite willingly into your brewery. Apocryphal stories abound of Brett escaping and running rampant in breweries and wineries. I’ve heard stories of it permeating inches deep in the concrete floors of wineries and of breweries having to virtually start again from scratch, scrapping all their equipment and even their brewery site, to eliminate Brett from their beers. Brettanomyces really is the boogeyman of brewing.
Still some brave brewers embrace Brett. If you have ever tasted a well aged bottle of the famous Belgian brew Orval, you’ll know what Brettanomyces can taste like. But what I tasted at White Labs was nothing like this and absolutely nothing like what I was expecting. This Brett ferment was full of sharp, zesty pineapple and mango flavours with just a touch of tartness.
This was an epiphinal moment, followed by a bout of intense inner conflict between the part of me that thought that a beer that tasted like pineapple and mango was pretty fucking awesome and the significant other bit of me that was just shit scared of bringing Brett into the brewery.
Finally, when we were coming up with this year’s GABS beer, the creative bit won out – but only after the shit scared part made the creative part promise to sterilise everything the beer came in contact with, bleach everything around the tank and basically be really anally retentive. What followed was a month of intense paranoia, manifesting in sleepless nights, endless hours of sterilising, and a battle between an imagined menace and literally hundreds of litres of bleach and thousands of litres of scalding water.
But finally – we have a beer. Bossa Nova, Brett fermented, tropical fruit salad IPA. The idea was to take the intense pineapple and mango character of the yeast I’d tasted in San Diego, add El Dorado, Equinox, Nelson Sauvin and Galaxy, all hops with a pronounced tropical fruit character, and salad of tropical fruit including passionfruit, guava, papaya, pineapple, mango and lychee. Some beers are harder to brew than others – this has been the toughest. But the result, an intense complex tropical sherbet hit of hops and fruit with just a touch of sharpness.
Then a funny thing happened. Someone in the States ran a DNA test on Brettanomyces Bruxellensis Trois and got in touch with White Labs questioning if it really was a strain of Brett. White Labs responded by assuring them that the strain was from a legitimate source, but said that they would look into it.
So they looked into it and guess what? Apparently, not only is Pluto not a planet, and but Brettanomyces Bruxellensis Trois isn’t a strain of Bretannomyces. The strain formally known as Brettanomyces Bruxellensis Trois is now known as Saccharomyces ‘Bruxellensis’ Trois. Not a conventional brewers yeast, rather it is a wild strain, but still technically not Brettanomyces. Go figure.
But, you know what? Who gives a shit. Taxonomy is dull. Pluto still rocks, even if it is a non-planet, and Saccharomyces ‘Bruxellensis’ Trois still tastes like mango and pineapple. That’s still pretty cool.