Saturday, May 23, 2009

Brettanomyces: Loved in Beer, Loathed in Wine

The cultures of beer and wine sometimes seem so different. One is blue-collar and manly, the other moneyed and effete. But of course in another way they share the same culture. Both need yeast.

Memorial Day weekend is one of the big wine events around here. Many wineries are open only this weekend and Thanksgiving weekend. One of the faults that tasters will be looking for is Brettanomyces, also called "brett," a yeast that can settle in barrels and even entire cellars. It is responsible for an amalgam of flavors and aromas that cluster around saddle leather, barnyard, and band-aid. (Brett makes all too vivid the idea that yeast eats sugar and shits alcohol.)

In a wine class on brett, the New Zealand winemaker Matt Thomson, showed a progression in brett infection from mild to severe: increasing levels of brett first dulled and finally completely effaced the lively fruitiness of wine. At certain levels, bretty Pinot Noir, bretty Syrah, and bretty Merlot are all indistinguishable. The problem with brett is its tendency to sensory hegimony: it takes everything over. Brett is simple.

In this it is no different than excessive oak. At certain levels of fancy and expensive winemaking, the fermented grape juice simply becomes a vehicle for dessert - the caramel, cocoa, and vanilla of toasty oak. It's a question of complexity and balance.

American tasters, with a preference for "cleaner" winemaking, associated with more aseptic cellars and higher use of sulphur, are generally more sensitive to brett than are European tasters, who have grown up tasting wines with mild to severe amounts of brett in them.

The situation in the beer world is completely the opposite!

There's a brett blog, devoted to exploring brett as a "primary fermentation yeast." Wyeast Laboratories, an important supplier of yeast cultures, sells two strains of Brettanomyces and has a long instructional discussion of brewing with brett. They hide nothing, writing that the "characteristic horsey aroma and flavor are by-products of Brettanomyces metabolism"! One beer, Reinaert Flemish Wild Ale, even advertises Brettanomyces on the label.

There's also a difference on acidity. In wine, brett thrives in high pH environments, in wines that are not tart, zippy, or refreshing, and are usually described as "soft." In the world of beer, brett is associated with sour beers. Over at beervana, Jeff Alworth talks about brett as an important souring agent. One post he even titles, "Mmmm, Brettanomyces," and writes, "Even though I just added the brettanomyces during secondary fermentation, it has radically soured the beer." I can't imagine a winemaker ever saying that brett soured the wine. I'm pretty sure the souring comes from lactic bacterial fermentation.

Brett adds the funk.

If only it were so musical.

Brett's hegimony doesn't extend simply to flavors and aromas. It wants to take over the world. When Deschutes was working on their first wild yeast beer, The Dissident, they said this in their press release:
Due to the wild yeast, The Dissident required special treatment and was held in isolation under lock and key apart from the rest of the brewery’s beers to avoid any cross-contamination. A secondary bottling line was also brought in from an outside contractor to facilitate The Dissident’s bottling and ensure the beer and wild yeast never touched the brewery’s machinery.
The inversion is complete. A scourge in the world of wine becomes a precious jewel in beer. Yet note the ambivalence in "contamination."

Bretty beers taste the same. Bretty wines taste the same. Why is it lauded in beer, and loathed in wine?

One theory I have is that beer is tracing the same arc, but is a few decades behind wine. The revolution in micro-brewing started in the 1980s, but the movement for boutique wineries, domaine bottling, and protected appellations started in the 1930s. But that's another post...and if it's true, it will be double-edged at best. We already small lot production, oak-aged beers, and price creep to $10 and $20 a bottle for beer. On the surface, beer is aping wine, and the striving already makes something lost.


  1. I've been thinking more and more about the comparisons of beer to wine since we sometimes will purchase a tall bottle of a Rogue stout. The price is the main reason.
    Thanks for the explanation of the first sniff we had when tasting an Eola Hills Sangiovese about 3 years ago. Smelled JUST like a barnyard, but the taste was deep, dark and lovely.