Behind the Boom of Brettanomyces Beers

Welcome to "I'd Tap That," in which Aaron Goldfarb and a panel of tasters pit "whales" against "shelf turds" in an effort to understand everything from Imperial IPA to Saison. This round: all of the Brett beers.

Brett Beers

Even just a decade ago, yeast was an afterthought for most American beer drinkers. Malts, hops, water—sure, but festishizing the particularities of fermentation was more the domain of wine. Even if your average craft beer enthusiast generally knew you needed yeast to actually make beer, there was little chance he was aware of the fact that Saccharomyces cerevisiae or Saccharomyces pastorianus was probably that yeast. And, indeed, even most American craft breweries hadn’t really begun exploring yeast outside those domesticated strains until a group of adventurous brewers decided to try and corral something called Brettanomyces—or, more affectionately, Brett.

But why would they want to do that?

For the longest time, Brett was a bad word in the industry, something that unwittingly infected beers due to poor sanitation methods. (In wine, most consider the presence of Brett character to be a defect as well, while some argue that it can be part of the essential character of a wine, like in the case of Château de Beaucastel.) Present in the wild on the skins of fruit, Brett was first identified around the turn of the 20th century by brewery scientists trying to figure out what exactly was causing that unintentional, slightly funky note in Britain’s oak-aged stock ales.

Meanwhile, in Belgium, many brewers owed Brett their livelihood—they just didn’t quite know it yet. When these brewers made their lambics and gueuzes and, yes, farmhouse ales, too, they used an open fermentation method, which exposed their unfermented beer (known as wort) to the air where, you guessed it, Brett was secretly lingering, ready to pounce.

While the merits of Brett character in beer are still debated, one thing everyone can agree on is that Brett is brilliant at fermenting beer. The yeast works its magic quite slowly, attacking many sugars that Saccharomyces cannot, often resulting in not only a drier beer, but one that shows a funky, “barnyard” aroma. And while some mistakenly identify Brett as a souring agent, it’s most often the presence of two lactic-acid bacterias, Lactobacillus and Pediococcus, that causes those flavors.

There are at least four species of Brett, each imparting different notes that range from horse blanket (Brettanomyces bruxellensis, aka “Brett Brux”) and “goaty” (Brettanomyces naardenensis) to cherries (Brettanomyces lambicus) and pineapples (Brettanomyces claussenii, aka “Brett C”). In the late 1990s and early aughts, some more adventurous American craft brewers, like Vinnie Cilurzo (Russian River), Ron Jeffries (Jolly Pumpkin) and Tomme Arthur (The Lost Abbey), had the cockeyed notion to experiment with these strains of Brett, hoping to mimic the Belgian beers they adored, like Orval and Cantillon. After years of working with beers that were far easier to control and master, the unpredictability of Brett—its ability to totally transform their beers in ways they hadn’t even planned for—proved to be an irresistible challenge. And in true American fashion, many of them added their own twists, from fruit additions to dry-hopping techniques to domesticating Brett itself in order to make 100-percent Brett-fermented beers, something that would have certainly been impossible a century ago.

Nowadays, you’re no longer a firebrand if you use Brett, and most all top-notch breweries have at least a few beers prominently featuring the yeast. There’s Prairie Artisan Ales’ Brett C; Crooked Stave’s multiple lines of Brett-forward beers, like their witbier, St. Bretta, and dark wild beer, Nightmare on Brett; and The Bruery, who has released a series of single-strain Brett offerings in their Elements of Funk series. Breweries like Firestone Walker have even built completely separate facilities for these types of beers, simply to assure Brett never comes into contact with their “clean” beers. In some cases, these breweries are now even utilizing the yeast with styles not accustomed to going “wild”—notably, IPAs. Brett IPAs have become particularly popular of late, with Brett’s pineapple notes often melding beautifully with certain fruitier hops. 

In order to see what this most famous yeast can do, we blind-tasted 28 Brett-backed beers, trying to focus mostly on beers where Brett was the intended star (it’s often used in mixed fermentation beers alongside Lactobacillus and Pediococcus). For the tasting, I was joined by PUNCH’s Editor in Chief, Talia Baiocchi; Associate Editor, Lizzie Munro; and Assistant Editor, Chloe Frechette. While wild ales, both domestically and abroad, are the styles most commonly associated with Brettanomyces, we also looked at Brett saisons, Flanders reds, pales and IPAs, an old-world English porter and even a coffee beer. Here are the six that were worth their Brett.

Six Brett Beers to Try

Kent Falls Dekkera | 4 percent ABV
Kent Falls’ table beers offer the perfect way to fully examine the flavor Brett imparts on beer, unadulterated by any other bells and whistles. This delicate offering is floral and slightly musky on the nose with an orangey, overripe pineapple flavor profile in a package that’s full-bodied for the ABV, and highly drinkable.

Logsdon Oak Aged Bretta | 8 percent ABV
A true farmhouse brewery—not just an industrial warehouse pumping out saisons—Logsdon Farmhouse Ales has a plethora of Brett fermented beers. The Oak Aged Bretta is essentially a barrel-aged version of their flagship Seizoen Bretta, which picks up vanilla and wood notes after a prolonged period of aging. Extraordinarily dry and very easy-drinking, its high acidity reminded us of an excellent Norman cider.

The Lost Abbey Red Poppy Ale | 5 percent ABV
Famously, over the entryway to one of The Lost Abbey’s barrel rooms is a sign reading “In Illa Brettanomyces, Nos Fides” (loosely, “In Brettanomyces, we trust”). Produced since 2006, Red Poppy is an homage to Flanders reds. It’s aged in French oak wine barrels with sour cherries added, the result tart and refreshing with a distinct spicy cinnamon flavor and aroma (which Talia rightly pegged as “Hot Tamales”).

Captain Lawrence Rosso E Marrone | 10 percent ABV
Captain Lawrence was an early Brett adopter, and their experience comes through here. While Cuvee De Castleton and Flaming Fury are two top-notch Brett offerings, Rosso E Marrone is their masterpiece. This Flanders oud bruin is a high-ABV brown ale aged in oak alongside red wine grapes and Brett. This was easily the most “wild”—read: tart, tangy, complex—of the beers in our lineup.

Allagash Midnight Brett | 7.3 percent ABV
With all of the up-front notes of coffee, chocolate and perceivable tannin, we were nearly certain that this beer was bourbon barrel-aged. In actuality, this almost-black beer was brewed with Midnight Wheat, a bitterless black malt, then aged in stainless tanks and inoculated with the brewery’s house Brett strain. Tart, with an intriguing mix of sour cherries and medium-roast coffee.