Funky Distinctions

Originally posted: Feb. 7th 2014.

There is no doubt that people have caught the bug of wild fermentation. With the array of stimulating flavors and the range of intensity and complexity that wild yeast and bacteria can bring to beer, it’s hard not to appreciate the uniqueness that wild fermentation can to bring to craft beer! The variation in bacteria, yeast, and brewing practices, brings infinite possibilities for the “wild ale” beer consumer, and many styles to choice from. Saisons, Sours, and Brett beers are often mistaken for the same style of beer, yet there are some distinct style differences that have been defined, and knowledge of these differences can help distinguish between the similarities. 

The saison beer style has been around since the 19th century and was traditionally brewed by Belgian farmers in uncovered containers in their farmhouses. Due to the naturally unhygienic brewing conditions, the beer developed a wild flavor, naturally. Saisons are brewed with pale malt, a light to medium hop, and carry notes of citrus, herbs, and spices. Originally a low alcohol beer style intended to keep the farm workers in production, the modern rendition is a relatively higher alcohol beer brewed using a cultivated wild Belgian saison yeast strain, instead of utilizing open fermentation practices. The Belgian wild yeast imitates the wild flavors that traditionally resulted from open fermentation, giving saisons their characteristic peppery and citrus flavor.  

A common misconception is that saisons get their distinct flavor because they are brewed with Brettanomyces.

Brettanomyces is a type of yeast that is found on the skins of fruit. In most cases, Brettanomyces is considered a contaminant that produces an off flavor in beer, however, it is a key ingredient in many wild beer styles. When brewing a Brett beer, it is typically used in addition to another yeast, although there are 100% Brett Beers, like our Brett Trois. Brettanomyces contributes a unique funkiness, described as “horse-blanket.” It can also give beer an acidic quality, a unique spiciness, earthiness, and fruit characteristics.

Sour beer is characterized by an acidic, tart, and sour taste. There are many types of sours that can range in color and sweetness. The word “sour” is a blanket term and includes Lambic, Gueuze, Flanders Red Ale, and Oud Bruin. Similar to Brett beers, sours are intentionally infected with (good) bacteria strains, Lactobacillus and Pediococcus, which give them a mouth puckering quality. Barrel aging is a common practice with sours, because these bacteria strains love oak barrels. As the barrels are reused, the bacterial colonies will grow, making barrels a happy home for these souring microbes to help develop a delightfully complex and puckering brew.

Saisons and sours are not necessarily brewed with Brett, but they can be. Due to this confusion, saisons and brett beers are frequently mistaken to be a sour. When brewing sours, Brettanomyces is often utilized, but it is not the souring agent. This leads to the common (and understandable) lack of distinction between Brett Beers, Saisons, and Sours. And lastly, although there are unique differences between the styles, the only thing you can expect from wild ales is that they are unpredictable. On top of that, many brewers blend the styles to create a uniquely crafted brew, designed for limitless enjoyment!