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Friday, May 04, 2012

When Brettanomcyes Sneak In

For the most part, American breweries are now happy to tango with brettanomyces--at least on their own terms.  There are a few who have no interest in wild yeasts, and Full Sail is one--at least, I don't recall any forays they may have made into the funk. Or anyway, intentional forays.  I discovered last night that they have made at least one unintentionally.

Earlier this year, I went out to the brewery to see the latest year-old Top Sail Imperial Porter come out of the barrels.  As you know, every year, Full Sail puts a strong dark ale in barrels and lets them sit there a year; then they blend the barrels together and release them as Top Sail or Black Gold Imperial Stout.  When I visited, they were tasting beer as it came out of the barrel, flagging any batches that had gone south.  Barrels are not precise instruments, and in a certain percentage of them, something goes wrong.  Anything that tasted a bit funky got this treatment:

But here's the thing.  Brettanomyces work very slowly.  I've been in three different barrel rooms where a brewer has discovered a cask that a resident colony, heretofore unbeknownst to the brewery, has begun souring the beer inside.  It takes months for them to reproduce enough that they make their presence known.  it's easy to miss them until they've affected the beer sufficiently.  Their elusiveness is compounded in a process like Full Sail's, where all the barrels are blended together before bottling. 

After my visit, Jamie Emmerson gave me a couple bottles of vintage beers from Full Sail's own cellar.  One of the bottles was an '09 Black Gold, which I cracked last night.  It's no secret where I'm headed.  In 2009, one of those barrels had a bit of the wild culture going on--and after three years, it finally expressed itself. The bottle I had was still fairly mild--just a bit tart and vinous--but it was unmistakable.  Indeed, the flavor was probably not far from the historic London porters of the 19th century.  It had a certain refined quality to it that I quite enjoyed.  Full Sail probably won't be excited to hear it, but that's what happens when you use old whisky barrels--sometimes they harbor wild things.

If anyone else has '09s laying around, I'd be interested to hear what they taste like.


  1. I think I have some. I'll have to check and report back.

  2. From a consumer's point of view, infection generally stinks because it ruins the beer. But from a scientific point of view, it's quite interesting.

    There are benefits to blending barrels together but the negative is if one is infected, all the bottles will eventually be ruined. But if you don't blend, you get bottle variation though some bottles will be fine if an ifection does apear. I know Deschutes gets around the issue by flash pasteurizing the barrel aged portion but they only did this because of previous infection issues.

    It's also part of why barrel aging (or at least doing it properly) can be so expensive since it's really difficult to ensure 100% that every barrel will give drinkable beer.

  3. That's interesting because 2009 was the year that Deschutes also had the Brett infections, in The Abyss and Mirror Mirror. (Personally I think those '09 beers with the Brett are fantastic too, but that's another post.)

    Was there something about barrels that year, vintage-y, or just coincidence?

  4. Interesting, I have a bunch of 09 Black Gold as well. Last time I had one I didn't pick up any brett, but that was 3 or 4 months ago. Why do you say they taste like historic london porters? I remember it being fairly dry for a imperial stout, fairly roasty, and a heafty bourbon note on top of the wood characteristics. I thougbt a historic london porter was suppose to be sweeter with a more pedio acetic acid taste.

  5. What about the porter? I have the imperial porter from '98, '03. and more recent versions - you didn't mention that in the post as much, but has anyone tried older imperial porters recently?

  6. I have some 2009 and tried them recently and they are infected and I don't like it at all.

    I have 2-3 bottles left that I'd be happy to trade or sell if you are interested.

  7. Travis Widdifield12:00 AM, May 14, 2012

    Nice. I really appreciate reading this as I very rarely see vintage beers discussed in blogs. Even more rare are ones I actually own. I have really enjoyed laying beer away to discover the sometimes unpredictable changes time allows. I have a case of both 2009 Black Gold and a case of 2009 Abyss that are in my cellar. I am a fan of both Stout and Brett. Now I am really curious to see how the beers have matured. Weather they be pleasant or awful, cellaring beer is a very satisfying hobby to share with friends and to make new ones. Cant wait to break these out! Cheers.