Farmhouse and Wild Ale Fest in Portland, and I finally managed to attend. I expected to find great beer from the growing cadre of breweries devoted to funk (Jester King, Crooked Stave, De Garde, and others). What I didn't expect was to find a similarity across the beers that pointed to distinctly American provenance. When we think of "American," what springs to mind are hops. This vein of brewing is so prominent that American IPAs are brewed all over the world now, from Prague to Mexico City to Auckland.
American wild ales, by contrast, aren't even well-known in the US. But if the beers at that fest are any indication--and I think they were a pretty good cross-section of what's available--wild ales may be more distinctively American than IPAs. (When you sit down to a Matuška IPA in Prague, you realize how well other breweries have learned to imitate them.) Two other countries have a solid tradition of wild ales, and they're instructive for the ways they contrast American wilds.
Belgium, of course, is the standard-bearer for the category.* Belgium kept the traditions of spontaneous fermentation, mixed fermentation, and wood-aging alive, and it's hard to imagine there being any wild ales had lambics, tart flanders ales, and assorted oddball beers died out before the current revival. Belgian wilds have two distinctive features--complexity and balance--that make them unique. This comes partly from spontaneous fermentation, but more from the varied ecosystems that inhabit the old wooden foeders in places like Brussels and Roselare. Take gueuze, which for my money is the world's most accomplished style. Not only does it come from lambic, which is the product of a zoo of wild creatures, but also different vintages of lambic. The old blends are dry, austere, and still, the medium blends richer with yeast compounds, the young blends still lively and sweet. A gueuze is tart but not overly so; the flavors are so nuanced and varied that you can fall into a meditation as you experience them. Beers like Rodenbach are more tart--aged, unblended Rodenbach is very sour--but they also have tons of layers. You'll find rich esters, rounded, balancing sweet notes, that characteristic balsamic note, and on and on.
Italy has, like the US, really taken to wild ales, too, but they have an entirely different orientation. Most of Italy's breweries are in the North, in wine country, and this influence is profound on the beers. Wild ales there are lightly acidic but never puckeringly sour. (I used to include a sour-o-meter when I did reviews, and rarely would an Italian ale go past two on that chart.) Balance is the hallmark of all Italian beers, though unlike German beers, in Italy they may be extremely complex and full of flavor--just never too much. My suspicion is that this has to do with cuisine; the beer is meant to go with food, and as such it's meant to remain in harmony with food. As a result, you find few face-melting palate-wreckers.
The US? The wild ales do very often approach face-melting intensity, but even more notable is how certain notes dominate. It may be an exceedingly dry quality from Brett or sharp sour, but they are mostly not brewed for subtlety. They often seem to lack complexity for this reason; it's difficult to maintain complexity when one quality dominates. (There are exceptions. Block 15 continues to make the best wild ales I've tasted in the US. They are balanced, complex, and extremely approachable. Like gueuze, I think most of Block 15's wilds would be as welcome by sourheads as by novices or those who don't normally like sours. That's a real trick.) This may all be inexperience. Wild ales are an art, and a very advanced one. Belgians have had centuries to gauge the effects of oxygen and age on beer and to learn how to blend--knowledge that comes slowly at best.
There is one development that is quite promising: hoppy wild ales. It also follows a classic pattern of the way styles mutate and develop. Americans know hops inside and out. We know how to coax all kinds of different flavors out of them, and when we brew beers, we always keep one eye on how hops will inflect the other flavors. (For decades, this was considered a naive fault of Americans, that we couldn't brew anything without over-hopping it.) Because Americans are so good with hops, they naturally started seeing how those citrusy, fruity flavors would harmonize with sour ales (which have native citrusy, fruity flavors themselves). Americans can use hops to add spice, zest, aroma, and flavor, and they can do it precisely. When they add hops to wild ales, they're adding that depth and complexity I miss with the extremely acidic or dry beers.
In Belgium and Italy, the complexity comes through fermentation. In the US, wild ales may one day get theirs from hops. It's a good trend, one that makes American wilds distinctive, and one that may actually expand the appeal of wild ales beyond a purely niche audience.
*And let's not get too anal about our definitions.
Wild ales are not a style, but a broad family that includes any beers
made with Brettanomyces, pediococcus, lactobacillus, or other wild yeasts and bacteria--whether or not they were spontaneously-fermented or pitched.