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Monday, December 01, 2008

All About Allagash

As many of you know, I visited Allagash Brewery last week when I was visiting Sally's family in New England. At long last, I've had a chance to sit down and compose a post. Here goes.

Allagash was founded in 1995 in Portland, Maine by Rob Tod. From its inception, it has been devoted to selling Belgian-style ales. The flagship ale is a wit, and it still accounts for 80% of the brewery's production. Their regular beers also include a dubbel, tripel, grand cru, and Belgian stout ("Black"). Allagash produces a variety of special beers and seasonals, all within the Belgian spectrum. They moved to a new, larger facility in December 2006 which would allow their capacity to grow over time to 14,000 barrels, but already they expect to hit 13,000.

As they've grown, their experimentations have also gotten more extravagant, and last year they began lambic fermentation--the first American brewery I know of to brew 100% spontaneously. More amazingly, they built a small building outside the brewery to house a koelschip ("cool ship"), a wide, shallow pool to cool their wort and innoculate it with wild yeasts. Since I've learned about this experiment, I've been dying to hear Rob and his brewmaster Jason Perkins talk about brewing lambic and find out how it's going.

"Screw it, let's build a koelschip."
When you learn a brewery has sunk tens of thousands of dollars (I speculate) into the construction of a building and a 15-barrel stainless-steel cooling vat, a few questions spring to mind: "Did you do any experiments with spontaneous fermentation before you built the building?", "Did you have any idea that the wild yeasts of Maine were suitable to lambic brewing?", "Did you have any idea how exactly to do this?" I imagined men in white suits out behind the brewery with instruments like Geiger counters, measuring for wild yeasts. I figured the brewery had done some preliminary small-scale tests. I assumed, in short, that Allagash didn't go all-in on a hunch. I was wrong (mostly).

The idea developed incrementally, beginning with the discovery of a culture of brettanomyces in one of their beers. While this would be cause for panic in most breweries, it produced something closer to celebration at Allagash. For a brewery looking to explore the world of Belgian-style brewing, finding a native strain of brett was a lucky break. Brewmaster Jason Perkins described the find:
We really liked the character.... Wyeast Labratory isolated it for us and now banks it for us and we now use it in many beers. It was not a strain they’ve ever seen before, different character. So it’s resident to this area, certainly. It has since gotten into a couple of our other barrels over time, some of our real long-aging barrels, unintentionally.
Fortune favored Allagash on this one. I tried Interlude, a beer they make with their brett, and it's a gentle beer. The brettanomyces sours it, but pleasantly; there's none of the nasty funk brett can give. I've tasted elements of compost or solvent--with native strains, you take what you find, and it seems like the brewery found a friendly funk.

Inspired by the brett, Allagash started having discussions about the feasibility of spontaneous fermentation. They're in contact with some Belgian breweries, so they asked: could we pull it off? The question of spontaneous fermentation is fraught with so many logistical problems, it would ward off most breweries. But add to that the mystique about the Zenne Valley lambics, and Allagash wasn't even sure it was possible. But the Belgians encouraged them. There's nothing sacrosanct about the Zenne Valley--wild yeasts should ferment beer anywhere, theoretically.

But would Maine wild yeasts produce a tasty lambic? They did some research and discovered that except for the hottest months in the summer and the coldest months in the winter, it turns out that Portland, Maine's weather matches up quite closely with Brussels'. So now they had two data points: a nice, native brettanomyces and similar weather patterns to Belgium. "That’s basically what we had to work with and we rolled the dice," Perkins said. "So we’ll see."

It's not exactly clear to me how the decision to build the koelschip room developed. It was a big leap from these two slim facts to the decision to invest in an entire building devoted to the experiment. I think it's not so clear to the brewery how the decision came about. Here's Founder/owner Rob Tod describing the decision (and he was miked--this is a transcript, edited once for salty language):
I thought, it’s too much work, it’s too risky, it’s too risky having all those microbes in the brewery. Let’s just focus on the other Belgian-style beers we do. But then I just woke up one morning, and we all just looked at each other and we’re like “[Screw] it, let’s build a koelschip.” That was basically what it came down to.

The Lambic Experiments

As they prepared the koelschip and ingredients, Allagash spoke regularly with Cantillon. They tracked down some old hops (and have since begun aging their own) and got their recipe together, but they still weren't totally sure how it was going to work. The brewing process is described in detail here (worth reading for the technically-minded), but the thing that interested me was the fermentation. What happens in the traditional lambic breweries is typically described almost in verse, like a prayer, so I've never understood how it's supposed to work. Apparently, the brewers at Allagash were almost as mystified. Perkins:
We were pretty skeptical, to be honest. To be brewing from, technically speaking from a brewing perspective, it doesn’t seem feasible. You need to pitch a certain cell count of yeast in the beer. Theoretically the microflora is building up here, becoming more resident, hopefully.... But the fermentation is much, much slower, for sure. The quickest fermentation kicked in was three days, but the early batches were six or seven days.
The beer comes into the cool ship straight from the kettle, instantly filling the tiny room with steam. There is an industrial fan in the room and windows to vent it, and the wort just sits in there to cool until it reaches about 60 degrees the next day. The first time they tried it in November '07 (almost exactly a year ago), it took until noon the next day to cool that much. But when they brewed a month later, it got down to 27 at night, and they hit 60 by seven or eight the next morning. They chose 60 degrees because some of the more nasty acetobacters won't tolerate temperatures below 70 degrees. The beer is then placed in French oak barrels for aging, again, kept at around 60 degrees. The beer takes longer to ferment at that temperature, but at least for the early batches, Allagash has deemed it a safer approach.

It's still in the barrels, and will be there for--I think this is right--another year. The early signs are hopeful. Again, Perkins:
It’s progressing along. Active fermentation was over in a month or so, in terms of the bulk of the sugar fermentation. Definitely has a pretty buteric, raunchy character to it, which is fairly common for young lambics. Definitely brettanomyces character to it, and now in a couple of the four batches, we’re getting development of early tart character, which is nice. To be honest, that was a nice sign because it wasn’t there for the first seven or eight months; we were a little disappointed it wasn’t there yet.
Working with wild yeast means living with wide variability (the enemy of most breweries). Perkins says that not only is there variation between batches, but also substantial variation barrel to barrel in the same batch. When it's mature, the brewery plans to blend the lambic, perhaps also making gueuzes (blends of younger and older lambics). They also plan to add fruit, though there are no plans for that yet. I begged and wheedled for them to send the packaged version to the West Coast, and they said that if it's packaged, it will go to all their distributors. (I was troubled by the 'if'--we will have to prevail upon them to package it in any case.) Tod figures it's a money loser in any case, so he's not feeling any pressure to get it packaged and out the door.

Other Beers
sugar. For lower gravity beers, this translates into very dry palates. Their wit has always been a bit of an outlier this way. Rather than the crowd-pleasing summer fave, The lambics will constitute a tiny fraction of the brewery's production. When we visited, we were sick and didn't try a lot of the beers--though some are available in Oregon, so look around. Allagash's regular yeast strain is quite dry--a quality that can be enhanced by the use of candiAllagash White is less a session ale than an aperitif. I find their dubbel similarly dry.

But in beers with more heft, the yeast cuts through sugar and body. I find many high-gravity Belgian-style beers too sweet. Allagash's tripel is one of the best I've had, and their Grand Cru is exceptional. (It's got the same suite of spices as the white. When we were sampling it, our tour guide, the lovely and talented Kate Dunleavy, said it had the usual coriander and orange peel, plus a "secret spice." It tasted a bit barky, like sarsaparilla, and when I mentioned this, she got a funny look on her face--whether because it was an absurd guess or correct or some wholly unrelated reason I can't say.)

Their special beers include the brett-yeasted Interlude, a lovely barrel-aged strong ale, and Four, a bottle of which lays in the beer cellar (Allagash corks 750 ml bottles, in the Belgian style). It's made with four malts, four hops, four sugars (candi, mostly, plus molasses), and four yeasts.

It is located in a warehouse in an industrial part of town, but they have three tours daily, so if you're in Portland, stop by. They'll pour you samples afterward, and the beer is cheaper there than in our Portland.


  1. Though I've spent most of my life in Maine, I've never been to Allagash...doh! Did you get to visit the Lost Bear in Portland, ME?

  2. . . the first American brewery I know of to brew 100% spontaneously.

    I think that Lost Abbey and Russian River got there first, though without using a koelschip.

    It's a big deal they are doing this, but not which of the three was first.

  3. Stan, it was difficult to write that qualification, because I wasn't sure what the lines were. What Allagash is doing is unique. They are making lambic in the old style--allowing wild yeasts in the atmosphere to ferment their beer. This is a magnitude more radical than what Vinnie is doing, by letting his barrels, already wonderful hosts for his previously-pitched yeasts, do the work. You could say that with Allagash, no humans were involved in the production, cultivation, or maintenence of the yeast--just good old Maine air.

    (You will hear no criticism of Russian River here--it is one of my all-time faves. But a distinction in method should be made.)

    I'm unfamiliar with Lost Abbey's beers, and the method isn't clear on the website. If they're not using the barrel-innoculation method, I stand corrected.

    I should add, since you've brought it up, that Allagash is definitely cultivating barrels with resident yeasts to encourage a "house character." You'll see in one of the pictures a massive barrel like some the old Belgian breweries use. Perhaps in 20 years beer will come out of there that has no other equivalent in the world, thanks to the Maine yeasts.

  4. Great look at Allagash Jeff! I appreciate the insights into the brewery and process.

  5. From what I understand, the Grey Parrot in Long Beach, WA is the first (and currently only) brewery to have truly spontaneously fermented beer commercially available, rather then the barrel bugs or other common inoculations. I don't think they have a coolship though like what is described here for when Allagash make's their debut.