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Tuesday, February 24, 2009

To Brett or Not to Brett

A few weeks ago, when I visited the Rac Lodge, I asked Ron if he used any brettanomyces in his beer. The look he gave me was akin to the expression a tower guardsman might wear while observing a horde of Huns swarming over the moat. Emphatically no.

I don't blame him. When you're messing around with wild yeasts, the decision about whether to invite Brett over is one not to take lightly. Brett is the Kali of yeasts, the destroyer of cities, eater of young. To add it to your beer is to submit to forces beyond your control, to cede dominion to a single-celled organism.

I was reminded of this decision as Sally and I watched the Oscars on Sunday. (Not a bad show, and I was psyched to see Sean Penn win for best actor in what I thought was the year's best film. Gus should have taken the statue for directing, and Slumdog was vastly over-rated. Still, seeing the glee of the half-Indian crew made up for the misplaced lauding.) We pulled out an '08 Cascade Kriek and a Dissident. In the former, no brettanomyces; in the latter, ample stores of the lush, horse-blankety bad boy.

There's a remarkable difference in the way the two have aged. The Kriek is much as I remember it from a year ago. The cherry character has faded a bit and become less distinct, but that's to be expected. The intensity of sour remains about where it was, as does the level of sweetness. In short, the yeast have pooped out, and any changes to the beer now are unrelated to their activity.

The Dissident, though--what a change! Here's what I wrote in my review in September:
[T]there's none of that skanky brett, but rather a sweet chocolate and sour cherry-accented nose. As it opened up, the astringency of the sour diminished a little and the cherries muscled their way in.

It is a lovely and approachable beer.... The body is creamy and rich, with malt notes contributing a brown sugar/biscuit base. Onto this are balanced the twin flavors of tart/sweet cherries and the sourness of the yeast and cultures.
It's a totally different beer now. The brett have muscled their way in; the beer has their characteristic horsey aroma, and the palate their musty sourness. And they've continued to break the beer down--it is now bone dry. The malt notes are gone, and the body, while still rich, is less creamy and more vinous. Anyone who fell in love with this beer in the fall might now find it too intense and lacking in that velvety luxury they admired. But for those who revel in the character of brett, this is something else. The progression is very similar to Orval's--the young and older versions of the beer don't even appear to be related, much less the same being. At the time of release, Deschutes listed Dissident as 8.8% alcohol. Based on the way Orval gets stronger, I'd bet it's well into double digits now.
Whether 'tis nobler in the glass to suffer
the stings and dryness of outrageous chemistry...
To brett or not to brett, that is the question.


  1. That's cool, I'm excited to try a bottle. Do you know if Roots used brett in theirs?

  2. Jeff,

    Are you trying to keep me distracted with these posts? Is someone in my cellar stealing all my beer stash, while I comment on all these posts??


    "When you're messing around with wild yeasts, the decision about whether to invite Brett over is one not to take lightly."

    Lactobacillus is not taken very lightly by brewers, vintners or the like either. It can spoil you product very easily and the flavor profile can be very unwanted as well.

    Whether your playing with Brett or Lacto, you're playing with fire.

    "Slumdog was vastly over-rated."

    Great, now you're a movie critic! To bad you couldn't critize some local beers as quickly... ;-}

    Sean Penn?! While he's a decent actor, which I will not deny, have you ever heard him talk about his political stances? He's about as convincing as Priest wearing rouge and about as sharp as a bowling ball..... To bad he's not a conservative, he could do wonders for the IRA.. :-O

  3. The Dissident was amazing when it was released. I'm skeptical that aging would improve the taste.

  4. Damn, I should have aged my Dissident bottles. I did not like the Dissident all that much because of all this residual sugar and the alcohol overwhelming the wild yeasts but now I realize that Deschutes may have released it too early.

    On the positive side, if you want an accessible sour ale, this is a more natural way to do it than to add something yucky like syrup to the beer (as some of the non-traditional lambic brewers do).

    Maybe we can make good wild ales in the Pacific Northwest after all. Just do not drink them for a couple of years. All parties are happy ;-)

  5. That is amusing, I was about to say, dang, I shouldn't have aged my Dissident and then I saw Anon.'s comment above. I loved Dissident when it came out, now I am eager to try my aged bottle.

    Thanks Jeff for guiding my taste buds on their journey...

  6. The Dissident was amazing when it was released. I'm skeptical that aging would improve the taste.

    "Improve" is subjective. It definitely changed. People tend to like Orval at a particular interval. The younger version is more aromatic and hoppy, sweeter; the older drier, less hoppy, more tart. Does Orval improve? If you like young Orval, definitely not!

    I believe some people will enjoy this version of Dissident more. Perhaps a minority.

  7. very nice article, I like your blogs. Keep it up

  8. I can't say that I'm surprised that Cascade/Rac doesn't use the Brett. I think all along Ron has said that his beers will taste best fresh, not aged. I'm assuming that the fruit flavors in his beers would fade out with aging and since that makes his beers unique and wonderful, I don't know why he would want to invest the time, cost, and risk into using the brett for the sake of aging. (Fun topic though).

  9. I think all along Ron has said that his beers will taste best fresh, not aged.

    Well, not all his beers. Some, like the Cuvee, are designed to be aged. You don't want to drink that bad boy green.

  10. True enough and thanks for the correction! (I was thinking of the fruit beers and it slipped my mind how many other types he had). I'm not sure if it's still on tap, but a four year old barleywine that he created pouring during Zwicklemania and it was amazing!