Exploring the wild beers of Washington
written by Mike Allen | photography by James Harnois
Ten years ago, Shane Johns was giving away wild beer for free. The biology major turned brewer was working at Tacoma’s Engine House No. 9 with head brewer Doug Tiede. The pair captured wild yeast from a friend’s Tacoma-area backyard, and used the resulting culture to brew batches of funky, tart ales in the Flanders tradition, aging them in 5-gallon oak barrels. There was so little interest at the time that the wild beers never made it to the tap list. Instead, the pair bottled them up and drank them or gave them to friends. But Johns kept at it, harvesting another yeast strain from inside the brewery and growing that into another house culture. When Tiede left the company in 2009 and new ownership took over, Johns presented them his wild brews and was rebuffed.
So he plugged away at the brewery’s catalog of conventionally fermented beers until X Group Restaurants, Tacoma-based restaurateurs, took over Engine House No. 9 in 2011 and rebranded the brewery as E9. “ They were more wine guys,” Johns said of X Group. “I was able to present them with five beers that were completely finished.” The persistence paid off, and the time was finally right. “ They said, ‘If this is what you want to do, then let’s do it,’” Johns said. Now they have 100 oak barrels aging all the time, and plan to bring in 150 more. ere’s a microscopic wilderness all around us, floating on air currents, teeming on fruit and flowers, leaves and even bark. Apart from the visible “bloom” of yeast on grapes and blueberries, it’s a wilderness most of us will never experience in any meaningful detail. But in wild fermentations, we can taste it.
Each strain of yeast or bacteria, even of the same species, produces its own byproducts during fermentation. Yeast from Yakima apples will lend a different background flavor than that of Cascades rose hips. Microbes harvested from the air just outside of Tacoma lend peach notes to E9 brews, while those from inside the brewery are more cherry pie. Johns was among the first of a cadre of Washington brewers to go beyond the catalogs of the yeast laboratory and harvest distinctly Northwestern microbes from which to craft distinctively Northwestern beers. While American wild brewers took their first cues from the traditional brewers of Belgium, northern France and Germany, who have long relied on ambient yeast to ferment their tart, funky and refreshing beers, it’s far from where they stopped. One purist definition of “wild beer” is “spontaneously fermented.” This means the wort is cooled slowly in an open environment, in a wide, open metal tray called a “coolship,” an anglicization of the Flemish koelschip.
As it cools, the hope is that airborne yeast and bacteria collect on the surface and make themselves at home in the nutrient-rich environment. is method produces beers that are definitely wild. But without the decades- or centuries-old breweries and equipment of Europe— which are already crawling with the “right” (and arguably somewhat domesticated) microbes—it’s also dicey. “Wild” here involves a few different processes, from coolship inoculation, to wild harvesting, to hybrid inoculations. The Skagit Valley climate is “perfect for minimal temperature intervention for fermentation,” she said. Watts and Extract became well-known for expanding the milieu of artisan beer at Austin’s renowned Jester King brewery. Progressing from Jester King’s tradition of incorporating plenty of fruit and herbs into the mix, their edgling Garden Path Fermentation will produce not only beer, but mead, fruit wine and cider—a veritable universe of alcoholic fermentation.
Also, unlike most wild brews, Garden Path’s beers won’t necessarily be sour. Most of them will be what might be described as “clean drinking.” “We’re actually exploring the softer side of fermentation,” Extract said. “If people come up to us at a festival and expect a beer that’s going to dissolve the enamel off their teeth, they’re not going to find that.” There’s a misconception that “wild” is synonymous with “sour,” and indeed the guezes and lambics of Flanders are usually quite sour, so the terms are sometimes used interchangeably. But a brew can be quickly soured with fruit juice, or by adding commercial preparations of lactic acid-producing bacteria. Conversely, beer brewed with wild microbes needn’t necessarily be sour. Different microorganisms prefer different environments, Garden Path’s head brewer Jason Hansen explained. By providing the right environment for the organisms the brewer wants to encourage, while discouraging others, he can achieve a desired result with a mixed bag of bugs.
For example, Hansen said, “If we want to select for saccharomyces (the clean- fermenting genus of domesticated yeast), we might use more hops. If we want more brettanomyces (the wild yeast genus that produces funky aromas and tartness), we’ll use less.” Garden Path is creating coolship – inoculated beers, but they’ll also ferment with yeasts harvested from fruit, flowers and the air around the Skagit Valley. By inoculating small batches of wort, they can grow wild yeasts and bacteria up into cultures, sometimes called “yeast wrangling.” The rest is in the aging and blending of beers from different barrels—what Extract refers to as a “curating or editing process.” That curating process means some brews will never make it to the public, since they may never be “presentable.” It also means that brewing wild can be spontaneous in more than one way—the brewer regularly tastes and reacts to the state of the brew, rather than working on a specific and predictable timetable. For this reason, it’s hard to say precisely what will be on offer when the first beers come out of production, hopefully this fall. The other obstacle is that wild takes a while—up to three years in the case of some spontaneously fermented, barrel-aged beers.
While saccharomyces works quickly to digest sugar into alcohol, other microbes work slowly, and the beer takes time to “mature,” sometimes going through unpalatable stages to emerge as something more glorious. Meanwhile, brewers who haven’t been toiling away in an established brewery have to sell more quickly fermented beers, or find ways to shorten the timelines. Open for less than a year, Dwinell Country Ales in Goldendale is pouring a lineup of quenching, slightly tart and funky brews, perfect for drinking under Goldendale’s famously clear desert skies. Cofounder and brewer Justin Leigh said Goldendale, an agricultural community of fewer than 3,500 residents, makes more sense for a country brewery than “under the train tracks,” in say, Chicago. Much of what’s now on tap has been fermented using the “wild” inoculants now offered in the catalogs of most major yeast labs, with a steady trickle of brews incorporating local fruits and their yeasts.
Leigh takes an experimental approach to wild fermentation, finding ways to merge laboratory sophistication with hand-harvested yeasts from the countryside. For example, he and cofounder-wife Jocelyn Dwinell Leigh picked Yakima Valley apples, spontaneously fermented them into cider, and had the yeast analyzed and propagated by Gresham, Oregon’s Imperial Yeast. He’s incorporating these local wild yeasts and bacteria into shorter fermentations, adding complexity and soul to clean-drinking and accessible ales. In the brewery behind the airy, sunny taproom, an old dairy tank—his makeshift coolship—sits in the middle of the room as a wall of oak barrels sits aging various spontaneous and hand- harvested wild ales. These are the long-term projects, which will eventually be blended with one another or with local fruits and re-fermented. The beers on tap already taste like the place where they’re made and served, and with time spent living here, taking on the microscopic wilderness all around, they’ll become part of the landscape. Learn more about E9 Brewery