Beyond British IPAs and imperial stouts, Belgian beer in general is arguably the biggest historic influence on American craft brewing — especially when it comes to wood-aged, mixed fermentation and experimental styles.
Last week, Atlanta’s SweetWater Brewing revved up its new, high-gravity Cork & Cage series with The Pit & The Pendulum, a Belgian-style ale fermented with Belgian ale yeast and peaches, plus brettanomyces (brett), the yeast strain that gives Belgian beers that characteristic earthy, funky edge.
It’s another move toward more experimentation from a brewery best known for solidly hoppy offerings, such as SweetWater IPA and Hop Hash. But it also signals something of a changing of the guard, as a couple of the team’s younger lead brewers, Nick Burgoyne and Chris Meadows, came up with the peachy, yeasty brew, and will continue to create recipes for the series.
At a tasting at the brewery, Burgoyne talked about The Pit & The Pendulum in terms of a first step toward making the kinds of American wild ales and sours that are suddenly so popular.
“This is just the beginning,” Burgoyne said. “Next we’re going to release a barrel-aged imperial stout, but after that we have golden sour ale that we’re aging in white wine barrels. I really love sour beers and I’m pretty into what’s going on with the whole scene now.”
Overall, The Pit & The Pendulum has the kind of complexity you’d expect from a mixed fermentation fruit beer, though it’s surprisingly dry, not exactly super carbonated, and not so funky that it would be off-putting to most not familiar with brettanomyces. One taster compared it to the earthy essence of an Oregon pinot noir.
Burgoyne allowed that he’s looking forward to seeing how it ages and develops in the bottle. “I definitely want to taste it over time,” he said. “It will be really interesting to see what happens a year from now.”
Across town in Decatur, Three Taverns’ young brewmaster, Joran Van Ginderachter, has been experimenting with both wild yeast and brettanomyces in two new beers.
Van Ginderachter is one of only three Belgian brewmasters in the U.S. His uncle, Peter Bouckaert, is the brewmaster at Colorado’s New Belgium, known for its wonderful wood-aged sour ales.
Part of its Non-Orthodox series, Three Taverns’ Inceptus (Latin for “beginning”) is a spontaneously fermented wild ale with an unlikely back story. During the December 2013 Atlanta “Snowpocalypse,” Van Ginderachter decided that the temperature was just right to wrangle some wild yeast from the air around the brewery for what he would call a Georgia wild ale.
“I left some fresh, cooled wort outside for 24 hours and then put it in a barrel to let it do the fermentation,” Van Ginderachter explained during a recent sour beer tasting at the Argosy pub in East Atlanta. “It was really slow, but it fermented. And then we used it as a mother beer to infect more wine barrels filled with a wort made with pilsener, wheat and spelt malt. So this is truly a wild beer.”
Inceptus, which was aged for some 18 months, is delightfully tart and complex but very clean and utterly drinkable.
“A lot of people now make quick kettle sours,” Van Ginderachter said.“That’s originally from Germany. But in Belgium, it’s a longer process. I like some German Berliner Weisse. But I like the sours that are made over a longer time period better. I think they’re cleaner and they are way more complex.”
Three Taverns’ other new beer is a take on the brewery’s A Night in Brussels Belgian-style IPA. It’s aged for over a year in wine barrels inoculated with brettanomyces, and the result is a decidedly funkier version of the hoppy beer.
“I always learned that brett is very earthy, some even say horse blanket or stable,” Van Ginderachter said. “But my favorite beers are like that. Lambics or geuze that really have that aroma. You have to be very patient to do these kinds of beers. But we will build this program out and every year it will be different. I’m happy with these versions. I see it as a good start.”