Night Air & a Bit of Luck: Utah's First Spontaneously Fermented Beers
When I first heard about spontaneously fermented beer, I had questions. I had begun to learn, even then, about the importance of yeast, and its status as one of beer's four primary ingredients. How could you make beer without adding yeast? What did 'spontaneous' mean? Where did the yeast come from? The answer was that it came from the surrounding environment as wind-borne microflora, or more romantically, from the very air itself. This was a new and startling concept to me and I was captivated. But sadly, spontaneously fermented beers are difficult and expensive to produce, and thus very rare. As the Craft Beer explosion rocked America and the world, I always kept an eye out for examples, but the barriers to entry kept this technique limited to Belgian imports, homebrew experts, and brewer daydreams. But now, years later, a local brewery has finally released Utah's first (commercial) spontaneously fermented beer!
Toasted Barrel Brewery in the Marmalade neighborhood of Salt Lake City has released a pair of sister beers, fermented using entirely wild yeast in an adaptation of traditional lambic methods, both called “To Be Home.” While this is their first spontaneous release, it's certainly not their first sour beer; the brewery was conceptualized from the beginning as a barrel-focused, mixed fermentation operation and since its founding in 2018, has consistently released beers that run the spectrum from puckeringly sour to relatively 'clean' and everywhere in between. “We always wanted to make true spontaneously fermented beer,” says Sage Dawson, Brewer/CEO of Toasted Barrel, about their latest project. “The unknown, that's really the excitement of it. We're not a brewery that focuses on making the same beer over and over, and sticking to that model. There's already so many great breweries that do that here and do it really really well.” So with that spirit in mind, let's dive into this unique project and its tasty results.
Learning about spontaneous beer and what it could be took some time for me. This was back in the early days of my interest in beer and I was devouring books, tasting through entire store selections, and learning everything I could. This group of beers kept coming up: lambics. Here in Utah, Lindemans was the only brand of lambics available in the state stores, and their bottles had foil covering the top in different colors which indicated which fruit had been added to the beer. I didn't love fruit beers then as most were just apricot or raspberry flavoring or extract added to a bland wheat beer, and were generally too sweet and fake tasting for me. The Lindemans lambics were indeed sweet, but also somewhat sour with really strong fruit flavor. Good, but not captivating, and I let the interest pass. But then I noticed that some liquor stores had an un-fruited lambic from the same brewery called a geuze or oude geuze. So I had to try that, and Lindemans Cuvée René was such an eye opener! Instead of the sour, but straightforward fruited lambics, this blend of one-, two-, and three-year aged lambic without any fruit or sweetener was amazing! Funky, bracingly sour, with pronounced bitterness and flavor complexity that I didn't even know how to describe. Finally, I had my hook, and I followed it.
While there are other idiosyncrasies involved in lambic brewing, spontaneous fermentation became the most fascinating thing about this genre of styles for me. All through my entire beer-loving career, never had I heard of allowing natural yeast to do its thing. Wasn't that the exact opposite of the controlled, sanitary environment every homebrewing book had encouraged me to create? The opposite of my carefully prepared yeast starter of a specific, style-appropriate pure culture of sacchaormyces cervesiae? While before, I had no reason to care about this apparent contradiction, with Cuvée René fresh on my lips, I had to learn more!
It turns out, I wasn't the only brewer captivated by this idea. As I became an industry professional, more people would talk about it and my old boss/mentor at Epic Brewing, Kevin Crompton, would talk about how we would go capture some wild yeast in the Uintas some day when we had the time. But we never had the time. As I continued to develop in the industry and even founded my own brewery, this intriguing idea never left me and I continued to read, taste and learn more about it. Eventually, I even tried to facilitate the creation of a group to cultivate wild yeast, which you can read about here:
But this attempt ultimately came to nothing, unfortunately. But that doesn't mean I ever stopped thinking about it or being intrigued by the flavors this unique process could create. I was far from the only one.
But what does 'spontaneously fermented' even mean? We'll use classic lambic brewing like they do at Brasserie-Brouwerij Cantillon as an example. Founded in 1900 in Brussels, Belgium, Cantillon has been producing world-renowned lambic beers ever since in basically the same traditional way. The grain is mashed and lautered as normal, although the grist is unusual, often containing a large proportion of unmalted wheat. Then the wort is boiled, often for several hours with the addition of hops that have deliberately aged to reduce their flavor contributions and bitterness. While unusual, these are not the defining characteristic; what happens next is.
At the end of the boil, instead of being cooled with modern heat-exchange technology like most wort in the world, the liquid is pumped upwards to the attic of the building, into a large shallow copper pan called a coolship (or koelschip in Flemish) and allowed to slowly cool overnight, exposed to the cool night air through large wooden shutters. The temperature is actually very important here, and the beer can only be brewed in the few months of the year when the night-time temperature drops below 46 degrees Fahrenheit consistently. The next morning, the wort is pumped into fermentation vessels, usually wooden barrels, and the many varieties of wild microflora that floated in on the breeze begin their fermentation process.
Over 80 different microorganisms have been identified in lambic beers, but the most important are the familiar ale yeast Saccharomyces cerevisiae, the lager yeast Saccharomyces pastorianus, and the less common “wild” yeast Brettanomyces bruxellensis. These along with a handful of other yeasts and some acid-producing bacteria begin to slowly ferment the wort and over the course of years, all those wonderful flavors and complex compounds form. The magic is in the pronounced differences that develop in different barrels and the subsequent process of tasting, adding fruit or not, and ultimately blending into yearly vintages of unique beers. This is the essence of spontaneously fermented beer: no added yeast, just the night air and a bit of luck.
That's all very well and good for Belgium, but how was it done in Utah? I was lucky enough to get to ask Dawson and his business partner, Head Brewer Lynn Litchfield, a few questions about the project and the future of spontaneous beer at the brewery. “From the get go, we wanted to be a barrel-focused, sour brewery,” Dawson says of their initial vision. They drew inspiration from the likes of classic brewers like Cantillon, but also newer American practitioners like Jester King, located near Austin, Texas. “I screwed up a bunch, made a bunch of nasty beer, just going for it,” says Dawson of his early efforts. After learning a bit more, especially about the necessary temperatures, the brewery was ready for its first real trial.
“Since we didn't have a full-sized coolship at the time, we brewed the beer here [at the brewery], put that wort into small homebrew-type vessels, and took it up to my house on a 25 (Celsius) degree night,” Dawson relates about the fateful first evening. They left the wort in a collection of stainless steel pots placed under oak and cherry trees overnight until it had cooled to near freezing the next morning. The wort was then returned to the brewery and transferred it into a fermentation vessel. Two days later, it was actively fermenting and was used to inoculate another batch of wort which aged in wine barrels for around twenty months before bottling
The result of Dawson and Litchfield's experiment comes in two slightly different shades: the batch was split and fermented/aged in a two different wine casks, both from Napa valley in California. One held a Chardonnay while the other held a red blend, and the differences are evident in the beers, from the color, to the taste, and even the mouthfeel. Both beers present a complex and very funky acidity–these are not for the faint of heart. Acetic acid makes it's presence known in addition to the more common lactic acid, but what really make beers like this shine are the less tangible flavor notes, the ones that can often seem just out of reach in tasting. The white wine-aged version displays horseradish, green olive, and melon flavors with a hint of baking spices, while the red is nuttier and fruiter with some raspberry and strawberry notes, both green and ripe. Both release of To Be Home are unique, complex and best enjoyed slowly to let the flavors emerge as the beer warms.
But these beers were very limited releases–fewer than 400 bottles of each were made–and they may now be impossible to find. So why am I telling you about them? Because this was just the first release from Toasted Barrel's spontaneous fermentation program and the next generations are already on their way. Impressed by the public response to these funky lambic-style beers, Dawson and Litchfield are ploughing ahead with further ideas. Not only are the wine casks that sprouted To Be Home already refilled, but another, different type of inoculation was tried and should see results soon. And the plans don't end there.
The brewery has purchased a coolship they plan to mount to a trailer to make it mobile and will be trying it out once the weather gets chilly enough. Wild yeast can be found anywhere and Utah offers a diverse range of climates and biomes to explore. “I really want to go to the west desert, salt flats area,” says Dawson. “I might go out there and set out some petri dish type things, set them out overnight, spend the night in Wendover, have fun, come back and pick them up. Then see if there's any yeast growing or if it's just desolate. I don't know, but I think there's a chance there's something really cool out there. Who knows?”
Further, they plan to take more inspiration from lambic brewers and do versions with local fruit like peaches and strawberries, spirit-barrel blends and even a true oude geuze. Such products will be living reflections of the environment where they are produced; truly beers of this place! But that's what makes it so exciting for this team of pioneering brewers. “That new vintage, that new year that made it so phenomenal. We'll do the same thing again, in the same exact spot, and I guarantee it'll taste completely different,” Dawson says with a big smile on his face. This unique quality of spontaneous beers is clearly an intriguing hook for brewers like myself and the guys at Toasted Barrel, and I'm glad to have someone here in Utah exploring it.
Check out Toasted Barrel online at:
and on Instagram: @toastedbarrelbrewery