A little over a year ago, a few of us at the brewery were invited to take a trip to Jester King Brewery in Austin, Texas. On a cold, late January morning at around 4 AM, Skip (Wiley Roots’ Assistant Brewer extraordinaire), Kevin (a.k.a. Papa Wiley and also an Assistant Brewer) and myself departed from Greeley in our delivery van, and made the ~2,000 mile round trip to the country’s second largest state. Upon arrival at nearly 12 AM the next morning, we met up with our host and former owner of Fort Collins’ Tap and Handle, Jeff Willis, along with a handful of other brewers from Fort Collins area breweries. Jeff founded Fort Collins’ Tap and Handle in 2012, after cutting his teeth in the beer bar business at Austin’s The Ginger Man before relocating to Colorado where he was part of the launch team for Backcountry Pizza in Boulder. Jeff has since moved back to Austin to start up his own brewery, Skull Mechanix. To say that Jeff knows a few people in the Austin beer scene would be a complete understatement.
Over the course of the following three days, we visited some of the most dynamic and impressive breweries in the Austin beer scene. However, the most awe inspiring of them all was Jester King Brewery located on the Southeast side of the city. Nestled on a farm in the Texas Hill Country, Jester King is known for their innovative and intentful use of farmhouse style brewing, spanning from incredibly high fruiting rates of mixed culture fermented and barrel aged beers, to spontaneously fermented and coolship inoculated beers, with the the latter being the muse of this post.
This trip fundamentally and profoundly changed the course of direction for Wiley Roots Brewing Company. Period. I can’t stress the impact that Jeff Stuffings and his crew have had on the types and styles of beer we have begun producing in the last year, as well as some of the processes we’ve embraced. About a month ago, the three of us made the same pilgrimage back to Austin with some of our industry brethren, visiting some of the same breweries we visited the previous year as well as a handful of new ones. During our stay this year, Averie Swanson (Jester King’s head brewer) led a few spontaneously fermented and coolship innoculated brews, which we paid very close attention to.
Early this week, our brew team embarked on the second batch of spontaneous beer we’ve ever attempted. Sure, we’ve done wild captures and open co-ferments in the past which delve into some of the art and science of spontaneous brewing, but the process of Méthode Gueuze brewing goes beyond spontaneous fermentation and takes the art and science to eleven. A small group of brewers got together within the last year to more clearly articulate and describe exactly what Méthode Gueuze brewing is. Specifically, Méthode Gueuze beers contain:
– A grist consisting of only approximately 60% malted barley and 40% raw, unmalted wheat
– A turbid mash without the addition of any other ingredients, chemicals, or acids
– 100% aged hops, aged at least 12 months, in the recipe added at the beginning of the boil
– An extended boil of no less than three hours
– Wort transferred to a coolship for overnight cooling and inoculation
– 100% spontaneous fermentation — no yeast, bacteria, or any other microorganisms pitched at any point in the process
– No pre-acidification of the wort or the addition of any other ingredients, chemicals, or acids
– The entire wort is fermented in neutral oak barrels and left to age on the lees.
– A blend of beer, that meets all of the criteria listed above, composed of beer aged less than 18 months and beer older than 30 months with the average age of the blend being at least 18 months
– 100% natural re-fermentation. No artificial carbonation.
– Natural sugar is allowed for the purpose of dosing. Artificial sugars are not allowed.
– No artificial flavoring or coloring
– No pasteurization or additions of preservatives
After performing a three step turbid mash and a four hour extended boil, we transferred the entire batch of wort back to our mash tun which had been moved outside in front of the brewery. We let the wort cool overnight exposed to airborne yeast and bacteria. The next day, the cooled wort was transferred to neutral oak barrels and no additional yeast or bacteria were added.
Here are a few more details about the brew day:
Malt Bill: 70% 2-row malted barley, 30% Colorado grown unmalted hard red winter wheat
Hops: Aged whole leaf hops
The coolship (mash tun) was filled at 6:15 PM on 3/13/17 at 200 degrees Fahrenheit
Barrels were filled at 1:14 PM 3/14/17 at 84 degrees Fahrenheit
Starting gravity was 12.1° Plato
One of the most distinguishing characteristics of spontaneous fermentation and Méthode Gueuze brewing is that a brewer truly has no control over the fermentation or viability of the end product. The beer can be influenced based upon malt bill and hopping rates, but ultimately it will only take one of two directions: it can be a beautiful and delicious representation of local microflora, or it can take on undesirable flavor characteristics and wind up going down the drain. Periodically, we’ll sample these barrels to see if we’ll be able to tell which direction the batch is taking, but only after years of trial and aging will we find out which path was influenced beyond chance.