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Getting Funky

Whether it’s James Brown’s drummer making you jump out of your seat and dance or that bag of stinky gym clothes bringing a tear to your eye, funky stuff provokes strong reactions. This is no less true with beer, where funky brews’ wild yeast strains lend a variety of powerful flavors—from the sweet stink of over-ripe fruit to the animal aromas of a barnyard—that novices may find overpowering…or addictive.

These yeasts (typically of the Brettanomyces genus, distinct from the Saccharomyces typically used for fermentation and baking) are found in nature on the skins of fruit and give farmhouse cidres their earthy and smoky flavors (see Beer Buzz, Issue #54). Vintners and brewers have long considered Brettanomyces (Brett for short) a contaminant, but recently Brett has become a popular choice for brewers who want to create complex ales.

Centuries before modern microbiology, Brettanomyces gave distinctive flavors to spontaneously-fermented ales (such as the famed Belgian lambics) and British “stock” ales, aged in oak for long periods of time. Today, these “wild” yeasts have been isolated, and the modern brewer can decide to use particular strains as the primary yeast or in combination with other microbes to produce various flavors.

For example, the Trappist Brasser ie d’Orval in Belgium adds Brett at the time of bottling, which causes the beer to change flavor when cellared, developing fruity and earthy characteristics over the years. Whereas in 2004, Pizza Port Brewery in San Diego created the world’s first 100 percent Brett ale, considerably fruitier and less “funky” than Brett’s use in mixed fermentations. The best examples of funky beer in Japan at this time are mostly imports. Fortunately, a wide variety of traditional spontaneously fermented Belgian lambics are available, including Cantillon Gueuze 100% Lambic Bio, Boon Geuze Mariage Parfait and 3 Fonteinen Oude Geuze.

All three of these are excellent examples of geuze, a golden colored unfiltered ale. Sometimes called the “champagne” of Belgium, geuze (pronounced “gerz” in French and “kher-ze” in Flemish) is dry, tart and complex, with flavors ranging from herbal, fruity, musky and cheese-like. Geuze is a blend of lambic aged for two to three years in oak barrels and “young” (one year old) lambic, which still has enough unfermented sugars to carbonate the beer in the bottles.

All traditional lambics are fermented using only microbes from the environment, so the art of creating consistently delicious beer is the responsibility of the blender who selects to combine different barrels to balance acidity and flavors produced by the interaction of the wild microbes. Sometimes brewers age lambics on fruits, particularly cherries and raspberries, producing kriek and framboise respectively. Be aware that some beers labeled “lambic” are pasteurized and flavored with fruit syrups, resulting in a product much sweeter than traditional varieties.

It isn’t well known, but Japan was Cantillon’s first export market in 1988, and owner-brewer Jean Van Roy says Japanese sales helped keep his landmark brewery afloat “during the difficult years for lambic,” when there wasn’t much interest in this complex, traditional beer in Belgium itself. American brewers have picked up on Belgian techniques, and some have launched their own spontaneous fermentation practices. However, of those available in Japan, most use a variety of microbes (including Brett and souring bacteria such as Lactobacillus and Pediococcus) that they cultivate in oak barrels where they carry out long fermentations (often about a year).

One exemplary example is The Bruery from Orange County, California, which specializes in these beers. Their Rueze is not cheap (¥2,900 for a 750-ml. bottle), but it follows the traditional blending techniques of the Belgians and is as complex as its predecessors. Their Tart of Darkness is an excellent sour stout tasting of tart cherry, prune and faint chocolate, with Brett adding some leather. Another recently introduced American funky beer is Almanac Beer Company’s Farmer’s Reserve Strawberry. This San Francisco brewer ages its Farmer’s Reserve series on local fruit in California wine barrels. This beer is quite tart, but the strawberry aromas and strong carbonation make this a good introduction to the funk. Japanese brewers have yet to really pick up on this trend, although Mark Meli (author of the excellent “Craft Beer in Japan”) notes Chateau Kamiya and Ise Kadoya have both used wild yeast collected from local trees for some of their beers, Zakkoku Kōbō’s new Cats Eyes is a kriek (secondary fermentation on cherries), and Iwate Kura’s appropriately-named Shizen Hakkō (spontaneous fermentation) might be Japan’s first lambicstyle brew.

The time is ripe for Japanese brewers and drinkers alike to overcome their fears and explore the funky side of yeast.

Beer Festival Calendar

  • July 3-5, Tanabata Beer Festival Toyama (Toyama City)
  • July 3-12, Oktoberfest Tohoku (Sendai)
  • July 8-12, Belgian Beer Weekend Hiroshima
  • July 11-12, Nippon Craft Beer Festival in Shōnan (Kamakura)
  • July 11-12, Sapporo Craft Beer Forest
  • July 16-20, Belgian Beer Weekend Tokyo
  • July 17-19, BeerFes Osaka
  • July 17-20, Ikspiari Craft Beer Collection (Urayasu, Chiba)
  • July 17-Aug. 2, Oktoberfest Himeiji
  • July 24-26, Tsukuba Craft Beer Fest
  • July 31-Aug. 9, Shinjuku Oktoberfest
  • Aug. 6-16, World Beer Summit (Nagoya)
  • Aug. 8-9, BeerFes Nagoya
  • Aug. 12-16, Oktoberfest Kawasaki
  • Aug. 22-23, Craft Beer Festival in Akita
  • Aug. 28-Sept. 6, Oktoberfest Kumamoto
  • Sept. 5-6, Whiskey & Beer Camp (Nagawa, Nagano)
  • Sept. 15-23, Belgian Beer Weekend Tokyo
  • Sept. 19-27, Oktoberfest Kobe
  • Sept. 21-23, BeerFes Yokohama
  • Sept. 25-Oct. 4, Oktoberfest Saitama
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