American Beers With a Pungent Whiff of Place


Transferred to oak barrels, the beer ferments for a year or longer, each barrel varying according to the microbes’ whims. Some will have undesirable flavors and be dumped. Some of the beer may be aged with fruit, traditionally cherries or raspberries. The final steps involve the blending of individual barrels (often in multivintage blends, known in Belgium as gueuze), an art through which the brewers shape what nature gave them.

Though it predates modern brewing science and played a role in many historical beverages, spontaneous fermentation is now regarded as costly, inefficient and above all unpredictable. But this has not stopped dozens of American brewers from finally attempting it, and, in some cases, making it a fixture of their businesses or even their singular focus.

If the process resembles winemaking, the flavors are winelike, too: Artisanal Belgian lambic, in contrast to the melted-Popsicle versions with which many consumers associate the term, is dry and low-alcohol but as dense with taste as Champagne or Chablis.

Lemony and oaky, fruity and mineral, it can be powerfully tart and fragrant (the word “funk” gets thrown around) — challenging to new initiates but compelling to converts. And as with wine, brewers influenced by the style often speak of terroir: the roles of geography and climate, which affect the balance and activity of microbes, yielding beers that reflect where they’re made.

“It is a very romantic and mystical style,” said Levi Funk, of Funk Factory Geuzeria in Madison, Wis. Mr. Funk began filling barrels in 2015 and opened a taproom last June.


Unfermented beer, known as wort, beginning its fermentation in Jester King’s coolship, before being transferred to oak barrels. Credit Sarah Lim for The New York Times

“It still feels like magic every time those barrels start fermenting,” he said. “But I know it works.”

Coolships have sprung up from Maine, where Oxbow Brewing introduced its Native/Wild spontaneous beer in August, to Southern California, where Beachwood Blendery released its first Coolship Chaos bottles in June. Outside Trenton, the Referend Bier Blendery, which uses only spontaneous fermentation, celebrated its first anniversary in December; in Nashville, Yazoo Brewing first filled its new coolship last February.

Mr. Stuffings has consulted other brewers, and Belgium’s High Council for Artisanal Lambic Beers, to introduce a new certification mark — Méthode Traditionnelle — that Americans can use to market lambic-style beers made according to Belgian tradition. (Earlier, he proposed Méthode Gueuze, which the council detested; like most Americans, he now avoids what he called “the G-word” and “the L-word.”)

It’s unclear how many producers will rally behind the mark and the detailed standards it requires. They are a loose band of explorers, and even as they worship Belgium, they often combine spontaneous fermentation with nontraditional techniques, flavors or aesthetics.

Black Project Spontaneous and Wild Ales, which Sarah Howat started in Denver with her husband, James, in 2014, has begun using the certification mark (which Mr. Howat helped develop) for some of its beers, but others don’t qualify.

“We do use methods from when we were experimenting and playing,” Mrs. Howat said. One beer sometimes featured in their blends is aged not in barrels but in steel tanks, which are regularly topped off with new beer, a version of the solera method used for sherry.


Michael Calle, a Jester King brewer, removing spent aged hops from the brew kettle at the end of the boil, before the unfermented beer is transferred to the coolship. Credit Sarah Lim for The New York Times

A decade ago, when Allagash Brewing in Portland, Me., installed what is generally recognized as America’s first coolship, beer like Black Project’s was inconceivable, said Rob Tod, Allagash’s founder. It was widely believed that lambic-style beers simply couldn’t be made outside Belgium. Eventually, Allagash even trademarked the word “coolship.”

“We didn’t think anyone would be interested in using that name,” Mr. Tod said.

Today, he said, so many brewers are using the word on their labels that Allagash has stopped enforcing the trademark.

One reason is lambic’s ever-growing cult following: Hunted on pilgrimages to Belgium and bartered on internet forums, the style has inspired a devotion to spontaneous beer in general. Mrs. Howat said visitors have waited overnight outside Black Project for bottle releases, and Mr. Funk, who presells beer online, said he received almost 60,000 page views for a release of 1,000 bottles.

Still, production volumes remain tiny, and the beers almost never make it to retail shelves. For curious drinkers uninterested in sidewalk sleepovers or hitting refresh, the best way to try them is to visit their producers’ tasting rooms.

The upside is that you get to experience both the beverage and where it comes from. It could be Tillamook, Ore., where the microbes of the coastal climate give De Garde Brewing’s beers a unique earthiness and minerality, said its head brewer, Trevor Rogers.

Or it could be the Texas Hill Country. After the tour, Mr. Stuffings sat at a picnic table outside the old machine shop and opened several bottles, which varied from softly sour and herbal — the pure spontaneous beer itself — to a musty, petrol-y offering aged with Texan white-wine grapes. He mused about how he was “infatuated” with their elegance, their texture, the airiness of their foam.

But as he sat, glass in hand, beneath live oaks and the late-summer sun, he seemed happiest for the invisible life around him, which delivered “the ultimate connection to time and place.”

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