Spontaneous Future Part One: A Look Into The Past
There is a certain comfort that comes with accepting our lack of control in life. Throughout our existence we grapple with unforeseen circumstances, some good, others not so good. How we react during these often critical moments can shape our future in ways we may never know. Allowing life to run its course versus trying to shape our own journey is an interesting thought. Is it one or the other? A little bit of both? Can we do things to try and shape our best future, while remaining relaxed and focused when things start getting a little off course? In many ways this balance between manipulating the future and accepting unpredictability embodies the art of brewing spontaneous beer.
Spontaneous fermentation has been around since the beginning of alcoholic beverages, literally. Back in the day, you know like 7000 BC (we think), they had no understanding of yeast and its ability to consume sugars and expel alcohol. In fact, early alcohol production was a much more pragmatic process. Theories suggest the first alcohol was likely fermented unintentionally, meaning some sort of sugary liquid was left sitting open to the air and the resident microflora landed in the liquid, started fermentation, and turned the sugary liquid into a boozy treat. It wouldn’t then take long to realize somewhat repeatable results. Inevitably, alcohol production techniques would progress, because it’s kind of what humans do.
Let’s fast forward a few thousand years then, shall we. A little trip through the Senne River Valley, South and West of Brussels, Belgium. This is the home to the Lambic. A spontaneous beer style that can only be made in this specific region. This beautiful style is the result of native yeast and bacteria, specific to this region, that settle in the beer during the open top cooling process. The wide and shallow open top cooling vessel is called a coolship and coolships changed the game when it came to cooling wort. At least they did temporarily. Coolships, of course, are widely outdated in modern brewing for both practical and microbial reasons. They are however, still used by Lambic brewers in Belgium as well as a small but growing contingent of brewers across the world experimenting with spontaneous beers.
Anywho.. Back to the process. After an extra long boil, like 4-6 hours, the boiling hot wort is routed to the coolship. The wide and shallow shape of the coolship speeds up the cooling by increasing the surface area of the liquid. This process usually takes place in the winter when temperatures are around freezing which helps with cooling as well. During the overnight cooling process, wild yeast and bacteria settle onto the surface and make their way into the wort. These are the creatures that create. Once cooled, the now inoculated wort is transferred to oak barrels where the wild yeast and bacteria begin the long journey of fermentation and aging. Over time the resulting beer will start to display a lovely melange of flavors including musty, funky, cheesy, barnyard, tart, fruity, and lactic to name a few. Sound off-putting? Maybe at first, but these beers are referred to by many as the holy grail of sour and wild beer. Once you get to know the style a little more intimately, the different flavor combinations can unlock sensory elements like you have never experienced. Whether just enjoying a glass or using it as a building block for pairing with delicious foods, Lambics are in many ways one of the most complex, unique, and romantic beer styles in the world.