Russian River

The Future of Beer, as Foretold by the Great American Beer Festival

Photo: Chris Lehault, of the excellent site I Drunk That.

My liver has finally cried uncle. The culprit, as it is every fall, is the Great American Beer Festival. I liken the annual Denver celebration to the Super Bowl of Beer. It brings together nearly 600 breweries from across the country, who come to the Mile High City toting more than 2,700 IPAs, sour ales, barrel-aged imperial stouts and other delicious oddities. Can I interest you in Burnside Brewing’s Sweet Heat, a wheat ale flavored with apricot purée and incendiary Scotch bonnet peppers? Or perhaps you’d like RedRock Brewing’s Paardebloem, which is made with dandelion greens and wild Brettanomyces bacteria? And the Kudzu Porter from Back Forty Beer Company might interest you as well.

Brewers brought out their most wonderful beers this year, and I made it my point to drink as many as possible. You may call this drunkenness. I call it research. As I sipped my way through hundreds of beers — a beer drinker should swallow, not spit—a few trends began to take shape.

Sours and Wild Ales Are Going Gangbusters For the last few years, sour and wild ales have been craft beer’s rising stars, as drinkers have learned that there’s pleasure in that pucker. At the GABF this year, the festivals longest lines were reserved for brewers like Maine’s Allagash, California’s Russian River and San Antonio’s Freetail that dabble in souring Lactobacillus bacteria and wild, unrulyBrettanomyces yeast that, like stinky cheese, can create flavors as challenging as they are charming. Also big: versions of Germany’s sour, salty gose and tart and quenching Berliner weisse.

The Class Is in Session Hoppy IPAs show no sign of slowing down, as drinkers are still craving bitter, floral palate-wreckers. And while there was no shortage of double or even triple IPAs on display (Knee Deep’s Simtra and Bear Republic’s Café Racer 15, were devastatingly drinkable), I liked the turn toward hoppy, low-alcohol beers that boast plenty of bitterness without the alcohol that’ll make your head spin. A few great examples to seek out are the 21st AmendmentBitter American, Founders All Day IPA and, though it was not at the fest, the LagunitasDaytime. You can drink the not-so-boozy beauties from afternoon until last call.

Fresh Is Best This year at the GABF, the newest competition category was fresh-hop ales. A quick primer: When hops are harvested in the late summer, they are typically dried ASAP. Like cut grass, they rapidly lose their aromatics and rot. But if the hops are used right away, typically within 24 hours after plucking, they deliver a fresh, delicate, green aroma and flavor. Fresh-hop ales are fall’s fleeting delicacy, and boy, were they on display in 2012. In particular, theTommyknocker Colorado IPA Nouveau, Yazoo Fresh Hop and 10 Barrel Fresh Hop were knockouts. At your beer shop, be on the lookout for Great Divide Fresh Hop Pale and Chasin’ Freshies and Hop Trip, both from Deschutes.

Five Breweries to Keep an Eye On Each year, a few breweries generate plenty of buzz — and that’s before you even take a sip of their beer. Here are five to keep an eye on in 2013 and beyond.

1. Destihl If you’re ever driving through central Illinois, stop in Normal or Champaign to visit Destihl, which is quietly making some of America’s most interesting wild and sour ales. Its rotating, evolving Saint Dekkera Reserve Sour Ale series of barrel-aged, spontaneously fermented beers is brilliant. At the GABF, I dug the Sour Hawaii Ale, Gose and Sour Strawberry Ale.

2. Funkwerks In just a few short years, this Fort Collins, Colorado, brewery has earned an outsize reputation for its excellent Belgian-inspired ales. In particular, the Saison is a masterpiece of citrus and black pepper, and the lemony Deceit is just about the best Belgian strong ale you’ll sip all year. Funkwerks was also named the Small Brewing Company of the Year.

3. Crooked Stave Wild and sour ales were the undisputed star of the GABF, and few breweries burned through their beer faster than Denver’s Crooked Stave. Founder Chad Yakobson made the wild yeastBrettanomyces the subject of his Masters dissertation, and his expertise was on display in standouts such as the blueberry-spiked Wild Wild Brett Indigo and sour Surette saison.

4. Thai Me Up Brewery Each year at the GABF, a few breweries come out of left field to knock the judges’ socks off. This year’s award goes to Thai Me Up, a brewpub based in Jackson, Wyoming. It won three medals, including a gold for its strong, citrusy Melvin IPA and its 2x4 imperial IPA. I'll bet hop heads will soon make a pilgrimage to Wyoming. Also of note in Jackson: the Paintbrush Pilsner and Zonker Stout from the first-rate Snake River Brewing.

5. Devils Backbone Brewing Company As if being named the Small Brewpub of the Year were not enough, the Virginia outfit also took home eight medals for beers including the sour Berliner Metro Weiss, dark and strong Danzig Baltic Porter, and pitch-perfect Vienna Lager. Simply put, Devils Backbone is making some of the best classic beers in America.

This story was originally published in Food Republic.

Wild As the Yeasts

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Wild as the Yeasts Why invasive airborne fungi make for great beer.

Vinnie Cilurzo, the brains behind Russian River Brewing Company in Santa Rosa, California, fashions the maniacally hoppy Pliny the Elder and Pliny the Younger, the gold standards for double and triple India pale ales. But they’re as conventional as Coors when compared to Cilurzo’s pet creations, which are so dangerous they’re brewed in isolation behind closed doors.

“I like making beers with bugs and critters,” says Cilurzo of his sour, Belgian-style ales fermented with Brettanomyces, a particularly potent type of yeast that he has experimented with since 1999.

Brettanomyces (often informally called “Brett”) imbues beers, such as barrel-aged Belgian lambics, with mild sourness and an earthy, barnyard funkiness (often considered defects in wine) that’s as foreign as your first bite of gamy goat or stinky durian. “We’re making creative beers with lots of personality,” Cilurzo says. His innovations include the woody Temptation, made by adding Brett (in addition to Lactobacillus and Pediococcus bacteria) to the raw wort and aging in oak Chardonnay barrels; and the sour-cherry Supplication, made by adding Brett and aging in Pinot Noir barrels. For the tart, 100 percent spontaneously fermented Beatification, Cilurzo doesn’t add yeast at all—it is simply floating in the air (the result of brewing Brett beers for a number of years in close quarters), and it colonizes the wort on its own.

Unlike normal beers, which ferment predictably with the addition of brewers’ yeast and can be drinkable in as few as two or three weeks, Brett beers “aren’t even tasted until they’re six months old,” Cilurzo says, adding that they are often aged for more than a year. “The beers tell us when they’re ready, and they work at their own pace. You can’t think like a brewer; you have to think like a winemaker.”

This challenge has attracted brewers at Allagash, New Belgium, and Jolly Pumpkin, which exclusively manufactures unfiltered, barrel-cured wild-yeast beers. Still, these sour ales remain a niche within the microbrew niche for several important reasons. “The wooden barrels require tons of space, and there’s a huge risk involved if the wild yeasts infiltrated other beers,” Cilurzo says.

“If Brett got into our regular production beer while it’s fermenting, it could be devastating,” says Gary Fish, owner of Deschutes Brewery in Bend, Oregon, explaining that the invasive spores would impart unwanted sour flavors. So “we were absolutely fastidious with our cleaning process” when creating a sour brown ale that’s aging in barrels containing mashed cherries (the beer, which will be called The Dissident, is tentatively scheduled for a September release).

Cilurzo takes safety one step farther by embracing kosher-style cleanliness methods: duplicates of every brewing gasket and tube—one for Bretts, one for normal beers. A costly headache? Not to Cilurzo. His complex beers have proven so popular that he’s ramping up production sixfold at his new brewery, slated to open this spring, with more than 400 oak barrels for aging.

“We make funky, challenging beers we like to drink,” Cilurzo explains, “and thank God, there are people out there who like them.”