Tim Newman explores the wild side of beer in Christchurch
From the outside it’s a three-car garage like any other, but inside you’ll find one of the world’s most unlikely barrel halls, where racks of barriques full of spontaneously fermented beer are gradually developing.
This is Wilderness Brewing, a husband and wife nano-brewery that despite its small capacity, remains Christchurch’s premier producer of barrel-aged and spontaneously-fermented beers.
I’d tasted Wilderness in the past, but after standing in the brewery, steeped in the incredible tangy aroma of spontaneous fermentation, and tasting samples straight from the casks, I now better understand what it’s all about.
Oliver Drake started Wilderness in 2017, two years after winning the national homebrew competition with a Flanders Red Ale. The first commercial release was a hoppy sour called Golden Ratio, which continued the sour beer theme the brewery is so well known for. Output is split 50-50 between beer destined for the barrel and more conventional releases, although “conventional” is a broad term for Wilderness. Alongside their barrel offerings at this year’s Great Kiwi Beer Fest was a peanut butter cup stout and a double IPA that was very nearly my top beer of the day. But as good (and sometimes unmissable) as these releases are, it’s the spontaneously fermented beers that represent the unique magic of Wilderness.
Good brewing is typically a meticulous process. Temperature, yeast, fermentation; all are carefully controlled to prevent the beer from deviating from the desired result. In many ways it’s a fight to keep the beer in line. But not spontaneous beers, they want to be made, and producing them is more of a partnership. It’s as much a hands-off exercise as it is a hands-on one.
It’s a long process too, starting with the wort being left outside in a coolship (a wide shallow trough) overnight to become inoculated with naturally occurring airborne cultures. Using this traditional process, you could say that the beer isn’t just brewed in Christchurch, it’s brewed by Christchurch. After this period of inoculation the wort is filled into the wood and its long journey begins, with most barrels taking around two years to produce a beer that’s ready to bottle. Oliver explains what’s actually going on inside those barrels during that time:
“The process is complex and is still being studied in spontaneous breweries overseas, mainly in Belgium and in the US.
“The exact strains and number of different strains found in spontaneous beer vary quite a bit, and often there are a large number of different microbes that play a part in spontaneous fermentation. We haven’t had any of our spontaneous wort tested so I can’t say for sure what microbes we have or exactly what is happening in each barrel. But broadly speaking you can think of spontaneous fermentation happening in a few key stages.
“For the first month or so the fermentation is dominated by fast acting bacteria often associated with food spoilage — enterobacter for example. Quite a bit of DMS (Dimethyl Sulfide) is produced during this time which smells a bit like creamed corn or cooked cabbage. After this the brewer’s yeast (saccharomyces) will tend to kick in, generating a more visible fermentation and starting to produce ethanol and other compounds. Following the brewer’s yeast are the lactic acid producing bacteria — things like lactobacillus and pediococcus which are often used in more controlled sour beer production.
“Some acetic acid will also be produced by other yeast and bacteria (we try to minimise this by limiting oxygen exposure to the beer in the barrel). Following on from all this there is a long maturation period of at least a year where microbes like brettanomyces will take existing compounds including esters and the DMS I mentioned previously and transform them into other compounds. Given enough time the beer transforms from something that doesn’t taste too flash to something tart, delicious and complex.”
The resulting beer quite unlike anything else. It would be too reductive to simply call it a sour. It’s supremely sour for starters, but it’s more the way that acidity runs the full length and breadth of the flavour profile and meets at both ends that makes these Lambic-styles so special. Oliver chose a bottle of his Felicity Wild Ale as one to best represent the Wilderness style. I tried to wrestle out the kaleidoscope of flavours within this beer.
Here’s the condensed version of my notes on this remarkable beer: Arrestingly sharp on the nose, with tangy sour citrus, lively barrel funk and just a hint of vanilla oak sweetness. The palate is layered and highly complex, with new flavours emerging one after the other. There’s juicy lemon citrus in the start, then zesty apple sherbet, and as the sourness subsides into the finish some walnut and oak tannins emerge.
Tasting notes are one thing, but it’s the life and vibrancy that really makes these beers sing, and those nuances are a lot harder to describe in words. They really have to be experienced first hand, and even then it can take time to really wrap one’s palate around such uniquely expressive flavours. I don’t know of anyone who just jumped straight in on spontaneous beer, you have to let it grow on you, which is somewhat fitting given how it’s made.
The audience for this kind of beer may be niche, but for those who seek it out, having more local producers like Wilderness is a godsend. Those in Christchurch will find Wilderness beers at The Riverside Market and The Lyttelton Farmers Market. Keep an eye on their Facebook to find out when the’ll be popping up next: https://www.facebook.com/wildernzbrew/
Further afield, you’ll find them at the Fridge and Flagon in Auckland, and the Portsider in Dunedin. For delivery, check out www.punkybrewster.co.nz, https://vinofino.co.nz/ and https://thebeerlibrary.co.nz/