“Anyone getting buffalo wings?” All heads turn toward the colleague on the leather couch, holding a snifter glass with a few ounces of Allagash Nancy swirling around in its base. “No seriously”, he says. “I’m getting buffalo wings.” There’s laughter that rings around the room, but the taster is holding his ground. It’s the most off-the-wall flavor profile we’ve tossed out in the tasting, but it’s not totally unfounded. When I think about it, I get a hint of buffalo wings, too.
American Wild Ales are the odd birds of beer. It’s a category that’s relatively undefined: the beer can be light, dark, barrel aged, stainless aged, hoppy, malty, low ABV (though most are high), and can have added fruits or spices. The brewing playing field is wide open, except for one thing: during brewing, a “wild” yeast or bacteria must be introduced to the beer. That means these beers meet brettanomyces, pediococcus or lactobacillus (the most common sour inoculators) over months-long aging processes in vats called foudres where the wild cultures reside (or some wild yeast is tossed into the sour mash).
The result is a wild array of flavors, with only one unifying theme: they’re sour. The first sip of a wild ale usually reminds you of a Warhead candy, but over time the palate starts to notice a subtle layering of flavors. The beers are full bodied, can be incredibly complex, and for beer snobs and those looking for a liquid thrill, they’re the holy grail of brewing. They’re also usually high ABV, so sip slowly and enter quietly into a liquid flavor spectacle.
Russian River Supplication
Wine barrel aging is Russian River’s sweet spot; the brewery was first owned by a vineyard, and their brewmaster, Vinnie Cilurzo, grew up on one. So despite the hype around their IPAs (Pliny the Elder and Younger), their barrel-aged wild ales tend to be their best liquid truths. Supplication, a brown ale, is aged for a year in pinot noir barrels, with added sour cherries, brettanomyces, lactobacillus, and pediococcus during the barrel re-fermentation process.
Tasting Notes: The nose is surprisingly muted — at first sniff, it’s a subtle beer. But on the palate, Supplication opens up into flavors of sour fruit, oak, and a light touch of pinot noir. There’s plenty of sourness to balance the sweetness of the fruit, and the pucker lingers long after your last sip. (ABV: 7.0%)
The wind-powered brewery up north, Allagash, makes more than their renowned White. Similar to Supplication, Nancy uses a mix of Maine’s Balaton and Montmorrency cherries and brettanomyces. It’s aged for just shy of a year in stainless steel, not wine barrels.
Tasting Notes: Nancy tastes like a fruit bread (which is markedly different from fruit cake). It’s got a skunky nose, but the mouth flavors are all fruitiness and citrus mixed with a touch of breadiness. (ABV: 6.3%)
The Bruery Sour in the Rye
Orange County’s master brewers have one of the finest, fairly available (at least on the West Coast) wild ales on the market. The Bruery uses plenty of rye malt in their mix, and that provides a rich base on which to place the sharp, tart flavors that evolve during its year-plus of barrel aging.
Tasting Notes: This is a big beer. It’s very pungent and extremely sour. Come into the first sip fully prepared to pucker, then settle into deciphering the quiet and delicious notes of cherry, vanilla and spice. (ABV: 7.6%)
Boulevard Love Child No. 4
Boulevard reaches pinnacle beer geekery with the Love Child series. And to translate their research, they include three gauges on the back of each bottle ranking “Funk”, “Sour” and “Fruit” to give an idea of what you’re getting into. For No. 4 (it’s the fourth bottling in this style), Boulevard mixed beer aged in oak barrels between 16 months and four years and beer aged in stainless tanks for 11 months. It gives off plenty of sour and fruit, and not so much funk.
Tasting Notes: There are hints of a quadrupel here (especially on the nose), with some toffee and caramel flavors. There’s also an oaky vanilla flavor and a touch of cinnamon; it’s a strong beer, but very drinkable. (ABV: 9.0%)
Allagash Coolship Resurgam
A coolship is a large shallow pan that brewers use to cool wort overnight using the ambient air temperature. During this process, naturally occurring yeast inoculates the wort so that when the wort is transferred to barrels, fermentation automatically begins. The Resugram gets inspiration from Portland, Maine’s motto: “I shall rise again” — it’s a beer you’ll raise to your lips, again and again.
Tasting Notes: It’s skunky, bitter, and tastes of unripe fruit. You’ll also find oak, lemon zest, grapefruit, and a fantastic tannic flavor on the finish. (ABV: 8.1%)
Jester King Aurelian Lure
Austin deserves recognition as one of the craft beer meccas, and Jester King is a big part of that. They pull water from an on-site well, source local grains, and respect the traditions of a farmhouse brewery. For Aurelian Lure, they re-ferment their barrel-aged sour beer with apricots in oak barrels.
Tasting Notes: There’s a touch of funk on the nose, and it kind of smells like Fruity Pebbles (the cereal). There’s a lot going on between the fruit, the funk, and the sour, which provides a top-quality complexity. (ABV: 6.0%)
Russian River Consecration
Consecration is a Belgian-style dark ale that, like the Supplication, is aged in wine barrels from local breweries. In this case the beer spends four to eight months in cabernet sauvignon barrels. Russian River adds black currants, brettanomyces, lactobacillus, and pediococcus to each batch to foster a full-bodied flavor bolstered by the strong flavors of red wine.
Tasting Notes: It’s not hard to imagine the cab barrel in this one, as it hits right off the bat. This is a heavy beer, with a weighty disposition that’s only made a touch more light by the sourness. Sip slowly and gradually work into finding the layers of flavors. (ABV: 10.0%)
Crooked Stave Flor d’Lees
Denver’s Crooked Stave came about from an open-source Master’s project done by the brewery’s founder, Chad Yakobson. His Brettanomyces Project looked at beer through the lens of both science and creativity, and his resulting brews display the complexity that comes from geekery and a brewer’s intuition. Flor d’Lees is the lowest ABV beer we tried, and it holds its own on flavors, while being a lighter, more drinkable brew.
Tasting Notes: There was a notably low amount of carbonation in the beer, but the flavors were far from flat. Pear came on the nose and the flavors revolve around citrus and fruit. The finish is quick, and the beer overall is refreshing and crisp. (ABV: 5.0%)
Russian River Temptation
Three Russian River beers may seem excessive in one list, but it’s hard to say that they don’t all belong. Temptation is a sour blonde ale aged in chardonnay barrels for anywhere between nine and 15 months, which, to pull back the brewer’s curtain a bit, is determined by how old each individual barrel is (and therefore how robust the flavor in the barrel will be).
Tasting Notes: This is a very cloudy beer, but it has crisp flavors. There are chardonnay notes on the nose, but the taste is clearly sour. The beer is tannic at the end, but overall drinks very well balanced, with some caramel notes underneath the sour. (ABV: 7.5%)
Telegraph Gypsy Ale
Santa Barbara’s Telegraph is a bit of a sleeper on the list, but their sour — brewed with rye, unmalted wheat and plums — is a notable drink. They claim the beer undergoes fermentation “while listening to traditional Gypsy tunes”, which clearly adds nuance to its flavors.
Tasting Notes: It’s fruity, and the flavors are a touch muted. The beer gives you the sourness you’re looking for and the finish is balanced, but it’s not as full bodied as the others. There’s a citrus flavor, but it could be a touch more tart. (ABV: 8.0%)