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Wild Brews: Beer Beyond the Influence of Brewer’s Yeast by Jeff Sparrow

Wild Brews is a wonderful little book that deals specifically with the wild-fermented beers in the Belgian tradition — that is, Lambic (and various subtypes and blends like Framboise, Gueuze, Kriek, and so on) and the Flanders Ales.

Anyone who is even a little experienced in homebrewing is going to at least be intimidated by the idea of brewing a lambic. Most of us make beer happily knowing that the fruits of our labours will be drinkable in a month or two, six months at the most in many cases — it’s a rare beer that takes a year to become drinkable. But with lambic beers, a year is the minimum. A year gets you a young lambic, and it’s three or more years before you have something fully developed — so developed, indeed, that it’s dry and (except for connoiseurs) really needs to be blended with younger lambics.

The reasons underlying this difference — the use of bacterias and other microorganisms to get the desired style of beer — is another reason most brewers — home or professional — are a little intimidated by these wild brewing styles: once you get your workspace infected with Brettanomyces, you might discover that all your beers are ending up with the distinctive acidic, estery profile of a wild brew, even when you were going for some other style altogether!

Jeff Sparrow does a great job of unpacking a lot of the complexity and diversity of Belgian wild brewing in what is, in the end, a short book. (Including  recipes but not the appendix of terminology, it’s 265 pages long!)

As for me, well, had I a larger living space or more rooms to play around with, I would very likely be online right now, ordering myself some Brettanomyces and whatever else I’d need to try my hand at some kind of really interesting sour ale. Of course, I’d love to produce a lambic, but the stuff takes three years to mature and I’m honestly hoping not to be living in this apartment for another three years. That said, if I do find myself in a situation where I know I’ll be somewhere for a stretch of years, I definitely will be picking up some kegs and making a batch of lambic each year, and then playing with the business of blending. One needs corks and champagne bottles, one needs access to organic fruit if one wants to fruit-sweeten, and most of all one needs space in which to store the aging carboys or casks of lambic. I have none of those things, and I figure I’ll have more luck getting bottles of lambic and bringing them over (or ordering them online, if that’s possible) than actually producing a lambic of my own for now.

Still, the allure of alternative brewing, à la Wild Brews’s various methods, need not lead one straight to lambic-brewing anyway. There’s a very interesting all-Brett recipe in there titled Singularité that I’d love to try… if I can only get my hands on some Brett and some acidulated malt. (Or, dare I try a sour mash? Hmmm. Well, not this month, but… I’m thinking about it. A nice sour beer, while one usually only wants it in small samples, can truly be a work of art.)

And what I’ve just written is as much a testimony to the book as anything: like any good homebrew book, I’ve come away from it brimming with all kinds of ideas for future beers I want someday to brew up. And, I’ll confess, Sparrow’s got me wanting to go to Belgium just to try track down some of these breweries, and some of the pubs that sell their wares.

By the way, a note on my book reviews: while I do plan to continue reviewing all the books I read this year, I don’t plan on doing it in order. There are a number of books I’ve read and not yet reviewed… those will come. And while I’m eager to check out the rest of the books in the series of which Wild Brews is a part — on monastery brewing and farmhouse ale traditions — the next book on my homebrewing to-read list is, in fact, on the subject of mead.

And also by the way, there’s a more informative review of the book here, on a website devoted to this kind of beer, and another neat blog devoted to Belgian beer generally, linked from there.

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