Wild Brewing

Toronto brewers make beer in the back-breaking style of old-world Belgian breweries

ON A GREY OCTOBER AFTERNOON at the Good Earth vineyard in Beamsville, Ontario, a crowd gathers around a cluster of steaming stainless-steel vats set up mere feet from the rows of swollen grapes. Iain McOustra, a brewer with Toronto’s Amsterdam Brewing Co. and one of the architects of this madcap plan, periodically stirs the boiled concoction of grains, hops, and water that has the hue of milky coffee and smells faintly like shredded wheat. If McOustra is giddy, it’s because he’s exhausted and exhilarated by this, the culmination of three years of research and planning to make a sour beer in the back-breaking style of old-world Belgian breweries.

“This is certainly the craziest brew I’ve ever done,” says the 31-year-old, who’s been brewing beer professionally and in backyards for 13 years. “It’s the most difficult brew to pull off; so much could go wrong.”

Vital to the plan is the winery environment, especially at harvest time, when the air is thick with wild yeast and bacteria that will—it’s hoped—float into the open vessels and ferment the grain mixture—or wort, as it’s called in beer language. This is a contemporary take on Lambic brewing, the original brewing technique named after a town in Belgium where the process was refined in the 1300s, possibly earlier.

Whereas modern brewing methods involve inoculating the wort with lab-cultivated yeast varieties, ancient Lambic beers fermented spontaneously in shallow tubs called coolships that were housed in a wood structure whose planks were saturated with native micro flora. “This was before there were microscopes, before they even knew what yeast was,” says Mike Lackey, a veteran brewer at Toronto’s Great Lakes Brewery who shares with McOustra an obsessive devotion to beer-making.

For Lackey and McOustra and the three other Toronto brewers involved in this opus (Jason Fisher and Jeff Broeders of Indie Alehouse, and Sam Corbeil of Sawdust City Brewery), old-world brewing required major new-world expertise. “It takes a whole lot of science to dumb it down to the way it was done back then,” McOustra says. “It’s like throwing away everything we learned about brewing.”

It was a three-day process, starting at Indie Alehouse with an intense five-hour boil of Ontario milled wheat, stinky aged hops and gallons of water. Broeders and Corbeil babysat the boil overnight. In the morning, Lackey and McOustra transferred the hot wort into 20 kegs, loaded everything into a truck and, in Beamsville, emptied the kegs into the open containers. The next 16 hours, during which the wort and yeast are left to mingle in the vineyard, is the fun part. McOustra and Lackey pass around an endless assortment of beers, some from their respective breweries, some whacky creations they cooked up in Lackey’s garage. Winemakers from nearby vineyards wander over to survey the spectacle and ask technical questions about acidity and fermentation; as fellow brewers they speak a similar language. In case it rains, McOustra and Lackey set up a tent over the cooling wort. (They’re not sure how the rain affects the process, but they’re not taking any chances.)

The rest of the process is all transporting: the (hopefully) fermented wort into 20 clean kegs, back to Toronto and then into four oak wine-barrels to be left alone for three years. “I’m 100 percent confident this will work,” says McOustra. “We’ve gone overboard on everything. Typically, there would be a five-hour exposure [to the yeast]; we did 16. Typically, the wort would be put into inert barrels; ours went into unwashed barrels. We were within feet of a vineyard; others might have been within three kilometres.”

If all goes well, the brewers will end up with 800 litres of wild sour beer, a wholly unique flavour of beer, more tart than sour, crisp and often fruity. They’ll name it “Niambic” (in the same way you can’t call all sparkling wines Champagne, you can call a beer Lambic only if it was brewed in that region of Belgium). Plans are already underway for next year’s wild brew at the same vineyard. “In a few years we can start blending the different vintages, while still maintaining the authentic localness of it,” McOustra says.

The craft beer Twittersphere has been abuzz with the news of a Lambic-style brew right here in the province, where, as far as McOustra knows, it hasn’t been attempted at this scale. “This is why Ontario is kicking ass right now—these kinds of brews and the collaborations among competing breweries,” he says. “There are no trade secrets in this world, brewers are interested in pushing the boundaries of beer. We can’t compete with the big guys on pricing, but we can make beers with passion and craft, take chances on stuff, and push the industry forward.”

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