Tuesday, October 5, 2010

Yeast Hunting near Flanders*

I have been brewing batch after batch of beers with other people's bugs these days, in order to hurry and wait for them to be ready to bottle in 1-2 years. The notion of brewing an american wild ale with truly wild yeast and bacteria that has been nurtured along by my own doing from their primordial beginnings has been growing in romance in my mind for quite some time. I have been reading and re-reading about it. Talking to (at?) anyone who will listen to me go on and on about such things as 'facultative anaerobes'.

Usually starts with a self-indulgently lame lead-in like:
"So, you like sourdough bread, right...? Well, y'know...there are these beers..."

Knowing that some of my favorite beers are created with such wild caught strains, I had to have a hand at it. I know I'm not alone in this, and the chance at finding, creating and learning about beers with as yet undiscovered terroir signature has struck many others before me. Of course, this was (and in the rare case, still is) how beer was brewed for thousands of years, and is experiencing a tremendous revival as of late. Hopefully, I will be able to favor and coax along an otherwise happenstance and motley fungal and bacteria crew (no mold-whammies, no mold-whammies...aaaaaand, STOP!) with some relative simple steps and techniques.

The first step to growing up yeast is the familiar process of making an appropriate medium to capture and grow up the cultures. I started with boiling up a small starter (OG 1.030) with DME and a pinch of wyeast nutrient.
I added 40ml of still hot (~170F+) wort to eleven sterile 50ml centrifuge tubes and re-sealed the threaded caps. Threw them in a gallon ziplock bag the morning before driving down to Saltwater Farm vineyard for their 2010 Chardonnay harvest. Here's a video peek of the place from last year's Halloween Cab Franc harvest.
The mood was considerably more energetic at this year's harvest. Of course the vines are another year older, but the grapes were pushing the brix count north primarily from the long, warm and sunny season, and the tons/acre harvest (I hear) was exceptional. Lots of new french oak barrels (ooooooh boy) lay in waiting for the Chardonnay. I spent a few minutes, alone, in silence, just being near them, smiling widely.
Outside, the surrounding wetlands and fields were thick and lush. Plants that are usually winding down to dormancy this time of year, exhausted from the efforts of flowering and then setting seed, were flagrantly reblooming.
Lots of yeast-feeding nectar was still aplenty, so the yeast conditions were quite good, but not ideal. Both the night and day time temps have been cool, as of late (good), but the rains came through a few days (not so good). I could see that the whitish haze that typically has set up camp on the grapes has been washed off a bit, though still quite visible toward the bottoms of the clusters.

I had big Luc strapped to me, so my harvesting efforts were probably measured in the 10s of pounds, not hundreds, but Esther and Anne-Marie quickly filled the trays in the overcast ~55F weather.
I opened a few vials and pushed 4-6 of those bottom-of-the-cluster grapes in to each. I wandered around the grounds, snagging 4 different varietals: Sauvignon Blanc (3), Chardonnay (3), Cabernet Franc (2) and Merlot (2).
Not so much because I postulated that Id get different strains from the different grapes, but rather there might be micro climates hidden within the micro climates of the vineyard, each yielding some different microbiota. With the 11th vial, big Luc I went for another 20minute stroll through the vines, with the cap off...making our own mini-Lambic. For the record, I too don't really wish to enter in to a debate of the 'proper' use of the appellation...

Our good friends, the vineyard owners, were quite generous to heed my request for 5lbs of the Cabernet Franc, for use in adding to a portion of the strong pale sour beer I brewed not too long ago. When we returned home, Esther took the Luc-handoff, and I went to work destemming these pristine/mold free clusters by hand. In to a washed stainless bowl, then vacuum seal bags, then the freezer. 4lbs, 10oz. I had hoped for 5 on the button. Nuts.

I'll add the grapes after the Sacch/Brett has been knocked back a bit by the lowered pH levels, and give the now stronger pedio something fresh to call dibs on.

It is now already three days later, and I've seen clear signs of fermentation, first on the white grapes, then the red, but nothing too definitive yet in the 'open air' vial. I'll likely chill, then decant the grapes and wort tomorrow evening. A familiar whitish sediment is settling on the bottoms of the most active vials, and bright hints of vinous fermentation gases are sneaking from under the plastic screw tops.

The agar, sterile Petri dishes, inoculation loop, and small scale Erlenmyers are on their way. Meanwhile, I'm only about 1/2 way through Yeast, so I've got some work ahead of me.

And at least I have Luc to let me go on and on (for now, anyway) about my hopes of finding the elegant, yet rustic Tetreault strains, and dreaming about going yeast hunting in own family farmhouse brewery one day.

*Flanders (Road)


  1. I've been following your blog for a few months. I just started brewing earlier this year and I really enjoy your stories and experiments. Thanks for sharing.

  2. Excited to see your results. I have similar plans out in San Diego this winter. I think instead of different locations within one vineyard. I'm going to try different locations around the county.
    How long are you going to let them ferment?
    Then are you just going to taste/smell to see if any are worth building up?

  3. Cool, definitely let me know how your project proceeds. Ive decided to let them continue on (going on 5 days now). They have all got some very familiar whitish sediment (yeast) mixed with brown coagulated particles in the bottom cone of the vials. I'm going to post a followup soon (this weekend) with the next steps, so stay tuned.


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