Photo by peretzpup/Flickr CC
The future of American craft beer sits in a shed on the industrial outskirts of Portland, Maine. Built by the Allagash Brewing Company in 2007, the shed holds the country's first commercial "koelschip," a shallow, 15-barrel steel pan used to cool down beer wort--and expose the beer to naturally occurring yeasts that float in through the shed's open stained-glass windows. The results, which are still aging in the brewery's warehouse and could be ready for drinking early next year, will be the first American lambic produced according to the traditional methods used in Belgium, where wild-yeast fermentation is considered a national treasure.
Allagash is among the leading American breweries dedicated to Belgian beer styles--whites, dubbels, and tripels, for the most part. But like Lost Abbey and Russian River (among many others), Allagash has recently been experimenting with wild yeasts, primarily Brettanomyces to produce funky, tart beers similar to Belgian lambics. But whereas most of the great lambics, like those from Cantillon, are made with truly wild yeasts, American "bretts" are isolated in a lab before being let loose on a wort.
Wild yeast, like unwanted bacteria, is usually the bane of brewers. It has rendered many a homebrew putrid and undrinkable. But a few years ago, Allagash got lucky. An infected batch turned out to be not only drinkable, but delicious. Jason Perkins, the master brewer, had a lab isolate the yeast strain and used it to make Interlude, a well-regarded limited-edition release. With that experience in mind, he and Allagash owner Rob Tod decided to go all the way, and build a koelschip of their own.