Learning About Brettanomyces: An Ode To My Favorite Microbe

Microbes are a crucial part of beer which many beer drinkers don’t appreciate until they take the jump to homebrewing. Many pro brewers will admit that they don’t make beer; they make wort and the yeast, which is a microbe, makes the beer. This is entirely true. We create very sugary water and add yeast to it. Yeast eats the sugar and turns it into CO² and, the fun part, alcohol[footnote]That’s the super simplified gist of a very complicated process [/footnote]. The main yeast used in brewing is Saccharomyces, but it’s kinda boring and I’m a much bigger fan of its family member Brettanomyces. So, let’s learn about my favorite microbe!

Alien planet from the next blockbuster movie? Nope just the pellicle Brettanomyces created for once, and hopefully returning, writer here Josh Osborne.
Alien planet from the next blockbuster movie? Nope, just the pellicle Brettanomyces created for once and hopefully returning, writer here Josh Osborne.

Say it with me now Bre-tan-o-my-seas

I had always associated Brettanomyces with sour and tart beers but in the process of researching this article I’ve learned that it was first associated with old stock ales in the 19th century[footnote]See Oxford Companion To Beer pg. 157 for more info on that [/footnote]. Fun fact: Brett has twice as many genes as Saccharomyces allowing it to produce a wider range of flavors and aromas[footnote] Thanks to Michael Tonsmeire’s American Sour Beers for that tidbit[/footnote].

Brettanomyces
Thanks to Matt from Accidentalis Brewing for letting me borrow the photo. Go check out his blog here.

Not All Brett Is Created Equal

What follows is a geeky and more homebrewer focused section but everyone should read it since knowledge is power. I say this because you, as a consumer, rarely get to know which strain(s) of Brett a brewer used in their beer. One of two things that got me started on wanting to write this post was an article by John Yester, founder of TRiNiTY BREWiNG, and author of Saison Resurgence in the July/August 2014 Zymurgy. In that article, he talked quite a bit about Brett and broke down the following strains:

  • B. Anomala: Formerly known as B. Intermedius. Displays moderate funk and acidic tones
  • B. Bouckaertii: Low intensity that becomes spicy with age. First isolated from German Berliner Weisse slurry. Woody, white pepper, earthy, musty, graphite notes.
  • B. Bruxellensis: Medium intensity Brett character. Classic strain used in secondary fermentation for Belgian-style beers & lambics. Develops notable bitter leather with age
  • B. Bruxellensis var Drei: Slightly tart beer with delicate fruit characteristics of mango and peach, high straw, wet wool, and some leather.
  • B. Claussenii: Low-intensity brett character. More aroma than flavor. Adds fruity pineapple to light “graphite” flavor
  • B. lambicus: High-intensity brett character. Definitive horsey, smokey, and spicy flavors. Found most often in lambic styles, also found in Flanders and sour brown styles.
  • B. naardenensis: Quickly creates an abundance of acidity with ripe fruit; “mouse” and acetic acid character will transition to strawberry-like ester with age.

The Funk Factory Geuzeria also maintains this list of Brett strains plus what commercial yeast farmer you can buy it from or what commercial bottles you can harvest it from. Something to keep in mind about all this is that there is still quite a bit unknown about Brett and some names are interchangeable. According to the Oxford Companion To Beer, “B. Lambicus and B. Classenii are actually B. Bruxellensis and B. Anomalus, respectively”

Brett Does Not Equal Sour

Ok… this is kind of semantics but I think it’s important to mention. Brett, only beers are not sour and not all sour beers have Brettanomyces in them. This is a very common misconception that I hear repeated often. Most people automatically include Brett beers into the sour beer category. Brett doesn’t produce the lactic acid bacteria which makes a beer a “true sour” [footnote]See American Sour Beer pg. 182 for more info[/footnote]. You need combinations of Lactobacillus, Pediococcus, and Acetobacter to make a real sour beer sour though these beers often include some amount if Brett as well.

Brettanomyces
Thanks to Mike Barnhart from Southern Ohio Brew Show for this pellicle porn!

Brettanomyces is capable of producing acetic acid if there are high levels of O² (oxygen) in the wort. Acetic acid is most associated with vinegar and is slightly sour. As I said at the beginning of this section this is somewhat of a semantic debate about what is or isn’t “sour” but the truth of the matter, as I’ve shown here is that Brett is not “sour” but is tart.

3 Brett Beers to Try Today

I want to start this list with a locally produce beer made with Brettanomyces. Unfortunately, I can’t do that. Quaff Bros made Badonkaunk and it heavily featured Brett, but that’s been off shelves for a while. Rivertown has one in the works, but it could be a while before we see it. So, that sucks and serves as a good reminder how relatively rare beers featuring Brettanomyces are.

Prairie, Crooked Stave, and Orval. Orval is often mentioned as one of the beers to introduce modern folks back to Brett and is a good place to harvest dregs from. Prairie and Crooked Stave are doing amazing things with Brett but Prairie is rare in Ohio and Crooked Stave isn’t here at all. Just hop on over the river to Party Source and you can fill your basket with both!

Wicked Weed bottles are only available in North Carolina and even then pretty much only at Wicked Weed itself, but they are all fantastic funky beers [footnote]Fun Funk Fact they call their Funk Factory the Funkatorium [/footnote] featuring Brett. If you can land a trade do it. If not hop in your car for an easy six-hour cruise down to Asheville and buy bottles to your heart’s content… or convince a friendly friend to do it for you. Either which way you do it if you wanna experience Brett excellence you gotta get Wicked Weed on your tongue.

Wicked Weed Brettanomyces
Hops are a pernicious and wicked weed. That I love the taste of! And yes… I do need to drink some of these.

More Microbes On The Way

As the title says Brettanomyces is by far my favorite microbe. I love the funky barnyard, horse blanket, tropical fruit magic it produces. But there are many microbes used in beer and I’m going to write posts on them soon. Look forward to learning about Saccharomyces, Lactobacillus, Pediococcus, and Acetobacter. Think of it as a spin-off of my Learning About Beer series. Until then, any questions or comments on Brett?

Oh, and be sure to sound off on what your favorite microbe is!

10 thoughts on “Learning About Brettanomyces: An Ode To My Favorite Microbe”

  1. Good intro to Brett!
    Don’t believe there is any correlation between number of chromosomes and flavor producing capability though; and you may already know but Brett is a genus, (some) of its variants are species not strains.
    Cheers.

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  2. Great post Tom! Although I’m fond of sours, non-sour Brett beers are probably my favorite beer style. As you point out good ones are hard to find, but luckily Orval which is arguably the archetypal Brett beer (with a bunch of hops too) is pretty easy to find. Some others that are worth seeking out:

    Saison Brett by Boulevard (unfortunately not distributed to Ohio, but sold in many neighboring states),

    Seizoen Bretta by Logsdon Farmhouse Ales in Oregon, which is not distributed off the west coast, but it is amazing and you can pick it up in the Portland airport if flying through.

    And as harkjohnny points out Matilda by Goose Island, which is an homage to Orval, and sells for about half the price as Orval.

    I always feel that the typical taste descriptors barnyard and horse blanket don’t really do justice to the aroma and taste of a good Brett beer. What do you think is the most accurate way to describe its aroma, taste?

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  3. Nice post! I’m doing a series of 12 single Brett beers (1 gallon each) over the next 6 months. I’m doing 4 at a time and I’ll post them as they “finish” and then post a summary at the end of the experiment. I’ll link back to here so people can get some more information.

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