It all started as an effort to increase the terroir of their beer. In a press release that is equal parts repulsive and fantastic, Rogue Brewing Co. in Newport, Ore., announces it is testing recipes for a beer that will be fermented by yeast that was growing spontaneously in its brewmaster's beard.
Rogue grows its own hops, barley, and rye, in the belief that doing so increases the authenticity and locality of the beer. Just as terroir informs the profile of wine, so do geographic location and environmental factors affect beer. Hoping to produce a beer with yeast that was growing locally, they decided to take samples and send them in for testing. Procuring specimens from all the predictable places, like Rogue's 42-acre hopyard in Independence, Ore., did not produce any yeast suitable for brewing.
In a moment which we hope was under the influence of ale, Rogue staffers harvested nine follicles from brewmaster John Maier's long-growth beard, nestled them in a Petri dish, and sent them to the mad scientists at White Labs. Lo and behold, the microflora growing on Maier's beard was not only a different strand than Rogue's standard house yeast but it was perfectly suited to fermenting beer.
The John Maier face-blanket beer, which will be christened “New Crustacean” (shudder), is set for production in 2013 and will be commercially available for purchase. The brewery is currently hammering out possibilities for what style best compliments whisker yeast.
Is there a smattering of gimmickry in this ploy? Absolutely. Is there some legitimacy to very cool wild yeast growing in an environment (albeit on someone's face) that is exposed to combinations of “professional” yeast on a regular basis? Well, yes.
Wild yeast that is not cultivated for specific use in beer is nothing new to the brewing world; in fact, it represents the first little critters that ever turned grain juice into beer. Most notably, wild yeast is coveted in the Senne River Valley of Belgium, where open fermentation invites wild specimens to make Lambic beer — with its characteristic sour funk. This practice is not limited to the geueze of Cantillon, but can also be seen employed at Jolly Pumpkin Brewing Co., or more locally, The Bruery.
When compared to Chicha, beard beer doesn't sound so revolting. Chicha is a traditional South and Central American beverage in which corn is chewed, then spat out so the enzymes naturally occurring in saliva can do the work of converting starch to fermentable sugar. This drink was brought to our attention when Dogfish Head brewed a batch a few years ago. But somehow even watching Sam Calagione explain and perform this task doesn't convince us of its greatness.
Will you crack open a bottle of New Crustacean next Fourth of July? Some of us are just crazy enough to be thrilled by the prospect.
Want more Squid Ink? Follow us on Twitter or like us on Facebook. Erika Bolden writes about her compulsive food and drink habit at The Weblog, and @erikabolden.