Thoughts on Rules, Tradition, and Experimentation

As a maker of spontaneous ales, I often get asked/find myself in conversations about traditional processes that other spontaneous ale producers use.

Typically we're talking about Belgian Lambic/Gueuze producers and the fairly rigid, hundred-plus-years-old traditions, processes, and specifications that producers of authentic example of these styles are using / must use in order to make a beer "to style" and call it Lambic (or Gueuze, or Kriek). We'll ignore the fact that a large percentage of producers of beer called by these names is made without following many or even any of these traditional processes, which is frankly none of my business. 

There is zero doubt that these Belgian examples of spontaneous fermentation (the only ones available until U.S. brewers started experimenting fairly recently) are a big influence on why we do coolship-inoculated spontaneous fermentation. As I always say I think that this method of fermentation creates a complexity that absolutely cannot be rivaled with mixed cultures from a lab or otherwise. 

In fact, one of my single favorite beer styles is Lambic. I was recently asked in I Love Colorado Beer lightning-round interview to name my favorite beer and the first thing that came out of my mouth was Tilquin Gueuze (Gueuze Tilquin À L’Ancienne). It is really an exquisite beer, as are many examples of traditionally produced Lambic.

Back on topic, though - people often ask if Black Project follows the Belgian Lambic "laws". Do we use a certain percentage of unmalted wheat? Are we using a turbid mash? Is our coolship made to certain dimensions? Is all of our beer aged for a certain length of time? Is our beer blended from different vintages? Do we age our bottles for X amount of time?

The answer is frequently: "No."

At Black Project Spontaneous and Wild Ales we don't make Lambic. We don't make Gueuze, or Kriek, or whatever else kind of beer has to follow someone else's rules. Some purists are freaking out right now probably - but let me explain something about these traditions...

The traditional production processes in Belgium make some really excellent beer. There is no doubt in my mind about that (see paragraph 3 & 4). I have no doubt that if we followed these traditional 'rules' to the letter we might also make some really good beer that I would be proud enough to put the Black Project label on. Heck, there is a good chance that someday we might do exactly that (although being made in Colorado I still wouldn't feel right about calling it Lambic as geography is one rule we can't follow!). 

What some may not realize is the history of these traditions and rules. Yes they can be followed to make good beer - but what's the point of a turbid mash? Yes it gives lots of complex starches for long fermentations with Brettanomyces... but there are many simpler ways to accomplish that. The actual answer is that in the 1800s Belgian brewers were taxed based on mash tun size, meaning a small mash tun was important. Lambic producers were also very much using whatever ingredients that they could get inexpensively (like unmalted wheat and aged hops). These conditions come together and you end up with a crazy mash regime and a 4 hour kettle boil and 3 years of aging. The end result is awesome, but the origin of the processes isn't based in science. 

Another example: I was recently informed that technically a coolship/koelschip used to make spontaneous ales in Belgium must be a certain depth range, no matter what the volume is. I am a huge advocate that cooling rate and surface area are critical to great spontaneous inoculations in a coolship, but specifying a depth without a volume is useless. Cooling rate is not determined by depth, it is determined by (among other things, like vessel construction and material choice) the surface area to volume ratio of the coolship vessel. Surface area to volume ratio isn't linear.... Specifying only a depth means that a smaller brewhouse will have a significantly faster cooling rate than some of the bigger brewhouses in Europe. It is a rule that tries to establish cooling rate, but unfortunately it isn't really effective if you look at the science involved. 

Our 120gal coolship isn't traditional, at all. Depending on batch size, we don't meet the traditional "Belgian rules" for wort depth. However, we've done extensive research and experimentation and settled on this system. It allows us to closely match the cooling rates and surface area to volume ratios of successful spontaneous ale producers around the world. We feel those factors are key to getting great inoculations.

We study traditional techniques and processes in order to learn from them and create our own techniques. We take what works best for us, what is best for the fermentation and, in turn, the flavor. We aren't trying to make Lambic, despite our steadfast stance on using only spontaneous / wild microbes. I am personally obsessed with experimentation and exploration in the area of spontaneous fermentation- there really is no other logical reason for the madness of opening a brewery that only makes beer using microbes from the air. 

Our goal is to simply make the very best tasting beer we can. Beer that is both subtle and complex; delicious and unique. Beer with a sense of place, a fermentation character that is constantly evolving and that cannot be replicated elsewhere. Our name alludes to secret government projects, but especially those that push the envelope, those that take research and development beyond tradition to make something amazing. That's an ethos that we humbly strive towards with how we do spontaneous fermentations. 

Thanks for listening,

James Howat

Founder / Blender