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The Undefined Art of Mixed Fermentation

Mixed Fermentation Wild Ale Symposium The Upper Lip Portland OR

If you’re ever able to witness the gathering of a certain cadre of brewers, those who create uniquely different and complex ales, it’s possible that the ensuing conversation will be just as complex and as technically satisfying as the fermented output each produces.

Such was the case last weekend when The Upper Lip hosted the last of their 2018 symposium series, this one focusing on Wild or Mixed Fermentation Ales.

My first thought was to make this the second entry in a “Style Series,” though the previous article was more about a treatment of beer instead of one style and Wild Ales aren’t quite a style either, so what should it be about? Maybe about why it’s not really definable as a style.

The stellar panel for the symposium was comprised of moderator, Ryan Spencer, de Garde Brewing’s Trevor Rogers, Upright Brewing’s Alex Ganum, Block 15’s Nick Arzner, and The Ale Apothecary’s Paul Arney.

Each brings something different to the table – process, location, recipe creation, history, personality, etc., yet more than most any other collection of brewers put before an audience, these guys bring a common bond that felt a little surreal – as if they already communicate on a different bandwidth. Maybe they’re all mad wizards… possible considering the magical elixirs they conjure on the regular.

To be honest, much of the discussion delved into the weeds of the technical processes each of them undertake when creating what are known as Wild or Mixed Fermentation Ales. And that’s the beauty of what they create – each brewery is definitive in their own right, the results of which are neither adhering to some archaic script, nor modern dogmatic expectation of “style.”

Most of what each brewery represented here creates regularly are barrel-aged, mixed fermentation ales (involving various incarnations of bacterial cultures, spontaneous fermentation, and/or blending). It’s from here that paths diverge. Some result in beers that are clearly inspired by the Belgian Lambic tradition, others by the Wallonian Farmhouse approach, and all points in between, yet, on the whole, each generally works from a base foundation in European brewing traditions.

Alex from Upright is conjuring amazing potions in a basement brewhouse on the Willamette’s Left Bank and Paul from The Ale Apothecary’s brewing magical things in the woods, some inspired by the Finnish Sahti tradition.

Trevor’s operation at de Garde does a lot of spontaneous fermentation, a stone’s throw from the ocean, and surrounded by cow farms; while Nick at Block 15 brews in a small college/farming town in the heart of the Willamette Valley.

Each inhabit a different locale, source different ingredients, and evoke a different terroir.

And each outfit seeks different outcomes and creates inspired offerings, filled with creative experimentation, yet they speak each other’s language, respect each other’s work, and enjoy the fruits of their passion.

As the discussion detailing how each on the panel approaches their specific process drew to a close, the Q&A session began. Being right up front and always willing to pose what I hope to be a thought provoking question, I wanted to know their thoughts about an article that had recently appeared on the site Good Beer Hunting entitled “Keeping the ‘Farm’ in Farmhouse.”

The essence of the article was to advise breweries that are naming something a “Farmhouse” not to do so unless it’s being brewed on a farm, as well as other “touchstones.” I asked if they’d heard about it, if so how they felt about it, as well as the whole Méthode Traditionnelle vs Belgian Lambic thing.

Needless to say, the question raised a few hairs on the back of people’s necks. A lively and longer than expected discussion ensued, and I’d like to personally apologize to Mr. Arney if I was even partly to blame for a sleepless night.

In the end, I find irony in my original plan to write about this event in the context of a style, yet more than anything I learned last Saturday, it’s that Wild Ales don’t adhere to style and shouldn’t be called Sours (“save it for the Kettle Sours…”). And that Farmhouse Ales don’t need a farm to be so, and that this creative process doesn’t need, nor should require brewers to adhere to some set of arbitrary rules of another brewer’s making.

I’m glad I chose not to… after all, being wild is about charting your own path, not about falling in line.

The entirety of the discussion can be found on The Upper Lip’s Periscope page.

Lodgehouse The Ale Apothecary Mixed Fermentation Symposium The Upper Lip Portland OR
Lodgehouse – The Ale Apothecary – Bend, OR

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