Blue sky drinking: wild beers

Categories: Expert guidance

Daniel Tapper on the refreshing flavours of spontaneously fermented ale

Farage would never admit it, but if beer were a politician it would be an out-and-proud internationalist; a typical pint of ‘British’ India Pale Ale is brewed with a veritable hotchpotch of world ingredients, spanning everything from American and Slovenian hops to German and Belgian malts. And it’s been this way for a steely 150 years.

Though clearly a virtue, beer’s roguish disregard for national borders has long attracted a degree of criticism, especially from those who only have eyes for wine. Beer, these pedants say, can never be a direct expression of place if dominated by such an assortment of world flavours.

But not all brews are so rootless.

Belgian Lambic beers, for example, are exposed to ambient brewery air before being fermented, inoculating them with all manner of local yeasts and bacteria. The resulting ales have been found to contain around 80 wild microorganisms, many of which are thought to live in the wooden beams, barrels and even cobwebs of individual breweries—making these beers impossible to reproduce elsewhere.

Fifty-year-old starter
Inspired by the Belgians, a growing number of British brewers are also shunning generic laboratory-grown yeasts. In Somerset, The Wild Beer Co is fermenting beers with microbes derived from locally produced apples and gooseberries, as well as one strain taken from a 50-year-old sourdough yeast starter. In Suffolk, The Little Earth Project has created a Hedgrow Sour, fermented with the help of foraged elderflower. And in Cambridgeshire, Elgoods Brewery’s Coolship fruit ale is spontaneously fermented by the local air and matured with hand-picked raspberries and blackberries.

Though unique in terms of terroir, wild beers share a number of delicious summery attributes, including a refreshing champagne-like dryness, a zingy vinous acidity and fresh, funky barnyard flavours reminiscent of cider, hay and aged leather. This makes them excellent aperitifs and a phenomenal match with sweet, delicate seafood dishes, particularly those cooked with butter and cream.

Wild Beer Co, Wild Goose Chase
Utobeer, £3.50

Set deep in the heart of Somerset, this farmhouse brewery is producing some of the UK’s most exciting beers, many of which are fermented using wild yeast strains harvested from local orchards and hedgerows. This beer’s tart flavours make it a great bedfellow with seasonal British cherries, while its gentle acidity and hint of vanilla pairs well with sweet, buttery scallops.