Brett beer flavor and aroma illustration

Style Study: Brett Beers

“We gon-na get FUN-key! E’rybodayclapyahaaaaans! Clap, clap clap, clap ya hands!” – DJ Casper …

… who was not at all referring to Brettanomyces yeast, but he may as well have been because Brett is known for adding funkiness to beer! Ohhh yeahhh!

Aaaaaanywhoozles, this week I chose to do a Style Study on the BJCP category called “Brett Beer.” Brett Beer is a subset of the American Wild category in which Brettanomyces yeast, or “Brett” is used to ferment the beer (BCJP 2015 Guidelines).

In order for a beer to belong to this subcategory,  Brettanomyces yeast must either be used as the only fermentation agent (a 100% Brett beer), or it can be used in combination with another type of traditional brewer’s yeast, but not in combination with another wild yeast or bacteria.

Brett, when combined with another wild yeast or bacteria, belongs to the Mixed Fermentation Wild Ale subcategory and if there is fruit added to the beer, it’s classified as a Specialty Wild Ale. Also, sidebar, I found the distinction between these three American Wild Ale subcategories difficult to figure out without reading the BJCP descriptions approximately one billion times. (That’s right! One billion.) And, disclaimer, I am not an official BJCP Judge so here’s hoping I got it right. If you are BJCP certified and you’ve noticed an error, please correct me!

So, what is Brett?
The Brettanomyces genus of yeast was originally isolated by a scientist named Niels Hjelle Claussen who was studying beer spoilage in English ales at Carlsberg Brewery in 1904. Claussen decided upon the name “British fungus,” or Brettanomyces, from Greek. Two commonly known species of Brett, to beer-makers and drinkers, are Brett claussini and Brett bruxellensis (or “Brett c” and “Brett brux,” for short). Claussen named the first species after himself, and the second was named after the Senne valley area near Brussels, Belgium. There are a few other species too, but these two are probably the most popular kids in class. (You can find much more about the discovery of and theory behind the flavors and qualities of Brett yeast on Milk the Funk.)

How is Brett added to a Brett Beer?
Brett yeast can be found living on fruit skins in the wild, or inside wooden barrels in the brewery environment. However, in order for a beer to belong to this BJCP category, neither fruit nor wood (a barrel) may touch the beer. From what I can tell, a brettanomyces strain has to be harvested and pitched into the beer separate from it’s original environment.

What kind of base beer is used?

A Brett beer can be ANY style. Technically, you could brew a dark, roasty, hoppy American stout, ferment it with Brett, and it could belong in this category. Brett beer flavors and aromas also vary greatly depending on the style. In fact, if you read the BJCP Style Guidelines for this category, almost every section begins with “Variable by base style.” So, while there isn’t a great way to generally describe these beers, BJCP says it well here:

“Compared to the same beer style without Brett, a Brett Beer will be drier, … fruitier, lighter in body, and slightly funkier as it ages. Less sourness and depth than Belgian ‘wild’ ales.” -2015 BJCP Guidelines

What flavors characterize a Brett beer?

Again, this varies by the style used, but in all cases Brett can have a small or a large effect on the beer in which it resides. It can be “quite fruity (e.g., tropical fruit, berry, stone fruit, citrus), or have some smoky, earthy, or barnyard character. … Light sourness is acceptable with the beer being lightly tart, but should not be truly sour. Always fruitier when young, gaining more funk with age. Malt flavors are often less pronounced than in the base style, leaving a beer most often dry and crisp.” (BJCP)

As usual, I found and sampled a bunch of Brett beers purely for science reasons:

I sample a bunch of Brett beers (pictured) and they all taste ... well.. Brett-y.

Saison Bretta – Logsdon Farmhouse Ales (8% ABV)
Saison, bottle conditioned with pear juice
Straw colored and hazy with a quickly-dissipating head stuffed full of tiny bubbles, this beer smelled of  funky lemon, a hint of mango, and grassy earth. Effervescent and prickly in the mouth it was fruity and remarkably juicy up front, with a bitter, tart finish and a hint of pepper.

Saison Brett – Boulevard Brewing Co. (8.5% ABV)
Saison with traditional saison yeast, dry-hopped and bottle-conditioned for 3 months with Brettanomyces
Poured with the slightest haze, this beer was very bubbly and had an enormous fluffy, pillow-y head. It smelled of funky cheese and band-aids, and had a dusy, musty, funky, cheesy, sharp flavor to match the aroma.

Archimedes – Like Minds Brewing (6.5% ABV)
100% Brett IPA
Darker in color, this beer had a golden haze and a bubbly, dissipating head. A very tropical aroma of peach and apricot dominated, with a hint of earthy must lingering in the background, like stale brown sugar. It tasted barely fruity up front, and very very dry, like a dusty, dusty peach with a bitter and wood-like finish.

Constellation Mosaic – 4 Hands Brewing Co. (6.1% ABV)
Brett IPA, dry-hopped with Mosaic
This beer was a very light straw color, the lightest of the 5 beers, with a slight haze and a small but actively bubbly head. This beer’s aroma was pretty hoppy to the point where I could only smell passion fruit, citrus, and lime. Its flavor was incredibly juicy up front, with a dry finish. Overall it was mostly earthy and funky, but not bitter at all and while the beer itself didn’t taste fruity, the aroma made it seem so.

Matilda – Goose Island Beer Co. (7% ABV)
Belgian Pale Ale with Brett Brux
A golden color and the darkest of the 5, this beer was only slightly hazy and an active bubbly head
It smelled of Belgian yeast – fruity, apricot-y, earthy esters – with some funky, cheesy undertones. 
This beer tasted fruity up front with a drying, earthy, biscuity finish.

Brett beer flavor and aroma illustration

Brett definitely has a certain earthy taste and a drying, bitter mouthfeel. After sampling these beers, I’ve come to the realization that I personally don’t like the funky flavors of brett, unless they are tempered with some kind of fruity, hoppy or otherwise balancing flavor to add additional complexity. In the Saison Brett (Boulevard) the brett came through so powerfully and so very funky and earthy that it was hard for me to enjoy. However, I LOVED Saizon Bretta, which was equal parts saison and equal parts a funky, fruity brett display.

If you want to learn more about Brettanomyces in brewing, here are some useful and reputable online sources:
The Brettanomyces Project
Embrace the Funk
Funk Factory
The Mad Fermentationist

Cheers, and … we gonna get funky! 😀

One thought on “Style Study: Brett Beers

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