Wild Ales: An Experiment in Losing Control

With the thrilling announcement of Starr Hill Beer Hall & Rooftop opening in Richmond this Summer, Brewmaster Robbie O’Cain takes on an entirely new brewing process. In a tell-all interview, he reveals just how the process will work and what we can expect to taste from Starr Hill’s newest brewhouse.

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Foeders, Wild Ales & the new Richmond brewhouse with Robbie O'Cain

Let’s talk specs. What will the production system be in RVA?
The Brewhouse is about 800 sq. ft. and is a 10-barrel steam-fire system. We have a mash-kettle combo tank, a lauter tun, and a whirlpool. We’ll be able to do step-mashing, which gives us flexibility with mash temperature — a capability we have in our Crozet facility. This differs from Roanoke, where we utilize single-infusion, mashing at only one temperature.

For fermentation, we have four 10-barrel fermenters and two brite tanks, the latter from which we’ll be kegging. The four fermenters will feed one brite tank, and then five 10-barrel foeders will feed the other.

What are foeders? What is special about them?
They’re big wooden fermentation vessels that are bound and made of American oak; ours come from Foeder Crafters in St Louis, MO. They look like giant barrels.

Foeders, Wild Ales & the new Richmond brewhouse with Robbie O'Cain

Wood is a new medium for us, providing an all-new creative outlet. The key is the porous nature of wood — it allows for the liquid to flow in and out of the oak, taking on and imparting flavor, similar to wine or whisky barrels. Within the foeders, the beer will become this living thing that we ultimately have no control over. We can influence the process, but we can’t dictate exactly how the final product turns out.

That’s different from our usual MO. What will this process look like?
We’ll brew a batch and fill each of the four foeders a few months apart from each other, in order to create particular flavors as they each ferment and change over time. We’ll put specific microbes, or ‘bugs,’ like Brettanomyces, Pediococcus, or Lactobacillus, into these vessels and then each foeder will adopt the characteristics of the bacteria. Souring in this method yields a more pronounced complexity of flavor in the beer. We may also blend these batches to produce different combinations of wild ales.

Foeders, Wild Ales & the new Richmond brewhouse with Robbie O'Cain

Tell us about wild ales. How would you characterize them?
A wild ale is a beer that’s brewed with something in addition to — or in place of — traditional brewer’s yeast. Examples of traditional wild ale styles include Belgian Lambic, German Berliner weisse and Flanders red. Many of them are dry because these bugs will eat virtually every bit of sugar in the wort during fermentation. Some you can sweeten with fruit to complement the tart, complex notes produced by the bacteria, like in the fruit-flavored Lambics kriek and framboise. These beers also tend to be super low IBU and taste less bitter because many of these microbes are susceptible to the bittering compounds in hops.

What are some examples of wild ales in the … wild? Tell us about one you like.
The most renowned are the wild fermentations from Cantillon [in Brussels]. They’re famous because they’ve made classic farmhouse ales for centuries through traditional Lambic production. They blend their Lambics in a style called ‘gueuze,’ a type of spontaneously fermented beer that combines several years of barrel-aged beer. Allagash [in Portland, ME] also has their Coolship series of refined, unique beers brewed with spontaneous fermentation. New Belgium has a series called Lips of Faith that is not always sour, but they’re all fermented in wood tanks.

Foeders, Wild Ales & the new Richmond brewhouse with Robbie O'Cain

What’s your experience been like brewing in the Roanoke brewhouse?
There was a learning curve for sure, as its setup is fairly different from our 25-barrel brewhouse in Crozet. With the smaller scale in Roanoke, we’ve been able to experiment with various yeasts and bacteria that have opened a lot of doors for us to play with diverse styles. Yeast has a major role in defining a style, as well as producing flavor in a beer. For example, Hefeweizen is defined by a very specific Bavarian yeast strain.
Foeders, Wild Ales & the new Richmond brewhouse with Robbie O'Cain
It’s through this hands-on experience using specialty microflora we’ve learned to pinpoint which components present themselves and how they are carried into the finished product.

How will this impact Richmond’s production?
Similar to Roanoke, we’ll be brewing in a smaller format in Richmond. This will be an entirely new brewing process. Everything we do in the Crozet and Roanoke facilities is heavily monitored and controlled to drive a very consistent set of results.

This new system will free us up to take risks — you can push the envelope with microbes and flavorings, and if it doesn’t work out, you don’t have to worry about wasting thousands of barrels of beer. Once the wort goes in the foeders, we’re at the whim of microbes’ varying life cycles; we can only control them to a certain extent. This will be an exercise in losing control.

I think of these bacteria as seeds; you have no idea what the flower will be, and suddenly it blooms, and the flavor reveals itself. If you took a handful of seeds and threw them into a garden, you’d get this field full of surprises.

 

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Surprises are not welcome at most brewery production facilities, and Starr Hill’s Crozet location is no different: the production focus is on controlling the ability to deliver consistency and dependability to our customers. But we’re embarking on an exciting new brewing phase, focusing on the ability to take raw, wild materials and turn them into something special and delicious.

In Roanoke, we planted seeds to branch out and further expand our brewing processes. Richmond presents the next frontier: a field, full of potential, where we’ll lay seeds, tend the garden, and encourage the development of sought-after flavors. We’ll wait and see there what we’re seeing now in this Virginia Spring: that wild, biological combustion of chaos and order where creation and art bloom.