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During a bottle share with a couple of Food Republic writers last week, it became evident that not everyone has a palate for beer brewed or “infected” with the wild yeast known as Brettanomyces. A couple of the beers in sharemaster Jon Katz’s evening lineup smelled and tasted like, well, farm animal manure, according to one unenthused guest. Welcome to the magic world of wild ales.

Belgium, known for its long beer brewing history, is famous for Brettanomyces, a strain of wild yeast known to impart a mild to deeply funky flavor to beer during the fermentation process. Historically, this contamination was considered a pest to brewers and was avoided at all costs due to the off-flavors it would cause. Nowadays brewers outside of Trappist abbeys have found ways to incorporate the “animal smell” characteristics with fruits, spices and other ingredients into rewardingly complex flavor profiles, making for some seriously sought-after brews. The beer in question that night was one of the better-knowns: Goose Island’s wine barrel-aged Juliet farmhouse ale from the sour Sisters Series (which scores a 94/100 on Beer Advocate). Here’s what it’s supposed to taste like:

  • Sour dark berries
  • Red wine–infused oak barrel
  • Leather
  • Barnyard notes, like hay

…none of which first-time farmhouse ale tasters were able to detect through the sheer “horsiness” of it all. Wet dog was also mentioned. After a third sip, “band-aid,” and finally just “poop.”

Says Katz, “Brettanomyces is one of the most unpredictable ingredients in brewing: when the balance is off, it can literally make your beer shoot out of the bottle or foam out of a glass like a froth monster, but give it a chance — it can impart a unique tropical fruit flavor.”

Fruit flavor may have been what you were looking for when you ordered that Flemish sour from the beer menu. But if you’re willing to commit to 10 or so tries, you’ll learn to taste past what we’re just calling “non-specific funk” to a lightly carbonated, surprisingly refreshing sweet ‘n sour brew that, at 8-10% ABV, will reward your diligence right back.

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