As the number of local “craft” breweries continues to climb in the US (over 4,144 as of December 2015, up from 2,033 in 2011), more and more people are exposed to drinking different styles and flavors of beer, often made in the city or state where they live.
Shreveport is no different. Since late 2013, three breweries have opened in the Shreveport-Bossier area. Great Raft Brewing was the first to open in October 2013 with its lineup of flagship beer designed to appeal to a market that had little access to beer from smaller regional breweries. Great Raft’s Southern Drawl™ is a lightly hopped lager that is crisp and easy drinking. Reasonably Corrupt™ is a black lager which adds subtle dark roast coffee notes to the light-bodied beer. The third, Commotion™, is a clean tasting, straightforward pale ale with a grassy, slightly citrusy flavor and aroma.
In addition to the year-round flagship beer, brewery founders Andrew and Lindsay Nations have added a rapidly expanding number of seasonal and special releases. These include All My Tomorrows™ hoppy farmhouse ale, Grace and Grit™ double IPA, and At Arm’s Length™ “imperial pale lager,” which has the flavor profile of a hoppy India Pale Ale (IPA,) but is brewed as a lager, using a different kind of yeast and spending time fermenting at colder temperatures than an ale.
Through the Nations’ work with the community, pouring their beers and educating their customers in their tap room about different taste profiles of different styles of beer, a growing number of locals have become very savvy about beer. Each limited release that Great Raft brews pushes the envelope a little further– a salty, coriander-spiced gose, for example, or a coffee brown ale. The brewery’s house beer, Born in a Barn™, is a saison/farmhouse which is constantly being tweaked, to show the range of flavors possible in the Belgian saison style.
Great Raft’s next step is a big one. The Nations, along with yeast wrangler and barrel herder Malari Coburn, have created an experimental program that utilizes different strains of bacteria and yeast to create sour, funky, and earthy flavors that aren’t found in beer brewed exclusively with standard brewer’s yeast (also called saccharomyces).
According to Andrew, they’d wanted to set up a program– often called sour or wild ale programs– like this from the beginning, but they knew that the Shreveport-Bossier market needed to take it slow. The flavors found in beers that are inoculated with alternative yeasts like brettanomyces or bacteria like lactobacillus can be off-putting to a beer drinker who isn’t familiar with the style.
“Educating the south in craft beer is one thing, but this is beyond that,” Andrew says. “I think we’ll be successful, just like we were with the lagers and ales we’ve produced from the beginning. Many people who visit our tasting room were not drinking craft beer two years ago, and now they’re asking us when our sour [beers] are coming out. The tasting room has always been about education and conversations about beer. This new program is a natural extension of that and a huge opportunity. It’s going to be an interesting ride. A lot of education is needed though, and a lot of training.”
The opportunity to start brewing these styles of beer came when Great Raft’s chief brewer Harvey Kenney mentioned that one of his brewing school classmates, Caleb Staton, the head of Indiana brewery Upland Brewing’s sour program, was interested in collaborating on a beer. “That was what helped us push forward,” remembers Andrew. “When you’ve got this opportunity to work with some of the best people in the business who brew these sour beers, you jump at the opportunity. [Caleb] came down in March 2015. We brewed the beer, put it in barrels, pitched some of [Upland’s] house cultures and bacteria from their foudre, and used the barrel aging time to build a plan. We can’t bottle it on our clean lines, and obviously we can’t can it. So even though we had a year, we knew we had to figure all this out. That’s when we got really serious about building a separate area and asked Malari to run this program. There were a lot of things we had to get done.”
Brewing beer with these special microorganisms is a complicated affair, since it’s very easy for them to get loose and infect beer that brewers don’t want to contain that flavor. However, Great Raft is confident that the dedicated fermentation area for this program– combined with their everyday commitment to cleanliness, process and best practices– will prevent any unwanted cross contamination in the brewery.
Before going any further, there are some important terms to understand, which Malari has worked on while training Great Room taproom staff, distributors and customers. Beyond yeast, hops, and malt, this is where the terminology gets complex.
First of all, what is a foudre? Basically, it’s a large wooden barrel used primarily to age and condition alternative fermentation beers. The one at Great Raft is 30 barrels, or approximately 945 gallons. It’s one of the few foudres from American Foudre Crafters being used in the south, and the first one in the state of Louisiana.
There are several different bacteria and alternative yeast strains that brewers use to create the trademark sour and funky flavors of these kinds of beers. The two most often used are lactobacillus (a bacteria) and brettanomyces (a yeast strain), which produce very different beer experiences from one another.
Lactobacillus (also known as lacto) produces lactic acid, which imparts a tart, refreshing, lightly sour flavor to the beer it’s added to. Think lemonade or even pickles, depending on what style of beer the lacto is in.
According to Malari, “Lactobacillus is a very nice, lovely bacteria, it’s responsible for yogurt, kimchee, wine. There’s a lot of things that lactobacillus helps to ferment that we consume daily. A lactic tartness, to me, is very light and delicate. And very clean. I like it a lot.”
Brettanomyces, or brett, is a very different strain of yeast which, on its own or used in conjunction with more acidic bacteria strains or standard brewer’s yeast, produces a very complex funky flavor and leaves behind a clean, dry finish in a beer after sipping.
“Brett will keep chewing through the sugars that brewer’s yeast, which is lazy, won’t eat. And it’ll get a beer bone dry,” Malari explains. “It’s best known for creating that barnyard funk, or sometimes a leathery earthiness. To me it’s like a clean barnyard. Fresh hay, little bit of dirt, maybe some animals – sort of like how a dog smells, but not a dirty dog. Just the smell of a dog. That clean, animal earthiness.”
Brett does not create sour or acidic flavors, Malari says. “It may be tart from fruit that might be added to it, or if it’s a wheat beer, pick up some tartness from the wheat. But brett itself does not create acid. It’s probably the number one misconception about brett, that it’s a ‘sour’ beer.”
This is why the team at Great Raft doesn’t call this new line of beers its “sour program,” as some other breweries do. Another common term is “wild” beer or ale. That doesn’t quite work either, according to Lindsay.
“There is a little bit of misconception about when to use the term ‘wild’,” she says. “Some breweries misuse it, and that adds to the confusion. We’re not calling this a “wild” program, because there’s nothing we’re doing to extract living organisms from the environment.”
Malari explains, “It’s just a term that has been associated with beer that doesn’t taste like beer, so it must be wild, because it’s got these other things in it. But basically, unless the air inoculated the wort, it isn’t really wild.”
She adds, “Was the strain of brett we used at one point wild? Sure. But it’s been in a lab, and it’s been purified, and therefore, it’s not really wild, it’s domesticated now.”
“That’s why it’s super important that our staff is educated and the public is educated,” Lindsay says, “because they might not understand when things should be sour and when they shouldn’t. It can be hard to articulate what you’re tasting. We just want to make sure we’re all on the same page.”
Once the experimental program began with the Upland collaboration, the rest of the logistics fell into place after visiting other breweries around the country, asking questions and soliciting advice for best practices.
“We reached out to Jason Perkins of Allagash Brewing in Maine– a Belgian style brewery that we look up to,” says Andrew. “We went up there and learned about their entire program. And then we took that info and started building our program, in terms of physically building it, and deciding what brands would be the core series of the program.”
Malari set up her laboratory to study and cultivate the yeast and bacteria strains. Andrew and Lindsay created an entirely separate area for these funky beers to ferment, condition, and get packaged into kegs and bottles. The entire team even has two different pairs of boots, one that gets put on and used only in the experimental area, and taken off there so they don’t track any wayward bugs into the “clean” brewery area.
The beer that started all of this, the Upland collaboration Come What Mayhaw™ , is a deep red color, which comes from both the mayhaws and the pinot noir barrels it has been aged in for nearly a year. It’s got a sweet-tart deep and complex fruit flavor and will be released in early April at the Great Raft taproom.
The first beer to be released from the experimental program, Mixed Feelings™, is also a collaboration and was brewed with Bluejacket Brewing of Washington D.C. It’s a mixed fermentation beer, meaning that both standard brewer’s yeast (in this case, the brewery’s house saison yeast) and a “wild” yeast (in this case, brettanomyces) are used in the fermentation process.
Mixed Feelings™ was brewed in November, and is an easy drinking saison with a slightly funky farmhouse aroma and background flavors from the brett.
Fruit beer like Come What Mayhaw™, ages in foudres or barrels (or both) but that is not true of all fruit beer. In fact, two of the three standard releases from the new program are fermented in stainless and don’t see a barrel at all. Oceans Between Us™ is an IPA brewed with brettanomyces, and it will be brewed regularly using different hops to dry-hop the beer, which will give each batch a unique aroma and flavor.
According to Lindsay, they brewed a small batch of Oceans Between Us™ for their two-year anniversary party last fall and the response was great. “We ran out of it very quickly.”
Great Raft’s other two experimental flagships will be a dry-hopped saison bottle conditioned with brettanomyces called Farmhouse Slang™, and an as-of-yet unnamed golden sour made with lactobacillus which will serve as the base beer for all sorts of experiments with different fruit and different barrels.
These beers taste radically different from traditionally brewed ales and lagers, and it can take a little getting used to. But those same unusual flavors may attract people who don’t like traditional beer, and think they don’t like beer at all. It’s a matter of tasting and experimenting– and not judging after one sip. Sometimes it takes a few sips of one of these beers for the palate to acclimate.
“That’s what brewing is all about– exploring and trying new things,” Lindsay says. “We love and appreciate the lagers our brewery is built upon, but we are excited to
experiment with this new program and brew something completely different. It’s a way to express our creativity and passion for beer in new ways”