by Sally Colby
While winemakers strive to keep Brettanomyces, or Brett, out of their wineries, Gregg Spickler, of Hidden Cove Brewing Company in Wells, Maine, welcomes the wild stuff. He’s looking to distinguish his brews with a unique flavor, and Brett delivers.
“It’s very aggressive and can easily take over a brewery and contaminate your beers,” said Spickler. “It can add a lot of funky flavors that people aren’t necessarily used to, but it’s becoming a lot more popular and people are starting to embrace it.”
Spickler not only invites that funk in his brews, he cultivates strains he wants to use in his eclectic selection of beers. “We do all the cultivation in house,” he said. “We find yeast in bottles from Europe, on farms, in fruit — anywhere we can — and grow it here. We’re always trying to find something weird — we put traps out to capture yeast. Sometimes we find great strains and make awesome beer, and sometimes the yeast is no good.”
To make sure he’s on the right track, Spickler uses experimental yeasts in 10-gallon batches before debuting an untried yeast in full-scale production. He keeps a close watch on new brews, and makes plenty of notes throughout the brewing process.
In addition to cultivating Brett, Spickler uses wet hops from his own plants behind his brewery. After successfully producing a few small batches of beer using wet hops, he contacted The Hop Yard in Gorham, Maine, for more. And although Spickler selected hops varieties that he had used in the past, he hadn’t yet tried hops grown in the east – and hadn’t brewed with wet hops.
“Dried hops have a different flavor profile,” he said. “The drying process changes them a little bit. Wet hops have a lot more aroma, they don’t absorb as much liquid, and sometimes they actually add liquid because they’re so fresh.”
Spickler says that while most brewers use wet hops early in the brewing process, he tried something different. “Because we use Brettanomyces in all of our beers, our beers take a minimum of 30 days to ferment,” he said. “We did a 90-day fermentation on one particular beer because I found a strain that had a lot of fruity, tropical characteristics. I cultivated that one, and knew that if I gave that yeast a few months, I’d get some amazing, strong flavors.”
By the time Spickler received the fresh hops from The Hop Yard this past fall, a 15-barrel batch of beer had been fermenting in a conical fermentation vessel for three months. Spickler had planned to dry hop and let the beer sit on the hops at fermentation or cellar temperature until it was time for separation, but he decided to switch things up a bit.
“I created a device so I could run the beer from the stainless steel tank through the vessel that was holding the wet hops,” said Spickler. “It pushed the beer through the wet hops and the liquid came back, filtered, to the stainless steel. The hops stayed in the secondary vessel; transferred with a pump and hose to grab the essence and more aromas from the hops. I ran that for two days.”
With the rest of the wet hops, Spickler brewed a 10-gallon batch of the same beer and added the hops immediately after turning off the fire. “I put the hops in and let them steam for a few minutes,” he said. “That wort is what I used to prime, or carbonate, the beer.”
Spickler incorporates several methods of using hops to get a variety of aromas and flavors, and his experiments have proven to be worthwhile. “That’s how I was able to get more flavor from the hops,” he said. “You get more flavor if you heat the hops. If you leave the hops in liquid at cellar or cold temperatures, you get more aromas and less flavor from the hops. I got the flavor from the fresh wort.”
It was clear to Spickler that his 15-barrel batch was going to be phenomenal about one month into fermentation; even before he added the hops. “I tasted it every few days, and was getting some wonderful mango and papaya flavors,” he said. “I knew the hops I was going to purchase had citrusy characteristics and figured they’d meld very well. When I went to pick up the hops from The Hop Yard, they were still harvesting so I had to wait for them. When I put the boxes of hops in my car and drove back to the brewery, my car smelled of mango. Then when I incorporated the hops into the beer, the tropical fruit flavors compounded and were amazing. The flavor was bright and fruity – it was like biting into a juicy papaya. There were some funky characteristics because of the Brettanomyces and the long fermentation. The hops I used are known for a citrusy – grapefruit flavor, and also had that mango characteristic, so they paired perfectly.”
About half way through the 90-day fermentation, Spickler added extra honey from his own hives. “The reason we added honey is because the Brett had eaten all of the fermentable sugar in the beer,” he said. “The honey gives the yeast more food to eat and continues to give us those wonderful, funky flavors.”
The beer was dubbed Harvest Bounty, and it was a hit with patrons. Spickler categorized it as an ISA (India Session Ale); a variant style with lower alcohol level than a standard IPA. With enough banked yeast, Spickler will be able to make that beer again, although it won’t be identical to this year’s batch. He plans to use white wine barrels to age the next batch of beer for an even more unique flavor.
Spickler knows that each year’s hops will result in a somewhat different beer. “This year, we’re looking at barrel aging for a similar style beer,” he said. “We may do a double IPA but we really like how the strain of yeast we used gave us the fruity characteristics, so we’ll stick to that for a while.” Spickler plans to continue using wet hops, and he has some new ideas about how to make his Brett brews even better.
“Yeast is everywhere and is constantly changing, “said Spickler. “One strain of Brett will mutate and give me different flavors and characteristics. When I get a yeast strain I like, I bank it so I can draw on it later.” He noted that every form of yeast attenuates differently. “We make dry beers and are fully attenuated,” he said. “All of the available sugar is gone. Something I look for in a strain of yeast is how it attenuates. I experiment to find out which other strain of yeast will work; to see if it changes the flavor, and if it does, how can I get the best flavor?”
Will patrons expect to see the same beers they’ve tried and loved? Spickler says that the way the craft beer market is going, everyone wants the next new thing. “People like variety,” he said. “Bars are constantly rotating – they aren’t keeping the same beers all the time. We do our best to come up with interesting beers.”
Spickler and his business partner operated their Fire and Brew Pub for two years, but beer is taking over the restaurant area. The establishment is now known as Hidden Cove Brewing Company. “Our barrels have started to encroach on the restaurant,” said Spickler, “and now our dining room is completely filled with barrels. We still have the bar area, which is for the tasting room, and the kitchen for making pizzas and other snacks to serve with beer. It’s gone from being a restaurant to a tasting room with food.”
For more information visit Hidden Cove Brewing Company at www.hiddencovebrewingcompany.com and on Facebook.
Unique flavors from fresh hops and captured yeast
by Sally Colby