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Tim Bissell Tim Bissell
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Three Pint Stance – Be spontaneous!

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What is a spontaneous beer? Is it a beer that hates making plans ahead of time and is always ready to join you on your next great adventure?

No. Well, maybe. But not always. I’m not going to presume to know a beer’s personality.

In beer terms, a spontaneous (or spontaneously fermented) beer is a brew that is left to cool overnight while being exposed to the open air. This exposure to the elements causes naturally-occurring bacteria and yeast to fall into the beer and “inoculate” it. The end result is a beer that is incredibly complex, sour and unpredictable, as the collection of bacteria and yeast in the brew varies greatly from location to location and even depends on the time of year the beer was exposed to the air.

This style of making beer is almost as old as beer itself, if only because the coolship (or koelschip in Belgian) that makes these beers what they are was invented to perform a necessary step in the brewing process: cooling the wort. In the production of beer, the cooling of the boiled wort before adding yeast is very important because if you introduce microbes into a liquid that is around 200 degrees F, you will not create what we like to call “an environment for success.” Instead, you kill the microbes and are basically left with unfermented sugar water. Sub-optimal.

The coolship served as technology’s best way to cool the boiled wort down fast (well, faster than leaving it in the kettle anyway); as it cooled, the microbes would settle into the wort and the magic of fermentation began! This is all due to the design of the coolship vessel. The long and wide but relatively shallow coolship increases the surface area of the wort that is exposed to the cool evening air, which invariably cools the beer quicker than leaving it in the kettle.

As time marched on and science had more facts (and fewer leeches) involved, brewers would create innovative, more sanitary ways to both cool the hot wort and to add carefully selected yeasts to the wort in a sanitary manner that didn't involve exposing the beer to the elements. These advancements largely rendered the coolship obsolete; brewers that preferred the predictability of sanitary methods left their coolships behind.

Not in the Zenne Valley of Belgium, however. Breweries like Cantillon, Boon and others would continue this tradition of creating rustic, Belgian farmhouse-style worts and sending them to sit overnight in their coolships, letting the now-legendary microbes of the valley create the complex Lambics, Geuzes and Krieks that many of us now covet and spend ridiculous amounts on.

Never ones to leave a good thing unexplored, some American breweries have begun to bring spontaneous beers made in coolships into their portfolios of wilds and sours. Most notably - and locally - Allagash Brewing Company built what is believed to be the first American coolship in 2007 and has been producing beers from it every fall and spring, when nighttime temps are best for introducing the best mix of local flora into the beers. Said beers are then packed into oak casks to age for as long as it takes to make them taste good – sometimes for as long as three years or longer!

After Allagash popped the cork on American spontaneous fermentation, other breweries around the country followed suit. Places like Jester King in Texas, Wicked Weed in North Carolina (ABInBev-owned now, sadly), and OEC to name a few have added coolships to the repertoire. Locally, both Oxbox Brewing Company and Rising Tide Brewing Company have installed and brewed into their coolships, but have yet to release a beer from the program. Oxbow is set to release Native/Wild, their first spontaneously fermented beer, at their Portland and Newcastle facilities on Aug. 24th after a 20-month stay in oak barrels. Rising Tide hasn't announced a release yet, but expects a beer from their coolship to be ready sometime this fall.

So, don't drink just any sour beer. Be spontaneous! Take a ride on the coolship, baby!

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