At the Wild Beer Co, I tasted the weirdest beers Britain’s oddest brewery has to offer.
"We've just made a peanut butter-flavoured beer, but we're not making any more. Once it's off the shelves, that will be it. It's a really nice beer, but it's not enough of a peanut butter beer. When we can make it amazing, we'll come back to it."
Andrew Cooper speaks about beers like they're former lovers—wistfully, thoughtfully, knowingly. You get the feeling that Yankee Sandwich—the peanut butter beer that landed his small-batch, Somerset-based brewery in hot wort due to trademark infringement—is one that he rather regrets. It's like the kooky girl at college he'd been warned about but couldn't resist, even though his experience with such a mercurial handful wasn't up to the task. It's not a failure. Far from it. It's just another steep incline on the ever-increasing learning curve at the Wild Beer Co—Britain's slightly bonkers, off-the-wall brewery.
Some people think it tastes fucking dreadful, others love it.
But it's all madness with a method. The peanut butter experiment started with a question ("I wonder what that will do to this beer?") and although it ended up with an answer ("Potentially get us sued"), it's a question Cooper applies to every beer he makes, regardless of the consequences for both production and profit.
But he never skimps on taste. That's something he says the big brands just don't get.
"What's happened in the brewing industry over the last 100 years or so is that we've industrialised the process. Instead of using oak barrels, like we did in Victorian times, we use stainless steel tanks. And when you put things in a steel tank, you're training your yeasts to be quick and effective and clean. You're saying, 'Yeast must do this,'" Cooper tells me. "We've come along and used other yeasts that don't work like that—yeasts that make very different flavour compounds. When we make beer, we just talk about flavour."
They certainly do. Down in the tasting room, I sample Somerset Wild. There's a strong kick of acidic apple to each swig, like tasting the love child of cider and beer. "That'll be the wild yeasts," Cooper laughs.
"Most of the 1,300 breweries in the UK aren't playing around with yeasts. They stick with the traditional brewing yeast, Saccharomyces, used for quick, controlled fermentation," Cooper tells me, before adding that they also use that yeast strain in their Fresh, Bibble, and IPA beers (proving that they're not only about the avant-garde). "Inspired by lambic breweries of Belgium, we felt there was a real opportunity in this country to mess about with wild yeast characters—so we cultivated our own wild yeast strain."
As Cooper talks, I spot a giant jar of apple chunks behind him. It's the remnants, he tells me, of the first time he and co-founder Brett Ellis attempted to make a wild yeast. I tell him it reminds me of the Governor's cabinet of heads in The Walking Dead, but Cooper just says it's a good luck charm. The road to making a successful wild yeast was far from a straightforward one.
Based in cider country, Cooper and Ellis decided to cultivate their wild yeast from the surrounding orchards, an idea they took from the wine industry. Throughout the course of our two-hour interview, Cooper mentions terroir about ten times. The French word is used to describe wines that have been developed from the geographical traits of a particular region—the soil, the weather, the landscape. Synonymous with the winemaking biz, it's a word Cooper has claimed and supplanted into his brewing ethos.
"Traditional cider is made by squashing apples and letting whatever is on the skins— all the microorganisms, the yeasts, and bacteria—ferment the juice. We just took that idea and applied it to beer," Cooper says nonchalantly, as though that's how most brewers think. It was trial and error. Eventually they tried chopping up apples and chucking them straight in the wort and just letting what was on the skins of the apples ferment the beer. It worked—and the jar in the tasting room is what remains of those apples, from which that first batch of beer was siphoned.
Yet, the Wild Beer Co is about so much more than just wild yeasts. As we talk—overlooking the hive-like brewery below, the handful of workers on shift checking the numerous concoctions bubbling away—I can make out two stainless steel tuns and at least three dozen barrels. These, Cooper says, are used for aging the various ales. He's got red wine barrels from Burgundy and bourbon barrels from Kentucky. Oak is far superior to stainless steel, he says, because it's "porous and allows the beer to develop and mature in a different way." But it's a process that needs patience and one that, Cooper admits, doesn't make much money.
With wild yeasts and ancient aging techniques, it would be easy to think The Wild Beer Co has done away with every method considered modern. Far from it. Cooper and Ellis are all about bringing brewing methods together to make the most exciting beer. They pay homage to both the past and the future in equal measure, blending their aged beers with stainless steel fermented beers to make products that are the perfect marriage of young and old. It's a painstaking process—making flavour notes on over 60 barrels of beers for each batch—but one which most beer lovers would like to have the chore of doing at least once in their lifetime.
If their methods are old school, their flavours are anything but. In fact, Wild Beer Co's most progressive particulars come in the shape of the unusual ingredients they embed in their beers. When I'm shown into the bottling room, the first batch of Wild Goose Chase—made with real gooseberries—is getting boxed up to be shipped off to Brazil, the US, and numerous places in the British Isles.
Gooseberry and peanut butter beer: done. What's next? "We're currently finalising a salted caramel beer called Millionaire," Cooper says with a smile. "And another one that we're working on at the moment is a Tom Yum Gose." Gose is an ancient style of beer made with salt and coriander. "I was eating a tom yum soup recently and wondered if the hot and sour idea was something we could work with. We make sour beer, so we've got that covered. We love spicy foods, so we put some spices into our sour beer to see what would happen."
Sourdough—Cooper and Ellis's sour beer—is one of their most experimental beers to date. Made from a 58-year-old dough culture taken from nearby Hobbs House Bakery, the beer completely ferments in barrels for five months, not even touching the stainless steel tun. It's a beer that is made with one foot planted entirely in the past and the one that Cooper says gets people talking the most.
Even ardent beer lovers struggle with Brett beers. It's famously called "horse blanket" due to its funkiness and it's been compared to 'bottled BO.'
"Sour beer is the way beer would've been made hundreds of years ago, before people understood fermentation. It prickles the mouth and gets the taste buds excited," Cooper tells me as I take a swig, a tad cautiously. It's a flavour which sends me back to the 50s. The taste draws a "Cor, blimey!" from my mouth. "It's a shock, isn't it?" Cooper asks. "But by the second and third taste sour, beer really opens up the whole palate and allows you to appreciate different flavours."
I'm not sure I'm entirely a fan, but I haven't got time to think before Cooper whips another controversial beer under my nose: his award-winning Evolver, a 100-percent Brett beer made from Brettanomyces yeast, a strain that works much slower than typical brewing yeasts, having what's called a "second fermentation" in the bottle. Even ardent beer lovers struggle with Brett beers. It's famously called "horse blanket" due to its funkiness and it's been compared to "bottled BO." It's a controversy Cooper seems to embrace, saying Evolver tastes of "farmyard funk."
"Brettanomyces ferments in a different way, eating the sugars and drying the beer out. But that makes different flavour compounds. You get a 'of the farm' taste. It's big and it's dominant. Some people think it tastes fucking dreadful, others love it," he says, expectantly, as I lower the glass from my mouth.
Thank the beer gods—it's one of the best things I've ever tasted.