To Brett or Not to Brett

A few weeks ago, when I visited the Rac Lodge, I asked Ron if he used any brettanomyces in his beer. The look he gave me was akin to the expression a tower guardsman might wear while observing a horde of Huns swarming over the moat. Emphatically no.

I don't blame him. When you're messing around with wild yeasts, the decision about whether to invite Brett over is one not to take lightly. Brett is the Kali of yeasts, the destroyer of cities, eater of young. To add it to your beer is to submit to forces beyond your control, to cede dominion to a single-celled organism.

I was reminded of this decision as Sally and I watched the Oscars on Sunday. (Not a bad show, and I was psyched to see Sean Penn win for best actor in what I thought was the year's best film. Gus should have taken the statue for directing, and Slumdog was vastly over-rated. Still, seeing the glee of the half-Indian crew made up for the misplaced lauding.) We pulled out an '08 Cascade Kriek and a Dissident. In the former, no brettanomyces; in the latter, ample stores of the lush, horse-blankety bad boy.

There's a remarkable difference in the way the two have aged. The Kriek is much as I remember it from a year ago. The cherry character has faded a bit and become less distinct, but that's to be expected. The intensity of sour remains about where it was, as does the level of sweetness. In short, the yeast have pooped out, and any changes to the beer now are unrelated to their activity.

The Dissident, though--what a change! Here's what I wrote in my review in September:
[T]there's none of that skanky brett, but rather a sweet chocolate and sour cherry-accented nose. As it opened up, the astringency of the sour diminished a little and the cherries muscled their way in.

It is a lovely and approachable beer.... The body is creamy and rich, with malt notes contributing a brown sugar/biscuit base. Onto this are balanced the twin flavors of tart/sweet cherries and the sourness of the yeast and cultures.
It's a totally different beer now. The brett have muscled their way in; the beer has their characteristic horsey aroma, and the palate their musty sourness. And they've continued to break the beer down--it is now bone dry. The malt notes are gone, and the body, while still rich, is less creamy and more vinous. Anyone who fell in love with this beer in the fall might now find it too intense and lacking in that velvety luxury they admired. But for those who revel in the character of brett, this is something else. The progression is very similar to Orval's--the young and older versions of the beer don't even appear to be related, much less the same being. At the time of release, Deschutes listed Dissident as 8.8% alcohol. Based on the way Orval gets stronger, I'd bet it's well into double digits now.
Whether 'tis nobler in the glass to suffer
the stings and dryness of outrageous chemistry...
To brett or not to brett, that is the question.