The Spontaneous Files: Solera Brewery

Other posts in the series: De Garde and Block 15

I finish up my discussion of spontaneous fermentation with Solera Brewery, which sits on the hem of Mount Hood as it spreads out toward the Columbia Gorge. It is less than an hour and a half from downtown Portland, has one of the prettiest settings in the state, and consistently produces some of the best beer I've ever tasted--seriously--and yet still it remains a little-visited destination for beer fans. I'm often mystified by this, but all the more so since I've just come back from Hill Farmstead, a similar brewery that Bostonians and New Yorkers regularly trek to, with drives of 3.5 and 6.5 hours respectively. And, pretty as Northern Vermont is, nothing beats the view from Solera.

Well, it is a bit more rustic than Hill Farmstead, and it's a much smaller brewery. You can't visit and stock up (their beer is all draft) or enjoy a range of three dozen offerings on tap or in the bottle. You take what they're serving and, because brewer Jason Kahler follows the seasons, the taplist is as mutable as the whether outside the back of the pub. Unlike at Hill Farmstead, if there's a beer you really want to taste, you may have to wait awhile. But then, you'll never want for good beer, either.

Jason does all beer styles well, but his uncategorizable (but instantly recognizable) range of saisons and tart ales are the real show-stoppers. At one spring stop a couple years back--I think it was actually when I took that photo above--he had two saisons that both qualified as among the best I'd ever tasted. They were, like so many beers in this cohort, kissed by wildness. They weren't all the way tart (certainly not sour), and a casual fan might not even have noticed the wild yeasts that added a layer of crisp definition. But that wildness is his calling card--in fact it's even there in the name.

While he was working as a brewer for other places around Hood River, Kahler practiced a kind of wild brewing that is becoming more popular. In his home basement, he had different vessels (none wooden) filled with wild ales. He used these in blends and then topped off the partially-emptied barrels with fresh wort, keeping the colonies of wild microorganisms alive. This is the "solera" system of the brewery's name (though it's not quite like the more famous solera systems used to make sherry and vinegar). As a commercial brewer, he continues to embrace the wild side, though his preferred form of inoculation is fruit, not coolship.

A bottle of homebrewed solera beer Kahler shared on my first visit.

Parkdale is in the heart of Oregon's tree-fruit growing region, and Kahler takes full advantage of the bounty. “I’d hover around two pounds per gallon as a good jumping off point,” he says, by way of explaining the process. “One thing to consider is the acidity of the fruit. That plays a big role. The more acidic it is, the more it comes through in the beer.”

Being local means he can form relationships with growers and get the fruit exactly like he wants it. “What’s great about that is he can let the fruit hang until I want it and he picks them without the stems on them. The only thing I want to get rid of from the fruit is the stem. I don’t cull the fruit. In fact, often I’ll get what they call ‘number 2s’ or higher. Those fruits will generally go to juicing or canning—they might have a blemish on them. They let them hang longer so the brix are very high. That’s important, flavor-wise, for aromatics.”

My impulse to talk to these breweries in the first place was an article for Travel Oregon in which I tried to elicit how the "terroir" of wild yeast might affect the beer. The only person who was willing to edge up to that description was Jason. "We don't have a language for these kinds of beer," he began. “You can get Brettanomyces from the laboratory and you can get Brett from the air. I love Brettanomyces, I love Lactobacillus, Pedio. They’re all there in the air; you don’t need to buy them. If you’re buying them from a lab, you’re really trying to control the process, you’re trying to drive the end result. You’re not embracing your terroir—which I’m a big fan of. You should just embrace what you have.”

Source: Solera Brewery

In my forthcoming homebrew book I have a chapter about how to inoculate with fruit, and Kahler was the one who conveyed that information. I don't want to reveal too much about that, but here are a couple tidbits. The valleys around Parkdale have substantially different elevations, and I wondered whether that affected how the fermentation went. It did. Solera brewers once ran an experiment where they tried inoculation with apples that were taken from close proximity but at different elevations and one of them (for whatever reason, the info about which one is not on my audio tape) didn't take off. That illustrates how hyper-local this kind of brewing is. If a different brewery were to use fruit from the Willamette Valley or east of the Cascades, they would find their fruit covered with different microorganisms (Or, at least, different proportions of them.)

One thing I've found in talking with these brewers is that they have a certain kind of Zen ease about this process. Many brewers do wonderful wild ales with pitched yeast, but they don't want the chaos of randomness in their brewhouse. In different ways, each of the brewers doing spontaneous fermentation shrugged it off. Here's how Kahler put it. "Getting back to philosophy," Kahler told me, "that’s something that you have to get over, your fear, if you’re going to try these beers. You can’t lose sleep over something like this.”

I'd even take it a step further. Having interviewed a number of brewers who make beer this way, I've found something else they all share: curiosity. This kind of brewing is not predictable. It's not reproducable, not consistent. It's certainly not speedy. In order to forgo those qualities--which are critical in most breweries--you have to take joy in the unpredictable. You have to find the prospect of turning your wort over to unknown forces a kind of delightful gamble. You will certainly find that nature has returned you something weird or gross from time to time--you can't prevent it. But sometimes it will also give you an unexpectedly sublime ale, something you didn't expect and couldn't even have imagined.  That is the promise of brewing spontaneously, and it takes a certain kind of person to pursue it.

John Hitt (L) and Jason Kahler (R), co-owners of Solera Brewery. Source: The New School