Little Beast's Liquid Feast
American brewers have learned a lot on the past twenty years about making beer. Hopping techniques, the use of Lactobacillus, the use of characterful base malts in step mashing, lagering techniques—the list is long. (As recently as the mid-1990s, it was common to find brewpub “pilsners” that were made from American malts, single-infusion mashing, and neutral ale yeasts—with, maybe, some Saaz hops.) But in no realm have brewers made such great and fast strides as with mixed-fermentation beers. Several breweries now make spontaneously-fermented beers that are identical to lambics in every way but the location of their creation. Brewers know how to use Saccharomyces together with wild bacteria and yeasts. They understand blending to create layered flavors from casks in which those diverse microbes have created different beers from exactly the same wort. Some inoculate their wort only with the yeast on the skins of fruit.
The latest Portland brewery focused on yeast-driven beers is the aptly-named Little Beast. The name works as a double entendre, referencing the small brewery itself, but mostly pointing to the microscopic organisms that give his beer their incredible complexity and depth. And it is in that latter capacity where co-owner and brewer Charles Porter has pushed the techniques for making these beers into another dimension. He uses more yeasts and bacteria in more ways than any brewery I’ve encountered.
Two and a Half Decades in the Making
A Midwesterner, Chuck started brewing at Indiana’s Upland Brewing 25 years ago, and has been brewing in Oregon for the past couple decades, with stops at Full Sail and Deschutes. Most recently, he was one of the co-founders and head brewer at Logsdon Farmhouse Ales—and many people will assume that’s the diving board that led to the leap into Little Beast. In fact, he’s been brewing mixed-fermentation beers on his own for 16 years—since long before he started at Logsdon. He knew Jess Caudill, the microbiologist at Wyeast who went on to co-found Imperial Yeast, and had access to plenty of interesting cultures to play around with.
Had things turned out differently, he might have stayed at Logsdon, but in 2015, namesake founder Dave Logsdon was gliding toward retirement and the brewery needed to consolidate ownership. It had six partners at the time, and Porter hoped to buy them out. He wasn’t able to do that, and the brewery has taken an unexpected turn under new owners. I asked him about that time, but he wasn’t disappointed and instead regarded it as positive (in retrospect, at least). “I married Brenda [Crow, Little Beast’s co-owner and financial chief] a week after I left Logsdon and we made a plan to start a new brewery.”
That was probably a good thing. Logsdon was an established brand with an established vision—one that was at least partly conceived by Dave Logsdon. In hindsight it’s clear that the vision Chuck has for Little Beast was substantially different.
The Little Beasts
What makes Little Beast unusual (unique?) are the sorties of microorganisms Chuck throws at his wort. Where many brewers will use a troika in their mixed-fermentation ales (the classic blend includes regular Saccharomyces, a lactic bacteria—Lactobacillus or Pediococcus—and Brettanomyces), Chuck often uses multiple Sachharomyces, Lactobacillus, and Brettanomyces. In one of his core blends, there are eight strains. More isn’t always better, of course; IPAs with too many hop strains go past complexity into a muddily generic stew. But Chuck isn’t throwing them together by chance; years of experimentation have led him to his blends.
The result is surprising, too. Rather than adding successive layers of noise, the yeasts and bacteria interact on a more subtle level, creating and then transforming each other’s compounds. What he ends up with is a cohesive flavor profile of delicate parts. The first impression is of gentle, restrained character, but once you start looking, you find rivulets of acid, sprinkles of esters, touches of funk—all present, but harmonizing rather than blaring. (Aside from the techniques, this is a departure from Logsdon, where the profile is big and brassy.)
The beers he started out with, Bes and Fera, were a good introduction to the Little Beast approach. Bes is made with a blend of Saccharomyces and then conditioned with Lactobacillus. Fera is entirely fermented with a Brett strain Chuck got from Peter Bouckaert when he was at New Belgium, and finishes out extremely dryly. (At almost -1 Plato/.997 FG, for those of you who love the technical details.) Still, it doesn’t taste that dry and has a lemony, white-wine palate that sweetens as it warms (those fruity Brett esters deceive!). “I wanted them to have some acidity but also have beer qualities,” he said. This is the blueprint for all his beers. They may fall into the saison or “sour/wild” category, but Chuck’s shooting for beers that won’t taste too weird to a typical drinker.
Porter has a fascinating series of saisons called Field Folk, as well. They each feature a different set of rustic grains and yeast but are lower in alcohol for session drinking and built for approachability. “The whole idea was to make a similar saison each time, but with revolving malts and grains.” To get that approachability, however, he again uses complex yeasts. The current iteration, Field Folk IV, uses Hanseniaspora, an apiculate yeast found on the skins of fruit. These yeasts (not in the family of other beer yeasts) are indispensable in naturally-fermented cider and wine because they act immediately, out-competing spoilage microorganisms and creating a mildly alcoholic solution toxic to them. In fermented beverages, studies have found that they create tasty compounds as well—Chuck’s interest in them.
He is not entirely immune to the rhythms of the industry, and has been creating beers like Wolf Camp and Wild Island as well that incorporate hops into the template of yeast-driven rustic ales. The latter of these, a collaboration with California’s Moksa, is a Brett-finished hazy that had loads of character. It will eventually pass from hazy IPA into austere Brett beer, but I tasted a two-month-old can that was still well within the IPA spectrum. Even Chuck was impressed by how well the two components went together. “What this does is open my eyes to the potential. The secondary with Brett was interesting.” (This beer could potentially cause hazy fans to go crazy, which would be an interesting inflection point for a brewery not used to making hoppy American ales.)
Bes and Fera were the first beers to gain Little Beast notice, but the brewery’s reputation rests more now on its incredibly approachable fruit beers. These, too, are subjected to Porter’s portfolio of little beasts, but they end up tasting just lightly acidic yet saturated with fresh fruit flavors and aromas (like fruit itself, actually). A trio of standards anchors this line, and starts with the same base beer: Animal Family, sans fruit, Tree Spirit, later aged on Montmorency cherries, Black Cap, with black cap raspberries, and Dream State, one of the very few strawberry beers that actually both tastes like the actual berry and doesn’t get weird. (Many end up overly tannic, blandly generic, or compost-y.)
These beers age in his single foeder, which is the one with the eight strains of yeast and bacteria resident in it, for six to nine months, and then spends additional months on the fruit in other vessels. We didn’t spend a whole lot of time in the hot side of the brewery, but during our tour, he pointed out that it’s a critical point in creating a base wort to handle all the yeasts that will later be pitched. “You’re just trying to drag as much protein and stuff into the wort. You just want a lot of stuff for the yeast to munch on.” To impart body and creaminess to beers that do have their gravities lowered so much, he adds oats, a “really important part of this.”
Beyond these three, he does a number of other barrel-aged fruit beers, including Pomme Sour, with quince and Golden Stone, with peaches, nectarines, and apricots, among one-offs. Others cycle through as well; one current example is a beer made with sumac, elderflower, and elderberries called Rhus Jus.
Little Beast’s production site had been located in Beaverton; Porter and Crow recently moved to Milwaukie, a different suburb south of Portland. It’s located in an industrial park, but behind the building is a large field, and it beckons Chuck with potential. He plans to begin a coolship program, with a specially-designed vessel he’ll use to capture whatever floats around that field. It’s too warm for that project now, so expect it down the line.
Portland Tasting Room and Restaurant
One year ago, Chuck and Brenda made it a lot easier to get their beer by opening a brewpub (sans brewery) in the former Lompoc Hedge House. It’s a charming little bungalow with a large beer garden. The beer menu is still largely focused on mixed-fermentation and farmhouse styles, but there are a few more common beers there, including a great German pilsner currently pouring. During my visit, we tried a Belgian-style strong dark ale that was spectacular as well, thanks to the addition of a special sugar Chuck uses—the nature of which I promised not to divulge. It gives it an unusual chocolatey palate, though, and should be your first pour if it reappears on the menu. Peruse the menu and don’t be afraid to try a “regular” beer—those are often lovely as well.
On June 14, Little Beast is having an anniversary party at the pub, including special pairings with Salt and Straw ice cream. Whether you make it for the anniversary or not, plan to stop in. It’s especially nice in the summer months, which we’ve conveniently just entered. And, if you’re planning a trip to Portland, Little Beast is definitely one to put on the short list.