The holidays, New Year's Eve especially, are a time for Champagne. As well they should be – it's inherently celebratory, intensely delicious (assuming you've got a halfway decent bottle), and has a uniquely bright carbonation that pairs well with dressed-up outfits and rich holiday meals.
The beer world doesn't have a direct equivalent, really – some Belgian lambics are made in a way that is quite similar to the méthode champenoise, with beer that goes through a slow secondary fermentation in heavy, corked bottles that are carefully rotated throughout their carbonation process, but the yeast and how it's used in the primary fermentation process (and, obviously, the liquid that's being fermented) are different. Some breweries, though, use actual Champagne yeast to impart a Champagne-like carbonation and finish to their brews.
While your standard brewer's yeast performs admirably and consistently in beermaking, Champagne yeast can produce a few noteworthy details to a beer that are reminiscent of sparkling wine. So if you'd like to celebrate with a Champagne-like glass of something but don't want to switch to wine, the craft beer world has options for you.
The advantage is threefold. First, Champagne bubbles are typically smaller and more numerous than other sparkling drinks, which is important in imparting the wine's signature taste and mouthfeel. Because there are more, smaller bbbles, the carbonation better releases flavor and aroma within the wine as they ascend the glass and break at the surface, and the fineness of the carbonation gives Champagne a gentle fizz that's softer than the sharp carbonation in, say, sparkling water. That can translate well to beer if Champagne yeast is used for bottle conditioning, the secondary fermentation within a bottle to provide beer with carbonation.
Second, the yeast gives beer the same bone-dry finish that's typical in Champagne, so a brewer can finish a rich, bright ale with Champagne yeast to create a final product that's got a soft sparkle of carbonation along with a pleasantly drying finish.
Third, Champagne yeast has some technical benefits for brewing certain beer styles, especially sours. Allagash Brewing uses it for bottle-conditioning some of their more acidic and ethanol-heavy beer, often from their wild barrel-aging program.
"Since grape must [the freshly pressed juice of a grape] is an acidic environment – more so than wort – wine makers select strains that not only tolerate, but thrive in these low-pH conditions," says Zach Bodah, a microbiologist at Allagash.
That means Champagne yeast can do the heavy lifting that brewer's yeast, which was developed to contend with simpler non-sour beer styles and often reacts slowly or undesirably in acidic beers, can't. And unlike many strains of beer yeast, Allagash's Champagne strain is quite neutral in aroma and flavor. "We don't want to change the character of beers that we've worked so hard to make," Bodah says. "We just want them to sparkle so the existing profile of the beer is enhanced."
Tim Rozmus of Brooklyn Brewery echoes the sentiment, saying that the Champagne yeast used for secondary fermentation in their bottle-conditioned ales contribute very little flavor, "but will dry out the body and produce a bright, brilliantly effervescent carbonation that elevates the beer’s aroma and adds quite a bit of zip to the mouthfeel."
Despite those unique benefits, beers fermented with Champagne yeast aren't terribly common. If you want to try it yourself, though, here are three to look out for.
Allagash Two Lights
Wild Ale With Grape Must
Brewed with Sauvignon Blanc must and fermented with both lager and Champagne yeast, Two Lights is tart, crisp, and dry. The light body and sweet, snappy fruit (like pear and grape) notes make it more of a warm-weather sipper than something that jumps to mind for a cold New Year's Eve, but the addition of Champagne yeast and grape must create a gentle fizz and light earthiness that are reminiscent of a great bottle of sparkling wine.
Brooklyn Brewery Local 2
Belgian Strong Dark Ale
A Belgian-inspired dark ale, Brooklyn's Local 2 is rich, boozy, and sweetly malty. European malt and hops, Belgian dark sugar, and New York raw wildflower honey provide dark fruit and caramel notes, and the Belgian yeast used for primary fermentation adds a little bit of spice. But what makes this really special is the Champagne yeast used for bottle conditioning, which created a dry and complex mouthfeel and the soft, sparkling carbonation that's unique to Champagne-fermented brews.
Goose Island Gillian
Belgian-Style Farmhouse Ale
The farmhouse ale is a humble style, originally born from the fields of France and Belgium and intended for enjoyment after a long day of farming. It's a style that's ripe for creative interpretation, though, and Goose Island's Gillian feels more "opera house" than "farmhouse" – the sleek packaging and beautifully bright flavor make it a worthy stand-in for Champagne for celebrations and high-class events. It's partially aged in wine barrels, with a 9.5% ABV, very low bitterness, soft tartness, and subtle notes of strawberry and honey in the crisp, fizzy, and dry body.