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Right Proper Spins Old Yeast Into a New Yarn

April 12, 2017

By Joshua Bernstein, April 12, 2017

One night last year, Nathan Zeender summoned a group of old drinking buddies to sip beers both rare and unusual. In particular, pal Michael Tonsmeire, who authored American Sour Beer, brought to the group a Norwegian farmhouse ale named Alu. “It really blew my mind,” says Zeender, head brewer at Washington, D.C.’s Right Proper Brewing. The beer contained smoked malts, bog myrtle, and a juniper infusion, and was fermented and bottled in an Arctic forest.

Scandinavian farmstead beers have fascinated Zeender since his homebrew days when he first brewed a juniper-filled Finnish sahti. At Right Proper, he nimbly assembles rustic Belgian grisettes, unfiltered German kellerbiers, and sour wheat ales seasoned with dandelion leaves and roots. He’ll test any and every bacteria, grain, fruit, vegetable, foraged adjunct and yeast strain, even one culled from an oyster shell, to broaden beer’s flavorful borders.

He decided to brew an homage to Alu. However, how does someone mimic Norwegian farmhouse ales in Washington, D.C.? Beer might be increasingly international, hops and grains express-shipped globally, but Alu’s key ingredient rarely left its locale: kveik, a most deviant yeast. (Pronounced kwike, it translates to “yeast” in a specific Norwegian dialect.)    

Leah Cheston / Right ProperTradition sits next to the future at Right Proper brewing.

Generally speaking, yeast strains act like people. Some prefer cold temperatures, others hot, preferences drilled in deep. Stray too far from the favored degree range and yeast will get as stressed as students taking SATs – the microbes begin manufacturing off flavors like rotten eggs and nail polish.

Genetically diverse kviek, used to produce Norwegian farmhouse ales, happily works anywhere from 70 to 100 degrees. It’s also a generations-old family heirloom. “You pass the yeast on from father to son,” Zeender explains.

Kveik is traditionally stored on dried woven straw rings, linen or maybe a “yeast log,” holes drilled in to offer a microbial refuge. Drying yeast might seem like a death sentence, but consider the foudre. Sour- and wild-beer producers often inoculate the massive wooden vessels with yeast and bacteria, fed an endless diet of unfermented beer. “If we drained those foudres and let them sit for a year to dry out and fill them back up, I’m pretty confident the beer would start fermenting again,” Zeender says.

Till recently, acquiring kveik was mostly mission impossible—unless your distant Norwegian uncle homebrewed. Then along came Lars Marius Garshol. The Norwegian brewing historian sent a kveik sample to The Yeast Bay, a specialist in boutique microbes and bacteria. It isolated Sigmund’s Voss (named after the strain’s discoverer, Sigmund Gjernes, and area of origin), which exhibits flavors foreign yet familiar.

“The yeast throws off a bunch of orange, like an orange creamsicle flavor,” Zeender says. Tonsmeire homebrewed a trial batch but the results were too “punchy and angular,” Zeender says, clashing with smoked malts and juniper. They recalibrated the recipe and added a neutral yeast – brewing water steeped overnight with local juniper branches. “It was this wonderful, herbal, very evergreen tea with a beautiful orange color,” Zeender says.

I love music, but I don’t know how to play music. These guys love music, play music, and have a brewery.”

Hyperborea (named after one of Zeender’s favorite paintings) was a winner, encaspulating ancient Norwegian tradition transported to the nation’s capitol. Kviek was killer, but couldn’t that orangey old-timer work in a modern context? Today’s hot hops are riots of citrus and tropical fruit, fitted like a bespoke suit for Sigmund’s Voss. Tonsmeire homebrewed a hoppy kveik beer, which became the framework for Right Proper’s “Nordic IPA” Soused.

The word references both a drunk and an album from experimental metal heads Sunn O))), whom Zeender enlisted to brew the IPA alongside Stone Brewing and Pen Druid, a wild, wood-fired Virginia brewery run by three brothers in psychedelic-rock outfit Pontiak. “I thought it would increase that music connection,” Zeender says. “I love music, but I don’t know how to play music. These guys love music, play music, and have a brewery. It made a very cool picture making these connections between the music world and the brewing world.”

In mid-March, the collaborators gathered at Right Proper to brew an oat-threaded IPA with juniper-infused water, singularly fermented with kveik at temperatures worthy of Miami in June. “That big orange flavor is really shining now,” Zeender says. “It’s perfectly happy with the hopping, which is Mosaic and Comet.”

Soused was released at this week's Craft Brewers Conference during, fittingly, a Pontiak concert. The Nordic IPA should make noise during the industry gathering, part of America’s vanguard of kveik creations. (Wisconsin’s Door County Brewing and Arizona’s Tombstone Brewing also make kviek beers, and Omega Yeast Labs also sells a kveik strain.) Like Brettanomyces and native yeasts, kveik paves flavorful new pathways, a prime opportunity for brewers to deliver drinkers to unexpected destinations.

“I don’t think there’s anything radical about it,” says Zeender. He’s simply tapping into mankind’s vast fermentation continuum, another instance of something old becoming something new. Not that everyone will approve. “The juniper infusion and the yeast make this a beer that references the Nordic tradition, but if you pour this beer for someone whose family has been brewing Nordic farmhouse beers for 1,000 years, I’d think they would say this has nothing to do with their tradition.”

ZX Ventures, a division within AB InBev, is an investor in October
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