When dining out, it’s become almost rote for the server to run through the source of many things on the menu — the greens, the chicken, the cheese. It’s curious, then, how our attention to the details of what fills our glasses pales by comparison.
Fermented drinks such as beer, wine and hard cider have an uncanny ability to reflect the place in which they were made. That terroir is not only channeled via the grapes, grains or hops from a particular place, but can involve another component: the wild, or ambient, yeast and bacteria that cling to the skin of grapes or drift into beer fermenting in an open tank.
Particular strains of yeast add layers of additional flavor, because each produces its own unique byproducts as it eats sugars to produce alcohol. A Champagne maker uses Champagne yeast to achieve a desired dryness. Someone brewing a crisp IPA might use yeasts with cryptic names like Safale 05 or WLP007.
Brewers and winemakers using wild yeasts, rather than a single-strain inoculated variety, open their products up to unpredictability. But that uncertainly lends an extra thrill for both the maker and the curious drinker, who can approach “wild” beverages with a sense of adventure.
Each year, it becomes easier to find wild beers, such as sour and Belgian-style ales, as well as wines made with ambient yeast. At Brooklyn’s Red Hook Winery — where winemakers use New York State grapes for experimental, elegant wines — some of the vino ferments from wild yeast.
“What’s living on the skins is responsible for the fermentation,” said Chris Nicolson, who works at Red Hook alongside Abe Schoener and Robert Foley. For instance, the winery’s 2014 chardonnay, made with grapes from Jamesport Vineyard, has classic lemon-curd notes but also a tangy undertone that lends a subtle electric current to the wine. Via ambient yeast, the wine captures two places, the North Fork and Red Hook, in one bottle.
Such is the quiet magic of wild yeast drinks.