Freshly Tapped spotlights one recently released beer, whether it be a flagship, one-off, seasonal, or modified recipe.
Evan Culver was the 44th person hired by Allagash Brewing Company. He’s not entirely sure how many have come after him – at this point, it’s well over a hundred – but he knows his number. It means something to him.
Culver grew up about four hours from the Maine brewery, in a small town near the center of Vermont called Rutland. At eighteen he began working construction – mostly carpentry, but with a little mechanical handicraft mixed in. For seven years, he built things. Then he decided he’d rather make beer. So in the spring of 2012, he gathered his possessions and left for Portland, New England’s largest craft brewing hub north of Boston.
The then-25-year-old didn’t have any professional brewing experience, but he had homebrewed for almost a half-decade. He was certainly fond of drinking beer. Long Trail and Magic Hat had been the preferred names in his family’s household, and those local operations would set Culver on a path to discovering West Coast IPAs, then the Belgian staples, and then the world of sour ales.
Culver was hardly an expert on the Pine Tree State’s beer scene, but like anyone from that neck of the woods with even a passing interest in Belgian brews, he was well familiar with Allagash. Founded by Rob Tod in 1995, the brewery had amassed acclaim around the world for its renditions of classic Belgian styles – most notably the ubiquitous White – alongside more experimental hybrids with the American tradition, like the bourbon barrel-aged Tripel Curieux and Hugh Malone, a Belgian ale baptized with New World hops.
“Allagash was definitely my number one choice of breweries to work for,” Culver recalls on a late March morning. “It just so happened that I was in the right place at the right time.”
Two weeks after submitting his resume, Culver became the 44th employee of Allagash.
The Portland operation needed help. In the midst of the craft beer boom, the brewery was growing at a staggering rate of 40% annually. It did not need another brewer, however. What it needed was a keg cleaner. In fact, this was the entry position for anybody looking to join the company.
“Everyone started in the same kind of role, and then you just had to prove yourself and try to work your way up,” Culver shares. “So I kegged beer for a long time.”
Four days a week, from 5:00 a.m. to 3:30 p.m., the Vermonter cleaned and filled kegs. The workload was physically demanding and relentless, but coming from construction that wasn’t really a culture shock. Looking at the big picture, he had landed a gig at one of the country’s best breweries. And even as a keg filler, there was an avenue for Culver to make his voice heard: a 15.5-gallon brewing contraption built from three half-barrel kegs.
This was the Allagash pilot system, and with it came the Allagash pilot program, an initiative introduced by Tod and Brewmaster Jason Perkins in 2007 to enable Allagash employees to experience the process of breathing life into a recipe – and to harness their creativity.
The concept was simple enough: Anyone at the brewery – whether a desk jockey, a seasoned brewer, or a member of the sales team – could propose an idea for a new beer, and if it was selected by Perkins and his pilot team, the employee would get to produce that recipe on the small system. Pitches could include specifics like malts, yeast strains, and the hopping regime, or they could be as vague as how the beer should smell or taste. The only restriction was that each recipe had to draw inspiration in some form or fashion from Belgian brewing, though that still left ample wiggle room.
“A lot of the people who get hired in the office or even in the tasting room don’t know the science behind making beer,” Culver explains. “The pilot program was a good way for them to link up with a brewer and learn and have fun and get paid to do it. And in the end, you got to enjoy the beer that you designed and created.”
In fact, everyone at the brewery would get to enjoy your beer – and judge it, too. Each pilot batch was put on a tap strictly for Allagash employees, who were encouraged to scribble their feedback on notecards for the pilot team to review. But before Perkins would read through those comments, he’d already have a good idea of whether a beer had been well received.
“It’s pretty easy to gauge interest at this company,” says the 19-year Allagash veteran. “I always joke that if we put a five-gallon keg of something on in the break room and it’s gone in two days, that tells me a lot. Or, oftentimes, you just hear people talking about it. There’ll be a buzz going around the brewery: Did you try so-and-so’s beer?”
Sooner or later, though, pilot batches would undergo far more rigorous scrutiny than the office water-cooler talk. Behind closed doors, the pilot team carved up these beers, subjecting each to a sensory panel that broke down the liquid’s appearance, aroma, flavor, and mouthfeel. Then, someone compiled a report based on that analysis and circulated to the Allagash higher-ups.
The purpose of all this examination was to help answer one question: Was this beer worth making again? Sometimes, that meant another pilot batch. Other times, it translated to a turn on Allagash’s 30-barrel brewhouse. If so, that beer would go on draft in the brewery – and not just for the pleasure of those cashing checks from Tod. There was even a chance that beer could see local distribution.
In other words, despite the casual environment Perkins sought to foster, there was tangible upside to submitting a winning recipe. And Culver understood this.
“I really wanted to make a good impression on Jason and the guys who were confident in me when I got hired,” he recalls. “I felt like I was pretty lucky to be working at Allagash, and I wanted to prove something. So I waited for the one thing that I thought would really impress them.”
The idea for that one thing began germinating during an orientation session Perkins organized for new employees in Allagash’s wild barrel room. There, in the space the brewery quarantines its wild and sour production, the brewmaster pulled samples of a new beer called Golden Brett directly from an oak foedre. As its name let on, the brew had been fermented entirely with Brettanomyces – a wild yeast that chews through a beer’s sugars slowly, creating a range of fruity and funky flavors along the way. More specifically, Golden Brett had been fermented with Allagash’s house Brettanomyces, a proprietary strain that throws off uniquely intense tropical fruit flavors.
“When I tasted that beer, I was blown away,” Culver tells me. “I didn’t know that beer could taste like pineapple juice.”
The keg washer set about devising a recipe that would showcase the strain in a light, sessionable, simple setting. Never mind that he had never homebrewed with Brettanomyces – he didn’t let that hinder him. Culver conducted research on the yeast. He researched how to execute an intensive double decoction mash, even though he had never attempted a less complicated one. He researched the Mosaic hop, a new Pacific Northwest varietal that he had never even tasted.
“I was just flying by the seat of my pants,” Culver admits. “All of the literature I read about Mosaic said it was tropical fruity, and I was like, ‘The flavor profile our Brett gives off is just straight-up mango-pineapple juice. We gotta try it. Maybe they line up perfectly.’”
It wasn’t as though he planned to use the pungent varietal sparingly, either: The recipe Culver eventually submitted on a scrap of paper in the summer of 2012 called for the beer to be hopped entirely with Mosaic. It would also be brewed solely with Allagash’s house 2-Row barley. And it would be fermented with just the house Brett.
One hop. One grain. One yeast.
Perkins and the pilot team liked the sound of this, so they gave Culver a green light.
What Culver remembers most about the brew day is that it was long. Long was good. He didn’t have to wash or fill kegs for an entire day. Instead, he got to homebrew at work – or at least that’s what it felt like.
And then Culver waited. While fermentation with domesticated brewer’s yeast might take a few weeks, Allagash’s house Brett strain converted sugar to alcohol at an extraordinarily leisurely pace. Months passed as the beer fermented inside a seven-gallon keg.
“Our Brett works slow – like, really slow,” he says. “But that’s the thing: Over time, it develops different flavor characteristics.”
At three months, Culver prepared his coupler and took a sample. The beer tasted… fine. It needed more time to keep developing those flavors. He was not going to rush this. Finally, another two months later, Culver decided his beer was ready to be shared.
The response from his colleagues seemed positive, but when the pilot team gathered to run its sensory analysis, Culver waited nervously outside the panel booth. Eventually, Perkins emerged.
“I’ll never forget it: Jason comes out, looks right at me, and just goes, ‘We’re going to brew this beer,’” Culver remembers. “Like, no questions asked. And I was like, ‘OK.’ That’s all I could say. It was crazy.”
The brewmaster would still have to chat with Tod and some other front office folks, but his mind had been made up.
“This doesn’t happen a lot, but when I had Little Brett for the first time off the pilot system, I was like, ‘We’ve got to make this beer. No doubt about it. It’s so clear. It so aligns with other beers we’ve done here – simple yet complex,’” Perkins says. “It was kind of a no-brainer.”
This is the story of Little Brett. But to fully understand what makes it so special, the brewmaster suggests we travel further back in time.
“I think you could certainly argue that the origins of this beer lie in the origins of our house Brett,” he tells me.
Perkins would know. He was there when the yeast unceremoniously reared its head.
In 2004, an intruder infiltrated an old dairy tank inside of Allagash Brewing.
Nobody knew where it came from – perhaps it had been floating through the Portland night air, perhaps it stowed away in the stave of a used barrel – but it was discovered on a slide of strong saison.
“Even back then, when we were much smaller, we were running all of our beer through microbiological media tests to look for foreign yeasts and bacteria, and this one came back with a hit for a strain of Brettanomyces,” Perkins recalls. “Initially, we panicked a little bit.”
While the Allagash of today is associated with mixed cultures and spontaneous fermentation, the brewery at that point in time had only just begun dabbling in the wild arts. There had been experiments with Brettanomyces and Lactobacillus, but nothing that amounted to more than a barrel or two. Perkins had certainly never pitched Brettanomyces to a full-scale production of ale.
But looking through the microscope in Allagash’s lab that day, they saw that the wild yeast had indeed found its way into one of their appropriated dairy tanks – an imperfect but cheap horizontal vessel that unfortunately didn’t hold pressure particularly well.
“It’s hard to know definitively where it came from,” Perkins says of the Brettanomyces. “Our best speculation is that there was a small amount in our natural environment. At even the cleanest brewery in the world – and we think we’re pretty darn clean here – if you went around and swabbed surfaces and then ran that through microbiological testing, you’d find Brettanomyces everywhere. One of the reasons Brettanomyces is called a wild yeast is because it’s all around us. It’s found across the world in various climates. It exists in different strains, of course, but it’s something that’s in the atmosphere.”
The contaminated beer was a new, boozy farmhouse ale that Perkins had been fermenting with a fairly lethargic saison yeast. This is not a trivial detail. Certain strains work at certain paces – some, like Westmalle’s oft-lifted abbey yeast, are prized for their efficiency – and because this particular brewer’s yeast chewed through the wort’s sugars at a sluggish pace, it left plenty of sustenance for the Brettanomyces. As a result, the wild yeast thrived. Had it found a tank with a more gluttonous saison strain, it likely would have starved and died off.
After Perkins’ initial moment of panic subsided, he and the Allgash brew team made another discovery, this one more fortunate: They rather liked the flavors that the Brettanomyces was throwing off.
“It had a super unique profile – these big tropical fruit and pineapple notes,” the brewmaster recalls. “It wasn’t like the Brett strains that were commercially available at the time. We got very fortunate. It certainly could have been a natural yeast in the area that did not have a nice profile. And once we realized that we liked the character, we kind of shifted gears.”
Rather than dump the beer, Allagash sourced some Syrah and Merlot barrels and filled them with the strong saison. For months more they let the beer age, the Brettanomyces continuing to develop flavors. Then, in 2005, Allagash released the beer as Interlude, its first full-scale Brett beer, however unintentionally so.
By that point the brewery had isolated and banked the Brettanomyces strain. The next time Allagash made Interlude, it would do so in a more controlled fashion. In the years that followed, it would use the house strain to ferment other beers – in tandem with brewer’s yeast (Confluence), on its own (Midnight Brett, Golden Brett), or as part of the mixed-culture cocktail inoculating a barrel-aged sour ale. Unlike Little Brett in all its laudable approachability, these beers tended to be bigger, stronger.
Despite the house Brett’s presumably domestic origins, Perkins asserts that the use of the wild yeast historically pulls all of these beers within the lineage of the Belgian tradition.
“It’s not like Brettanomyces is exclusive to Belgium, but it defines a lot of Belgian beers. Lambics especially, but also a lot of wild and sour beers of Belgium, too,” the brewmaster tells me. “I think if you asked 100 brewers what country they associate Brettanomyces with, you’d get 100 people who say Belgium.”
Under Perkins’ watch, Allagash would also begin regularly utilizing various other commercial strains of Brettanomyces.
“We love using our house Brett, but it’s not always the right fit,” he explains. “It’s very strong in tropical fruit character, and that doesn’t fit in certain recipe formulations, just as with certain hops or malts. It’s also really slow. That’s a big downside with our Brett: It’ super sluggish. Even Little Brett, a beer with a low ABV that should turn around quickly, it still takes two to two-and-a-half months of tank time to get it do what we want it to do.”
Following the pilot batch and the initial 30-barrel production, most of the alterations to Little Brett stemmed from a desire to cut the five-month fermentation period in half, and to curtail any off-flavors produced by the Brettanomyces. These two things are related: If yeast struggles during fermentation, it’s more likely to throw off less-desirable flavors.
“Our Brett is very finicky,” shares Perkins. “We’ve worked a lot on ways to get it in better shape to ferment. We changed the way we aerated it, we changed the way we propagated it, we changed the pitch rate, we changed fermentation. Those were the big changes to the beer.”
But aside from a few other modifications to its hopping and mashing regime, Little Brett remains the beer that Culver devised on the pilot system: a showcase for the uninvited guest who never left.
“Little Brett is a 100% Brett-fermented beer that’s funky and fruity and just mega-crushable,” observes Culver. “It’s not complicated.”
While Culver assuredly believes this, taking a closer look at Little Brett’s formulation reveals a simple beer that’s not so easy to brew.
A confession: It is a mild, harmless bending of the truth to say that Little Brett is constructed from one grain. While all of the 2-row barley that goes into the beer comes from a single silo, it is actually a combination of pilsner and pale malts made specifically for the Maine brewery. This blend forms the foundation for almost all of the Allagash’s beers.
“I’m not going to say it doesn’t contribute a ton of character – of course it does, it’s the biggest ingredient in any beer we make – but it’s more of a canvas to work from,” Perkins explains. “It’s just clean malt flavor.”
Culver sought to amplify those flavors with a traditional step mash and then a double decoction. During a step mash, the temperature of the wort (i.e., the grain liquid) is gradually raised with a series of progressively hotter water infusions, with rests between each. While most modern brewing grains are genetically modified with enzymes that aid starch conversion, a step mash can nevertheless enhance the yield and fermentability of the wort.
“You gotta understand, I was an incredibly big brewing nerd, so it was right down to the science of it,” Culver says of developing the recipe. “I was like, ‘I need to give this Brettanomyces strain – which works so slowly – the cleanest and easiest sugars I can to make it do its thing faster and better.’”
Decocting the mash was more about deepening Little Brett’s flavor. A traditional German method, decoction calls for removing a thick portion of the mash, boiling it, then adding it back to the larger kettle.
“You’re caramelizing it,” Culver explains. “You’re created these maillard reactions, like you’re searing a steak. In Little Brett, we do that twice. What I wanted to do is add a really nice depth of malt profile. I grew up drinking malty west coast IPAs, and I was Vermonter, so I drank Heady Topper – there’s a big malt backbone there. I didn’t want Little Brett to be just Brett and hops. It needed some malt presence. That was the technique that I used to achieve that. And I think we nailed it.”
Culver’s approach yielded a beer with notes of graham cracker and biscuit, and while no one would mistake it with an amber ale, there’s a touch of gold in its appearance – not the bland, pale visage he hoped to avoid. (It didn’t hurt that, despite its Belgian affinity, Allagash uses a German brewhouse designed to handle such mashing.)
Most of Little Brett’s hops are added during the whirlpool, when the liquid is cooling after the boil. This method – sometimes referred to as “hop bursting” – extracts the flavor and aroma of hops with minimal bitterness. (“It’s a pretty low-alcohol beer, not a big IPA, so it’s get a good charge of hops, but nothing crazy,” Perkins says.) At the tail end of fermentation, Mosaic is introduced again – a deviation from the initial batch.
“The pilot beer wasn’t dry-hopped,” Culver shares. “But we learned that after five months, we lost a little bit in the aroma. Once we moved it to the big system, we wanted to give it a little pop. So, we decided to super lightly dry-hop it. It was just a 22-pound bag for a 60-barrel batch. As far as hopping rates go, that is on the very, very low end. I mean, nowadays some breweries are doing upwards of four to five pounds per barrel of dry-hops. This is less than a half-pound per barrel. With the Mosaic hops, though, it was just enough to give it that little boost in aroma and really compliment the Brett.”
Unlike Golden Brett, the beer that loosely inspired it, Little Brett is fermented entirely in stainless steel. It never sees a barrel or foedre, where there’s an inescapably some infusion of oxygen.
“Stainless steel keeps things a little more controlled – putting it in oak is certainly going to change that,” Perkins explains. “Oxygen is always going to have an influence on the characteristic of any microorganisms. With this beer, we wanted to focus on a couple of simple inputs – really, the Mosaic hop and the Brettanomyces – and keeping it in stainless lets us do that.”
Following its lengthy fermentation period, the first full batch of Little Brett went on draft as part of an annual Allagash tap takeover at Portland’s Novare Res Bier Café in early 2014. At this point, the beer bore the name Session Brett, though if Perkins had his way, it would have had a more playful moniker.
“For a little while, I was pushing for us to call this beer Brett Lite,” the brewmaster shares. “It didn’t get very far, but there are a certain number of employees here at the brewery who still refer to it as Brett Lite. We might have gotten a phone call, but it would have been funny.”
Culver probably didn’t care what it was called – he was just in disbelief that he could go to a bar and order a pint of his beer.
“The feeling to get your beer from one unusable keg to a 30-barrel batch is almost unexplainable,” he tells me. “Here I am, coming from Vermont, construction, I just like to brew beer at home, and all of a sudden, a year later, I’m working for Allagash Brewing Company, I’m sitting on a deck in Portland, drinking a beer that I created at Allagash. I mean, they even had my name on the menu.”
Culver stayed at the bars for hours. He didn’t want the moment to end. As far as he thought, this was the happy ending to the story.
“After that first batch, I was like, ‘Alright, wipe the hands, and let’s figure out another one to brew,’” he says. “And then Jason was like, ‘Let’s do it again.’ They had kind of talked, and the beer had been perceived really well by the public, so Allagash decided to make it a nationwide release. That was like… damn.”
Little Brett is not the first Allagash beer to rise from the pilot system to the 30-barrel brewhouse and then to a nationwide release. The gold standard in this regard is Allagash Saison – a relatively straightforward farmhouse ale that ascended all the way to year-round flagship in 2014 – but there were numerous corked-and-caged bottles preceding that brew, like the cranberry imperial stout Red Howes or a blended wild ale called Tiarna.
Even so, there was something remarkable about Little Brett hitting shelves around the country in the spring of 2016. Every new or wider release represents a gamble by a brewery to some degree, but the decision to release a 100% Brettanomyces-fermented beer in cooler-friendly four-packs felt particularly audacious. No brewery the size of Allagash had done something like it, namely because even as an appreciation for Brett beers grows in the public, consumer misunderstanding continues to enshroud wild yeast.
“A common misconception I see a lot is people associating Brett beer with sour beer,” observes Perkins. “And sour beers can certainly have Brett, but Brett does not equal sour. So, we recognize that there’s still a lot to be taught. But we’ve been making Brett beers for a long time at Allagash, and it’s changed so much.”
When Allagash first started pouring Brettanomyces-fermented beers at festivals, the brewmaster says the only people who even recognized the yeast were fellow brewers and the occasional Belgian beer aficionado. Now he meets people with seemingly no more than a surface-level knowledge of beer who have a general idea of what Brettanomyces is. It surprises him every time.
Still, the decision to give Little Brett a nationwide release followed several long, open conversations between Perkins, Tod, Sales Director Naomi Neville, and Marketing Director Jeff Pillet-Shore. Ultimately, the calculation wasn’t just about whether they liked the beer but whether it would sell.
“We could take classic ornery musician approach and say, ‘We make the kind of music we want to make, and we don’t care what other people think,’” shares Perkins. “And we certainly only make beers that we want to make, but we have so many beer ideas here. We’re not going to brew a beer that only appeals to a couple of people; it just doesn’t make sense. In the end, though, you don’t really know how a beer will be received until it gets released. You get a little bit of insight when you pour a beer in the tasting room. You can just tell if a beer resonates with people. If it’s gone quick and people are coming back weeks after it sells out to ask for more, that goes a long way. But there is no exact science to it.”
In June 2018, Allagash released Little Brett as an early summer seasonal for the third time. The inexact science has apparently yielded the desired outcome.
“It was a bold move by Allagash, but obviously people were ready for it,” says Culver. “Brett is not quite a household name for the regular craft beer consumer, but it’s starting to be, and a lot more breweries are starting to play around with it. I will never say that I started the trend – because it’s just not true – but it’s nice for Little Brett to be recognized as one of the pioneers of light, crushable Brett beer. Because before Little Brett, what were you going to do, crush some Orval? I mean, you can, and I would, but Little Brett is better for slightly different occasions – mowing the lawn, doing whatever.”
Since Little Brett’s inception, the pilot program has continued to churn out new beers. Perkins estimates that about 50 or so new recipes go from pitch (now submitted via an online form) to keg each year. Some of them have graduated to nationwide distribution, like the year-round Hoppy Table Beer, or the recently released grape-infused lager Two Lights. But most pilot batches don’t make it past the Allagash breakroom. And that’s OK.
“Even if someone’s beer just gets brewed once on the pilot system, it’s still a huge success for that individual,” the brewmaster shares. “They got to brew on the small system; they got to brew a beer that other people got to taste and talk about. The program has a lot of different values for us: It’s an innovation machine, a real creativity driver, but it is also just a cool cultural program.”
Six years after joining Allagash, Culver says there are more pitches coming in than ever before. He’s also now on the other side of the process as a member of the pilot team.
In general, Culver has come a long way. In somewhat short succession, he worked his way from keg washer to tank cleaner to bottling line operator.
“I was not afraid to jump right in, and Allagash recognized that very quickly,” he says. “If you’re working hard and it’s paying off for the company, they treat you so well.”
When Culver saw himself drifting towards a permanent position in packaging, he approached management: He could do that job, and he could do it well, but what he loved was brewing and the science behind it. Allagash listened and moved Culver back into the cellar, where he again climbed, this time from cleaning tanks to working the centrifuge and finally to operating the brewhouse. Allagash was still brewing on a 30-barrel system (it has since upgraded to a 75-barrel apparatus), which meant cranking out 44 batches per week just to meet demand.
“It was balls to the wall,” he remembers. “But they got me up there, and I killed it – not to toot my own horn, but I loved it. It was so fast-paced. You really had to be on top of things, and I was really doing well at that.”
Culver was able to learn all facets of the company. When the brewery eliminated the catchall title of Brewery Support Member and began dividing up roles, he officially became a Brewer. Then Allagash rolled out the Senior Brewer position, and Culver gained that responsibility, too. That is his title today. He’s one of five who hold it. The only place to go from here is management.
“I don’t know if I want to be a manager,” he admits. “I just want to hang and brew beer.”
In the wake of Little Brett, Culver has submitted two pitches to the pilot program. Neither has been brewed. Nevertheless, he feels content with the success of his first try.
“When I was working carpentry, I really loved it – a lot of pride goes into that work,” he shares. “ But that doesn’t last very long. The customer sees it and you feel good, and then it’s onto the next project. With beer, you get to share that feeling with so many people. To this day, I’ll be working a festival and someone – not even knowing that I came up with the beer – will come up and be like, ‘Dude, Little Brett! That beer is amazing!’ And I’m like, ‘Thanks, man. That’s awesome.’”
“I won’t even tell them that it’s my beer.”
Follow writer Philip Runco on Twitter.
View more of Clarissa Villondo’s beer photography at Karlin Villondo Photography.
Revisit other recent Freshly Tapped profiles on Right Proper’s Ravaged by Wolves, Bluejacket and Ocelot’s Mixed Up / Torn Down, 3 Stars Brewing’s ’90s hip-hop car culture series, Perennial’s Prodigal, Old Ox’s FestivALE, and Port City’s Colossal 7.