When Musings Fermentation Underground, Philly Beer World’s newest brewery, began making its first batch last weekend, it did so without its own brewhouse. No mash tun, no hot liquor tank, no whirlpool, no heat exchanger.
The Delaware start-up is the latest in a new breed of beer makers who skip the often-troublesome first step in beer production and instead buy their wort – the sugary liquid extracted from mash – from another brewery. It’s the equivalence of making pizza with store-bought dough.
“We’re primarily interested in developing a barrel-aging and wild yeast beer program,” said Lindsay Naylor, who founded the brewery with her husband, Joe Jasper. “We’re not going to make standard or clean beer. And we were interested in reducing our energy profile. Which is why we didn’t want to make an investment in a brewhouse.”
Indeed, Musings Fermentation Underground doesn’t even have its own location. It’s operating inside another brewery, Midnight Oil. which is independently owned.
Midnight Oil makes the wort, then turns it over to Musings.
At least two other local breweries, Fermentery Form in the Kensington section of the city and The Referend Bier Blendery in Pennington, N.J., do much the same thing, purchasing wort from another brewery.
Though these companies – also known as blenders – don’t have their own brewhouses, they are regulated, licensed and taxed much like any other full-scale brewery. That’s because the all-important alcohol isn’t produced until after fermentation.
And fermentation is where the magic is at for Musings.
It starts with a contraption known as a coolship (pictured above), an uncovered, flat-bottomed metal vessel in which the wort is exposed overnight to ambient yeast. This natural yeast both reflects the local environment – the terroir – and through a process known as spontaneous fermentation gives beer a unique, often funky character. Once common in Europe, coolships these days are most notably associated with old-fashioned lambic breweries near Brussels.
The vessels have been all but replaced by closed, temperature-controlled fermentation tanks in which brewers dose wort with commercial yeast. In lager brewing especially, fermentation with this cultured yeast produces a clean flavor profile with none of the funk.
Ironically, modern brewers sometimes use pre-packaged “wild” yeast and bacteria that’s engineered to replicate the quirky, funky flavor of spontaneously fermented lambic.
But there ain’t nothing like the real thing.
Natural, wild fermentation gives beer a subtle depth of character and complexity that is often missing in more conventional fermentation. That character is only enhanced through barrel aging and blending, in which the beer may pick up an array of sour or tart or spice or fruit or a multitude of other notes.
At Musings Fermentation Undeground the first batch of beer is now bubbling away in stainless-steel vessels. It’ll stay there about a month till it’s moved into Chardonnay barrels, were it’ll remain for another 18 months.
It’s a painstaking process. And no one knows what that Newark terroir will taste like till its bottled and corked.
“Everybody’s excited,” Naylor said of the first brew, a saison. “They’re asking, ‘When can we drink it?’
“Um, next year. Sorry.”
Ample time for further Musings.