Artisanal Fermentation: Balancing Science and Art For the Antidote
What does it mean to be an artisan? What exactly are craft, artisanal, and heritage foods and beverages, and why have they seen a resurgence of popularity in recent years? What exactly do the words “artisanal” and “craft” mean as modifiers?
At the most basic level, these terms describe the pursuit of traditional, usually older food and beverage styles, as opposed to the mass-produced, profit-focused, standardized commodities of the industrial age. They typically also reflect creations that vary by region, locality, terroir and culture. The resurgence of craft beer styles in the United States and elsewhere over the past three plus decades is a familiar example, as is the still growing preference for traditional baked goods over America’s mid-twentieth century infatuation with Wonder Bread, and other such industrial monocultures, each taking their turn as “the greatest thing since sliced bread.”
At another level, artisan foods and craft beverages are becoming, more and more, the raison d’être of high-dollar urban boutique restaurants, buoyed by the moneyed search for “authentic” experience. People from cultures thus idolized by wealthy aspirants to authenticity often have life experiences entirely at odds with pretentious idealism.
This past September, I had an enlivening brush with authenticity myself. My friend Paul and I attended a conference in Belgium focusing on the operation of biological field stations. We were interested in experiencing as many traditionally fermented lambic beers and gueuze blends as we could during our short stay in the country. As a sometime brewer myself, I’ve always had an engrossing interest in the mysteries of open, or wild, fermentation, where commercial or laboratory yeasts and other cultures are NOT pitched into closed fermentation vessels.
Traditional open fermented beers in Belgium rely on the local “microflora” of wild yeasts and bacteria to work their inscrutable and sometimes unpredictable magic on fermentable sugars. The interplay of microbes is veritable ecological succession writ small, as each microbial player (or players) finishes its role and hands the fermentation over to others. Scientists are busy trying to elucidate the sour and wild beer genome, but it seems highly unlikely (to me, anyway) that this magic will ever be captured in a controlled, replicable way.
These primary fermentations are often in turn subjected to secondary additions of fruit, or other fermentables, in barrels. And beyond that, young and aged lambics are combined by experienced blenders to achieve the most pleasing balances of gueuze taste profiles.
The results, as anyone who has sampled the ineffable products of traditional Belgian master breweries and blenderies like 3 Fonteinen, Cantillon, Boon, and others, are sublime. Aging mellows, marries, and releases new palate-pleasing results. Lambics can be funky, cheesy, “horsey,” and/or carry the dry or sweet flavors of added fruits.
On a slight chance that we might visit a new startup brewery that focuses on small batches of highly experimental, open-fermented beers and ciders, Paul contacted Tom Jacobs, one of the owners of Antidoot — Wilde Fermenten. Tom and his brother Wim (whom we did not meet) operate out of a small, two-story brewery building added at Tom’s farm in Kortenaken, a 40-minute drive west of our conference location in Maasmechelen.
Paul let Tom know that we were biologists who also happen to be interested in beers, and would be passing by the neighborhood. To our surprise, Tom invited us to stop by his farm one afternoon, just as his two young daughters returned home from school.
Tom’s liquid generosity soon became evident as we discussed our Belgian beer interests, and we were able to reciprocate in a small way by sharing bottles of somewhat hard to find American beers. We tasted Antidoot’s L’Obscur abrikoos, an Antidoot Flanders Oud Bruin style sour given a secondary fermentation on macerated organic apricots. The description of the L’Obscur series offers a small window onto Tom’s ethos:
The anima does not take a man by the hand and lead him right up to Paradise; she puts him first into a hot cauldron where he is nicely roasted for a while.
Being short on on-site beers (Antidoot sells bottles as fast as they can cork them), Tom was a bit apologetic about a beer just bottled the previous month that he wished had more aging. The rich yet dry, vinous, sour liquid with apricot aromas swirled across my palate in full expression of its hot cauldron heritage. I immediately wished for more bottles to bring home and age myself — alas.
Sharing beers also allowed us to get to know one another a bit more. Tom is a former university philosopher who decided to do his own thing, by moving with his family to the countryside farm and growing their own food. Later homebrewing with brother Wim led to the creation of small batch, wild fermentations that eventually, after much refinement, birthed Antidoot — Wilde Fermenten. Upon learning that I’ve also dabbled in brewing (at least with traditional yeast fermentation), Tom queried me: “What is it about philosophers and scientists becoming brewers?” Quickly discerning that the question was more philosophical than scientific, I pleaded ignorance.
Afterward we were treated to a mini-tour of Tom’s farm. His products also include amazing ciders using his own apples, and other fermented beverages using grapes, plums, and apricots. Other creations receive both cultivated and foraged wildflowers and foliage. Upon mentioning that I’ve always wanted to try making a homemade beer with yarrow, a traditional beer additive that pre-dates hops, Tom instantly added me to The Gruit Guild group on Facebook, where discussants explore alternative plant additives and fermentation approaches.
Another connection came when Tom revealed his favorite brewery: Pen Druid, another spontaneous, wild fermentation facility in Sperryville, Virginia, which happens to be my home state. Their boiling vessel is wood fired! Pen Druid brewers recently visited Antidoot for a brew day, and by Tom’s account they had a grand old time brewing and socializing. Now I have Pen Druid in my sights as well for a future visit, I hope on one of their brew days. I’ll have something interesting to talk about with the brewers.
The local and even international response to Tom and Wim’s fermented creations has been overwhelming. So much so that the brothers recently decided to move to a membership model for sales, with strict agreements that members will not resell. They have decided that this is the best method for fair distribution of their products, within the constraints of their nanobrewery capacity and personal time.
Days later, after our visit and conference were over, Paul and I returned to Brussels, where we luckily found tickets to Brussels Beer Project’s Wanderlust festival. We had caught wind that Tom planned to show up, so we were plenty jazzed to attend. After considerable sampling of many beer offerings I’ve never seen in the USA, sure enough, Tom strode in sporting a Pen Druid t-shirt. He set up a small area to the side with his bottles, advertised by an entirely appropriate, handwritten sign he created himself on a piece of cardboard box.
Festival attendees rushed to the Antidoot table like sharks to a feeding frenzy. Everybody knew what was up with those beers! You can tell by the looks on everyone’s faces, both customers and Tom alike, that this spontaneous offering embodied the best of spontaneous fermentation. It was a true highlight for all of us at Wanderlust.
On returning to the USA, Paul and I became lucky recipients of a one-year Antidoot membership. We await our bottles with great anticipation. Further explorations on social media have made me more aware of Tom and Wim’s approach and philosophy at Antidoot. Brew days and beer releases are, by all indications from photo and video evidence, joyous events, often with other brewers on site to contribute their own twists to the next fermentation.
Meditating on Antidoot’s approach provides me a much fuller understanding of the word “artisanship” in its truest sense. Being an artisan not only hearkens back to earlier styles; it fully embraces a willingness to throw off the rules of convention, even those followed by the most well-established traditional crafters.
Belgian brewers ventured beyond traditional Bavarian rules embodied in the Reinheitsgebot, and we are much indebted to their “experimentising,” to revive a wonderful word Charles Darwin employed to describe his post-Beagle homebound tests of natural selection.
Sending your wort into an open metal coolship, inviting local microbes to work their ineffable chemistries is, in itself, as much an act of faith as it is of science. Brewers like Tom Jacobs take the Belgian gambit even further: No rules or conventions will constrain his experimentising. The results will delight the fortunate few who partake, and we may hope that other brewers follow suit in the places they call home.
Real artisanship begins at home.