Maine. Microflora. Magic.
Thursday, March 28th, 2019
One of the more striking visuals we’ve had the luxury of experiencing during our time in the industry, is the juxtaposition of gigantic, very modern fermentation vessels (FVs), sticking out of the roof at Allagash Brewing in Portland, Maine in a perfect row, and towering over a humble little cabin that holds a piece of brewing technology that is hundreds of years old. Substantial and Modest. Polished and Weathered. Contemporary and Traditional. The scene feels as though two very different periods in brewing history are coming together in an important way.
Inside those gigantic FVs, likely lies Allagash White – the brewery’s flagship offering and a world-class example of a Belgian-style Witbier (we’ve written about our love for White in the past). The cloudy wheat beer brewed with orange peel, coriander, and a secret third spice, makes up roughly 80% of Allagash’s production and is shipped all over the country to be enjoyed in places like Los Angeles (one of White’s biggest markets) and Chicago. White is the reason the aforementioned little cabin, tucked away outside in a back corner of the brewery, can exist.
This is the home for Allagash’s Coolship – or Koelschip, as it’s stylized on the wide and shallow, pan-shaped stainless steel vessel. The Coolship is simple in it’s appearance and design, but the details, process, and history behind the giant brownie pan-shaped piece of equipment are fascinating. While a date of invention is difficult to track down, the use of these vessels can be traced back hundreds of years ago to European brewers who needed a way to cool down wort fresh out of the brew kettle relatively quickly without the luxuries of a glycol system. The large surface area and shallow design of the Coolship allowed wort to be exposed to the near freezing Fall and Winter nights’ temperatures, and therefore cooling relatively efficiently before being transferred to a fermentation or conditioning vessel.
So why would a modern brewery like Allagash be using technology hundreds of years old when there are much easier ways of cooling wort today? Because while the liquid is in the Coolship, something magical happens. In the air all around us, there are native yeasts and microflora – the particular makeup of which is specific to each locale. While the wort is laying in its stainless bed, these microorganisms find a home in the cooling body of liquid. Once plentiful, the blend of yeast and bacteria, often made up of Brettanomyces, Lactobacillus, and Pediococcus (amongst many, many potential others), begin to slowly convert the sugars of the wort into alcohol in what is described as spontaneous fermentation. The resulting flavors of spontaneous fermentation are beautiful, unique, and unmistakable, often described by terms such as: horseblanket, barnyard, tart, smarties candy, hay, funk, and complex.
We were lucky enough to be allowed the opportunity to watch a Coolship filling at Allagash during this brewing season. On a chilly December evening in Portland, we were joined by a small group consisting of other industry people both on the retail and brewery side, as well as some Allagash employees ranging from tasting room folks, to tour guides, and of course, a handful of brewers. The energy in the air the moments leading up to the fill was palpable. Even the Allagash employees who had witnessed a fill in the past, were showing a bit of nervous energy. The phrase, “This never gets old” was spoken on more than one occasion
In yet another moment of contrast that makes Coolship brewing at Allagash so unique, the brewers had the time that the fill would take place down to the minute. For a process that relies so much on the unknown – leaving fermentation to the unseeable microflora in the Maine air, Allagash makes sure to have all controllable variables on lockdown. From recipe development, to the brew deck, to the exact moment liquid hits the Coolship, the brewers had everything in tune to their specifications. Allagash brewed their first Coolship batch back in 2007, a mere blink of an eye in comparison to the years Belgian Lambic brewers have been utilizing Chips, but they’ve had some experience dialing the process in over the years. Rob Tod, Owner and Founder of Allagash would later tell us that night that they struggled at first to produce spontaneous beers worth drinking, finding that the initial batches were often riddled with off flavors and needed to be dumped. Luckily, that is far from the case these days.
From the second that the slightly-less-than-boiling hot wort starts to exit the brewing hose, through a strainer (to catch the whole leaf, aged hops used in these beers) and into the Coolship, the room begins to steam and fill with an incredible aroma. Think rustic bread fresh out of the oven. You’re provided with roughly 20-30 seconds to snap any pictures of the experience before the cabin is entirely filled with dense steam. It’s difficult to see one’s hand even six inches in front of your eyes.
As the sun continued to set on this crisp, early December evening, the bright orange glow of the Coolship provided warmth only in a visual sense. To beat the cold, we headed into the ‘Tiny House’, located just about 50 years from the Coolship’s cabin. We were met by a roaring wood stove, an incredible spread of local cheese and charcuterie, and what seemed like an endless amount of Coolship beers in their signature 375ml cork & cage bottles. If you’ve ever gotten to experience a tour to Allagash, hell even if you were just able to enjoy a single pour in the tasting room, their crew’s incredible hospitality has probably made an impression. This time was no different.
In between bites of brie on baguette and swigs of beers like Coolship Cerise, a stunning offering aged for six months in oak barrels on Maine grown Montmorency and Balaton cherries, the conversation shifted around a variety of topics. Tiny houses (of course), old school arcade game restoration, and upcoming cross-country trips. The best moments with beer are not centered around the beverage we love, but rather on the people we’re with. The Allagash Coolship beers that we were lucky to be enjoying played a perfect role in that sense. Highly complex and beautiful beers that paired incredibly with the spread of food in front of us, but never dominated the conversation.
As we parted ways, the beer in the Coolship rested quietly. It would remain there soaking up the best microflora Maine had to offer until about 7:00 AM the next day when Allagash’s morning brewers arrived. From there, this batch would be transferred to over to oak barrels where it will ferment and age for at least a year, potentially even three. With spontaneously fermented beers, each barrel takes its own unique path, which is why tasting and blended play such a huge role in the final result of the product.
Why would Allagash, a brewery whose bottom line rests on large batch production of one of the greatest Witbiers in the world take the time, energy, and resources to focus on a tiny Coolship program that in the end, is probably a net negative endeavor for them? In our opinion, it’s passion and respect for the industry that they’ve made such an impact on. Through these beers, they’re simultaneously paying homage to centuries old Belgian Lambic traditions, while continuing to innovate in a modern American craft beer landscape. After all, they were the first American brewery to build a Coolship. It reflects back on the juxtaposition that makes Allagash so unique. Substantial and Modest. Polished and Weathered. Contemporary and Traditional.
Phil is passionate about telling the stories of the people and businesses behind the beer we love, primarily through the visual mediums of photography and design. With a B.S. in Marketing from Syracuse University and having completed the University of Vermont's Business of Craft Beer certificate program, Phil knew he wanted to be a part of this industry from an early age, and tailored his education around it. You typically won't find anything with an SRM greater than 10 in his glass, but there's a good chance it will be a Czech Pils, mixed-fermentation Saison, or a soft Pale Ale.
The beer he can't stop thinking about:
Notch The Standard (preferably served Mlìko)