A Tale of Two Bretts: Bruxellensis and Lambicus

Mikkeller Yeast Series 2.0Ever since Mikkeller’s Brettanomyces Bruxellensis and Brettanomyces Lambicus (part of the brewers Yeast Series 2.0) landed on shelves recently, we’ve been pondering the difference between these two yeast strains.

Brettanomyces, a genus of yeast, is considered wild because of the funky aromas and flavors it can produce, as well as its ability to “spoil” batches of beer that aren’t intended to be funky. Traditionally used in producing Lambic and Flanders red ales, this microscopic fungus is found naturally in wood and on fruit skins and is being used more and more by brewers to create modern interpretations of age-old styles. It creates flavorful acids when it consumes oxygen, and has quite a voracious appetite for sugars . it will consume and digest sugars other yeasts can’t.

According to The Oxford Companion to Beer, “Brettanomyces has five species, of which two are currently used in brewing, Brettanomyces bruxellensis and Brettanomyces anomalus….Strains such as Brettanomyces lambicus and Brettanomyces claussenii are actually Brettanomyces bruxellensis and Brettanomyces anomalus, respectively.”

Sounds like they’re the same thing, right? And since Chad Yakobson, the owner of and brewer at Crooked Stave in Denver wrote the entry above and also wrote a dissertation on Brett (which lead to The Brettanomyces Project), we decided to reach out to him for clarification. “All ‘B. lambicus’ strains are genetically Brettanomyces bruxellensis species of yeast,” Yakobson explains via email. “B. lambicus was an old nomenclature before genetics looked at the respective DNAs and determined they were the same species. Now it is just a name for a type of B. bruxellensis.”

Yakobson continues to explain that there are two yeast companies that provide the lambicus strain, and both strains are different. One of these companies, Wyeast Laboratories in Hood River, Oregon, describes their brux strain as the “classic, ‘sweaty horse blanket’ character” found in gueuze, lambics and sour browns, while the lambicus strain proffers a fruitier, “pie cherry-like flavor and sourness” on top of the horsey, barnyard aspect.

While Yakobson doesn’t use strains from either company, but he does use Brettanomyces bruxellensis almost exclusively, and finds that they harbor a great variety of flavor profiles. “Some are more citrus, others more tropical, others more earthy, vegetal, funky, horsey, leathery, spicy. You name it,” he says.

We also reached out to Will Meyers, the brewmaster at Cambridge Brewing Company, who has a lot of experience brewing with these funky fungi. Of the two varietals, he says, “Each will behave differently and contribute different characteristics to beer. This is not only strain dependent, but also varies according to the other ingredients and the brewer’s processes. Speaking very generally, Brett brux in my opinion produces a beer with a spicier focus and some fruitiness. From Brett lambicus I get much more earthiness, barnyard, and deep funk, sometimes like horse sweat and sometimes like a horse stall badly in need of mucking out.”

After all this info, we felt morally obligated to try the two Mikkeller brews side-by-side. The Brux version had a sharper nose and was distinctly more tart on the palate with a lingering, somewhat bitter finish. The Lambicus had a softer fruit aroma and flavor and a smoother finish, while both had very detectable levels of funk. Discerning the differences on top of a hoppy pale ale was definitely interesting, but these two brews are well worth a simultaneous tasting, if only for comparison’s sake.

Have you tried these beers? What did you think? Let us know in the comments!

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