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Home Making: The Story of Scotland’s First 3-Year Spontaneous Blend

Andrea Ladas served lead brewer of the Fyne Ales Origins Brewing project from 2015-2018, before returning to his native Italy to pursue new ventures late last year.

For the release of Home 3-Year Blend, we decided to catch up with him about his adventures in spontaneous brewing in Glen Fyne, and let him tell the story of Scotland’s first gueuze-style beer in his own words.

When did you first decide you wanted to attempt a spontaneous brew?

In late 2014, the bulk of our production had shifted over to the new brew kit and we had a bit more time and space to branch out from brewing core beers in the original brewery. I began working on a series of beers called The Farmhouse Project – four clean beers that were a little bit out of the Fyne Ales comfort zone in terms of style and ingredients. The series was a precursor to Origins Brewing – we brewed with foraged botanicals and local malts for a couple of the beers, and a small portion of one of them became our first mixed fermentation brew, as we reserved some off for secondary fermentation with Brettanomyces and foraged brambles.

The Farmhouse Project caught the attention of Pam Brunton and Rob Latimer who had recently taken over a local restaurant, Inver, and they approached us in 2015 about potentially working together on a beer that they could serve with their menu focused on foraged and local produce. Pam and Rob had previously lived in Belgium, so when we got talking about what we should brew, they suggested a we attempt Scottish lambic-style beer – I think we all thought it was a bit of a mad idea, there was very little coolship brewing happening in the UK in 2015. It was a little daunting, but we decided to do an experiment alongside a more reliable collab.

You say it as mad idea and a little daunting – why?

I visited Belgium many times between 2007 and 2015, and I love the beer the country produces – but when you’re there, you see the dusty equipment they’ve been using to make lambics, flemish reds, oud bruins… for hundreds of years, the idea that you could successfully recreate those scared styles anywhere else in the world seemed impossible in 2015. That, plus not having other brewers in the UK we could call on for advice and guidance made it a bit intimidating – it was new ground.

But coolship brewing was something I’d dreamed about, and you have to commit to an idea, be proactive and find a way to make it work if it’s something you want to achieve, so it was something I was determined to make happen.

How did you make it happen? What did you have to figure out?

I started by reading as much as I could about spon brewing – mostly by American brewers and authors, who are much more willing to share their approaches and experiences with wild beer than their European counterparts. I should probably also shout out the Milk The Funk community who helped with a lot of practical choices in preparing for the first brew and have been hugely valuable during my time with Origins Brewing.

I was also lucky to talk to a few friends and friends-of-friends internationally who were able to give  some tips, most notably Danilo Troianiello from Birrificio del Ducato, who has a very strong background of sour beer production in Italy which has earned respect from the international beer community.

For me, it was also very important to remember that wild beers, coolships (or “coolers”) and blending aren’t new in British brewing, and despite the influence from Europe and the US, this was going to be a Scottish spontaneous beer, brewed on a traditional British kit in our unique environment, so there was plenty to figure out on that side.

I had a good feeling that we could make it work in the original brewery – we have a beautifully rich environment on the farm in the glen, we have the somewhat-reliable climate and the original brew kit sits in an old dairy barn under wooden beams that have seen hundreds of brews over 13 years of pretty-much constant brewing – after sorting out the practicalities or timings and transfers and preparing barrels, we had everything we needed, in theory.

A portion of Home 3-Year Blend is from the very first spon brewing experiment – what was the brew day like?

It was December 2015 and we were brewing the collaboration with Pam and Rob – a simple single-step infusion mash with pale malt, raw wheat and a little spelt. The majority of the wort would be fermented with a pitched saison culture and eventually become Beer Premiere, but we reserved off a small portion and racked into a couple of makeshift coolship vessels and left to naturally lower in temperature overnight in the brewery with the roof windows and doors left open to ensure a nice, constant breeze.

The next day, the wort had cooled to about 23oC and we racked it into clean French oak barrels which were stashed away in a warmish (13-14oc) corner of the brewery for the winter.

After seven days, no signs of any life in the barrels. I was convinced that we weren’t going to get any spontaneous fermentation from the brew, so I decided to pitch a mixed ferm culture in half the batch to at least get usable beer from the experiment. “Oh well, we can try again,” I told myself.

Day eight, and unpitched half started to show signs of fermentation. And that was it – we had brewed a spon beer that aged and developed a beautiful flavour over three years before going into the blend. 

I’ve always thought that brew was almost magical – coming to life after being thought to have failed and the fact it was brewed with our friends Pam and Rob makes it even more special – there’s a bit of them in every bottle of  Home 3-Year Blend – it wouldn’t exist without them.

The next spon brews weren’t until the next year, did you change anything for the 2016 brews or successive years?

From 2016 onwards, we knew we had a viable environment for capturing microflora, so we adjusted the grist bill, dropping the spelt and using a higher amount of raw wheat and higher mash temperature to extract complex sugars. I think 2016 was also the first year we used aged hops for the spontaneous brews.

Each season we’ve scaled up slightly, doing more brews and bigger batches; we’re still using makeshift coolships, including our mashtun, but as [Fyne Ales MD] Jamie has always said, “if it was good enough for Russian River, it’s good enough for us”. Using separate vessels also allowed us to experiment with location – we can move the portions of wort to different areas of the original brewery and track fermentation activity and sensory comparisons from each area of the old barn – it’s quite fun.

We’ve also experimented with experimented with brewing at different times of the year, including a not 100% successful ‘Summer Spon’ in 2018 when we had a very cold spell in late Spring; and we usually have to change the barrels we use for each batch, depending on what we can get hold of and the quality of the wood that arrives from the suppliers.

Overall, our low-fi method has worked well for us – I remember being very excited that our first spon brew of 2016 began showing signs of fermentation after only a few days in oak, and touch-wood, we’ve never had a spon brew go disastrously wrong – even the Summer Spon found a place in a different Origins Brewing blend.

What’s the biggest challenge in producing spon beers in Glen Fyne?

For the actual brewing, apart from being a longer process with more elements to sync up, it’s not much more difficult compared to other brew days. 

The challenging part is looking after the beers and evaluating them as they progress – monitoring progress, alcohol and acid production, doing sensory analysis, checking if barrels need to be purged or quarantined – spon beers need a lot of love while they’re in oak.

You’ve mentioned sensory analysis – how did you approach the blending process for Home 3-year Blend?

I’ve had a lot of practice with Origins Brewing in blending non-coolshipped mixed ferm beers, which is useful, but the plan from very early on was to save the entirety of the 2015 spon batch for a three-year blend. It’s something that’s never been done in Scotland, as far as we know, and it’s a far more interesting story than just a straight or fruited lambic-style beer. 

When doing a vertical tasting of the three years for the blend, there was definitely some coherence across the three vintages, but each did have a variance in character due to age and the conditions they were exposed to – for instance, we aim to keep the beers around 15-16oC during early stages of fermentation, but in 2016 we had an unexpected cold snap and most alcoholic fermentation took place around 9-10oC, which gave the beer a different profile to the other vintages.

From my notes:

2015 – soft berry aromas, very subtle Brett funk, complex lactic and acetic sour finish.

2016 – fresh peach aroma, pineapple notes, no funk, light lactic sourness.

2017 – peach and stonefruit aroma, earthy, vinous flavours and slight astringent ‘young’ sour finish.

Home 3-Year Blend is pretty much 33% each of the three vintages, which for us was the best combination in terms of flavour profile and complexity. It uses all the remaining unpitched 2015 brew and we chose the most characterful and elegant casks of the 2016 and 2017 vintages and combined them in steel with a little fresh wort to check stability. Then at the end of Autumn 2018 we bottled the blend with a very small amount of priming sugar to revive the yeasts, as well as reduce oxidation and acetic acid production in bottle.

How does it feel to see the culmination of four years of work finally out in the wild?

It’s exciting, definitely  – I haven’t actually tasted it since I last visited in June! From what I remember, it’s a lovely beer, very elegant, with a defined spritzy fruit character and light acidity. Because we didn’t prime with any additional yeast, it took a long time to carbonate but they guys at the brewery have assured me it’s developed a nice, fine level of fizz.

In terms of what we’ve achieved, I’m very proud of Home 3-Year Blend – we followed historical and modern guidelines, paying respect to the traditional processes but making something that really reflects the character of the Fyne Ales brewery and glen.

This beer tells a story of friendship, a story about Fyne Ales, about Glen Fyne, captured in every bottle, and for me, it’s the end of a long journey with Origins Brewing. I can’t think of a better way to celebrate.

Home 3-Year Blend is available from the Fyne Ales website today, alongside three more Origins Brewing beers in the Autumn 2019 Collection – Beams, Expedition II and Acres.

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