Justin Clifford Wilson woke up at dawn, walked out the front door of his Astoria, Queens apartment, and went around back to the garage on the alley and started brewing beer.
He boiled the liquid in a kettle for a few hours and then placed it on a fire escape overlooking the Robert F. Kennedy and Hell Gate Bridges. Traffic thrummed distantly. He stretched burlap over the top of the kettle to protect it from any unwanted debris, and let the wort (the precursor to beer) cool naturally overnight, turning it into a welcoming party for a host of ambient, wild yeast and bacteria.
Wilson's method is not unique; in fact, the ancient technique known as spontaneous fermentation is experiencing a resurgence as American palates are increasingly craving sour and funky beers. But most breweries produce such beers by harvesting microflora from the air in close proximity to nature. Wilson's beer works by harnessing a secret ingredient which just so happens to be New York City's most abundant natural resource: people.
"New York's fun because you have tons of different people," Wilson said. "You have Italians, Greeks, Hispanics, different people who are bringing different things into the community and into the air—and it introduces more types of yeast and bacteria."
Brewers who use more conventional methods typically add their own yeast and seal their tanks. Such control ensures exact results and maintains consistency by preventing outside microorganisms from getting in and spoiling the beer, which can create a taste of Bandaids and diapers.
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Spontaneous-fermentation brewers want to relinquish control. The process works by capturing that yeast and bacteria, and cultivating it inside of the barrel. Over months or years inside a wooden barrel, the microbial melange slowly devours sugar and acidifies the beer. The result—sometimes collectively thrown under the wide umbrella of sour beer—can be tart and pungent, funky and fragrant, or mellow and tangy. The beer is sometimes immediately bottled, but often it gets blended with older vintages to strike the right balance.
A 32-year-old computer programmer for a hedge fund in Manhattan, Wilson wants to open the city's next brewery—and he wants it to focus on spontaneous fermentation.
"Budweiser is science, craft beer is passion, but spontaneous fermentation? You're getting into religion."
The idea's not new; it's been around about as long as beer. In relatively modern times, Belgians perfected the method to produce lambic, a tart, sour, and wine-like brew. But most of these beers are brewed near orchards, vineyards, and green pastures, because many of the organisms thrive off fruit and flowers.
Many brewers believe such a bucolic setting is more than a romantic image; it's essential for finding the right microbes.
Lauren Salazar, who helped get the modern sour beer movement rolling at New Belgium Brewing Company, says that brewers tend to think green spaces have an advantage over concrete jungles because there's fauna to support the bacteria and yeast strains.
"If you're not close to a cherry or an apple orchard, somewhere where there's the right kind of bacteria outside...why would they be there?" Salazar said.
But a counter-intuitive idea is sometimes the right idea. Barrels become bacterial breeding grounds where brewers can put selective pressure to get the flavors they want. "It's a partnership of what's outside, and what has selected itself on the inside, where it's survival of the fittest. "
Wilson believes that, deprived of orchards, his city brews can get same effect by the most abundant thing here: you and me.
This nascent movement of spontaneous fermentation has converts obsessed with terroir; it has Wilson wondering: if place is taste, what does New York City taste like? His answer: "Time and again, peaches."
Wilson doesn't literally think yeast is falling off people and into beer. But he does think that generations of immigrants bringing different foods and planting different trees in their own neighborhoods (Astoria, with a large number of Italians and Greeks, abounds with fig trees) has shaped the city's microbes, and by extension, the way his beer tastes.
When I asked Rob Kolb of Transmitter Brewing Company, a farmhouse brewery in Queens, if he had ever tried a spontaneous fermentation, he stared at me for a minute, looked up and pointed. Overhead, cars puffed and chuffed as they passed over the Pulaski Bridge.
"Why would I want to know what that tastes like?"
That attitude might explain why just one brewery in New York City, Long Island City Beer Project, makes commercial beer from the air. In an industrial warehouse in Queens, brewers Damon Oscarson and Dan Acosta pipe hot wort into a large, shallow, stainless steel pan, known as a coolship. It cools naturally as air is pumped in from outside, and different microbes arrive at different temperatures. Before the wort hits 100 degrees Fahrenheit, bacteria like Pediococcus and Lactobacillus settle and, in the coming months will sour the beer. Cooler still, microbes like Saccromyces will turn sugar into ethanol (alcohol) as Brettanomyces, another popular yeast, provide the funk (a flavor range from melon and strawberries to horse blanket).
"Getting the coolship, we wanted to bring a local feel to the beer. Not many breweries are doing spontaneous fermentation in cities," Acosta told Brooklyn Magazine in 2015.
A year before, the brewers discovered that the microflora in their beer came from an ancient grove of fig trees planted by immigrants at the turn of the 19th century.
Last October LIC Beer Project released what's likely the city's first commercial spontaneously fermented beer. In an interview on the podcast Steal This Beer, reviewers described it as tasting variously like plums, pluots, and concord grapes, with a vinous texture and slight hint of butane. The tasters loved it. "It's all from the yeast and bacteria in Queens," Acosta said.
On my recent visit, after Wilson added a bag of hops, flaky and blanched with age, to the kettle, he drew a sample of a golden sour from one of his barrels and sampled it. He'd spontaneous fermented it a year before, and by now the cocktail of microbes present had transformed the rubber and smoke flavors into something like must and bright, tart fruit.
"Any spontaneous flavor is going to be awful [at first]. But that's how it works, you're going for those flavors because later on, they'll turn gold."