On Wunderkammer, Ole Worm, and Yeast Wreaths

ole-worm-beerIt’s been awhile since I brewed a beer. Time, and space, seemed to always be getting in the way. Making beer has always calmed me; I like the ritual, the pace, the chemistry, the history, and the life it takes on. Brewing for me has always been personal. It’s usually for myself. I’ll share the beer I make with some friends, but I’m shy about it.

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The summer before I went to college, I read “Mr. Wilson’s Cabinet of Wonder” by Lawrence Welscher. It’s my favorite book. I must’ve had dozens of copies of it, because I always give it away to people I love. It tells the story of David Wilson, an eccentric dude who runs The Museum of Jurassic Technology in Los Angeles. But it also tells the story of wunderkammer, a theater of the natural, yet-to-be-defined world, which gave rise to what we now know as natural history museums. I became enthralled with these little cabinets of curiosities—with the relics of rituals that were left long behind. Brewing is filled with these rituals (as is bread baking, foraging, cheese making, etc). It’s why I named this site Wunderkammer.

There was Danish dude named Ole Worm, who was one of the earliest proprietors of wunderkammer in the early 1600s, collecting artifacts from the New World, things that the Old World only imagined. He’s also the guy who told the world that unicorns probably don’t exist, it was probably a narwhal—but he still was entranced by nature’s curiosities. Ole Worm has become kind of my spirit guide, a reminder to always be bewitched by the natural world.

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Yeast Ring at CarlsbergI was in Copenhagen last year, wandering through the brewing museum on the Carlsberg campus, when I was captivated by an artifact of brewing rite—a yeast ring (or a witch’s ring, yeast wreath, or gærkrans or jästkrans). Yeast rings are so beautifully primitive; a series of interlocking pieces of wood, a twisted torus (a geometrical curiosity of its own). These yeast rings used to hang in Danish farmhouses—which were also the brewhouses—ready to be thrown into waiting wort and have its magical properties turn the sugar-water into alcohol and CO2. Of course, this was before the discovery of yeast, and the unicorn turned out to be a narwhal.

Yeast rings were passed down from generation to generation and was—much like a sourdough starter that’s passed through years of bakers—a literal living history. Modern brewing, even homebrewing, has lost many of these rituals and its links to history. I decided I wanted to make a yeast ring of my own.

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Also while in Copenhagen, I briefly met with Troels Prahl, the head of research and development for White Labs who works out of the new Danish headquarters (which is a tiny lab tucked away in War Pigs). He was excited to debut a new White Labs yeast blend at the city’s other Copenhagen Beer Celebration, a wild yeast captured spontaneously fermented apples off an island off the coast of Denmark. It sounded romantic. Imagine my delight when White Labs created its “Yeast Vault,” a Kickstarter of sorts for more esoteric yeasts, and released its New Nordic yeast blend (WLP611).

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My friend Nancy is a fantastic brewer—she’s endlessly creative and fearless, and you can tell she has a genuine love for brewing. I love drinking her beer. I don’t know how I convinced her to brew with me, but she was onboard with the whole idea of the yeast ring and using a relatively untested yeast blend.

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We decided to brew a blonde ale to really showcase the New Nordic yeast blend (which is two strains of Saccharomyces cerevisiae and Torulaspora delbrueckii, the yeast responsible for giving hefeweizens its clove and banana flavor). Our grain bill was mostly 2-row with just a touch of crystal malt, and used the fairly restrained Willamette hop. WLP611 is incredibly versatile yeast blend, fermenting as low as 50°F (10°C) and up to 86°F (30°C). I can only imagine the fun you can have fermenting at different temperatures to coax out, or restrain, certain ester profiles (we probably fermented around 65°F). It should be noted that—and this was something I learned while working with this yeast—T. delbrueckii is a slower attenuator and a longer fermenter. So, when the Sacch is like, “We’re done partying!”, the delbrueckii is like, “I’m not!”

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After we transferred into secondary, I put my very modestly made (and sanitized) yeast ring into the trub to try to pick up some yeast (I’m no woodworker, so my wreath was simply made with a drill, wood, and stainless steel wire. If anyone is a woodworker, holler at me, and I’ll pay you to make a proper one. I would love one). We let it dry, and hopefully the yeasty beasties will go to sleep and wake up again in the next batch we brew. Failing that, I did a yeast rinse, and now, I’m sure to the delight of my roommate, there’s several jars of New Nordic yeast blend snoozing in our fridge.

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We decided to call it Ole Worm.*

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We were delighted with the beer’s big, apple-y ester nose and its dry, cider-like finish. Nancy, also being a fantastic graphic designer, made labels for bottles. I think she captured the Scandinavian aesthetic perfectly, illustrating the dreaminess of the waves hitting the shore of the Danish island where the apples grew and the yeast found its life. The slashy ‘O’ in the Danish language, Ø, means “island.” We served the beer at CHAOS Brew Club’s Cerveza de Mayo.

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I’m not sure if the yeast ring will kickstart magic in the next beer, but if it does, it will be a unicorn.

 

* Apologies to Carlsberg

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