Oregon's official animal is the beaver, the state bird is the Oregon Meadowlark, and unsurprisingly, last April the legislature approved brewer's yeast as the official microbe, making Oregon the first state in the union to establish a state microbial. If anybody in Bend knows about the science of yeast, it's Paul Arney, owner and innovative traditionalist mastermind behind The Ale Apothecary, an open fermentation brewery that combines ancient brewing techniques with traditions of wine and champagne production—brewing in the first world, old world style.
The byproduct is something unheard of in the era of microbreweries' rapid timelines for beer releases and mass production with a hardline for consistency. Every batch of the Ale Apothecary's primordial, funky, tart, naturally C02 carbonated beer is slightly different, and takes anywhere from five months to a year to age in wood barrels. Even after that, Ale Apothecary brews can continue to age in the bottle more akin to a fine wine than a microbrew.
Arney's secret ingredient? Lactobacillus, a culture that consumes sugars and produces lactic acid, the same thing you would find in a sourdough starter, he explained. That's what gives The Ale Apothecary its signature puckering taste.
"A lot of times people age beers in oak barrels and introduce wild yeast at the end of the ageing. We're entering it during primary fermentation, at the beginning of the brewing process," said Arney. "There are multiple yeast strains in this open environment. As you can see, the window is open."
It's true. Unlike the majority of breweries that use closed vessels for fermentation to prevent the intrusion of wild yeast, The Ale Apothecary embraces and relies on exotic yeast, just like the original brewers dating back to 9500 BC in Egypt and the thousands of years of European brewers that followed. Sometimes, evolution doesn't mean changing, but simply reinventing.
Arney has two large demure-looking wooden barrels, covered by a thin piece of fabric, fermenting in the heart of the cross breeze between the heavy fir and pine doors and an open window that faces into the woods west of Bend. Inside, a thick head of foam is forming over what will eventually be Arney's delicious brew.
"Whatever is in the air can participate. Scientifically, I can't tell you that much," said Arney modestly, "It's just ..."
"Witchcraft," chimes in Brewery Troll (his title, not mine) and right-hand-man Jared Smith, who helps Arney at the brewery and has developed a discerning collection of specialty brews that have a lot in common with Arney's style, available for sale at Crow's Feet Commons.
Seeing brewing as a mysterious and unpredictable process is something Arney is fully committed to. After six years of work at Deschutes Brewery, he set up his own 500-square-foot garage brewery to pursue that mystery in 2012. After two years using this cro-magnon brewing style, Arney explained that the Apothecary's yeast culture is only getting better, developing and changing slightly with each batch. In fact, that's the fun of the beer, he said. Every batch is a whole new chemistry project.
"People have been brewing beer for thousands of years and only in the last 200 were they able to put science to it. Before that it was handed down techniques that just worked," said Arney. "Beer has made it through this crazy history where people manipulated it and used it for their own selfish purposes and yeast was able to survive that."