Reviewed: Jester King Wanderflora
Product description: 100% spontaneously fermented beer with foraged fennel and nettle from North Carolina and foraged false pennyroyal from Texas. [Wanderflora is] turbid mashed with raw well water, barley, spelt and oats, then boiled with whole leaf aged hops from the attic of our barn, and knocked out into our coolship. We set up a basket in our coolship with all the foraged ingredients, which steeped in the wort as it cooled overnight. The next morning, we racked the wort out of the coolship and into oak barrels for 100% spontaneous fermentation. After 18 months of fermentation/maturation, we blended and packaged the beer in bottles and kegs. We then allowed it to mature for another five months through 100% natural refermentation in the serving vessel. 5.1% ABV, 20 IBUs, 3.4 pH, Finishing Gravity of 1.003 (0.75 Plato).
Jester King Brewery – Jester King Wanderflora – 750mL bottle served in saison stemware – 5.1% ABV
All-new for 2018, Wanderflora is a complicated and ambitious beer that replicates traditional Belgian lambic. Reading through the description both on the bottle and on Jester King’s website, the two beers that immediately jump to my mind for comparison are Upright Brewing’s Special Herbs and Cantillon Mamouche. The combination of barrel-aged sour/wild ale with a botanical mix of flavors sounds like a perfect match. However, beers utilizing recipes like these are seemingly rare.
First I had to look up what flavors to expect from nettle and pennyroyal as I’m only exposed to fennel, which reminds me of licorice. Nettle, or at least Stinging Nettle, is a prickly weed that is useful in herbal tea remedies. The only flavor comparison I could find for nettle was spinach. Pennyroyal is in the mint family with a reported spearmint-like flavor. All three plants are found on the label along with hop cones. Now I’m prepared for something truly original and weird.
I pop open the 750mL bottle, which is sealed with an oversized bottle cap like you find with beers from The Bruery. Into stemware, Wanderflora is a bright, fully hazy pale golden liquid that is topped by a thick head of white foam. Head retention is superlative for this style – hanging in suspended animation like whipped cream.
Approaching the beer, I get hardly anything considered herbal or even unique about the nose. There’s wet dough and freshly squeezed lime juice with hardly anything I would consider funky. As it warms, I try to get more out of the aroma. Saltwater comes to mind as does perfumey satsuma orange. It’s inviting and even predictable for a sour blonde ale.
Digging in, a 50/50 blend of bright citric acid and milky lactic acid dominates the front of the palate. In the mid-palate, leathery white grapefruit provides an acid plus tannin blend that reminds me of Belgian lambic. The finish is surprisingly clean with very little in the way of lingering acidity. The overall acid level is at a 6 out of 10 in my opinion – firmly in the balanced category. Buttery oak barrel adds some oiliness and fat to the aftertaste where other sour ales pile up lemon juice for one unpleasant experience.
For better or worse, Wanderflora doesn’t immediately strike me as spontaneously fermented. It’s not what I would call funky and the acid level is under control. The ambient yeast and bacteria that inoculated the wort, in this case, seem well-mannered and impossibly well-suited to create perfect sour beer.
I think Jester King has done an amazing job at producing this ridiculously complicated style that only a handful of American craft brewers attempt. However, Wanderflora falls into predictable aromas and flavors with very little “terroir” of their native microfauna coming through as well as a glaring lack of herbal character as described. Though I love the beer, I was disappointed in that regard. The good news is that Wanderflora is technically flawless and will win the hearts of sour beers without a doubt. It’s a very clean beer in the aroma and flavor as spontaneous ales go, and it is certainly on par with the best the world has to offer in this niche category. Carbonation and mouthfeel are spot-on as is the overall acidity.
If you are after a more straightforward sour blonde or love Belgian geuze, Wanderflora hits all the marks. However, if you were hoping for something outside-the-box with crazy botanical flavors, this will not deliver.
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