The best brewers are often those who refuse to do the same thing over and over. Flagship beers aside, there is something to be said for change and evolution. Upright Brewing’s Alex Ganum approaches the craft like his beloved jazz, always tinkering, experimenting and improvising with technique and style. This open-minded approach has made Upright one of the most quietly respected breweries in the Northwest, netting them numerous awards for styles that range from classic pilsners and English old ales to IPAs, barleywines, and saisons. It’s also what led Ganum to his latest project: the kveik ring.
Google kveik ring and you’ll find pictures of an object that resembles a wooden cruller or some sort of effigy. Pronounced “kwike” and translated to simply mean yeast, kveik is actually comprised of many yeasts, and comes from Norway. According to Draftmag, kveik “over the centuries has developed some peculiar properties that have made it of great interest to American brewers.” Having a high tolerance for heat, maintaining a consistent ester profile through the brewing process, a high alcohol tolerance, and the ability to be dried and reused have all made kveik an increasingly used strain with American brewers. Around the Northwest you have probably seen it popping in everything from hazy IPAs to saisons and even stouts.
Upright has been brewing with the yeast for a little while now, and over time Ganum was awakened to its potential with hoppy beers. “When we started using the kveik strains we didn’t really have any intention of making a particularly hoppy beer with it, but the flavor profile of those strains, especially in open fermenters, is pretty neat. You get a lot of this cool melon, like pale fruit stuff coming out of it. It’s kind of farmhouse-y but not a lot because it doesn’t have that weird spicy phenol thing. It doesn’t hit you like an old school saison or make your brain think like Belgian beer or whatever,” says Ganum.
These characteristics gave him an idea. “I thought there was maybe a way to tie that profile with modern hoppy beer where the hops are showing a pretty similar character anyways and then kind of thread the two together.”
The idea to use the kveik ring arose from a combination of curiosity, challenge, and a desire to get more mileage out of yeast. “The tricky thing with the open fermenters is that there’s not a lot of strains that you can use and reuse, especially with Belgian-esque strains,” says Ganum.
This is where the kveik ring came in. Historically made of wooden blocks that are strung together, the ring is hung over open fermenters, dipped into the fermenting beer and then pulled out and let dry. Later the brewer can drop the now dried ring into a new beer and the yeast will rehydrate and ferment the next beer. After doing some research on home brewing blogs, Ganum asked a local woodworker friend to construct a ring, and then got to work. Not sure what to expect, he was surprised by how effective the ring actually was.
“You just get tired of doing the same stuff [as a brewer], so you want to mix it up and try new shit, and if it doesn’t work out you move on. That’s what we were kind of expecting with this project, which is funny, like this is kind of for fun and if it works it’ll be fucking amazing and if it doesn’t it’ll just become this ornament in the fermenter room. It’s so cool that it’s actually working,” he says.
On a recent visit to Upright, Ganum was brewing the Money Avenue IPA, a modern IPA with a bright fruity flavor and low bitterness. Tasting the beer on tap, it was difficult to pinpoint what fruity components were coming from the hop and what were coming from the yeast, and Ganum says that is precisely the point. “I love that about it because it makes it so well-integrated into the profile.”
Lacking the “farmhouse-y” quality that can sometimes come from kveik strains, Money Avenue isn’t immediately discernible as a beer brewed with the kveik ring, at least not on the surface.
“Most people would drink this beer and think it’s just a modern IPA but it has this really cool backstory and if you let it warm up there are some nice layers,” says Ganum.
The Upright team isn’t sure exactly how extensive the use of the ring will be in the future. Ganum is excited about its effectiveness in low alcohol, dry and full-bodied beers, and clearly likes how it works with IPAs. He also just brewed a spiced saison as part of a collaboration with a team of South Korean brewers. As with nearly everything Upright brews, change and evolution are inevitable, and for now Ganum is leaving the door open for more kveik ring experiments.
Did Alex say what strain of kveik yeast they used? I’ve heard conversations about how most of the strains we have access to in America are isolates, where the original strain has numerous diffrent types of yeast that make up the kveik. Mainly curious if it’s a strain available to home brewers like Imperial’s Loki A43 so I could possibly give it a try. It’s crazy how little yeast cells you need for a viable fermentation with Kreik. Wouldn’t think there’d be enough on a wooden ring to ferment that much beer. Maybe ” under pitching” contributes to more of the esters contributing those fruity flavors? Thanks. Interesting article.