Sunrift Beer Company, Kalispell

Story & Photography by Lido Vizzutti

There is a well-known brewing-related adage: Brewers make the wort; yeast makes the beer.

This is true in the most fundamental way, as fermentation is basically the process of converting sugars into alcohol and carbon dioxide through the action of yeast.

Beyond this essential action, it is the yeast that can take a basic — even if already delicious — wort and elevate it with esters of passion fruit, citrus and banana or notes of plum, raisin and black pepper. Some yeast can produce phenols that in small doses have the flavor of clove, white pepper or even of barnyard, horse blanket and Band-Aid.

Belgian beers are an excellent place to explore this kind of magical and compelling complexity that yeast can impart on a beer.

“The most influential part of the Belgian realm or genre of beers is the yeast that you use to impart that Belgian character,” said Craig Koontz, co-owner and head brewer at SunRift Beer Company in Kalispell.

Koontz uses the same strain of yeast — Forbidden Fruit — for all his Belgian brews and can produce wildly different esters and phenols from the same strain of yeast.

In his Working Man’s Wheat, Koontz uses a warmer fermentation temperature to keep the yeast active, giving off brighter, citrusy and fruitier esters.

“You want to highlight the citrus character, the coriander, the orange peel, and this kind of citrusy ester comes off the Belgian yeast strain,” Koontz said. “We intentionally drop the PH so it is a little more jowl-watering and a little more tart.”

The result is a citrusy beer, light on the palate with the heavy wheat base, a hint of clove, a creamy body and a slightly tart finish.

Compare this experience to the Over Under Belgian Dubbel.

“In the (Over Under), we’re trying to get into that Belgian dubbel wheelhouse,” Koontz said. “A more malt-centric beer with a darker caramel malt profile to it. It’s not heavy and still dry.”

Koontz ferments the dubbel at cooler temperatures to slow down the ester production.

“We slow down the yeast from working so hard and, for lack of a better term, sweating more,” he said.

The dubbel is a strong beer that drinks light with esters of ripe orchard fruits and notes of plum and raisin. The beer finishes pleasantly dry, and the mild hop character adds notes of cranberries.

Of course, the wit and the dubbel are two different styles and can’t technically be compared side by side, as they both achieve the goals of their different categories.

Tasting these together, you can, however, get a good sense of the excitement and flavors that yeast can have on a beer. Even the same exact yeast strain can impart a multitude of esters and phenols specific to that style. You can truly taste how the yeast works differently.

“We also don’t do any filtering,” said Koontz. “We are cellaring the beer (to clarify) and tapping it when it’s ready.”

Different beers need diverse cellaring times.

“So for the Belgian dubbel and the high-alcohol beers, we like to cellar them for like a month,” said Koontz. “The beer is still maturing, it’s still developing and still coming together.”

Koontz said he concentrates all his Belgian beers in the open-top fermenter. A process rooted in the tradition of all beers at one time or another, this can add exciting, unplanned and unexpected flavors by catching wild yeast — yeast that historically could have floated in through Belgian farmhouse doors — during the fermentation.

SunRift offers a daily “growler hour” where, although pints cannot be sold after 8 p.m., growler fills to take home are discounted $4 from 8 to 9 p.m.

 Working Man’s Wheat
Style: Belgian-Style Witbier IBU: 12 ABV: 4.7% Malts: Wheat, Pale, and Acidulated Hops: Nugget and Summit Yeast: Forbidden Fruit Appearance: Bright pale straw color, very hazy. Description: Pleasant, malty-sweet grain flavor with additions of coriander and orange peel to accentuate the fruit-forward and spicy yeast character. Crisp with a tart finish.

Over Under Belgian Dubbel
Style: Belgian-Style Dubbel IBU: 36 ABV: 7.5% Malts: 2 Row Pale, Victory, Caramel, Midnight Wheat (for color) Hops: Mosaic Yeast: Forbidden Fruit Appearance: Amber with a slight hint of crimson, very clear Description: Mild esters of ripe orchard fruits. The slightest hop character adds notes of cranberries, plums and red apple. Finishes very dry.

Where to get it: Working Man’s Wheat and Over Under Belgian Dubbel can only be found on tap at SunRift Beer Company, 55 First Ave. West North in downtown Kalispell. For more information on the brewery or beers on tap, visit www.sunriftbeer.com or call (406) 314-6355.

Pub Talk

→ According to the Beer Judge Certification Program (BJCP) guidelines, the Witbier is “a 400-year-old Belgian beer style that died out in the 1950s; it was later revived by Pierre Celis at Hoegaarden, and has grown steadily in popularity over time, both with modern craft brewers and mass-market producers who see it as a somewhat fruity summer seasonal beer.”

Although Belgian brewers have strong ties to tradition, historically they weren’t constrained by law like, say, the Germans with the German reinheitsgebot — a purity law that restricted brewers to brewing nothing but barley, hops, water and yeast — so flavors can greatly fluctuate even within the same styles. It is this ability to experiment with flavor that can make Belgian beer taste exciting and surprising.

Belgian Lace (Lacing) is a characteristic and persistent latticework pattern of foam left on the inside of the glass as a beer is consumed. The look is reminiscent of fine lacework from Brussels or Belgium, and is a desirable indicator of beer quality in Belgium.

MAIN PHOTO: Co-owner and head brewer Craig Koontz, left, and brewer Kevin Mincheff are seen in SunRift Beer Company’s tasting room in Kalispell.