NORTH CENTER — After a decade in business, Half Acre is more wild about beer than ever.
With the recent limited release of 1,900 bottles of Magick Is Purple, the brewery is letting its freak flag fly, joining a small but growing number of brewers, including neighboring Dovetail, experimenting with wild yeast beers.
Brewing with wild yeast instead of a cultivated commercial strain is akin to an actor tossing out the script and improvising. The process is risky and unpredictable, and the results can be amazing or disastrous.
Magick Is Purple's name is a nod to the seeming sorcery at play in wild beers.
"'Magick' is relevant to a sort of alchemy," as well as a reference to noted occultist Aleister Crowley, Half Acre co-founder Gabriel Magliaro explained.
Half Acre co-founder Gabriel Magliaro hand-painted the purple artwork on 500 of Magick Is Purple's 1,900 bottles — a level of detail he said he's not likely to repeat for future releases. [All photos DNAinfo/Patty Wetli]
It's actually microorganisms, not wizardry, at work in wild beers. Some of the same microscopic critters that turn milk into yogurt, transform mild-mannered liquids into vinegar and generally cause lips to pucker. Even for adventurous craft beer drinkers, wild yeast brews are something of an acquired taste and defy nearly any descriptor except "funky" or "sour."
According to Magick Is Purple's label, the brew contains "notes of bread, hay, berry and cherry." Less seasoned palates are likely to register those same flavors as "tart" or simply "weird."
In other words, it's a long way from Half Acre's flagship Daisy Cutter IPA. And that's the point.
"We're always growing, we're still evolving," Magliaro said. "We have to be committed to being on our toes."
There's a core to Half Acre that remains constant, he said, but "everything around it is moving and changing."
From brewing to bottling, Magick Is Purple was a year in the making — versus two to three weeks for a typical ale, Magliaro said — but the groundwork for the beer was actually laid in 2015.
That's when Half Acre shifted the majority of its production to its newer, larger Bowmanville facility and in the process freed up its Lincoln Avenue brewery to serve as a sort of test lab.
Back at the "old" Half Acre, at 4257 N. Lincoln Ave., one team of mad scientists is now devoted to concocting recipes for potential new production beers, while another group explores the wilder side of brewing in a dedicated area dubbed the Wyld Cove, which formerly housed Half Acre's canning line.
Welcome to the Wyld Cove.
Anyone who's ever toured a brewery, with its gleaming towers of stainless steel tanks, will be vaguely disoriented by the Wyld Cove, which could easily be mistaken for a teeny tiny winery.
Shelves of oak barrels, salvaged from wineries and distilleries, hold the successors to Magick — wild beers in various stages of fermentation that will roll out every couple of months in limited amounts, Magliaro said.
"It's not large-scale — it's supposed to be intimate and special," he said.
One wild brew is "hanging out" with 1,000 pounds of Michigan cherries, and who knows what it will pick up from the fruit? said Lee McComb, a member of the Wyld Cove team.
Another low alcohol-by-volume blonde is resting in bourbon barrels Half Acre already used to age an imperial brown ale. Even though the barrels have been rinsed, "yeast and bacterias get deep in the pores of the wood," McComb said.
Though brewing wild beers might seem like a completely freewheeling enterprise, Half Acre is taking a deliberate approach to the process, at least at the outset, learning the rules before it breaks them.
"The biggest thing is just getting off the ground here," McComb said. "We're doing things more scientifically."
By experimenting in different ways with each batch, the Wyld bunch is building up knowledge of the cause and effect of various yeasts and techniques.
"This is a whole other side of the equation. iI's a new avenue. There's so much out there I didn't know existed," McComb said.
Among his early lessons: There is a time to sample a wild beer and a time to leave it alone.
"I'll try and taste each batch once a month. Between two and four months, there's a lot of weird tastes — it's not good," McComb said.
And by "not good," he means undrinkable.
"When it's done, it just kind of becomes clear," McComb said. "The flavor profile becomes clear. You come back and say, 'I think I could drink this.'"
It's all hands on deck in the Wyld Cove: Half Acre's head brewer Matt Young (left) boxes up an unnamed wild beer, which is being "conditioned" for another six to eight months, and Matt Holley caps bottles.
Brewing looks a lot like kitchen duty as Lee McComb rinses bottles in the Wyld Cove.