Ensō is an old Zen word meaning “a circle that is hand-drawn in one or two uninhibited brushstrokes to express a moment when the mind is free to let the body create”.
That’s how I almost felt tasting beer with that name at the recent Indy Man Beer Con in Manchester. Brewed using wasp yeast and in-season apricots, it tasted naturally honeyed, giving a whole new slant on ‘amber nectar’. I was exquisitely pure. You always get surprises from the Wild Beer Co, but this surpassed expectations. So what was the backstory behind the buzz?
The Shepton Mallett based brewers are celebrating their 10th anniversary, so sought a statement beer to grace their presentation box. Like the Royal Funeral preparations it has been a drawn out process. Eureka moment came when they managed to harvest a wild yeast from an abandoned wasp’s nest and a handful of dead wasps discovered on the farm next to the brewery.
Five months’ harvesting later and it was ready to kickstart Ensō. The fresh apricots and British hops seemed a perfect fit for this one-off 6% ABV wild ale, currently available only as part of the Wild Beer Co 10th Anniversary Box (pre-order via the web shop at £74.99). But there are plans for it to be released as a separate product before Christmas.
Wild Brew Co consulted with entomologists (as you do) along the way. “This kind of project is what we are all about, so it had to be investigated. Wasps are proven to play a significant part in the preserving of wild yeast throughout the colder months, and then helping to reintroduce it back into the wild when spring arrives.”
For the full narrative read their blog. Then consider the wider entomological picture.
Research shows the importance of wasps to the brewing process. They preserve the yeast picked up from summer fruits over the cold winter months and continue to preserve it for reintroduction in the spring. A couple of academics from University of Florence found that the guts of wasps provide a safe winter refuge for yeast – specifically saccharomyces cerevisiae, the fungus we use to make wine, beer and bread.
For years scientists had assumed that yeast’s ability to show up on virtually every grape in a vineyard was most likely due either to birds or bees with wind scattering a factor. The trail then narrowed to wasps, which hibernate, then construct nests in the spring.
To find out if wasps were indeed the saviour of yeasts, the team collected samples from 17 Italian vineyard regions. Result: he majority of them harboured yeast in their guts across all four seasons and the yeast turned up in the guts of the young shortly after they were first fed ensuring that the yeast could carry on indefinitely.
Thanks, wasps. And by the way the wasp-free remainder of the Wild Beer Co line-up was among the best on show at Indy Man and the most comprehensive I’ve encountered since dropping in on their Bristol waterfront taproom. Top of my bucket list, though, is a visit to their HQ a few miles from Glastonbury.
Matthew Curtis in his excellent Modern British Beer (CAMRA Books, £15.99) describes “a certain peacefulness to the location – touch of magic in the air, perhaps. Inside the barrel store the air is taut with the musty scent of beer maturing in oak. It’s a climate ripe for the practice of the mystical art of spontaneous fermentation and he creation of evocative beers that live up to the ‘Wild’ element of the brewery’s name.
You can almost feel the benign presence of the wasps in the barn.
Main wasp image by barockschloss.