YEAST FEST: Where the Wild Things are

Christine Sismondo spends an afternoon with grape witches, beer sisters and other iconoclasts.

Ever try a natural wine that could easily have been mistaken for a lambic beer? Or find out that cider you’re enjoying is actually sparkling wine?  

That sort of thing is happening more and more often these days, thanks to collaborative crossover projects between wine, beer and cider producers—as well as a general drift in the direction of expressions that are higher-acid, fruitier and lower in alcohol.

Since that’s exactly the kind of thing I want to drink all the time, I spent last Sunday at Wild Things—an annual cider, beer and wine festival that, this year, was held at Toronto’s Junction Craft Brewing. This one-day festival, produced by the Beer Sisters (Tara and Crystal Luxmore) and Erika Campbell (Society of Beer Drinking Ladies), is devoted entirely to boundary-crossing, wild-fermented drinks.

The Second Annual Wild Things Festival was held on Sunday way far off the subway line.

What makes these drinks so wild? The yeast. Instead of using commercial yeast (typically developed in a lab and used by alcohol producers to create a specific flavour profile) these wild creators let naturally occurring yeasts (found in the air and on the skins of fruit) go to town on the fruit juice and do their magic on their own. And, in case you’re wondering why anyone would buy commercial yeasts when you can get them to ferment the fruit and turn it into alcohol for free, the answer is that it’s all about taste and consistency.  Yeast is one of the most important flavour drivers in alcohol and, once a company finds the perfect strain, they tend to use it basically forever, so they can release batch after batch of perfectly consistent product.

The discovery that yeast was a living organism in the late nineteenth-century was a game-changer, since it meant people could cultivate specific strains and sell them. Before that, all fermentation was essentially wild.

Consumers, however, now care a lot less about consistency than they used to. The craft beer scene demonstrated that people are opting for a novel experience with every drink—and that ethos is making its way into the wine and cider world, too. The Grape Witches, for example (Krysta Oben and Nicole Campbell, who were pouring at the Wild Things fest), have, in the past, surprised me with pet-nat wines (naturally sparkling) like the lightly-fizzy Birichino Malvasia Blanco from California that could pass for an elegant, dry cider.

Nicole (left) and Krysta (right) are a reckless pair of wild witchy types. Pictured here preparing for some bizarre wiccan wine ritual, we think. Credit: Janelle Los.

The problem with discovering must-drink delicious wines like that, is that they can be maddeningly hard to get, since restaurants and wine bars snap up a lot of the best expressions quickly. One thing that’s nice about Wild Things, then, is that it puts you face-to-face with local agents and producers, so you know where to find that thing you loved. Aside from Grape Witches, a couple of our faves were Blue Mountain’s Grey & Gold Cider Co., which had a hazy and slightly funky 2018 Pet Nat Cider, and Nickel Brook (Burlington), which was pouring a lovely blended and barrel-aged sour.

We started at the Funked Up Cider Bar, ‘cause, really, how do you not go there first?

To me, though, the single-greatest highlight of this year’s Wild Things was Bench Brewing Company’s Pinot Noir Wildwood, a blended sour that was aged and then refermented with Pinot Noir grape juice—a perfect example of how cross-category collaborations are starting to produce drinks that are more than the sum of their parts. Unlike a one-note sour (that can easily lead to palate fatigue), the Pinot Noir Wildwood was rich and complex, with a great balance of sweet berries, tart acidity and light vanilla from the wood.

I spent a lot of time here. Most of the afternoon, in fact.

Bench, which opened a year ago in Beamsville, is a rising star with a strong cult following. You can already get a half-dozen of its products at the LCBO, but I’m tempted to head down to Niagara wine country and visit the brewery itself to try some of its more interesting special releases and collaboration projects. With wineries and distilleries all around, it’s perfectly positioned to be a leader in the movement to finally do away with all those pesky and limiting category divisions.

This may well be where the revolution begins. You heard it here first.