By Jeffrey V. Smith
One of the most famous and unique beer coolers known to the brewing industry, which was all but lost in the 2013 floods, is finding new life as the source for a unique, new brewing project. Jeff Green, co-owner and brewer at Very Nice Brewing, along his brewing friends at Former Future, literally captured the beer history contained in former gold mine in Sunshine Canyon used to house thousands of craft brews, and host countless tasting sessions, using a centuries old technique known as a coolship. It will be months before anyone knows how it turns out, but the process of creating it is much of the fun for the brewers.
Green credits his friend and Gilpin County resident Tommy Cunningham of the Brewer’s Association with the idea for using a coolship in the mine. Cunningham was friends with Danny Williams, who created the infamous mine cooler. Featured in a 2008 New York Times article, the mine proved to be ideal for beer storage. It stayed a constant 50 degrees and, when maintained, kept the air humid thanks to a small stream.
Thousands of bottles of beer, including many rarities, were kept—and consumed—in the mountainside cooler. Williams’ decade-long job as the cooler manager and beer sorter for the Great American Beer Festival, World Beer Cup and other events helped him fill the shelves with some of contemporary brewing’s most unique, one-of-a-kind and rare beers.
Williams passed away in January 2012 just eight months after being diagnosed with stomach and pancreatic cancer. He was known for his personable nature, easy-going demeanor and love of life—as well as his many Belgian beer parties in the mine.
It turns out the cooler is now the perfect place for a coolship to gather yeast in the air and create a special beer full of brewing history. Coolships are containers with a large surface area used to cool wort, the mixture that ferments into beer. Belgian brewers found, in addition to speeding up cooling, open vessels exposed wort to yeasts and bacteria in the air. The microorganisms produce stunningly complex flavors. “You have this enclosed space where thousands of beers were opened,” Green said. “His son also loved sours, with a lot of natural bacteria, so that is in the air, too.”
The brewers took in a 50-gallon pot, put a mesh over it, filled it with 175-degree wort brewed at Very Nice and left it in the mine overnight. Any microorganisms in the air settled into the mixture as it cooled. The wort was harvested the next day, and now is fermenting in a keg at the brewery. Green will brew new wort into a Cabernet barrel and inoculate it with the mine wort. “It’s a pure, wild spontaneous ale,” he said. “There are ways to sour beer, that aren’t natural, that can be done in days. A beer like this will take months because it’s not cultured yeast, it takes forever. No cultured yeast goes into it, just what was going on in the air. Yeast is very hardy, it stays around.”
The brew is expected to be ready for the Collaboration Beer Fest in March 2016 and should be available in the taproom, too.
Originally published in the September 2015 issue of the MMAC Monthly