Talking with Mat Waddell, brewer and owner of Wild Mind Artisan Ales, is like catching up with an old friend who happens to be a skilled brewer. His attitude is one of passion, yet he is entirely unassuming and realistic about his business, which opened its doors several weeks ago. There’s no great story about the name Wild Mind, or lightbulb moment to his becoming a brewer. Make no mistake, though, he takes his beer very seriously.
Unlike most new craft breweries, there is much to set this place apart. The brewery is home to specialized equipment not often found in modern American breweries, and microbes are collected from raspberries, gooseberries, and flowers, and blended into an evolving house strain. Wild Mind focuses on Belgian-style beers, wild fermentation, and wood aging. When asked why, Waddell says something unexpectedly profound: “I know how to do this beer. So I’m gonna do this beer.”
After volunteering at Capital Brewing in Madison, he began working at Badger Hill Brewing Company, eventually becoming part of the brewing team. Waddell left his corporate job when he just couldn’t bear it anymore. Now he is in pursuit of funky, estery saisons and the perfectly propagated yeast culture.
The current tap list contains three saisons, two darker beers, three hoppy selections, plus a Table beer. The latter was created to be a solution in which to bathe and grow the yeast, but it was sent out to the public as a very easy-drinking, hazy-pale beer with hallmark grassy and citrus esters. At 3.9% ABV, it’s unexpectedly flavorful, yet Waddell doesn’t really like it. “It’s too thin,” he remarks. Even brewers aren’t immune to personal preference when it comes to their own beer.
Wild Mind avoided many of the mistakes that new breweries make, waiting for batches to be well on their way to perfect before releasing them to the public. That being said, the Double Dry Hopped House Saison and French Saison were crafted with alternate yeast as their intended cultures were not ready. Instead, Insight Brewing graciously offered the yeast used in their Sunken City Saison as an alternate. Second batches of both of these beers are in fermentation now and will debut next week.
The House Saison is a pursuit of perfection. Waddell wants to mimic Prairie Standard, a cult favorite from Prairie Artisan Ales in Oklahoma, while creating something unique. The second batch is due to arrive in a week or so and will be a vast improvement on the first iteration. The major shortfall from the first round of beer was over-oxygenation, resulting in exaggerated phenols in a few of the brews. Though none were undrinkable, the increased clove and pepper notes also made a few of the beers taste similar to one another.
Currently, the Rye Wild Ale is the best seller, an impressive marriage of the nutty rye grain and dark stonefruit character. Even richer fig and cherry notes are found in the Dark Farmhouse Ale, which uses a different mash method than the other beers: 100% Vienna malt is mashed as usual, then the darker roasted malt tops of the tank just before the sparge. A cooler sparge temperature helps avoid tannic or acrid notes.
Much of the buzz has surrounded the large wooden foeders in use at Wild Mind — like oversize barrels used for fermenting and conditioning beer. Foeders are in commercial operation at several European breweries, as well as domestically. New Belgium, Wicked Weed, and New Glarus are among the breweries that rely on these vessels to impart wood character into several beers in a more mild way than wine barrels would.
Personally, though, I am wooed by the shallow stainless bathtub next to the foeders. It’s called a coolship (or koelschip) and it works hand in hand with the vision of the brewery. It is like a rectangular sink, created to be a very specific depth in which to slowly cool the beer. The dextrin-rich wort is poured into the open coolship, allowing it to interact with its environment, and relying on brettanomyces to take care of undesirable compounds. The process produces beautifully complex esters in a process call re-estrification. It’s often a game of chance — more art than science. The goal is to cool the wort in about 24 hours – enough time for the funk to develop. Notable breweries that use the technique include Allagash and Russian River. All beers from Oregon’s deGarde Brewing use the Coolship method of fermentation.
Waddell is undergoing a bit of an identity crisis when it comes to yeast strains. The idea of developing one house blend of yeast and using it for a wide array of styles is, on one hand, appealing. Austin’s Jester King Brewery is known for this practice. It creates a sort of brewing fingerprint.
Upcoming events include the Festival of Oak on October 22nd, which will include the release of the first oak-aged saison, as well as other wood-influenced brews. By November, the staff hopes to be bottling 750s which will be sold at the taproom and eventually distributed. Looking even further ahead, beer created in Foeders will be available to the public by January. The eventual goal is about 75% oak fermented beer on draft at one time. Finally, look out for an upcoming growler take-back program in which the glass can be exchanged for pints and fills at a reduced cost.