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There's A Tank At This Malden Brewery That's Rarely Cleaned — And That's A Good Thing

Inside Idle Hands Craft Ales taproom in Malden. (Pien Huang for WBUR)MoreCloseclosemore
Inside Idle Hands Craft Ales taproom in Malden. (Pien Huang for WBUR)

There’s a tank at Idle Hands Craft Ales brewery in Malden that’s rarely cleaned. And it’s making some amazing farmhouse beers.

Tart and dry, floral and fruity, with notes of pineapple, mango and citrus. Few of these flavors come from added fruits, explains Idle Hands lead brewer Brett Bauer. They’re all byproducts of a proprietary house blend of yeast and bacteria, cultivated in an experimental brew program — called Funky Town — exploring ways to make new flavors in beer.

The tank at Idle Hands cites a George Clinton lyric: "The desired effect is what [you] get when you improve your interplanetary funksmanship." (Pien Huang for WBUR)
The tank at Idle Hands cites a George Clinton lyric: "The desired effect is what [you] get when you improve your interplanetary funksmanship." (Pien Huang for WBUR)

Former head brewer Ben Howe brought the line of funky saisons to Idle Hands. He called his farmhouse brews Enlightenment Ales.

Traditionally, farmhouse ales were a product of their environment. Farms in rural Belgium would brew beer as a refreshing and potable drink for their summer laborers. They gathered whichever barley, grains and hops were available, and fermented them with wild yeasts and bacteria. Flavors would vary from place to place, and year to year.

When Howe left Idle Hands in 2015 (to helm a small farmhouse brewery in rural Denmark), he left the dregs from his past Brettanomyces beers. The brewery was in transition since its space in Everett was earmarked for the new Wynn casino so the mixed culture slurry of yeast and bacteria sat dormant in a keg. When Idle Hands started up again last summer in Malden, founder Chris Tkach and new lead brewer Brett Bauer set up a steel brew tank in the corner, labeled it “Funky Town,” added the slurry and got to work with new experimental farmhouse brews.

There have been four saisons released so far from the re-established Funky Town tank.

While the ingredients vary — #2, Child of the Sun, was brewed with wheat and rye; #4, Croupier, with honey — Bauer detects a delicate, fruity tartness that’s consistent throughout. He can still taste the bright lemon notes from previous Enlightenment brews in new batches.

The steel mixed culture tank is a modern take on old methods. Historically, saisons were fermented and aged in wood casks — the natural habitat for Brettanomyces yeast. Nearby, Trillium (Boston) and Night Shift (Everett) breweries are bringing back barrel-aging for farmhouse beers. While breweries in Maine and New York are building industrial coolships — giant, open-air vessels — to spontaneously ferment their beers with yeast and bacteria from the natural environment, grounding the beer in its local surroundings.

Idle Hands lead brewer Brett Bauer. (Pien Huang for WBUR)
Idle Hands lead brewer Brett Bauer. (Pien Huang for WBUR)

But Funky Town isn’t about bottling the urban, industrial Malden terroir. Bauer’s a chemist by training. He worked in the pharmaceutical industry before switching to beer. As a brewer, he’s like a chef. He starts with a recipe and research, imagines how his product will turn out, and then creates it, aiming to please the palate. The closed, steel tank fermentation creates the clean, crisp flavor and tartness that he intends for the beers.

On a recent visit to the taproom, Funky Town batch #4 is up: Croupier, a Bière de Miel made with 180 pounds of orange blossom honey and lemon zest. Lee Elm, a beer tourist visiting from Georgia, says he enjoyed its subtle sweetness and dry finish. Brian Mahaney, a friend of Bauer’s from Roslindale, took a break from his lager for “a bit of pop.” The Croupier delivered, he says, with its bright passion fruit flavor.

Bauer predicts that the current batch in the tank — #6, brewed with 300 pounds of peach puree — will be extra tropical and spicy from the summer heat. “If you stress [the yeast],” he says, “they’ll throw all these expressive flavors.” It’ll take a few weeks — maybe months — to see if he’s right.

Once it’s bottled, they’ll do an annual tank sterilization. And for 2018, the Funky Town mix is starting fresh. “New year, new microbes,” says Tkach, the brewery's founder.

The long-term goal of the brewing program is to explore how different microbe combinations interact and change over time. The hope is to create unique and delicious flavors in beer. They’re currently sourcing rare strains of yeast and bacteria, to evolve into a new, distinct flavor profile in 2018.


Bottles of the Funky Town saisons are available at the Idle Hands taproom, and batch #3 — Iron Garde — is back on tap. Batch #5, Three Card Monte, will be released by the end of August, and batch #6 is expected to be coming out in early October. 

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