We often hear the word funk tossed around when people talk about Brettanomyces (Brett) and/or sour beers, but what does it mean? Some people interpret it as a barnyard, leather or horse blanket character. To others, it's fruity aromas and flavors that are reminiscent of citrus or stone fruits that are a couple of days past ripe.
While both of those interpretations are spot on, neither really sound all that appetizing, do they? Yet among fans of sour beer (or even those who are sour-curious), these descriptors take on a whole new positive meaning. All of a sudden you're trying to convince your friends that sweaty horse and old cherry pie flavors are a good thing in beer. Why is that? I'd like to propose another definition of funk that gets at why "off" tastes, when combined, suddenly have got it going on.
Funk - A harmony of what are normally off-aromas and off-flavors as a result of the ingredients used in Brett or mixed ferment beers, forming a unique flavor profile outside of the Sacchromyces beer spectrum.
To parallel this, I'd like to draw on another use of the word funk: the music genre. Bands like Parliament, Sly and the Family Stone, Cymande and the JB's have percussion, keys, horns, guitar and vocals all coming together to form arrangements that you can't help but nod your head or tap your foot to, even if you're not a fan of the style.
Truly funky beers should elicit a very similar sensation on the palate, where you might taste leathery, horsey, and cherry pie, and you don't know why. But you like it. The barnyard, old fruit components along with Sacchromyces components and optional lactic acid bacteria should combine resulting in layered complexity and a variety of flavors that pull the taster in, even if he or she has not completely crossed over to the sour side These beers can be simple saison recipes of just a few ingredients, like the four member band The Meters, or a blend of three beers with multiple cultures plus fruit and oak, a bit more like the ten plus member Funkadelic.
A sound beer should be your baseline, but the style choices are really limitless. Just like the spiced, fruit and wood beer categories, taking a flawed beer and adding Brett or bugs to it is not going to "fix" it. The only recipe change I would recommend would be to substitute 5% - 20% of your malt bill for wheat, even if the base style doesn't call for it. Wheat adds dextrins and body in the form of complex starches for the Brett to chew on over time. Without some wheat, Brett beers can often come off too thin and dry.
If using lactic acid bacteria like Lactobacillus and Pediocacaus, be mindful that they are very hop sensitive, and any wort over about 12 IBU's is going to kill them off immediately. Consider pre-boil souring methods like sour mash and kettle sour, make an "acid beer" to blend at packaging, or leave these out in favor of Brett. Beyond that there aren't a lot of confines. It's homebrew, experiment.
In closing, there is a point where funk music and funky beer diverge. Funk music is gritty, dirty, some would even say nasty (in a good way), and these are things your brewery should never be. It's always important to point out that whenever you're working with non-Sacchromyces cultures, cleanliness and sanitation are paramount. Consider having separate sets of clean and funky hoses and other cold side plastic bits, buckets, carboys and even fermentation and racking spaces. Finally, remember that Brett is a less domesticated yeast than Sacchromyces. While your fermentation may be done by the reading on your hydrometer, ester profiles of these beers can continue to develop and change for months or even years after primary fermentation has subsided. Let the funk be your guide and taste as needed until you're happy with the results.