Driven by nature’s unpredictability and culinary expression, experienced brewers are adapting traditional European techniques to bring bursts of intentionally tart and tangy flavors in beers as luminous as an autumn sunset.
In the mid-nineteenth century, back when beer was aged and shipped in wooden barrels, before the advent of refrigeration, nearly all beer was – on some levels - sour.
Practicing patience and an artful curiosity, sours can take up to two to three years to produce. But the wait is worth its weight in golden, deep amber and coppery-orange colored beers.
All hail Pediococcus, Lactobacillus, and Brettanomyces. The remarkable flavors in sour ales can be attributed to these wild yeast strains.
With bright flavors and carbonated mouthfeels of champagne and lemonade, these rising stars of the beer world are perfect for warmer months.
Just a couple hours south of the Coachella Valley, sour specialists, Lost Abbey Brewery, hand bottles every sour beer, eight bottles at a time. Their 2015 Framboise de Amorosa is coming out in July. In northern California, Russian River ages each batch of beer in a specific type of wine barrel (Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, Cabernet Sauvignon). And over in the Great Lakes region, Jolly Pumpkin is the only brewery that ages every beer.
While Lost Abbey, Russian River and Jolly Pumpkin have been wreaking sensory havoc for over 30 years collectively, the following Southern California breweries are helping to lead the sour resurgence, on varying and awesomely quirky levels.
The Bruery: A Chat with Benjamin Weiss
Benjamin is The Bruery’s Marketing Director and the brewery’s second ever employee. The Bruery just celebrated their 7th year in May.
Benjamin became a professional brewer at The Bruery in 2008, just two years after starting to homebrew in Los Angeles. He eventually became the brewer on the infamous Black Tuesday.
EP: What’s your background brewing sours?
BW: I just drank them. Brewing them is pretty much the same as anything, you’re just fermenting slightly differently...most of our sours are aged in a used wine barrel, most of them nowadays, actually, primary fermentation starts in an oak barrel, then we rack into smaller oak barrels.
EP: Do you have any particular favorite wineries you like to get your barrels from?
BW: No, as far as the sour beers, we get the barrels from wineries, but we’re really using a neutral barrel. We clean them out…so as long as they’re newer, solid barrels, we’re happy with them.
EP: What do you love about sours?
BW: Wow, that’s a good question. I don’t know. I’ve loved sours since I’ve first tried them back in my homebrew meeting about 10 years ago. I don’t know, there’s just something, when you have a good sour, there’s something complex and delicious about it. Like most of our sours are not purely lactic fermentation. They’re not just one note. It’s hard to describe, it’s almost a clean sour taste...also the funkiness that you can get from different strains of Brett that comes with time. Sometimes it takes quite a bit of time…I find them just fascinating.
EP: What do you think of the resurgence, or popularity of sours?
BW: Yeah. It’s crazy. I was just commenting to one of my coworkers that, we were at some festival, that five years ago, every single person that came up to you, you had to explain what a sour beer was…now almost everyone walks up and says, ‘oh you have a sour beer?’. It’s completely the opposite. At least with the beer crowd. It’s still a very, very small segment of beer. But within the craft beer aficionado community, it’s increasingly more popular.
EP: What are some of your favorites from The Bruery and why?
BW: One of my favorites we make is Rueuze, our kind of Gueuze style…it’s gotten a little bit better every year. It has that funky character that I like.
Gueuze is a type of lambic made by blending young (1-year-old) and old (2- to 3-year-old) lambics, which is then bottled for a second fermentation.
Rueuze is a blend of their sour blonde ale from several of their oak barrels, some of which have been aging several months, some several years. Notes of apricots, peach, lemon and bright barnyard funk flavors come through – perfect for summer. The Bruery Terreux suggests pairing it with smoked salmon with fresh goat’s cheese. I’ll go with that.
EP: What are some of your upcoming plans?
BW: We’re launching a tasting room for Bruery Terreux [in Anaheim] hopefully at the end of this year, if not early next year. And we’re just going full steam ahead. Coming out soon, we’ve got a Jester King collaboration and a Prairie collaboration at Terreux.
Bruery Terreux is a new-ish brand, loosely translating to “Earthy Bruery” in French. Developed by Patrick Rue of The Bruery, it’s a new space that focuses solely on their farmhouse-style ales fermented with the wild yeasts.
The Jester King collaboration will be coming out in about two months.
Firestone Walker: A Brewery in Wine Country
The “accidental” story of Barrelworks is a beautifully tasty one. The story of renegade brewers Matt Brynildson,“Sour Jim” and Jeffers Richardson has grown from its humble beginnings in 2005 to over 1,500 barrels, just south of Paso Robles, in Buellton.
Jeffers is the Director of Barrelworks (aka “Barrelmeister”).
EP: What’s your fascination with sours?
JR: I love how it contributes depth and complexity to beer. Acidity ads a whole new dimension of flavor to beer…and plays teasingly with wild yeast and oak, when those components are involved.
EP: How long have you been experimenting with sours?
JR: My palate has been experimenting with acidified beers since 1985, when I lived in Brussels and first tried them. But I didn’t become comfortable with wild beer production until I teamed up with Jim. I'm old school. I was indoctrinated in the ways of clean beer practices. Once we were given our own padded room [facility], and the inmates were allowed to run it, I was more comfortable. Jim, on the other hand has been a certifiable experimenter of sours for some time.
Masterblender, Jim Crooks – aka Sour Jim- started making wild beers in local wine barrels. This innovative and unprecedented barrelhouse is the birth house of several of the wildly coveted beers being poured annually at the Firestone Walker Invitational Beer Festival, held every May.
Their Agrestic (2014) began from their DBA, and then underwent a “chrysalis” process involving 87% French and 13% American Oak barrels and a proprietary collection of micro flora. It spends 14 months there. This sour leans towards the punker, tropical and oaky side of things and is brewed with B. lambicus, L. lindneri and L. brevis.
According to Jeffers, the acidity in a beer should enhance and support other aspects of the beer.
“We want to build layers of complexity.”
Sour Opal is an American Gueuze style with a Titratable Acidity (T.A.) of 6.6 g/L. You’ll notice on the Firestone Walker Barrelworks labels this acidity, which is something that currently, no other brewery divulges. With their home in wine country, Firestone Walker has adapted traditions and techniques from their winery friends.
La Piccola is a new collaborative cross-continental dark Saison that was featured at the Firestone Walker Beer Invitational in May. The collaboration between brewmasters Agostino Arioli of Birrificio Italiano and Matt Brynildson of Firestone Walker resulted in two very similar beers.
Agostino brewed his version with Sichuan peppercorns, sourced directly from a spice hunter in Italy.
Coachella Valley Brewing: Pucker Up in the Desert
Chris Anderson has been brewing up his sour program in Thousand Palms over the past year.
EP: What sours are on tap now?
On tap now is the Peche, an American wild ale with locally grown white peaches and pediococcus, lactic and multiple Brettanomyces cultures. Tasters are $3 and there’s only one keg left.
EP: When did you start this, or think about starting to brew sours?
CA: We immediately started getting into that mode when we had the capacity to store that type of a beer. We got a bunch of tanks dedicated just for making sour beers. That was probably about a year ago. That was kind of the inception of the first couple sour bases that we use to make a couple different beers with a batch of different fruits.
EP: How many tanks?
CA: We have three right now. We immediately made a sour base which is your run of the mill wheat beer and used some really old hops, which is typical of sour beers. You want to use old, cheesy, skanky hops, rather than the real aromatic ones. You don’t want that to shine through in the beer. We aged it away, we use a special flora. We have an onsite laboratory here that we can do micro – we built our own culture, that we inoculate all the barrels with, as well as the wort.
And the sour program at CVB is taking off. Anderson even hinted they might be expanding their sour program – outside of their current space – in the near future.
Their new Profligate Society will feature upcoming sours, Cabernet barrel aged Epineux Poire prickly pear wild ale, Cabernet barrel aged Cassis Noir black currant sour ale and Cabernet barrel aged Flame Rouges wild ale. Less than 500 bottles of each beer will be released to Profligate members.
CA: We have the Flame Rouges, brewed with red vine raisons and red flame grape juice. That’s fermenting in the barrel now. We’ll be releasing it late this year, probably Fall…we’ve got a guava one fermenting, too.
EP: What do you love about sours?
CA: I don’t know, it’s kind of mysterious ya’ know? A little unorthodox. It’s the opposite of everything you’re told as a brewer, even the way the mash is done. The long aging, you still may not get really high quality results…and it’s all about blending too.
And Anderson has blending experience, having won homebrew medals for his sours, before becoming a commercial brewer. He would sweep these categories in competitions.
Hangar 24 – New Sours are Landing
Hangar’s new sours First Crush and Sanguinello are launching this Saturday.
"First Crush" is a Sour Red Ale aged in red wine barrels with Syrah grape juice, there will be 2,300 bottles. The addition of Syrah grape juice after primary fermentation adds vinous, tannic notes of red wine, ripe fruit and leather.
“Sanguinello” is a sour blonde aged in white wine barrels with blood orange juice. They squeezed the juice of blood oranges into Sauvignon Blanc barrels, which held nine and eighteen month old sour blonde ale. There will be only 1,200 bottles.
When venturing into your sour quest, don’t miss out on the much-revered Cantillon Brewery, Drie Fonteinen, Allagash Brewing, Side Project, Sante Adairius Rustic Ales, Cascade Brewing, Almanac Beer Co., The Rare Barrel or Mikkeller.
Sours are brewers way of coloring outside the lines. Get funky and join the wild, wild yeast of the beer world.
As part of 21st Amendment’s launch events in Southern California (June 17th – June 20th ) and the run-up to LA Beer Week, brewmaster Shaun O’Sullivan has teamed up with his good friend Alexandra Nowell, the head brewer at Three Weavers Brewing Company in Inglewood, CA to produce a crisp and delicious watermelon Saison called “We Saw Them Coming.” The beer has the refreshing quality of a Belgian-style Saison and the unique and summery quality of real watermelon, and weighs in at 6.3% ABV.
Collaborative Cross-Continental Dark Saison to Debut at Firestone Walker Invitational Beer Fest
Paso Robles, CA: Multiple versions of the same collaborative dark saison wild ale—called La Piccola—will be unveiled at the 2015 Firestone Walker Invitational Beer Fest on May 30, capping off a year of cross-continental brewing hijinks between brewmasters Agostino Arioli of Birrificio Italiano and Matt Brynildson of Firestone Walker Brewing Company.
La Quinta Brewery has been busy brewing for Coachella Valley locals and visitors since late 2013. Last year, the brewery delivered 1,000 barrels from their Wildcat Drive location. This year, they are on par to brew 2,000 barrels and owner Scott Stokes shared they might be expanding with one or two more fermenters, in the near future.
Victory Brewing Company (Downingtown, PA) is rolling out their first canned offerings 2015. The newly build Parkesburg location has around 5,000 square feet designated for can filling and packaging. First up: Victory Summer Love.
Poway, CA – On Saturday, May 16th, Green Flash Brewing Co. executives and City of Poway officials will gather in front of a crowd of local beer and art lovers to tap the inaugural cask, marking their much-anticipated public grand opening of Green Flash Cellar 3. The San Diego craft brewery’s 2nd regional packaging facility and tasting room is dedicated to the production of rare and barrel-aged Green Flash beers.
Session IPA Now Available in Cans Year Round Thanks to Brewmaster’s Hallertau Hop Quest
Paso Robles, CA— Firestone Walker Brewing Company launched Easy Jack last year as a different kind of session IPA, one with surprising complexity fostered by a rare selection of newer hop varieties from around the world.
But the brewery learned the hard way what “rare” really meant when it launched Easy Jack as a summer seasonal—and then promptly ran out of the hops by mid-summer, spelling an early end to Easy Jack.
Now Firestone Walker is doubling down and re-launching Easy Jack in 2015 as a year-round release, and adding cans to the mix along the way.
The difference this time is that Brewmaster Matt Brynildson went the extra 5,000 miles to make sure he doesn’t run out of those crucial Easy Jack hops.
Indeed, during last September’s harvest season, Brynildson traveled to Germany and spent several days in the Hallertau region, the birthplace of hops dating back more than 1,000 years. There, he hung out at small family hop farms and worked with the farmers to secure an ample supply of Mandarina Bavaria and Hull Melon—two backbone hops for Easy Jack.
Brynildson said that Firestone Walker is the first American craft brewery to put such emphasis and weight behind these new German hop varieties.
“Mandarina and Melon are entirely unique, and there’s nothing grown in the U.S. that’s anything like them,” he said. “They have this classy European swagger. I first experienced a beer brewed with Mandarina in Germany a few years ago, and I knew immediately that I wanted to make it a centerpiece of our own session IPA. This trip was all about making sure we could continue to do that.”
The Book on Easy Jack: Hoofing It in Hallertau
Brynildson was so inspired by his travels that he penned a small pictorial book documenting the Hallertau hop scene’s distinctive blend of traditional culture and cutting-edge cultivation. A digital version of the book can be viewed here: www.firestonebeer.com/brewery/hops-of-easy-jack.php
By the end of the trip, Brynildson had visited numerous hop farms, all of them small multigenerational family operations run by fathers and sons.
“I was overwhelmed by their hospitality,” he said. “Here’s this American craft brewer walking onto their land, and I wasn’t sure how receptive they’d be. But they genuinely wanted to bounce ideas around, and there was this profound sense that we’re all in this together, trying to get the most out of these up-and-coming hop varieties.”
So now Easy Jack is back, and better than ever. “We were making collaborative decisions that incrementally improved hops and ultimately the beer,” Brynildson said.
The Hops of Easy Jack
“With Easy Jack, we didn’t want to just make a miniaturized IPA,” Brynildson said. “When you dial down the malt and alcohol profiles to make an IPA sessionable, things can become bland and unfocused pretty quickly. The key for us was to find these hops that have full texture and flavor, while still bringing the fruity pop that you want from a true IPA.”
Mandarina Bavaria – Hallertau, Germany
“Mandarina is the defining hop of Easy Jack. It’s real orangy, zesty, like a fresh orange off the tree, which I’ve never smelled in any hop before.”
Hull Melon – Hallertau, Germany
“I call this the rhythm guitar. It has this melony, ripe tropical fruit characteristic that complements the citrus of the Mandarina.”
Southern Hemisphere Hops
“These hops are equally elusive as our prized Mandarina and Melon. We have begged, borrowed and traded…Yes, we literally traded 8 Wired Brewery in New Zealand an equal amount of Centennial and Amarillo hops for some fresh Nelson hops. The transaction was more complicated than any hop purchase I have ever made.”
Blend of U.S. Hops
“Mosaic provides a tropical vibe with herbal and pine notes, while Citra and Amarillo add complexity and dimension.”
Now in Cans
Easy Jack becomes one of the first Firestone beers to be canned, courtesy of the brewery’s new state-of-the-art canning line made by KHS, a leading packaging company based Dortmund, Germany. Easy Jack will also be available in bottles.
“Putting Easy Jack in cans was a no-brainer,” Brynildson said. “Cans are just fun, they’re light and easy to carry to the beach or a party or wherever. They’re a great fit for a session beer like this.”
Look for Easy Jack’s return starting now in markets across the United States.
# # #
“Eastbound and down, loaded up and truckin'
Ah we gonna do what they say can't be done
We've got a long way to go, and a short time to get there
I'm eastbound, just watch old Bandit run
Keep your foot hard on the pedal
Son, never mind them brakes
Let it all hang out cause we got a run to make
The boys are thirsty in Atlanta
and there's beer in Texarkana
We'll bring it back no matter what it takes”
Brewers Association Reports Annual Growth Figures for Small and Independent Brewers
Boulder, CO • March 16, 2015—The Brewers Association (BA), the trade association representing small and independent American craft brewers, today released 2014 data on U.S. craft brewing(1) growth. For the first-time ever, craft brewers reached double-digit (11 percent) volume share of the marketplace.
In 2014, craft brewers produced 22.2 million barrels, and saw an 18 percent rise in volume(2) and a 22 percent increase in retail dollar value. Retail dollar value(3) was estimated at $19.6 billion representing 19.3 percent market share.
There continues to be a bigger demand for these tepid, lightly effervescent cask-conditioned ales thanks to Gregory Nagel, founder of Firkfest. On March 21st, casks will be celebrated in Anaheim with over 30 Southern Calfornia craft breweries.