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. (pic: Cambria Griffith courtesy The Bruery)
EP: What do you love about sours?
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 definately agree 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. (pic: Cambria Griffith courtesy The Bruery)
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.
What does "Sour Jim" love about sours?
My main love for sours stem from our choice to embrace the funk, and more importantly, the continuous learning curve that is brought about by the use of Brettanomyces and acid forming bacteria in our products. Using these agents to produce truly unique beers constantly test the theory of how fermentation, barrel aging, and flavor/aroma of each strain can be so wildly unpredictable and unique.
Their Agrestic (2014) is based on Fireston's original flagship beer, Double Barrel Ale, or DBA, which 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. The nose and taste bring citrus along with a gorgeous mix of coconut, vanilla and spice.
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.
Bretta Weisse will be in bottles July 25th. Agrestic and Krieky Bones will be available August 22nd. And the wild brewers also have a Hood River Strawberry Saison in the works.
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.
Also pick up a bottle of the special Framboys, wild ale brewed with raspberries and boysenberries. It's decedent.
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?
"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, and 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. (Hangar pix: Hanger 24 Brewery)
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.
While sours still make up a relatively small portion of the craft beers that are available, they are becoming more and more prevalent - in small batches.
Sours are brewers way of coloring outside the lines. Get funky and join the wild, wild yeast of the beer world.