Sour Beers

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the sour beer renaissance is upon us
BY MEGAN HILL

They can be as jaw-achingly tart as a movie theater treat, or aged to mellow complexity. They’re fruity…or not. Some are salty and flecked with coriander. A few are fermented spontaneously with whatever stuff falls from the brewery’s rafters, while others are fermented with specific strains of bacteria and yeast.

They all fall under the category of sour beer, which is exactly as weird as it sounds. It’s also darn tasty, and it may soon be Seattle’s favorite beer.

 

Sours are as old as beer itself. Hundreds of years ago, before brewers knew how to keep the process sterile and controlled, microorganisms would inevitably find their way into the brew. This would sometimes result in a foul tasting concoction that brewers threw out; after all, we’re programmed to associate sour with food or drink gone off (think sour milk—bleh!). But somewhere in those fuzzy early days of beer’s history, someone figured out that sour didn’t necessarily mean illness-inducing, and the stuff stuck around.

Sours are big in Belgium and Germany, where several types have been developed through the centuries, like complex Flanders reds and bright Berliner Weisses (see sidebar). In general, sour beer is made in one of two ways: They’re either purposefully inoculated with a strain of bacteria like Lactobacillus (the stuff that makes yogurt sour) or Pediococcus, or fermented with a yeast called Brettanomyces, a lactic-acid producing yeast that lends funk and acidity. Or, in a much riskier process, they’re fermented spontaneously: Brewers let the unfermented wort sit in an open tub called a Coolship. Whatever drifts down to naturally ferment the beer imparts its flavors, often sour.

 

Locally, sours are on the rise, becoming much more common at breweries and pubs. The two heavy hitters in the sour game are Matt McClung of SchoonerExact and Cody Morris of Epic Ales.

McClung and Morris have different approaches when it comes to sours. McClung’s sours are a specialty item, rather than his brewery’s cornerstone, though he hopes to expand his so-called “sour program.” He starts with a base beer, like a wheat or brown ale, and then ages the beer with fruit in wine barrels. In the barrels, he inoculates the brew with Lactobacillus and Brettanomyces for some sour kick. He ages his beers for about two years, but because it’s largely experimental, McClung taste-tests along the way to determine when the beer is ready. When the beer has a flavor balance and the acid has mellowed, he empties the barrels. Aged sours are typically dry and complex.

“It’s not something we can rush. The beer decides when it’s ready,” he says. If it’s still too sour when they’re ready to pour, they can blend in some of the original base beer to get that balance.

 

McClung’s sours use Washington fruit in six beers: cherries, peaches, and raspberries in the wheat base and apricots, cherries, and raspberries in the brown base. He plans to tap the barrels this summer and keep expanding the line, possibly adding spontaneously fermented lambic into the equation.

Morris, on the other hand, brews some super odd stuff, and his sours can be bracingly tart. These beers are ever-present at his Gastropod taproom. One of my recent favorites, and possibly the strangest beer of all time, was an oyster gose, a salty sour brewed with Hama Hama oyster shells, oyster meat, and brine.

The process that guides his brewing, Morris says, is a lot like song writing. “Sometimes you want to write and/or listen to a straight forward melody and other times you want something more complex. I ideally like to blend the two, make something utterly complex yet approachable at the same time,” Morris says. “It’s a hard balance but ideally that’s the goal. But I also like to challenge people’s concept of what beer is.”

Morris’s current creations include barrel-aged beet and huckleberry sours and a barrel-aged barley sour; the entire line boasts highly enthusiastic punctuation as part of their names. He’s releasing a rye bock aged in a bourbon barrel with Brettanomyces, and some variations on his funky, lemony Party Time!!! sour: a Cinco de Mayo Party Time!!! with agave nectar; All Day Party Time!!!, a smoked pale; a Fourth of July Party Time!!! with corn syrup; and a Canadian Day Party Time!!! that’s made with maple syrup.

 

Sour beers can be risky ventures. Brewers aren’t following a tried and true recipe, so there’s some trial and error involved. Spontaneous fermentation, which Morris sometimes dabbles in, is tricky because there are a lot of microorganisms—and bigger stuff like dust and winged creatures—floating in the air that can contaminate beer. “The wild element makes things really hard to predict, which in any commercial endeavor is pretty scary,” Morris says.

 

There’s more. Brettanomyces can contaminate equipment and ruin non-sours brewed later. Most brewers avoid this by using separate equipment for Brett-inoculated sours, but that can be a hefty purchase for a small brewery. And as McClung recently learned, sours aged in previously-used barrels can harbor bacteria that turn the beer to acid. “We’ll see if we get some decent vinegar out of it, otherwise we’ll just dump it and discard the barrel,” he says.

Challenges aside, McClung and Morris believe sours will soon be ubiquitous in Seattle tap rooms and bars. Small brewers are increasingly turning out beers on the edge of the brewing frontier, like sours. And it seems the unusual stuff appeals to Seattle’s growing audience of craft beer fans, whose palates are rising to the flavor challenges micro- and nano-brewers present.

It may be too bold to predict sours will supplant IPAs as Seattle’s favorite beer, but these tart, offbeat concoctions might give the bitter beer a run for its money, Morris says. “I see sours as having the same excitement that IPAs had maybe four or five years ago when they first started getting popular.”

 

McClung agrees: “We’re kind of going through a renaissance with beer. Who knows where it’s going.”

 

Megan Hill happily places her taste buds in the hands of capable brewers when it comes to weird beer. You can read more from her at MeganHillFreelanceWriter.com.

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