I’ve often quipped that craft beer drinkers tend to be a promiscuous lot. I’m not referring to their personal relationship habits, but rather their beer drinking ones. Many go from beer to beer, style to style and brand to brand, seldom returning to the same beer twice. Breweries and the beers they produce are so prolific now that it makes playing the field exceedingly easy and trying the next new thing — the beer equivalent of speed dating.
Citing the desire to seek out whatever is different or trendy, beer consumers sip myriad IPAs, barrel-aged ales and, most recently, sour beers in their passion for pushing the flavor envelope. What is most interesting, however, is that the beer trends above are not really new; they’re just new again. IPA (India Pale Ale), as a broad style category, has been around since the late 1700s. Before stainless steel fermenters and bright tanks for fermenting and conditioning beer, all beers were barrel (wood) aged in one way, shape or form. Sour beers might just be the oldest of all, finding their origins as a defined style in the “burgundies of Belgium” produced in the Flemish region of that country for several centuries and in other parts of the world for much, much longer.
You might be asking yourself, “sour beer?" People drink that on purpose?
Indeed, and it is becoming more popular all the time. We are just a little behind the curve here in the United States, but we’re doing our best to catch up with more and more breweries producing their own versions of traditional sour beer styles like Berliner Weisse, Flanders Red, Gose, Lambic and a whole batch of novel sour beers that don’t fit neatly into a traditional parameters, but are categorized loosely as “wild” ales.
“I believe we are experiencing the 'wild west' years of American sour beers on the national level with all the varied success you might imagine,” said Dr. Matt McCarroll, director of Southern Illinois University’s Fermentation Science Institute.
Sour beers are made sour by utilizing special yeast strains or bacteria added during the various phases of the brewing process via a controlled “dose” or by spontaneous fermentation, a means by which native, ambient yeast or bacteria comes into contact with unfermented beer in an open vessel. This may sound crazy, but it’s actually how all beer was fermented before we learned about yeast and began using controlled cultures. Probably the most well-known wild yeast strain used in brewing is called brettanomyces, or simply “Brett.” This wild yeast is known to impart unique and often intense aromas and flavors affectionately described as “funky.” This wild yeast is what has traditionally given Belgian-made sour beer, like lambic, its sour power. Another common addition is lactobacillus, a bacteria you might already be familiar with since it’s used in a variety of food products such as yogurt. This bacteria provides the tartness in traditional German beers like Berliner Weisse and Gose and tends to produce a cleaner, more specific tart character.
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As popularity for sour beer grows, so does availability on local store shelves and taps.
“In my beer class I teach at SIU, we go through 40 to 50 styles during the semester, McCarroll said. One of my favorite classes is Sour Day. When I first began teaching the class, it was challenging to find good examples of most of the styles, such as Berliner Weisse, and some historical styles, such as Gose, were unheard of. Fast forward to 2016, and Gose has gone gangbusters and many American craft breweries are culturing rather than sanitizing wild yeast and bacteria in their breweries.”
A few prominent examples you can find locally are Perennial Artisan Ales Hopfentea (Berliner Weisse), Sierra Nevada Otra Vez (Gose), The Bruery Oude Tart (Flanders Red) and Goose Island Lolita (Wild Ale).
Speaking of local, our Southern Illinois breweries are trying their hands at sour beers as well, with Big Muddy Brewing in Murphysboro and Scratch Brewing in Ava leading the way. Scratch Brewing Company co-owner Marika Josephson said “we have had amazing results fermenting sour beers with our sourdough culture. The yeast and bacteria at work in that culture create something that's not bone-dry, but has a refreshing lemon-like tartness. It's an entirely native culture. We created it with yeast and bacteria in our kitchen. So, it's especially fun for us to play around with it because it represents the microflora of this area, just as the many plants we use in our beer do.”
Big Muddy Brewing owner Chuck Stuhrenberg echoed a similar idea when talking about his Sour Du Shawnee beer he produced for the first time a couple of years ago. “The proximity of the Shawnee National Forest, along with the orchards throughout the area, creates an environment that is really interesting for capturing and using ambient yeast and bacteria to produce sour beers.”
If a sour beer sounds like something you would only pour down the drain, convinced it was defective, you might think again. Sours have been around a long time, and anything that has withstood the test of time and palates for this long is probably worth a shot. Some are very subtle. Some are complex and challenging. But, they’re all interesting and that is the real draw of craft beer. Pucker up!