Legend has it that great Delta blues artist Robert Johnson, hungry for fame and fortune, met Satan at the Crossroads. The devil granted Johnson’s wishes in exchange for his soul, and soon he was widely admired for his effortless playing and artistry.
Today’s brewers, it would seem, are cutting deals with their own personal devils. Where once you would never invite the devil to come dance in your brewery, many brewers are now opening their doors to Satan’s minions of sour (Brettanomyces, Lactobacillus and Pediococcus) in the hopes of joining the ranks of legendary beers and bellowing out the low pH blues.
In many ways, brewers are stumbling over each other as they race to the sour beer crossroads. Breweries that have never dabbled in the black art of sour beers are wielding machetes in the hopes of blazing trails and entirely new paths. And in doing so, many of them are dancing with Lucifer himself as they polka and cha-cha-cha their way into unfamiliar arenas. So it begs the questions: Are these beers any good, and how did we get here?
Historically, sour beer producers have never had to cut deals with the devil. They chose to embrace his personality years ago. Their Old World methods of wort production were designed to only make sour beers. Yet they represent such a small percentage of brewers making beer this way that their use of micro-organisms and wild yeasts is as if they are witch doctors.
The lambic producers around Brussels and the red ale producers surrounding Flanders share a commonality of sour beer aged in oak barrels for extended periods of time (up to three years). Here, the barrels are used as vessels of hope in the purest sense. Each barrel acts as its own micro universe, and there is only a degree of certainty surrounding each vessel.
In Belgian sour ale production, oak barrels act more as stewards than as custodians. Wort is sent to these barrels in the hopes that all the environmental factors will come together to produce an exceptional beer. Modern-day brewers, conducting most fermentations in stainless steel, are far more custodial in their zest to produce clean and predictable fermentations and resulting beers.
Yet there is a new breed of sour beer producers who are attempting both. And this group is hell-bent on challenging the status quo. While not seeking fame and fortune in the purest sense, they are clearly tempting the devil’s due and making some exceptional beers at the same time. And many of their beers are marrying the flavors of oak with sour beer production.
It was once thought that only Belgian brewers were the best producers of sour beer in the world. And while clearly they remain the specialists of spontaneous fermented beers, there is a brave new world of sour beers from all corners of the globe available to the adventuring enthusiast willing to seek out new and unusual sour beers.
Still, lambic brewers remain the coolest family on the block. The rest of us who are now producing sour beers are moving into their neighborhood. Yet this is no cookie-cutter master-planned community. Lambic continues its anchor tenancy in Sourville, resting squarely on its triumphs and single-style successful production details. In many ways, its brewers act more like parents of a college-aged student who has left to find his or her own lot in life. I’m jealous of them. They are like the cool parents whom every kid respects and looks up to without ever knowing why.
Modern brewers are far more helicopterlike in our parenting of our sour beers. We can’t help it. It’s in our DNA. Like parents with their firstborn child, we overprepare and sanitize everything the beer might ever come in contact with. We agonize over details. We plan and have contingencies for those plans.
The Belgians, they make wort, open the rafters in the attic and let whatever blows in blow in. A couple of years later and voilà, they have perfectly soured and aged bottles of beers. They make it look easy, almost too easy. But they have history and methodology on their side.
Our more sophomoric history of making sour beer dates to the late 1990s. During this time, a group of brewers started dabbling in wild-yeast barrel fermentations and dipped their toes in the low pH waters. Today these same artists are full-fledged swimmers making graceful strokes in the waters once dominated by the Belgians. And in moving into their neighborhood, we now share the community pool of sour-beer enthusiasts.
While our strokes may not be as graceful or as classical as theirs, we both share a love of sour beers and the places they can take us. In that way, we hope to share this Sourville neighborhood and coexist. Of course there will be neighborly squabbles (mostly over the role of wood in our beers), but we will respect the boundaries more often than we choose to blur them. And for that, I am thankful that I, too, am living in Sourville. The water’s great. And as an added bonus, there’s no shortage of great beer here.
Tomme Arthur is director of brewing operations at The Lost Abbey Brewing Co. in San Marcos, CA.