Is Sour the new Bitter?
At Upstream Brewing in Omaha, NE, brewer Mike Hall has a gueuze and a grand cru squarely in the sour beer category, along with a tripel that has some presence of Brettanomyces. With about two dozen ex-French cabernet barrels aging at the moment, sour beer represents just one to two percent of Upstream’s output. Still, Hall labors over the aging process and blending to create hand bottled beers he is happy selling.
“At any one time, I’m extremely happy with about eight or nine of the barrels. We taste beer from the barrels on a monthly basis. Sometime, we’ll dump a barrel down the drain if it is just not aging right,” says Hall, noting that Upstream has some barrels that have been aging for four years. “We’ll blend out the beers to get them to the flavor profile we want. It’s a mixture of different aged beers and sometimes we’ll add one of our fresh beers, like an IPA, ESB or Scotch ale to take the edge off.”
“The biggest challenge is getting people to understand there is a whole different flavor profile,” says Art Larrance, owner of Cascade Brewing and the Raccoon Lodge, which he opened 10 years ago after partnering to launch Portland Brewing in 1986. At the moment, Cascade has 90 ex-wine, port and whiskey barrels of beer souring and the number is growing. Cascade’s sour beer portfolio includes a kreik, apricot, a cuvée blend of a Flanders red and tripel styles and The Vine, which uses white wine grapes as its flavor base.
While Belgian style sours rely on wild strains of yeast, Berliner weisse is a German sour beer style that Southampton Publick House Brewmaster Phil Markowski calls a “pure sour” because Lactobacillus is introduced by hand to induce a secondary fermentation.
“Berliner weisse is one of the classic sour beers, but it is different than most of the others,” Markowski says. “The Belgian sours are aged in contact with a wider range of organisms. That tends to make them a bit more complex. The German approach is more disciplined, scientific. We use one specific organism, Lactobacillus.” Also, instead of aging in oak barrels, the Berliner weisse is aged for three to five months in stainless steel tanks.
Not everyone attempts to make sour beers, Markowski points out, because of the time involved and because the “Lactobacillus needed to produce the acidic notes is tricky and temperamental.”
Even with the difficulty in brewing sour ales, there are a growing number of domestic craft brewers releasing beers in the category. With brewing thought leaders like Deschutes Brewing, Port Brewing, Goose Island Brewing and New Belgium Brewing rolling out sour beers, more fans of hops and malt will have their beer beliefs challenged.
Now, what will your next beer be?