American Brewers Turn Sour
In the 1990s, a small number of American microbrewers turned away from the British traditions that had influenced many of their colleagues and founded companies based on Belgian-inspired brewing. Allagash in Maine led with its wit beer, while Brewery Ommegang’s abbey ale was modeled on the sweet, potent beer styles associated with monastic brewing. At New Belgium Brewing Co. in Colorado, the flagship Fat Tire, a spicy amber ale, supported a portfolio of similarly malt-forward beers. Initially, sour styles didn’t get a look-in.
A few U.S. breweries took a walk on the wild side. New Glarus’ Wisconsin Belgian Red, brewed with cherries, bested the Belgians at their own game in international competitions, but the beer attracted attention more as a breakout fruit beer (against a backdrop of indifferent raspberry wheats), rather than as a pioneering sour beer—which it was. Southampton Publick House experimented with sour styles, but in the main, these styles were one-offs made by brewpubs, and none seemed to reach the magical “tipping point.”
When Peter Bouckaert took a job at New Belgium after many years with Rodenbach, his first foray into sour beers came with “absolutely no plan around it.” An early attempt at an oud bruin was a failure. But in 1997 the brewery purchased a dozen small wine casks as an experiment.
In 1999, the brewery committed to a serious barrel-aging program, investing in large foeders, each with 50 to 100 or more times the capacity of a wine barrel.
The brewery created La Folie, a blended sour brown ale aged in French oak; one of the first beers of its sort brewed in the United States. It took a gold medal at the Great American Beer Festival in 2001.
In northern California, Vinnie Cilurzo, an innovator already credited with creating the first imperial IPA, began experimenting with unusual microorganisms—“critters,” he jokingly called them—and different base beers. In the barrel room at the Russian River brewpub in Santa Rosa, these beers aged in oak barrels that had housed particular wine varieties under the eyes of curious beer fans. In the heart of California wine country, Cilurzo’s wild beers played with flavor agents that frankly scared the neighbors.
Meanwhile in San Diego, Tomme Arthur offered occasional sour-wild beers to the customers at the Solana Beach Pizza Port, and took honors for Cuvèe de Tomme, a strong brown ale that combined sour cherries, wild yeast and bourbon-barrel aging.
Arthur also took up Peter Bouckaert’s suggestion to brew a 100 percent Brett beer: The seemingly contradictory “pure” strain wild brew proved illuminating. “It’s not nearly as sour as you might think it would be,” Arthur recalls. “Brettanomyces on its own produces a pleasant tart character that can easily be overwhelmed by other constituents of the beer. It was quite fruity, and the essence manifests itself in a sort of pineapple-tropical fruit character.”
A few years later, as the head brewer of Port Brewing Co., Arthur proclaimed his love of wild yeast in a sign over the brewhouse door, and launched an elaborate barrel program.