All About Beer Magazine - Volume 30, Issue 3
July 1, 2009 By Rick Lyke

With this issue All About Beer launches a new column called Your Next Beer. The goal of this column is to look over the horizon – or at least down the bar – at trends that are taking hold in beer and brewing. Craft beer fans are always looking to try something new and with Next Beer we’ll take a closer look at what you are likely to be drinking next.

Most beer drinkers fall into two broad categories: hop heads or malt mavens. We have all been taught from our earliest brewpub visit, order an IPA if you crave hop bitterness or go for a doppelbock if you want some sweet malt. There is now a growing subculture of beer fans that want to pucker up: call them the sour patch kids.

Oud bruin, Flanders red ale, lambic, gueuze, gose, saison and Berliner weisse are styles that have been around for centuries so how can these be considered “new?” How can something that emerged during the seventeenth century be your Next Beer? Start counting the barrels. The corners of some breweries are starting to look more like Napa wineries or Kentucky rackhouses.

“We’ve been looking for something that people tired of getting slammed with hops might enjoy,” says Ron Gansberg, the talented brewer at Cascade Brewing in Oregon, pointing out that his sour beers are a unique northwest style and don’t try to mimic Belgian sours. “The thing about these beers is they provide an intense sensory experience that is something other than hops.”

That “sensory experience” emerges in the form of an acidic sourness that comes from a spontaneous source of fermentation that in most beers would be considered a major defect. Under normal circumstances the presence of Lactobacillus, Brettanomyces or Pediococcus in a brewhouse is a cause for concern. But for makers of oud bruin and Flanders red ale these organisms are welcome guests.

Keith Schlabs, food and beverage director for the 13-location Flying Saucer Draught Emporium chain, says his locations are selling more of these beers as they become available from importers and craft brewers. Most of the time it is in the bottle, since these beers still don’t sell consistently well enough to move kegs at the peak of freshness.

“Sour ales require a hand selling process, because there is a bit of ‘shock factor’ to the flavor. It is difficult for some people to get their arms around the taste of these beers. Until recently only serious beer connoisseurs really sought them out,” says Schlabs. “There is a time and a place for these beers, and there are some pretty good ones on the market. We see people sharing bottles quite often.”

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?

Rick Lyke
Rick Lyke is a freelance drinks journalist based in Charlotte, NC. He started his beer writing career in 1980 and most recently founded the Pints for Prostates campaign.