Pucker Up, Buttercup
by Lew Bryson |
Sour beer is difficult to make and difficult to like—but it just might be America’s next hot brew.
Twenty years ago I was a home brewer—mainly because I was living in places where Genesee Cream Ale was considered exotic. I made my own beer, and I drank a lot of other guys’ home brews. Sometimes they were pretty good, sometimes only okay, and sometimes they were flat-out eye-popping, pucker-till-your-cheeks-meet sour. If I brought this up, I’d usually be told, quickly and defensively, “Oh, it’s actually a Belgian-style.” I’d nod, try to look knowing...and then “misplace” that glass as quickly as possible.
What used to be considered a mistake is now a small but fast-growing niche in American craft brewing. This year, the Great American Beer Festival, for 25 years the preeminent American beer competition, added two new categories for sour beers to the judging (the first was created in 2002). Now, in addition to all the breweries that have added a sour beer to their lineup, there is at least one craft brewery, Jolly Pumpkin Artisan Ales in Dexter, Michigan, which makes only sour beers.
“Good” sour beer is largely differentiated from “bad” sour beer by virtue of intent and intensity. When you plan for sour, you formulate a beer with enough body to balance the tart heart.
The Belgian sour beers, which have been around for centuries, and of which Rodenbach is probably the best-known example, are interesting and balanced, with wood and fruit notes that make them refreshing and rewarding. The brewers age their beers in unlined wooden vessels instead of modern stainless-steel ones, and the wild yeasts and microflora that live in the crevices of the wood work on a different schedule and agenda than plain, standard beer yeasts: The results are more complex and much more tart.
American craft brewers started experimenting with sour back in the mid-’90s, usually attempting to copy Belgian lambics, beers that can exhibit combinations of sharp acidity and barnyard funk. New Belgium Brewing of Fort Collins, Colorado, has been using some of the profits from burgeoning sales of its smooth and popular Fat Tire Amber Ale to build up a large wood-aged sour beer program during the past seven years, starting with the beautifully multilayered and aptly named La Folie. “Follow your Folly,” the brewery encourages customers.
Brewers have taken direct inspiration from the phrase and the landmark beer. You’ll find a rapid ferment of ideas about sour beers in many corners of the country, like at Russian River Brewing, in Santa Rosa, California, where brewer Vinnie Cilurzo has been on the front edge of American brewing for years and is generally acknowledged as the first brewer of the massively hopped double-imperial I.P.A. style. About a month ago, I was lucky enough to get a sample of a sour ale he brewed for the 20th anniversary of the landmark Toronado beer bar in San Francisco: a balance of sweet malt and dry cherry, with a smooth veneer of oaky tannin to pull it all together—a masterpiece. As most brewers do with these beers, Cilurzo charges a premium price to reflect the costs of the longer aging and the difficulty of the brewing process
The question is whether sour beers have a wide enough appeal to make them a viable new market segment, even at niche levels. “Sour” seems crazy as a descriptor to attract people to a beer, but so is “bitter,” and that’s one that has made a lot of friends for beer. I.P.A.’s, the bitterest of beers, make up the fifth-largest category for craft brewers, and the competition among brewers is to see who can stuff the most bitterness into a beer and have it still be enjoyable. That bodes well for sour, which has a parallel dryness on the palate. (Sour is like biting the fruit of a lemon; bitter’s more like biting the peel.)
“I may be optimistic, but I think sour beers are the next I.P.A.,” says Ron Jeffries, owner of Jolly Pumpkin. Jeffries’ beers are all oak-aged, soured by contact with the wood. The beers, sold in large, beautifully labeled bottles bearing names like La Roja, Bam Bière, and Oro de Calabaza, are not paragons of consistency, but that’s part of their appeal, and they are generating serious buzz among beer geeks.
I recently blogged about a delicious sour ale called Moxie from New Holland Brewing in Holland, Michigan, and got a rapturous response from veteran Oregon beer writer Jeff Alworth. “Sour is the new hoppy! Okay, maybe not, but sour is my fave note, even before bitter.”
Still, sour mania has its drawbacks, chief among them being cost. Jeffries’ beers are widely considered to be underpriced at $8 for a 750-milliliter bottle; others are in the area of $20 a bottle, and the rarer Belgian imports go up from there. These sourific wild yeasts and bacteria aren’t just sour, they’re slow, and some of these beers take 18 months or more to come to proper fruition. They’re also tenacious; brewers have to take extra care to isolate them from the rest of their brews or risk cross-contamination and an all-out funkification of their entire brewery.
There’s also the substantial risk that no one will want to buy them. Make no mistake, these beers are challenging. There’s a pretty steep acceptance curve, although once you develop a taste for them, there’s nothing else that can substitute.
There’s a bright side for brewers though. Given the skyrocketing cost of hops, sour beers offer a way to keep both geeks and brewers happy and interested. It’s cutting-edge stuff without the constant worry over supply issues: There’s always more yeast and bugs. Maybe sour will become the new hoppy by necessity.