Somewhat contrary to my fellow beer geeks, when I first started exploring craft beer one of the more challenging styles quickly emerged as my favourite and that style is soured beer. I know this category of beer is not everyone’s ‘cup of tea’ and in fact many people are initially turned off by the often over-powering tartness of a gueze or an oud bruin but if you think you are not a fan of wild ales you really do not know what you are missing.
Sour beer is technically not a style in and of itself, rather it is a process of using bacterial infection to impart tartness while fermenting and/or beer, as such under this broad category there is a range of flavours and, well, sourness from sweet and fruity lambics, to the deep and rich sour brown ales, to the accessible Flanders red ales, to the straight lambics, which offer no apologies for their tart kick.
Historically, lambic beers (a style of beer brewed with aged hops and a high proportion of unmalted wheat) were spontaneously fermented. That is to say you basically do the opposite of everything you learned in homebrew school and intentionally infect your wort with some of the many microscopic critter floating around in the air. The different resultant bacterial infections all work to ferment the beer while it ages in wooden barrels (the wooden barrel being a natural haven for microbes). Ensuring consistency is near impossible for the sour beer brewer so the resultant batches are blended to achieve the desired tartness levels.
According to Mosher in Tasting Beer, when Lindemans expanded their brewery they took a portion of their old wall and bolted it in their new building in order to preserve their signature mix of beneficial bugs.
In modern times, the souring of beer is less by chance i.e. opening a window and hoping for the best but really not by much.
Bacterial agents like lactobacillus, brettanomyces and pediococcus are systematically introduced to the fermentation process; however, the outcome remains somewhat unpredictable and the time commitment to brew a sour beer is significant compared pretty much any other beer style think years versus months. Blending remains the most viable means to ensure the sourness of your beer is at a level that is drinkable.
Once the sole domain of dedicated Belgian brewers devoted to the art of brewing sour beers, wild ales are carving out an impressive niche in Europe and North America. Russian River, Cascade Brewing, Jolly Pumpkin and Epic Ales are all making a name for themselves in pursuit of excellent sourness.
A little more north Oud Bruin from Yaletown Brewing Company and Driftwood’s Bird of Prey Flanders Red are showing Canadian brewers are also getting on the sour bandwagon.
Is sour beer the next big thing in the craft beer world? Well, not to self-promote (too much) I have to say I saw this one coming for quite sometime now. I even wrote a post called ‘Love is a Sour Delight’ back in February of 2011 espousing the wonder that is sour beer. If you require further confirmation, you just need walk into any decent beer store and observe the number of barrel-aged, wild and wine-blended beers now on the market.
As we move into warmer weather I urge my fellow beer geeks to crack open a bottle of sour beer on a warm summer night and tell me this isn’t one of the best affirmations they have ever had that craft beer will one day rule the world.