Cheers to Sour Beers
Sour Beer: A deceptively simple term for a complex style. Is sour beer here to stay or a passing trend? I visited Bricks Wine Co. for the “Cheers to Sour Beers” tasting event with Certified Cicerone, Mike Maxwell, to see what the big deal is about sour beer and find out just what makes a sour beer, well… sour.
By Tracy-Lynne MacLellan on Mar. 26, 2018
A Risky Endeavour
Not everyone embraces sour beer. For some it’s an acquired taste, for others, they’ll never really get it. Retailers and breweries have even had bottles of delicious barrel-aged sours returned because the consumer believed they had gone bad, remarking that they had “turned sour.” Maybe calling it Sour Beer was a mistake. Sour isn’t really the most appealing descriptor for any beverage, least of all beer, but if your mind can get past that negative connotation, your mouth will be very pleasantly surprised. Brewers are pushing themselves to be more creative and to find new, interesting techniques with weird and wonderful results. Will Sours ever become the Pale Ales of the beer world? Never. However, popularity is growing among brewers looking for a challenge and beer drinkers looking for something new and complex.
So what is Sour Beer? The basic style criteria is that a brewer must add a specific kind of bacteria or particular strain of yeast at some point during the brewing process to “sour” the beer. The two main ways brewers can accomplish this are through the time-consuming traditional method of ambient yeast or wild bacteria and the more efficient, modern kettle sours. Of course, within these two methods there are a bunch of different styles, just like with non-sour beers, but here are the basic methods:
This is the most efficient way to produce a sour. In this case, the brewer adds a strain of lactobacillus into the mix. Here’s where it gets a little bit nerdy: Lactobacillus is a non-spore-forming bacteria that converts sugars into lactic acid. It’s also probiotic. I know you’re familiar with that word because it’s part of every yogurt commercial now. When used as a starter culture, it lowers the pH and creates the sour flavour (think sourdough bread or sauerkraut). The lactobacillus is added to the sterilized wort after its been cooled down to a temperature that will promote bacteria growth. A brewer can either add a strain that has been purchased from a lab, or pick up a tub of yogurt on the way to work and dump it in when the wort is ready. Once the wort is at the Brewer’s desired pH level (the right amount of sourness) the wort is boiled and hopped then the beer is fermented. The process only takes a few days and depending on the style, is really no more complicated than any other batch of brew.
In the days of yore, the flavour of beer was likely similar to the sour beers of today. Before we knew the words yeast or fermentation, ingredients would spontaneously ferment and Ta-Da – you’ve got beer! Here’s the long way – and to some, the preferred way – of getting sour beer. If you’re from the wine world you’ve heard of the term Brettanomyces, which is sometimes considered a fault in wine. In larger quantities or at the wrong place at the wrong time, Brett can wreak havoc in a winery or brewery. This wild yeast strain can fly in on a breeze or hitch a ride on dirty equipment and give off aromas that take your mind straight to a barn. Imagine the wafting bouquet of wet, dirty wool socks, wet straw covered in cow pies and a wet horse. For traditional sour beer, weird and wonderful yeast strains like Brettanomyces can be an essential part of the souring process by producing acetic acid making the beer tart. Thankfully, it doesn’t impart any of those undesirable flavours in the beer. Using ambient yeast can be a very time-consuming way to sour beer, but it does provide more aroma and flavour characteristics, often making the beer more complex than a basic kettle sour.
Bricks Wine Company’s Cicerone Extraodinaire
Mike Maxwell has been a beer enthusiast for a long time and has been brewing his own beer for about seven years. Like many Alberta residents, he was working in the Oil & Gas sector until 2015 when the industry took a turn for the worse. It was then he decided to put his love of beer to use and started studying for his Cicerone Certification. Bricks is a great fit for Mike; they’re fortunate to have him there and he’s genuinely happy to look after their “small, but mighty beer program,” as Mike calls it. You won’t find a single Big Beer brand at Bricks (not mentioning any names, but one beer you can’t buy there rhymes with Shmoors Flight). What you will find is a unique selection of craft beer from small brewers around the world, with plenty of representation from the Pacific Northwest, Quebec and especially Alberta.
Earning the Cicerone Certification is not easy. Mike is one of only 16 people in Calgary, a city of over 1.2 million, that has achieved the Certification level or higher. It takes a lot more than an education to get up in front of other people and teach about beer, but Mike has a very natural way of engaging his audience and showing his obvious passion for the subject matter. There is an ease in his approach and delivery of the material that makes you feel comfortable no matter what level your knowledge is at.
We started the evening with Bonni treating us to the Blindman Brewing River Session Ale from Lacombe, Alberta. A good, dry hopped ale to get your palate ready for what was yet to come. Lots of aroma and flavour intensity. On the nose I got citrus and fresh cut grass. On the palate it’s pineapple and grapefruit with underlying earthiness and pastry. Light-medium bodied and pretty crisp with a slight bitter finish. It’s a little too bitter for my taste. I typically lean towards a more subtle, citrus hop flavour and this one has some of the piney hops notes to it that I don’t love. I definitely see why people enjoy this beer, but my favourite was further along in the flight.
Freigeist Köpenickiade Vineyard Peach – Eitting, Germany
For our first Sour of the evening we tried the Freigeist Köpenickiade Peach. As is the case with Berliner-Style Weisse, it was very light. I mean really, really light, both in body and flavour intensity. A light lemony taste with a hint of orchard peach. No bitterness at all and only 3.5% abv. It was a good starting point for the evening, but left me wanting something that just wasn’t there. This is a great entry into the world of sours for someone just starting out. I already know I like sours, so this was too light for me. So light, in fact, that if you feel dehydrated and want something thirst-quenching, but you don’t like to drink water, drink this. It’s funny how a person can drink 4 beer in 4 hours but trying to do 8 glasses of water in a whole day seems nearly impossible. Well, here’s your solution (Disclaimer: I’m not a nutritionist. Don’t take health advice from me.)
Postmark Brewing Gose – Vancouver, BC
It’s gō-zuh, not goes. That’s what I learned. Very useful when speaking with beer nerds so I don’t feel stupid. The name of this style comes from Goslar, Germany and is characterized by the addition of salt, coriander and sometimes orange rind. The Postmark Brewing Gose gives you salinity and orange peel on the nose with a mild refreshing taste. Because of the acidity and salt, it makes the beer very food-friendly, especially with anything that has a kick of spice. 4.1% ABV.
Four Winds Brewing Nectarous Dry-Hopped Sour – Delta, BC
A gold Medal winner at the Canadian Beer Awards’ this is your everyday sour and one of Mike’s favourites. It’s a world-class, dry hopped, hazy, kettle sour with more flavour and more sour than the first two beers in our flight. A distinctive pink grapefruit aroma and all tropical all day on the palate: mango, guava and papaya. Clean finish. 5.5% ABV. When I told my colleague, fellow sour fan, that I was attending this tasting, I don’t think I’ve seen a more jealous look on someone’s face. Any other night I would have invited him along, but he had a previous commitment – the ballet. I wouldn’t have traded him places for anything. Guilt is a great motivator, so I brought back a bottle of the Four Winds Nectarous for him to try. Here’s his picture and review:
Source: Dustin Miller
It’s a pretty great sour. Almost like drinking grapefruit juice with beer and hops. It’s refreshing and tart, but not so sour that you’ll be getting canker sores the next day 🙂
Brasserie Dunham Oro Zuur Dry-Hopped Golden Sour – Dunham, Quebec
Oro Zuur is loosely translated as golden acid. Want a Greyhound cocktail that you don’t have to mix? This is your sour. Made with Victoria Secret hops and real grapefruit juice, it has assertive sourness and a bit of bitterness on the back palate. Victoria Secret hops are known for their earthiness, particularly when used for dry hopping, adding distinct herbal notes to balance the tart citrus characteristic. The Brasserie Dunham Oro Zuur is aged a year in oak before bottling and has a lot of depth. If this isn’t a breakfast beer, I don’t know what is. Have this beer with Eggs Benny. The acidity will cut through the richness of the hollandaise sauce and you’ll easily convince yourself you’re just having a glass of grapefruit juice. 750 mL bottle. 5% ABV.
E Nine Brewery Le Visiteur American Wild Ale – Tacoma, Washington
Wow. Yup! Ridiculously delicious. A blended Wild American sour that takes a really long time to make. The brewery name comes from Engine House No 9, occupying an old firehall in Tacoma. This award-winning brewery has been around for about 20 years and is famous for its American Wilds. the E Nine is super acidic. I’m pretty sure it took all the enamel off my teeth, but it was totally worth it. Nectarberries are added to the brew giving it a beautiful purple colour with a bit of pink foam. If you’re not sure what a nectarberry is, think of an oversized blackberry with a soft, sweet aroma and juicy, tart flavour. 5.7% ABV.
Cascade Brewing & Bruery Terreux One Way Or Another – Portland, Oregon
A collaboration between two fantastic breweries, Cascade and Bruery Terreux. One Way Or Another is a barrel aged triple with marionberries and Meyer lemon. This is your special occasion beer and we were lucky to be able to sample it, as the shipment arrived only a week prior to the event. It tastes like baked red apples, rhubarb and baking spices. It would be phenomenal with smoked salmon. I can imagine myself eating a bagel and lox with herbed cream cheese, capers and red onion, washing it down with this delicious brew. Balanced and full bodied at 7.9% ABV.
When it comes to wine choices, I’m a total acid freak (racy, bone dry Riesling, crisp mineral Chablis and Sancerre) so I immediately took to those rip-your-mouth-off acidic sours. Other white wine and cool climate red wine drinkers agree; it’s an easy transition into the world of sour beer when you already love wines with tart fruit flavours and high acidity. Sours might be a little more of a stretch for beer lovers that tend towards full-bodied malty browns and ambers, or who would rather throw down a pint of bitter, piney IPA. If you’re looking for a refreshing beer that challenges your tastebuds, these sours are certainly worth trying. Whether you’re looking for mild citrus flavours with low alcohol, or a mouth puckering, boozy berry bomb, there really is something for everyone.
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