With the help of nature’s unpredictability, experienced brewers are adapting traditional European techniques to bring bursts of tart and tangy flavors to beers.
Yep. We’re talking about sours.
In the mid-19th century, when beer was aged and shipped in wooden barrels before the advent of refrigeration, nearly all beer was, to some extent, sour.
Today, good sours can take up to two to three years to produce. But the wait is worth it: All hail Pediococcus, Lactobacillus and Brettanomyces. The remarkable flavors in sour ales can be attributed to these wild yeast strains.
We recently spoke to people at three Southern California breweries that are helping lead the sour resurgence.
The Bruery: A Chat with Benjamin Weiss
Benjamin Weiss is the marketing director of The Bruery, in the Orange County community of Placentia. The Bruery celebrated its seventh anniversary in May.
Benjamin became a professional brewer at The Bruery in 2008, just two years after starting to homebrew in Los Angeles. He eventually became the brewer on the infamous Black Tuesday beer.
What’s your background brewing sours?
I just drank them. Brewing them is pretty much the same as anything—you’re just fermenting slightly differently. … Most of our sours are aged in a used wine barrel. (With) most of them nowadays, actually, primary fermentation starts in an oak barrel, then we rack into smaller oak barrels.
Do you have favorite wineries from which you like to get your barrels from
No. … We get the barrels from wineries, but we’re really using a neutral barrel. We clean them out … so as long as they’re newer, solid barrels, we’re happy with them.
What do you love about sours?
I’ve loved sours since I’ve first tried them back in my homebrew meeting about 10 years ago. … When you have a good sour, there’s something complex and delicious about it. Most of our sours are not purely lactic fermentation. They’re not just one note. It’s hard to describe; it’s almost a clean sour taste … also the funkiness that you can get from different strains of Brett (Brettanomyces) that comes with time. … I find them just fascinating.
What do you think of the resurgence in popularity of sours?
It’s crazy. I was just commenting to one of my co-workers that, we were at some festival … five years ago. Every single person that came up to you, you had to explain what a sour beer was. … Now, almost everyone walks up and says, “Oh, you have a sour beer?” It’s completely the opposite, at least with the beer crowd. It’s still a very, very small segment of beer. But within the craft-beer aficionado community, it’s increasingly more popular.
What are some of your favorites from The Bruery?
One of my favorites we make is Rueuze, our kind of gueuze style. … It’s gotten a little bit better every year. It has that funky character that I like. Gueuze is a type of lambic made by blending young (1-year-old) and old (2- to 3-year-old) lambics, which is then bottled for a second fermentation. Rueuze is a blend of sour blonde ale from several of their oak barrels, some of which have been aging several months, some several years. Notes of apricots, peach, lemon and bright barnyard funk flavors come through—perfect for summer.
What are some of your upcoming plans?
We’re launching a tasting room for Bruery Terreux (in Anaheim) hopefully at the end of this year, if not early next year. … Bruery Terreux is a newish brand, loosely translating to “Earthy Bruery” in French. Developed by Patrick Rue of The Bruery, it’s a new space that focuses solely on their farmhouse-style ales fermented with the wild yeasts.
Firestone Walker’s Barrelworks: A Brewery in Wine Country
The “accidental” story of Firestone Walker’s Barrelworks is beautifully tasty. The story of renegade brewers Matt Brynildson, Jim Crooks (“Sour Jim”) and Jeffers Richardson has grown from humble beginnings in 2005 to a program that produces more than 1,500 barrels annually in Buellton, just south of Paso Robles.
This innovative and unprecedented barrelhouse is the birthplace of several of the wildly coveted beers being poured annually at the Firestone Walker Invitational Beer Festival, held every May. Their Agrestic (2014) began as the brewery’s DBA; it then goes through a “chrysalis” process involving 87 percent French and 13 percent American oak barrels, and a proprietary collection of micro flora. It spends 14 months there. This sour leans towards the punker, tropical and oaky side of things.
The Sour Opal is an American Gueuze style with a titratable acidity (T.A.) of 6.6 g/L. Currently, no other brewery that I know of divulges this information. With their home in wine country, Firestone Walker has adapted traditions and techniques from winery friends.
I spoke to Jeffers, the director of Barrelworks (aka the “Barrelmeister”).
What’s your fascination with sours?
I love how it contributes depth and complexity to beer. Acidity adds a whole new dimension of flavor to beer … and plays teasingly with wild yeast and oak, when those components are involved.
How long have you been experimenting with sours?
My palate has been experimenting with acidified beers since 1985, when I lived in Brussels and first tried them. But I didn’t become comfortable with wild beer production until I teamed up with Jim. I’m old school. I was indoctrinated in the ways of clean beer practices. Once we were given our own padded room, and the inmates were allowed to run it, I was more comfortable. Jim, on the other hand has been a certifiable experimenter of sours for some time.
Coachella Valley Brewing: Pucker Up in the Desert
On a local level, Coachella Valley Brewing Co.’s Chris Anderson has been brewing up a sour program in Thousand Palms over the past year.
This sour program at CVB is taking off. Anderson hinted the brewery might be expanding its sour program outside of the current space in the near future.
The new Profligate Society will feature upcoming sours, cabernet-barrel-aged Epineux Poire prickly pear wild ale, cabernet-barrel-aged Cassis Noir black currant sour ale and cabernet-barrel-aged Flame Rouges wild ale. Less than 500 bottles of each beer will be released to Profligate members.
What sours are on tap now?
The Peche, an American wild ale with locally grown white peaches and pediococcus, and lactic and multiple Brettanomyces cultures. Tasters are $3, and there’s only one keg left.
When did you start this, or think about starting to brew sours?
We immediately started getting into that mode when we had the capacity to store that type of a beer. We got a bunch of tanks dedicated just for making sour beers. That was probably about a year ago. That was the inception of the first couple sour bases that we use to make a couple different beers with a batch of different fruits.
How many tanks?
We have three right now. We immediately made a sour base, which is your run-of-the-mill wheat beer and used some really old hops, which is typical of sour beers. You want to use old, cheesy, skanky hops, rather than the real aromatic ones. You don’t want that to shine through in the beer. We aged it away; we use a special flora. We have an onsite laboratory. … We built our own culture, that we inoculate all the barrels with, as well as the wort.
What do you love about sours?
I don’t know. It’s kind of mysterious, you know? A little unorthodox. It’s the opposite of everything you’re told as a brewer, even the way the mash is done. The long aging … you still may not get really high quality results … and it’s all about blending, too.