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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.

Published in Beer

Here's to the corkscrew—a useful key to unlock the storehouse of wit, the treasury of laughter, the front door of fellowship, and the gate of pleasant folly. —W.E.P. French

Paso Robles’ Firestone Walker Brewing Company seems to have taken the words of W.E.P. French to heart, as evidenced by brewery’s fantastic barrel-aging program, called Barrelworks.

Firestone Walker Brewing is in the midst of rapid expansion. In late 2014, the brewery plans to open a taproom restaurant, pilot brewhouse and craft beer hub on Washington Boulevard in Venice. I first learned about these plans last year, when Firestone gave a group of Los Angeles beer bloggers (and me!) a sneak peek at their expansion plans, which also include the new, but already popular, barrel-aging program in Buellton.

The Firestone Walker folks—including co-founder David Walker—in May took beer journalists on a second trip to Paso Robles and the Central Coast; it’s about a five-hour drive from the Coachella Valley.

The trip’s first stop was at the place where Firestone began. At so-called Area 51, we were surrounded by 50 acres of land and grapes. I sipped beer on the back of a flat-bed farm truck, passing rows of vines glistening in the sunlight. I gave a nod of acknowledgement to the lamas and a scarecrow that were hanging out on the side of the dirt road.

This is the site of Firestone Walker’s original brewhouse. We were soon greeted by Andrew Murray, of Andrew Murray Vineyards, the current tenant. He happily handed out a crisp and fruity white wine called E11even; it was delicious in the hot afternoon sun.

Walker and Jeffers Richardson talked about Firestone Walker’s humble beginnings. “This is where it all began” said Jeffers, one of Firestone Walker’s original brewers and the director at Barrelworks. Walker joked that their beers weren’t always delicious.

We were led back to camp after the tour for a wonderful group meal. It’s here that we were introduced to Bretta Rosé, a deliciously puckering blend of fresh raspberries and Firestone Walker’s Barrelworks Bretta Weisse beer.

Firestone Walker’s master blender, Jim “Sour Jim” Crooks, explained the beer’s genesis.

“We’re down in Barrelworks in early 2013, and Jeffers and I were kinda like mad scientists: ‘What could we do to make this beer really interesting?’” Crooks said.

Crooks started cold calling fruit farmers and vendors. He got in touch someone at Driscoll’s up the road. The call went well: He said he ran out yelling, “Jeffers! You won’t believe this! We just landed 1,000 pounds of raspberries for free!”

The result is a gorgeous, complex and expertly balanced beer. Following this little lovely was an experimental wine-beer hybrid called Zin Skin.

“Essentially, what the Barrelworks does it connects us back to that weird, artisanal beginnings that we so enjoyed,” he said. “It’s a complete folly. There’s an interesting cross-section of wine culture and beer culture.”

Sour Jim continued to talk about their sour discoveries and the roots of the operation. In 2011, David Walker toured Rodenbach brewery in Belgium. He came back to Jim and said with a giant grin, “I figured it out. I know what you’re doing! We’ll make it like something no one’s ever done!”

In 2012, things fell into place. By the end of 2012, Barrelworks went from 28 barrels to about 450 barrels of beer.

“What we’re doing down here is so craft; it’s so artisanal,” said Sour Jim “It is like roots. It really comes back to the roots of making beers, a lot of the lineage of lambics and sour beers. These are historic beers, a lot of them.”

Jeffers added: “The brewers are learning a lot from the wine makers. Barrelworks takes you back to cellaring, pre-Industrial Revolution. Barrelworks is a creative endeavor that is following and learning practices that have been missing in brewing a long time—but not in the wine industry.”

The next day, we traveled to Paso Robles, home of Firestone Walker Brewery. After a delicious lunch, we experienced a tasting session led by lab analyst Norm Stokes.

Norm and the Firestone team prepared an array of off-flavor Firestone tasters, either from increased aging or off temperatures. We tasted beers that had been aged three, thirty and 300 days. This “sensory analysis” exposed flavors not normally craved—cabbage, latex paint, butter and vinegar.

Head brewer Dustin Kral then led the group through the Firestone brew house. David Walker explained that the brewery walks a fine line, staying artisanal but growing to the levels that the public is starting to demand.

Soon, we were on the road again, traveling down another amazingly picturesque country lane in Paso Robles to a wonderful boutique winery that has also found a way to craft high-quality vodka, gin and other liquors via their free-run juice, called saignée.

Villicana Winery owners Alex and Monica Villicana distill the “prize juice”—as Monica refers to it—that is cast from the first grape crush to create damn-near-luxurious liquors. The result is Paso Robles' first craft distillery, Re:Find.

“We bought 80 acres of dirt basically here in Paso in 1996,” Monica said, explaining the operation’s beginnings. “Between the two of us and our family and friends, we planted 13 acres of vines. … We make nine different wines in our 13-acre vineyard. Everything is pretty much estate here. We only produce about 2,000 cases annually.”

Here’s how that prize juice becomes delicious liquor: They collect the juice and bring it back to the winery. They ferment it into a high-alcohol rose. The high sugar fermentations produce glycerol, which has a heavy texture and sweetness. They then start a four distillation process.

“Distilling is about isolating the good alcohol and getting rid of the bad alcohol. … It’s in the second, third and fourth distillations that we really start to do the distillers’ craft to get the clean alcohol and introduce the vodkas and gins that we’re producing here,” Alex said.

If you haven’t visited Paso Robles, you’re missing out on a romantic California charm that envelopes you with magnificent rolling hills, artisan culinary cuisine, seasonal craft cocktails and, of-course, award winning craft beer. It’s great to see forward-thinking companies, like Firestone Walker and Re:Find, exude quality and collaboration in a stunning, old world setting.

Published in Beer