Sour Beer Love: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Embrace the Funk!

I have developed  a deep appreciation for sour and “wild” beers, as well as Stanley Kubrick movies.  Historically, most beer would turn sour very quickly.  The beer going into storage just out of the fermentation was often described as “fresh” or “young”.  What they really meant was it was not sour.  However, as the beer came into contact with the wood of their containers,  the wild yeasts, usually in the brettanomyces family, and bacteria indigenous to the environment would work their way into the beer.  Beer, being lower in acidity and alcohol then wine, was much more susceptible to these contaminants.  There, these “bugs” would transform the beer, making it more acidic and “funky”.  Flavors such as cherries and lemon were common, as were flavors described as “barnyard”, “band aid” and “wet horse”.  Then, along came Louis Pasteur, and his work revolutionized brewing.  The first brewery to really embrace the idea of maintaining a single, pure strain of brewers yeast, and keeping the other critters out of their beer was Carlsberg brewing of Copenhagen, Denmark.  Employing Pasteur’s techniques, they could brew beer that would stay “fresh” even when transported long distances from the brewery.  They brewed with a pure lager yeast strain, and from there, the knowledge spread throughout Europe.  This launched brewing with a pure strain of yeast to become the standard in the industry, and “fresh” tasting beer became the dominant beer in the world.

Today, however, you can still find some beers that reach back in time.  As with most oddball and unique beers, you find them in Belgium.  The Lambics from the area around Brussels and the Flemish Ales are some of the last, traditional bastions of these styles.  If you have never had any of these, I highly recommend you try Rodenbach, the archetype of a Flemish Red, or a Gueze by Cantillon or Boon.   As Rodenbach and Boon are now part of Palm Brewing, they are becoming more widely available.  Hey, even I can get them here in Maine.  You can also find the influence of brettanomyces in other, less assertive palates.  These yeasts seem to do very well with some saisons, the traditional farmhouse beers of southern Belgium.  The beers of Fantome have a more subdued, but noticeable brett profile, and the Trappist classic Orval is also brewed with brett in later stages of the process.

American brewers have also seized onto the flavors that these wild yeasts bring.  Russian River Brewing in Santa Rosa, CA has an extensive line of barrel aged beers that depend on these wild yeasts and bacteria for much of their flavor.  Jolly Pumpkin from Dexter, MI employs open fermentation where they draw in the ambient air at night to the brewery.  There,  the wild critters from the air of Dexter fall into the beer, and ultimately take up residence in the oak barrels in which all their beer is aged.  You can find a lot of breweries experimenting  with barrel aging and brettanomyces only beers.  Our local excellent brewery, Allagash, brews a beer with a stain of brett they isolated from their brewery called Interlude.  There is even one brewery, Crooked Stave that is employing no traditional brewers yeast in any of their beers, instead maintaining cultures of brettanomyces they use for all fermentation of their beers.  I am fortunate have have had a chance to collect a library of these types of beer for my cellar, anchored by a bunch of Jolly Pumpkin I got while I was in Michigan last year.

Sour and Funky beers

I will warn you, however, that these beers are not for everyone.  Novare Res, one of the great beer bars in here in Maine, and likely the US, has a warning on their menu that under no circumstances will someone be refunded if they did not like their Lambic.  Order at your own risk!  But, once you fall for the seduction of these alchemedic brews, nothing else really comes close.

I have launched off into brewing sours at home.  This takes time, as most beers require at least a year of aging, and you have to embrace the fact that what predictability you have with well seasoned and selected brewers yeast goes out the window when you start using these more unruly yeasts.   However, there are no other beers I find as captivating as these, and as a homebrewer, I can embrace the randomness of the final products.  You are not quite sure what you are going to get, and that is part of the fun.

4 sours aging, trying to stay warm


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