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Monday, 05 August 2013 14:35

When your love affair with beer sours

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MagritteCraft beer tends to pivot off what the next big thing is – bright shiny objects, if you will. Double IPA, black IPA, Belgian IPA, ryePA, imperial this or that … They've all been on the hit parade as styles evolve, if not outright collide sometimes to form hybrids to grab craft fans' attention.

It's an ongoing thing, which is why you may have heard some people in your beer circles declare they're over the hop bombs, over IPAs. "I'm into sours," they say.

Sours may be the next stampede, never mind that they've been part of the beer mosaic on the store shelves for a long time (how could they not be with Belgian brews being so popular?). If they are indeed next in the spotlight, then it's a logical choice. They run the gamut of pleasantly tart to oh-my-god funky. And for acceptance, they demand a little effort on your part.

To run through the list of Garden State craft brewers who have made sours is to name-check probably half the breweries in the state.

To be certain, some are more committed to the style: Iron Hill brewpub annually on a Saturday in March rolls out a lineup of funky beers; Carton Brewing (Atlantic Highlands) has carved out room in its lineup for a couple of sours (mulberry Berliner weiss and a green apple wasabi). Meanwhile, Kane Brewing (Ocean Township) noted on its Facebook page last month it has been working with the funk-maker yeast brettanomyces.

Wait, there are more: Climax Brewing (Roselle Park) made a Flanders brown last year, a big departure from its more traditional lineup of Euro-stalwarts like ESB, helles, hefe and English IPA; the Tun Tavern brewpub (Atlantic City) put on a Berliner weiss earlier this summer; High Point tarted up its signature Ramstein maibock in a whiskey barrel, the follow-up to a Christmastime chocolate cherry sour; and years ago Flying Fish served up a Flemish red called, what else – Puckerfish.

So, New Jersey has clearly been among the sour patch kids. And, individually, one of the people who has been there for quite a while is Mark Haynie, the New Jersey columnist for Mid-Atlantic Brewing News. Mark's an early champion of sours, and they're a go-to brew for him. He shares his observations here:


By Mark Haynie

Pucker up people, the sour beers are here!

An underappreciated class of brews, these unusual beers have been catching on with younger drinkers who are more experimental than their senior counterparts. Once a mainstay in places like Belgium and Germany, the rise of the insipid light lager reduced its popularity to the point that so many of them disappeared.

Like the super-hopped IPA craze, sours are an acquired taste. Some people love them, others hate them passionately. Our taste buds are a strange thing, and sour is not for everyone.

I fell in love with these beers years ago after watching Michael Jackson’s "Beer Hunter" videos and wondering what they would be like. Oddly enough, I found my first gueuze at Lancaster Malt Brewing in Lancaster, Pennsylvania, in the ’90’s, brewed up by Christian Heim. He was definitely ahead of his time, and I found him to be dead-on with the flavor profile after I got to taste some real wild ales in Belgium.

Originally, before brewers realized that cleanliness was next to godliness in the brewhouse, beers were easily infected and went sour very quickly by accident, but the beers we will discuss here are intentionally soured through yeasts or bacteria added to the wort.

Still not embraced by many brewers, sours are a small niche market in the overall scheme of things. But now breweries everywhere are opening their doors to bacteria and yeasts that could shut down their businesses if they escaped into the brewery. Controlling these domesticated “bugs” has been perfected by U.S. breweries like Russian River, Lost Abbey, New Belgium, Jolly Pumpkin and The Bruery. Of course, Belgium still holds the secrets of the naturally fermented tart beers. Cantillon, Drie Fonteinen, Lindemans, Liefmans are some of the well-known advocates of these wonderful brews.

Funky see, funky do: Brett, lacto, pedi
Let’s take a look at these “bugs” and see what they do.

The three most common of these are Brettanomyces yeast, commonly known as Brett, and the bacteria Lactobacillus and Pediococcus. These, in conjunction with each other or singly, can make a beer that will scrunch your nose up and pucker your lips.

Brettanomyces is a “wild” yeast that has been around for centuries but was isolated in 1904 at Carlsberg in Denmark. It forms acetic acid during fermentation and can impart flavors of balsamic vinegar and other sensory perceptions such as horse blanket, Band-Aid, or barnyard flavors as well as cheese and leather.

Doesn’t sound appetizing, does it? It is found naturally in Payottenland in Belgium, where breweries like Cantillon produce the lambics that made this yeast famous. These labor-intensive brews are mashed with malted barley and unmalted wheat and boiled for several hours before being pumped up to the attic into a large, shallow pan called a “coolship”. The roof or vents are opened to allow the heat out and the wild yeast in. They are then placed in old barrels that still have the microflora flourishing in the wood where they ferment for several years. Fruits are sometimes added and are finally blended for consistency.

Lactobacillus is an anaerobic bacteria that's naturally occurring in the human body. It can transform lactose (milk sugar) and other saccharides into lactic acid, giving that sour bite to products like yogurt, pickles, sourdough breads and cheese. It's the main flavor developer in beers like Berliner weisse, a low-alcohol refreshing brew from Germany. Lightly tart and sometimes cheesy, this beer has gained favor in the U.S. of late due to its sessionable alcohol content.

Pediococcus is also a lactic acid producer, used to ferment cabbage for kimchi and sauerkraut. Some of these bacteria form diacetyl giving a buttery or butterscotch flavor, which is usually an off flavor for beer. However, in lambics and sour beers it exacerbates the acid production and can cause a ropey flavor.

These ingredients are available commercially and are even used by homebrewers to try and recreate some of the classic styles and even innovate new meldings of flavors.

Sours aren't for everyone, and if that fits you, you should still give them a try. They may surprise you, and don’t think that they all taste the same. There are lots of profiles for these beers, and you may find a few that you like. I had a friend who drank nothing but Coors Light but found that he enjoyed the occasional gueuze! Now that’s as far removed as one can get!

Beer is a world full of all kinds of tastes and experiences. Immerse yourself into it, and you'll find some interesting things. Like sours.

Read 4862 times Last modified on Thursday, 07 August 2014 17:15

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