Pucker Up for Sour Suds
Tart and bright, sour beers are wildly popular.
Get your sour beer on at the Rare Barrel or Jupiter, above.
Photo by Stephen Loewinsohn
Socialize with suds-swiggers, and soon enough you’ll hear someone hailing sour beer.
It’s a category of acidic, barrel-aged brewskis fermented with wild microbes that induce tanginess ranging in flavor and intensity from lemon-lime to bleu cheese to barn floors. Now enjoying an effervescent renaissance, sour beers are popular enough to jam-pack “Sour Sundays” at Berkeley’s Jupiter and Triple Rock. A new Berkeley brewery, the Rare Barrel, makes only sour beers.
“Sour beer is in high demand right now because it’s delicious,” says Stephen Laborde, general manager of Oakland’s The Trappist and beverage director of Homestead restaurant.
Laborde finds the adjective “sour” limiting.
“I’d rather call them ‘bright,’ ” he says.
These brews—lambics, geuzes, framboises, Berliner Weisses, farmhouse ales, and the rest— “refresh the palate and bring out the most in food flavors as do fine vinaigrettes.
“It’s a particular type of tart taste that takes a lot of practice and know-how to produce correctly,” Laborde adds. “And when it ‘hits,’ it’s wonderful.”
Naturally, it’s all about the bugs.
Conventional brewers “take painstaking efforts to keep a sterile work environment free of bacteria and foreign yeast strains,” explains Gather’s beverage director Charlie Crebs. By contrast, sour-beer brewers “open their doors to everything the outside world will offer.”
It all began by accident, when French and Belgian farmers home-brewed beer “long before Louis Pasteur came along,” Laborde explains. Airborne wild bacteria entered those farmhouse fermentation vessels with an ease “which some would call repulsive.” Microorganisms such as Lactobacillus, Brettanomyces, and Pediococcus yielded mouth-puckery notes that found a loyal, lasting fan base.
“One of my favorite things about sour beers is that there is a plethora of reactions that happen in making the beer that impart the sour flavor,” Crebs says.
One such reaction entails adding fruit during the aging process.
“Good producers use whole fruits—as opposed to syrups—and let them sit there for a full year,” Laborde explains. “Any sugar that comes out of those whole fruits gets fermented, so the resulting beer stays very dry—but acquires an essence of, say, cherries, or berries.”
Crebs likes San Francisco’s sustainable, organic Almanac Brewery, whose Dogpatch Sour, brewed with local cherries, and Seasonal Dark Pumpkin Sour, made with sourdough starter, are served at Gather.
Laborde favors Belgian Cantillon lambics and, among American brews, Funky Gold Mosaic from Oklahoma’s Prairie Artisan Ales. Dry-hopped with mango-esque mosaic hops, FGM “has a funk almost like that of soft ripe cheese,” which, in sour beers, is a good thing. “But it’s also floral and citrusy, with layers and layers and layers of flavor.”
You know a trend is booming when national corporations join the party. Witness Samuel Adams Kosmic Mother Funk Grand Cru, an oak-aged, micro-oxidated, cherry-toned Brettanomyces-and-Lactobacillus-boosted small-batch Belgian-style sour that’s currently the star of a nationwide tour.
And not a split-second too soon.
“So much attention has been focused on wine for so long,” Laborde says. “It’s high time we started focusing on beer.”