We’ll Drink to That / Sour power
“Can you explain to me what is going on in this glass?” My curiosity is piqued by a beer that displayed...well, nothing like I have ever tried before. The aromatics are funky, but that good kinda funk you might find in an earthy Italian wine. The mouthfeel is slightly acidic, almost like a tart sparkling cider. It displays more depth and character than so many other beers I’ve tried. The waitress seems worried by my question. “It’s a German-style beer called Berliner-Weisse. It’s a sour. Do you not like it?” I assure her that everything is great, and, as my mouth begins to acclimate to the tartness of the beer, I realize that I am no longer lying to her.
This may sound like a daring leap for most beer drinkers, but I have witnessed a growing population who have come to embrace this wild-fermented and archaic brewing process. I have come to realize that the term “sour beer” blankets a huge category with many different styles and expressions. These beers can range from slightly acidic to mouth-puckering insanity. They’re refreshing and crisp, especially if you start drinking them on the hottest days of summer—in fact, you might end up wanting to thank me. What is most intriguing about these styles has to do with the little things: strains of bacteria and wild yeasts and how these microorganisms work to create their weird world of sour.
Brettanomyces, pediococcus, and lactobacillus are the three major players in the world of sour beers. The names alone may feel like you are getting in over your head, but the process of brewing sour beers is simple and natural. Some of the first brewers harnessed the powers of the local flora and fauna through spontaneous fermentation or simply leaving their beer out in open air for the yeasts to find. This rustic fermentation was met with varying results, and over the course of time, brewers would attempt to eliminate and isolate the undesirable components of their beer. As science and sanitation progressed toward the end of the nineteenth century, brewers could identify and isolate yeast strains and bacteria responsible for the sourness in beers. Sour beers slowly disappeared, and things that should not have been forgotten were almost lost.
Over the past few decades, sours have become the focus of many homebrewers to the point of fanaticism. This love of all things sour began to enter into some large-scale brewing facilities but not without extreme caution. The introduction of these wild yeasts to any brewery is a risk because they have a tendency to multiply and take over—think Jurassic Park. Both brettanomyces and lactobacillus also need more time aging in barrels before they begin to reveal their imprint on the beer. After a year or more, the finished product may or may not be what the brewer was looking to achieve. All of this risk and time drives up the price of the finished product. After what looks like a heavy list of cons pointing in the direction to not brew sour beers, they are still being made. Why? The reward outweighs the risk for some of these pioneer brewers who believe the complexity of the finished product is a biological wonder.
Some notable craft brewers have begun to brave the elements in an attempt to harness the power of these exciting little creatures. Controlling these wild ales requires tremendous attention to detail in order to recreate a product consistently. It is a style of beer that attracts a certain kind of brewer: one who is ready to take on risks in order to achieve greatness. The next time you saddle up to a bar and see words like “Brett,” “Gose,” “Berliner-Weisse,” “Geuze,” or “Sour,” jump on in. You will be taking part in an age-old brewing tradition and you will be rewarded for your bravery.
Some of my favorite and more approachable sour beers are now beginning to show up in Buffalo’s beer stores and bars. Here are five to try:
Jeff Yannuzzi is the bar manager at Toutant.