For the past several years, there has been something of an IPA arms race within the craft beer industry. Bigger, bolder, more bitter. Double IPAs. Triples. IBUs in some cases well into the 100s.
Now we are witnessing a shift. No, those terrific IPAs aren’t going anywhere. But many enthusiasts have begun to expand their horizons and their palates.
One of the best ways to go in a completely new direction is with sours, and there are plenty of great ones out there, mostly from Belgium, but more and more from the United States. One of the leaders in this realm locally has been Pangaea Bier Cafe, which has a separate bar devoted to lambic/sour beers.
Some local breweries are starting to produce sours – delving into the world of wild yeast strains, barrel aging, funk, fruit, experimentation and, more than anything, plenty of patience. Russian River Brewing in Santa Rosa, best known for Pliny the Elder and Pliny the Younger, is considered a leader in American brewing when it comes to sours, and has been producing them for about a decade. The Rare Barrel in Berkeley produces sour beers exclusively and has become a sensation in the Bay Area.
I caught up with Phillip Emerson, barrel manager at Sudwerk Brewing in Davis, where the sour beer program is really taking off. The program started four years ago with a mistake that became an opportunity. A batch of beer somehow picked up a wild strain of yeast unintentionally during an open fermentation. The beer was ruined. “It was a one-off kind of whoopsie,” Emerson explained.
But brewmaster Mike Hutson decided to keep one barrel of beer and see what happened to it over time. Occasionally, the Sudwerk folks, best known for their traditional lagers, would check on this peculiar beer to see how it was evolving.
“It went through a long period of undrinkable and gross. But we encouraged him to keep going with it,” Emerson recalled.
Over time, it started picking up fruity flavor notes and a distinct taste of Brettanomyces, or Brett. That’s the alternative strain of yeast most often associated with sour beers. If you’ve heard someone describe a beer as smelling “funky” (in a good way), he or she is usually referring to the magic of Brett.
Sometimes it smells like fruity funk.One standard Brett aroma descriptor is “horse blanket.” When it’s not ruining traditional beer, Brett can give sours all kinds of flavor notes. It’s part of the appeal.
Emerson says Sudwerk took some of that first experimental batch and blended it with a traditional doppel bock. Then Hutson, whose hobby is pickling, took sauerkraut and allowed it to age with this new concoction. The result, many months later, was a well-received sour called Uncle Fester.
The barrel program has taken off from there. You can see it when you visit Sudwerk’s dock store. There are 51 barrels at various stages of aging and souring. Some of it takes years to develop the flavor and balance that is distinctive and drinkable.
On Aug. 22, Sudwerk is releasing a new sour the brewery is really excited about called “Neighborino.” You might want to try a pint.
A.J. Tendick, co-owner of Bike Dog Brewing in West Sacramento, is a fan of sours but says Bike Dog is holding off for now on doing its own.
“There are many challenges and potential pitfalls,” Tendick said. “The microbes used in souring are a different species of yeast and bacteria than you would normally use in beer production, so they behave differently and really requires a whole new depth of knowledge. Plus, you really don’t want those microbes in your regular beers … so you need to be very careful about cross-contamination.
“Sours take a long time to age to develop their full flavor, which eats up floor space. Plus, no matter how smart you are with the microbes they still behave oddly sometimes and you need to dump a barrel. … It ends up being a very expensive, long process to make them, which is why bottles are often a little pricey.”