Gone sour


Local sour beers surging in popularity

By Jim Witmer

Photo: Toxic Brew’s Til Death Do Us Part Berliner weisse, brewing now; photo: Shane Juhl
Now that we’ve passed Daylight Saving Time, we are springing forward into warmer months.

That, of course, means the appearance of lighter and refreshing craft beer styles.

Typically, spring and summer seasonals bring forth variations of light and refreshing lagers, cream ales, session IPAs, and kölsch. But there’s a new kid in the American craft beer scene. Craft beer aficionados already know this, of course. That new kid is sour beer.

India pale ale is still the most popular, but sour beer is the cool one who’s funky and often a little wild—not appreciated by everyone, but definitely here to stay.

The flavor experience is unusual and can be described as playing somewhere between wine, hard cider, champagne, and Belgian ale.

Some have also described it as the most purely refreshing beer in the world.

The first time I tried one, probably 15 years ago, I thought it was an incredible flavor experience that would never catch on to mainstream America. A Sour Patch Kid ale for $16 a bottle was just too much of a stretch for mainstream America, I thought. While sour has not typically been a term that sounds appetizing when describing an American beer style, the Europeans have been doing this for hundreds of years to a perfection.

Not that all sour beers are boldly mouth puckering and expensive. Rather, they run the gamut of tart, tangy, acidic, pungent, affordable, and refreshing. When fruit is added to balance the flavor profile, the drinkability, in many cases, is enhanced.

The main styles of sour beers are American wild ale, Berliner weisse, Flanders red ale, Gueuze, Lambic, and Oud bruin. But Gose, a German tart, salty, unfiltered wheat, is gaining popularity for its low ABV and refreshing qualities.

To create a sour, wild yeast and good bacteria are introduced into the kettle before the final boil or into the fermentation stage. The result can be easily replicated, or a complete uncertainty when wild yeast and bacteria have their way. This is where the artistry of blending together various barrels to achieve a palatable product comes into play.

Beer drinkers have spoken, and they want more sours. But the wild yeast styles can be difficult to make in large quantities, rendering their growth potential somewhat marginal.  Additionally, with lengthy aging at an average of one to three years, their prices are higher than other styles.

The No. 1 issue of incorporating wild yeast and bacteria in a brewery can be cross-contamination. The microorganisms that make a sour beer so unique in one section of the brewery can wreak havoc in a batch of clean beer in another section if it finds its way in there. Many breweries have learned the hard way.

So, some breweries only concentrate on sour beer styles and don’t agonize over controlling contamination. Others keep their sour brewing completely separate or in off-site facilities. Our local breweries don’t consistently produce sour brews for this reason. However, I’m expecting a brewery that concentrates only on sours and tarts to spring up in the Dayton area soon.

A local example from Toxic Brewing Company is its Berliner weisse Til Death Do Us Tart. This is a refreshing ale, no matter what time of year, and a departure from their usual, high gravity selections. It’s often soured in the boil kettle, so the bacteria is destroyed after doing its job, thus not contaminating other clean beers in production. This will be available again at Toxic  very soon.

However, Urban Artifact is one such brewery that has made its business model the production of interesting, flavorful, funky, wild and tart ales available in their tasting room in the Northside neighborhood of Cincinnati and in draft at select taprooms in our area with the most popular in cans: Finn, a Berliner weisse, and Sliderule, a chocolate raspberry Gose.

As its mission statement says, “At the end of the day, here in the brewery, it is all about our microscopic wild friends.”

Just down the road, MadTree has undergone an $18 million expansion that will open the possibilities of a sour program at the original location a mile away. One of their fan favorites has hit the area in draft, Passifire, a Gose with passion fruit and Szechuan peppercorns.

Jackie O’s Pub and Brewery of Athens has been making traditionally crafted sour ales since 2008. In 2016, they had a significant production brewery expansion, and part of that was their separate sour brewery.

Director of Brewery Operations Brad Clark explains, “Our beer is unique because instead of having 24-48 hours of contact time with bacteria/wild yeast, beers like Berliner and Gose have 45-60 days, 1,000-1,500 hours. The beer is round, full of character, and interesting. No short cuts, hasty decisions, or trending wagons. It’s honest, true, respectful sour beer.”

The latest and most highly sought-after sour brewery to expand distribution to Ohio is Crooked Stave of Denver, Colorado—one might call them the Wild West of beer. An acquaintance of mine called Crooked Stave “a beer geek epiphany.” He used to be a real hophead; now sours are what he gets most excited about to drink these days.

In addition to those listed above, there are many other U.S. breweries doing great work in the sour category, including Rivertown, Cascade, Prairie, Jolly Pumpkin, Dogfish Head, Boulevard, Evil Twin, and Avery.

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Reach DCP beer writer Jim Witmer at JimWitmer@DaytonCityPaper.com

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