Pucker up

Embrace the funk of sour beers

By Hayley Fudge

Photo: A toast to the sour and wild brewers who have not yet given up; photo: Hayley Fudge

It hardly seems right to refer to a style that’s been brewed by Belgians for centuries as the newest craze to hit craft beer, but many longtime beer-lovers are finding a newfound fondness for sour beers and wild ales. The massively hopped IPAs and boozy barrel-aged stouts that have long reigned supreme amongst craft beer enthusiasts are having to share the limelight with these tart, funky ales, which are often misunderstood.

Sour beers are rather complex—they can pack huge flavors or offer subtle fruit offerings in a way you can’t experience otherwise. The term “wild beer” generally describes any beer that offers the earthy characteristics of Brettanomyces yeast strains, regardless of whether the beer is a light golden ale or strong dark stout. Sour and/or wild ales are often aged in wood barrels for a period of time to achieve their unique flavor profiles.

Dayton City Paper asked Brett Smith, a respected local homebrewer, beer enthusiast and member of the Dayton Regional Amateur Fermentation Technologists (DRAFT) who specializes in wild and sour ales, to share his thoughts on these special beers.

What misconceptions do people have about sour beer?

Brett Smith: I think most misconceptions of sour beer are that it will all be sour. A beer with brettanomyces but no lactic acid bacteria will not be sour. It could possibly be tart. I’m also a fan of a balanced acidity in full mixed fermentations (saccharomyces, brettanomyces, lactobacillus, pediococcus). So the term “sour” beer, while used worldwide, isn’t exactly the best because it tells someone right away that they should expect this beer to be sour.

Another misconception is with the term “funky.” Funky can mean a lot of things: you’ll commonly hear “horse blanket,” “barnyard,” etc. … things that are recognizable aromas but might not be the most pleasing terms to get someone to try a beer. And while you can pick those things out in a “funky” beer, I like to focus on the flavors and aromas of overripe fruit in my “funky” beers.

Lastly, I think a big misconception is that some of these beers just taste bad—it is very easy for things to go wrong when brewing with alternative methods and wild yeast and bacteria. It takes a special kind of crazy to even want to work with these microbes. Fairly often, breweries will release beers that have produced butyric and isovaleric acid, and these commonly will give you the puke or moldy cheese or gym sock aromas and flavors. Those are off flavors—never tell yourself that a wild ale tastes good when you detect these flavors and aromas. It’s unfortunately common for breweries to also release a beer that they didn’t intend to be sour or funky; but it got infected somewhere along the line and they decided to sell it anyways. Sometimes these are detectable only by the style of beer, but not always. Consumer beware!

Why should people respect the science and brewing craft a little more, or maybe a little differently, in relation to these beers?

BS: I think there should be a large amount of respect for these styles of beers. The science and the knowledge that goes into making these takes years to perfect and learn. I’m still learning every day about new microbes, techniques, etc. It takes a special person to work on these types of ales—it takes passion, patience and the ability to just admit that sometimes this beer you made is not good and dump it down the drain.

Wild ales take some patience to learn to consume, as well. They are very intricate beers with layers of flavors and aromas. That patience pays off, and typically I find most hardcore beer people prefer wild ales to almost any style.

The really neat thing, too, is that wild ales are almost a totally different set of beer such as ales versus lagers. There are so many things you can do to push weird and unique flavors, and the creativity is endless.

Who should consider venturing there—are there characteristics of people’s palates that you see tend to favor these type beers over others?

BS: I think people who love wine but do not drink beer should try wild ales. A lot of wild ales get fruit and the tartness and brettanomyces can bring some very familiar flavors out for wine drinkers.

But, in general, I believe anyone who loves beer and is curious about new and old exciting things happening in the beer world should look into wild ales, sours, etc.

For those whose interest we may have piqued, what styles should they be seeking out at their local bottle shop or
beer spot? 

BS: The main styles to look for include lambic/gueuze (or geuze)—the mother of all wild beer. My favorite beer in the world is Drie Fonteinen Oude Geuze. It is so complex yet refreshing, and it’s everything I strive to make someday. Berliner Weisse is a great starting beer for those interested in sours, not overly complex, should be balanced and refreshing. Try one with fruit. Gose is an ancient German style right there with the Berliner that has been resurrected—it’s great on hot days and tart and salty. Flanders ales, I often suggest Rodenbach Grand Cru to people as the first sour/wild they should try. It’s pretty much the best Flanders made. And I think people should try American-made wild ales and sours. A lot of people don’t know this, but one of the most loved breweries in Ohio has been doing wild ales/sours for about 10 years. Jackie O’s in Athens makes some of the best ones in the country.

Hayley Fudge is one of Dayton City Paper’s Resident Beer Geeks. An enthusiast of craft beer and the culture that surrounds it, Hayley aspires to share her love of beer with others by whipping up beer-infused cupcakes on the regular. Reach Hayley Fudge at HayleyFudge@DaytonCityPaper.com.

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Hayley Fudge is one of Dayton City Paper’s Resident Beer Geeks. An enthusiast of craft beer and the culture that surrounds it, Hayley aspires to share her love of beer with others by whipping up beer-infused cupcakes on the regular. Reach Hayley Fudge at HayleyFudge@DaytonCityPaper.com.

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