The revival of wild ales
By Kevin J. Gray
Photo: Enjoy straight lambics or those fermented with fruits like raspberries, peaches or cherries
More years ago than I care to admit, I was at a party in Boston. My friends were throwing a “Beers from Around the World” party. The craft beer boom was just generating interest, and we were all curious about the pale ales and stouts that were taking up more and more shelf space at our local carry-outs.
The fridge overflowed with craft beer that night, and every trip to the kitchen was a new experience. Midway through the evening, a petite blonde, just barely of drinking age, walked to the fridge and pulled out a small green bottle, corked and caged like a champagne bottle. She popped the cork and took a long swig, expecting, no doubt, something that tasted closer to bubbly than to High Life. Her face immediately betrayed her. Gagging, she rushed to the sink to spit. I recognized the brand as one of the exotic, expensive bottles I had not yet dared to spend my own money on. I caught her just before she emptied the bottle down the drain.
In a glass, the beer was straw colored, much lighter than the IPA I was nursing, and nearly still – carbonation was almost non-existent. But it was the smell – sharp, funky and pungent – that set it apart from the hoppy IPAs and roasty porters I was used to. This was the limburger cheese of beer – smelly and rank, but with a hint of something that made me curious. I took a drink. Initially it was tart, like the rind of a grapefruit, making my mouth pucker. Despite the low carbonation, the beer’s mouthfeel was full and robust, and the finish was dry. I had never had anything like it. I didn’t understand it, but I was hooked.
That night was my first experience with sour beers. Sour beer styles are as old as beer brewing itself, yet they remained dormant in the craft world until several years ago. Today, brewers with an eye toward innovation have looked backward in time, adopting nearly-forgotten brewing practices.
Most beer styles are fermented using a carefully controlled process. Sours break these rules. Sour beers are made using traditional methods that predate today’s nearly obsessive preoccupation with sanitation. For hundreds of years, Belgians have been fermenting beer by exposing it to wild bacteria and yeast strains found in the environment and in the wooden barrels used to age the beers. These beers are inoculated with brettanomyces, a yeast strain that imparts funky, horse blanket flavors that are reminiscent of barnyards and manure, flavors that are often affectionately described as “assy.” Sour brewers also add lactobacillus and pediococcus, two bacteria strains that produce lactic acid in yogurt and give sours their mouth-puckering flavors. Finally, acetobacter can add acidic acid, which can impart a vinegar flavor to the beer.
For many years, Belgian lambics were the most common style of sour ales. Lambics are spontaneously fermented – lambic brewers expose their wort, or unfermented beer, to wild yeasts and bacteria, allowing it to ferment without the addition of traditional yeasts. The brettanomyces creates barnyard flavors – horsey, goaty flavors – while the bacteria contribute the sour notes. Lambics sometimes have fruit added. Lambics with cherries are known as krieks. Raspberry lambics are framboises; peach lambics are dubbed peches. Gueuzes are lambics in which aged and new lambics have been blended (typically part two- to three-year old lambic blended with one-year old lambic); the beers undergo a secondary fermentation in the bottle, which changes the character of the beer. Look for traditional lambics and gueuzes from Cantillon, Hanssens, Boon, De Cam, Drie Fonteinen, Girardin and Lindemans – although some of these brands have become increasingly difficult to find, due to their popularity.
Flanders reds and Oud bruins are two more Belgian styles that have gained in popularity in recent years. Although no fruit is used in the brewing of Flanders reds, these beers often have hints of plum, black cherry or currant. Reds are aged in oak barrels, while Oud bruins are typically aged in stainless steel. Oud bruins are similar to reds, but tend to be a bit less tart, with additional darker fruit flavors such as figs, raisins or prunes. Rodenbach Klassiek and Duchesse de Bourgogne are two popular brands of Flanders reds, although Monk’s Cafe Flanders Red Ale is this writer’s favorite.
American brewers have recently joined the sour beer movement. While some American sours try to replicate Belgian styles, many others experiment with the wild yeasts and bacteria to create unique flavors. Typically, American breweries produce sour ales in very small batches, where the beers are often aged in oak barrels. Allagash and New Belgium were two of the first to start experimenting with sours, although the movement has become fairly widespread. Upland, Jolly Pumpkin and Jackie O’s make world-class sours in the Midwest, while The Bruery, Cascade, Russian River and Lost Abbey make sought-after sours on the West Coast.
As the blonde at the beer party years ago can attest, sours aren’t for everyone’s palate. Yet for those willing to try them, they can open up an entirely new beer experience. Who knows, you, too, may find yourself lovingly describing a beer as “assy with a hint of horse blanket.”
Reach DCP freelance writer Kevin J. Gray at KevinGray@DaytonCityPaper.com.