Every few weeks, Sophie writes about Beer, Brewing and Bites. Her stories are witty, educational and worth a read!
August 5, 2017 - “Sour-on-Purpose” Beers
For those who prefer wine to beer, or those who have a predilection for some of the cider offerings at Salt Box – pay attention! This may be the beer style that incents further exploration into the versatility of beer and brewing!
When people think of sipping a refreshing, quality beer, they tend not to associate it with sour flavours. In fact, too much acidity in a beer is often considered a flaw. However, the long history of brewing began with “spontaneous fermentation”. Wild yeast and bacteria infused the beer with a sour or even “funky” edge. “Old World” brewers thousands of years ago didn’t really know what yeast was. They just flung the windows open and their vat of mashed grains and hot water turned into something magical (and likely somewhat different every time). We now know that it was the airborne microflora from the surrounding countryside that inoculated the brew with yeast and flavourful bacteria (please note, this is not bacteria that will hurt you). In fact, those beers contained some of the same wild yeasts that make up the “flor” of today’s finest fino sherry. Storing the beer in wooden barrels further encouraged the growth of these organisms. The wood itself lent an earthy touch as well as vanilla and other nuances that smoothed out the sharp, acidic flavours of the yeast and bacteria. (See my May 2017 blog about the impact of barrel aging). This is part of the ancient process used in Belgium to create lambic beers – beers that are low in bitterness but offset by plenty of sharp acidity and complex notes that can rival a fine champagne. The origin of most sour styles of beer come from Belgium and Germany and also include Gueuze, Oud Bruin, Flanders Red, Berliner Weisse, and Gose. If you haven’t tried these, you should! They don’t have those hoppy characteristics you normally associate with “beer”.
With the rise of craft brewing in North America, there is an emergence of “New World” brewers who continue to push the boundaries of traditional beer styles. These brewers take their inspiration from classic Belgian and German sour beers and create their own unique versions – many of which have no agreed-upon style guidelines or particular classification category. But that’s the art of beer brewing – like my Cousin Ellie’s cooking, they take a riff on a classic recipe and make it their own.
There are three words that tend to be associated with sour beers, and nowadays you often see these plastered across a bottle’s label: “Brettanomyces”, “Lactobacillus” and “Pediococcus”. The first is a wild yeast, the last two are desirable strains of bacteria that offer up mouth-puckering tartness. Those hip to the sour-beer craze will fondly refer to these as “Brett”, “Lacto”, or “Pedio”. Brettanomyces is known for contributing a “barnyard” funkiness or mushroom flavour to the beer. It sounds weird, but it’s kind of like equating beer with different kinds of cheese – if cream ale is a Monterey Jack and pale ale is a cheddar, then a sour ale made with Brett would be like a blue cheese.
Salt Box recently offered its own version of a sour wheat beer with its “Backyard Rhubarb” release. They used a combination of rhubarb and Lactobacillus to create a tart twist on a classic Berliner Weisse ale. It tasted like an alcoholic version of Sour Patch Kids. Paired with a nice plate of salty French fries from the Food Truck and I had myself a winning afternoon snack on the deck of the brewery.
In general, sour beers tend to be lower in alcohol, with very little bitterness. The taste is an exploration in balance between the beer’s yeast and lactic acid, with many brewers adding an additional hint of fruit to the recipe. If you haven’t tried one yet, I highly encourage you to do so, especially with some flavourful food on hand – either something salty, like pretzels, French fries, or cured meats, or some seafood, like mussels. The sweetness of the sea is an excellent accompaniment to the sourness of the beer. Seek it out as part of your next Maritime meal. You may be quite pleasantly surprised!