Beer School: Pucker Up

A few years ago people seemed to think that sours would be the next big thing in the craft beer movement.

It didn’t work out that way, and there’s a good reason for it: Sour beers are hard.

I’m not just talking about the acidic qualities of the beer that can pickle your taste buds – brewing these beers is really time intensive work. Most don’t have the time, or the money.

Odds are pretty good that you’ve already had a sour beer. Lambics are readily available and the Lindeman’s line of fruit-infused offerings is often one of the first “Belgian” beers a budding beer snob tries on his/her journey.

Of course, these beers are poor examples of the style, considering they mask some serious flaws in the souring processes with copious amounts of fruit concentrate and sugar.

Lenny Kolada, owner or Smokehouse Brewing, is a big fan of a good sour. The problem, he says, is that there aren’t many good sours out there.

“It takes a year to make one,” he says, thus 365 days before a brewer can even assess his efforts and make the appropriate adjustments. Then it’s another year before the drinking public can analyze that effort.

It takes longer for a brewer to master his craft, and that’s if he’s brewing standard ales that turn around in a matter of a couple of weeks. An active brewer can put a dozen batches of beer under his belt inside of a year, tweaking each one to achieve the desired result. Conditions can be controlled, and modified to account for variables. Yeast strains can be cultivated to maximize efficiency.

All of that goes out the window with a sour. The brewer doesn’t have as much control. He brews the beer, and puts his trust in the yeast. You can try to monitor the progress, but when you’re dealing with these crazy strains of bacteria, you don’t know what you’ve got until they’re finished. A brewer can spend a decade trying to master the art of the sour ale, and only have four drinkable batches to show for his labor.

Although he’s no longer attached to the Barley’s Brew Pub downtown, Lenny’s brewers did manage to crank out a very respectable Gran Cru, the grand daddy of the sour style, in celebration of general manager Jason Fabian’s wedding. Infinity, as it’s known, is a rich, and mellow homage to this ancient method of brewing that gets better with age. Locally, it’s hard to find anything that gets closer to meeting the standard set by the venerable Rodenbach brewery in Belgium.

Indigo Imp Brewery, out of Cleveland, is fully committed to the style. Since their beers are fermented in open vessels, wild yeasts abound and all of the beers finish with a distinctive sour note.

Bell’s seemed eager to get ahead of the expected trend when they released Oarsman a few years ago. They used a special technique to impart a tart finish on a session beer that experts still have trouble defining. Whatever you try to make of it, the fact remains that this is an accessible sour beer. Monk’s Flemish Red is provides an approachable price point for the novice, too.

New Belgium rolled into town on the strength of its flagship amber, Fat Tire, but that’s a beer the company admittedly brews to appeal to the masses. The company’s true passion is exploring the intricacies of Belgian style beers and to that end they have perfected a sour brown ale known a La Folie, which was released under the ‘Lips of Faith” series.

People who adore Fat Tire might find this one a little off-putting because it’s not a subtle introduction into the style, but an unapologetic plunge into the sour ale experience.

The Bruery, of Placentia, California is one of the better purveyors of sour beers in the US, and one of their best offerings is Sour in the Rye. With a whopping 40 percent rye bill, this beer is bitter to its core, but then it spends a year getting worked over by a blend of souring yeasts, and bacteria in oak barrels.

That’s how a proper sour is made, and that’s why the people who do these beers best, are fully committed to the process. It’s not something a brewer can dabble in when he’s got an extra fermentation vessel available. 

To dip your toe into sour waters, Yellow Brick Pizza (892 Oak St.) is holding Sour Fest, where on Saturday and Sunday all this month (from 1 p.m. to 6 p.m.) there will be a half-off special on all sour drafts and state minimum (plus tax) tax on all sour bottles.

Booze News by drink up Columbus