Monday, June 25, 2012

The Sour Beer Spectrum

In the past decade, America’s taste in food has gotten a lot more funky.
While never gone, tart, acidic and sour flavors have seen a massive resurgence. Vinegary bottles of $4 kombucha tea fly off the shelves. Bragg, a brand ubiquitous in health-food stores, offers several flavors of its popular apple cider vinegar drink. Artisanal pickles and kimchi have become staples at fancy farm-to-table restaurants.
And sour beers are gaining momentum, appearing on craft brew menus more and more often. Most beers are fermented with brewer’s yeast, while sour beer is fermented with wild yeast and the same bacteria that makes yogurt sour.
India Pale Ales are still considered kings of the craft brewing world. With their bitter, intensely hoppy flavors, IPAs are a far cry from the mellow lagers most Americans drank only a decade ago, and are paving the way for other atypical flavors.
“There are still plenty of hesitant beer drinkers that want something 'light', and plenty of hop heads out there that won't read much past I, P, and A,” said Sam Gilbert of SF Brew Lab, a home brewing collective. “But I'm really hearted to see how many people are getting excited about the other stuff.”
The demand for unique beers these days is growing, creating a “whole spectrum of flavors, from clean to complex,” said Alex Wallash, head of sales and marketing for The Rare Barrel, an all-sour brewing company in Berkeley, California. There is always the risk of people associating sour flavors with spoilage, but he pointed out that the same bacteria in the beer can be found in such everyday foods as sourdough bread, yogurt and salami.
 “It’s almost like the original style of beer,” said Will Fox, who works at the Dark Horse Inn, a pub featuring a rotating selection of craft beers in San Francisco’s Crocker-Amazon district. “It was all sour until the 20th century.”
The Dark Horse’s featured sour was Almanac’s Farmer’s Reserve Pluot, described as a “funky oak-aged brew,” with a flavor between a tart lemonade and very dry white wine. Pluots are an apricot-plum hybrid, and fruit-flavored sours are a consumer favorite.
As sours mainstream, the production process becomes more streamlined. These days, you will find plenty of clean versions- in contrast to complex, one-off flavors.
Fox recommended Italian sours- which taste “like a barnyard floor,” or those from Ale Apothacary in Bend, Oregon, which produces “super-funky, open-fermented” styles.
The Rare Barrel offers a cleaner version of the artisanal brews. At a tasting in their warehouse, visitors can peek at the brewing process- as they sit at industrial-chic communal tables, or simply stand around barrels, snapping pics of beer on their smartphones. Ambient techno played as customers lined up for $8 beers and $10 grilled cheese sandwiches, rung up on state-of-the-art portable POS systems.
Though sour beers might take from an ancient recipe, it was a long way from ye olde raucous brewpub.
Egregious, the Rare Barrel’s “dry-hopped sour beer aged in oak barrels” had a complex flavor, with light hoppy notes that tasted quite unlike those in an IPA. Yet the majority of sour beers offered at the tasting had simple, purely sour flavors. Fields Forever, described as a red beer flavored with strawberries, didn’t taste much different from the sour saisons or dark sessions on the menu. A streamlined cleanliness prevailed, apparent when a server approached a table to wipe it down.
“We can’t have a gross, beer-smelling place,” he said.
Wallash acknowledged the focus on clean sours- particularly those with fruit flavors. A dark sour with raspberries has been one of their most popular- flavors he cited as being “appealing” and something “people can relate to.”
“One trend I've seen is that people seem to be really into young sours right now--bright, mouth-puckering, fruity sour beers,” Gilbert said, referring to flavors “with more of an emphasis on boldness than on subtlety or balance.”
            A bartender at City Beer Store in San Francisco’s SOMA district concurred.
“Fruit! Fruit!” he said of the most popular sour flavors as he poured a glass of Coolship Sour by Elgood’s, a dry, crisp beer with a flavor like apple cider vinegar. The wild beer is brewed in Cambridgeshire, England, and is technically a lambic- though legally, it can’t be called that since it is brewed outside of Belgium.
For beers this dry and sour, some bartenders warn patrons ahead of time. The beer’s finishing note, which brewers refer to as “horse blanket” is the kind of earthy tang one won’t find in cleaner beers.
“Back in the day, lambics and related sour styles typically relied on a sort of controlled chaos, developing their sourness and related flavors through exposure to whatever wild yeast and bacteria lived in the brew house or the barrel,” Gilbert said.
“There's something magical about that process, and some of my favorite sours are still made that way, but modern brewers are typically taking a more deliberate approach--carefully selecting and blending previously 'wild' strains and deciding when and how to inoculate the beer.”
Gilbert added that many current trends seemed to be driven by brewers, instead of consumers. At The Rare Barrel, the owners claim sours as personal favorites. While obviously popular with customers, their cleaner flavors also reflect the variety they prefer to make. And when it comes to unlicensed home brewing, the product can’t be sold, leaving brewers free reign.
If the popularity of sour beers continues, fruitier, lighter flavors might prevail in the name of mass-market appeal. Or the demand for artisanal products might mean people will embrace the funk. For now, we have our pick- as long as we’re willing to shell out $7-$12 a glass.

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