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The Rise of Sour Beers – and Why They’re Here to Stay

by Jim McCune

Sour beers are back, and they’re here to stay. Sour beers are funky and they offer tart, fruity, unique, complex flavors. Sour beer’s recent growth only proves they’re a welcomed change to craft beer aficionados who witnessed the craft beer industry get dominated by hoppy India pale ales, and pumpkin beer. Sour beer lovers long for that special tickle they affectionately refer to as “throat tang.”

Historically, all beer was sour to some degree. The brewing process was sloppy. Brewers often kick started a new beer batch by pouring in the bacteria and yeast remnants from older batches. These dregs produced acids in the beer that resulted in distinct sour notes. Also, brewers also didn’t have pure yeast cultures until 1882, which paved the way for today’s clean-tasting lager beers. Fast-forward 126 years, to 2008 and Google lists “Sour Beers” as Trending.

While most beers brew using Saccharomyces, a non-wild yeast strain, beers that are “soured” introduce wild yeast, or bacteria strains during the brewing process before letting them slowly age. Some barre-aged sour beers require months, even years of cellar maturation. Sour beers are now evolving into sub-categories that use different microbes including Brettanomyces (aka Brett), Lactobacillus (aka Lacto) and Pediococcus (aka Pedio). Fruit additions can also add to complexity and acidity level. Aging time on fruit can create a broad range of flavors depending on the contact time and quantity of beer.

Souring is a difficult process to control, and very unpredictable. Oxygen that is literally everywhere, is the #1 enemy of beer, and extremely detrimental to sour beer as well and responsible for the production of acetic acids that can ruin a beautiful sour beer by making it smell and taste like salad dressing. Souring often leads to undrinkable beer that is poured down the drain. Then there’s the urban legend, about breweries that contaminated their entire brewing system when the souring microbes escaped, and soured their entire brewing system, thus all of their beers. These are only some of the costly consequences that keep most brewers out of the sour beer game, thus making a good sour beer not always easy to find, only compounding sour beer's rarefied appeal.

The traditional souring process takes a very long time because microbes are added after the beer is fermented, and the alcohol and hop oils present in the beer slow down the active bacteria and yeast. The size of oak vessel that the beer is fermented also impacts the flavors and aging time of sour beers. However, a clever new technique called “kettle souring” uses the same traditional microbes to convert sugars into acids by adding them before the beer is fermented. It works very fast, sometimes overnight.

Kettle-soured beers use Lactobacillus, a lactic acid bacteria that lacks the depth-of-character of Brettanomyces bacteria that is aged over long periods of time. Over the course of months and years Brettanomyces converts many of the byproducts of the bacteria into compounds that give traditional sour beer its complexity. This is the main reason craft beer aficionados seek out traditionally soured beers, because they are brewed using more diverse microbes that produce wider spectrums of flavor and aroma. 

There are many different sour beers to try, from lambic to American and more. One local brewery in New York has been doing sour beers justice for over a decade: Captain Lawrence Brewing Company in Elmsford, NY.

They’ve just introduced their Hudson Valley Harvest SOUR Series (Strawberry, Apricot, Black Raspberry, Raspberry, Cherry and Gooseberry). Captain Lawrence Brewing loves local Hudson Valley, New York ingredients, and that’s why they buy local, to help ensure a strong future for local products and their community. They’re proud to partner with local farmers and choose fruit crops that are harvested at their peak of freshness and flavor, then fermented in aged oak barrels for a very unique, and delicious sour ale. The flavors of the fruit come through as the beer ages and the components mingle together beautifully. 

Barrel Select Sour Ale is a series of beers that Captain Lawrence Brewing has been doing for years. It’s pulled from the best of all their barrels, and thoughtfully-blended together to create unique, award-winning beers. They recently made three versions of this beer (Red, Black and Gold), each with their own unique characteristics and levels of acidity, oakiness and tartness.

American Funk IPA is a brand new Sour beer from Captain Lawrence Brewing that takes the best of Brettanomyces and American hops and blends them together for some amazing tropical IPA aromas and flavors. Delicious fruit flavors and light funk are the trademarks of this 100% Brett-fermented IPA.

Jim McCune is Executive Director of the Craft Beverage Division of EGC Group .

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