Pucker Up To….Sours!

Even though I had already heard a little bit about her, it still felt very much like a blind date.  I had listened to the rumors, and had even done some reading.  Yes, there was reading available about her (found online no less) and they often centered on how complex she could be.  And let’s face it, “complex” often equals “difficult” or worse – completely over your head.  And who wants that on a first date?  I just wanted to find a couple of agreeable points of interest and call it a night.  Yet I couldn’t shake what others had said, claiming she possessed attributes which frankly had scared others off, so perhaps I took it as a challenge.  No, it wasn’t that she was bitter.  Goodness knows I’ve come across plenty of that.  Most of the talk was that she was bit…sour.  Some even thought this meant there was something horribly wrong with her, but I knew better.  Heck, on some dating scenes, I have heard that being sour is quite desirable.  (Gotta love those Belgians.)

Gillian, as she is called, is of course the name of a beer and not someone – and let’s be clear on this since I do have a better half who reads all my blog posts – that I have ever actually dated.  This is a good thing, since one of the attributes Gillian is said to have, as many wild ales (not wild dates) do, is an aroma akin to a sweaty horse blanket.  Talk about an instant red flag, right?  But again, this is a beer we’re talking about.  And yes, I also admit that this wasn’t my first time around the block with a sour type beer, but with this one, the tasting experience was certainly interesting, and definitely could be described as a bit complex.  So I felt a need to write about it, because I do admit that my one “date” I had with Gillian has haunted me a bit ever since.

Technically speaking, Gillian is one of two new members of a line-up of fruit infused, Belgian style wild ales from Goose Island, and although she may not be the most extreme sour type beer on the market, she can still be considered one, given her tart nature.  If you’re a die-hard craft beer fan, you already know that sour beers have been growing in popularity for at least a few years, but many just starting out on their craft beer adventure may not be aware of the interest.  Or perhaps you have noticed the growing numbers of sour type beers on the market but have passed their appearance off as some strange fad, perhaps similar to brewing beer with peanuts or peanut butter – which yes, is a thing – a passing fancy likely generated by those same craft beer geeks already familiar with them.  But for some time now, many have been saying that sour is the “next bitter”, the next big flavor component in craft beer that will both be incredibly popular and also require some practice getting used to, in the manner that bitter styles such as IPAs still give many craft beer curious fits.

As with so many trends in American craft brewing, sour beers gain at least some inspiration from European styles which have been around for centuries, including Belgian styles such as Lambics, Flanders Red Ales, or the Flanders Oud Bruin style.  Regardless of lineage, however, sours gain their sometimes bracingly tart character from the introduction of particular kinds of yeast, like lactobacillus and/or one or more species of brettanomyces, evidence of which is often seen shortened on the labels of beers such as Allagash Brewing’s “Midnight Brett”.  Some styles, such as certain types of lambics, are well known for the inclusion of fruit.  But most sour styles gain complexity without such additions, relying on extended aging times to let the beer mature, often on wood (in which the above mentioned yeasts tend to do very well in), and a varied use of those yeasts to produce layer upon layer of aromas and flavors.  Some breweries introduce those yeasts to the beer in a very typical, measured sort of way, while others go completely old world, by storing the prospective beer in a cooling vessel which is completely open to outside air – and basically rolling out the red carpet to airborne bacteria in order to help develop the ale. 

But while some American craft sours clearly keep those old world styles plainly in the rear view mirror – producing beers such as New Belgium’s delicious La Folie, their version of a Belgian Oud Bruin – as with most things American craft beer, it hardly stops there.  That’s because technically, any beer style can be soured.  And while the yeasts that give many sour beers their particular character have been used in styles that would seem like a natural match, such as in a saison – a style of beer known for being a bit tart, as well as dry, like many sours are – American craft brewers, have definitely begun to deviate from the book of strict style guidelines.  For example, The Bruery’s (CA) Tart of Darkness and Jester King’s (TX) Funk Metal are two examples of sour stout style beers.  Even IPAs are getting the treatment, as with Victory Brewing’s (PA) Wild Devil and Evil Twin’s Femme Fatale Brett.

Now, the level of sourness in each beer can range from the barely detectable to the “mouthful of warheads” level.  As with just about any great beer, the best sour type beers fold their tartness into the whole weave of the beer; their sour nature compliments other components in a pleasing, albeit puckering, experience.  As it turns out, sure, Gillian might not have been as daring of a companion as some brettanomyces inoculated, wild and wildly bitter IPA, instead more closely resembling a saison (and is sold as such).  But Gillian is one of the more complex beers I have had lately, and yes, she made for an interesting evening.  Borrowing from some of the ideas present in Goose Island’s fruit infused wild ale portfolio, Gillian had been given a dose of roughly 40 pounds of strawberries per barrel of beer, as well as additions of white pepper and honey.  Partially aged in red wine barrels for a few months, the use of brettanomyces (b. bruxellenensis for those keeping track at home) worked to give Gillian a slightly tart flavor, and if only for a moment, a slight hint of ‘sweaty horse blanket’ funk in the aroma (and thereby taste).  It’s a brett yeast attribute, and the term – also occasionally referred to as barnyard funk – is one which you might find surprising that true sour beer fans use rather affectionately.  But as Gillian showed me, once you get it – all the sourness, the puckering, and yes, even the accompanying funk – well, you just get it.




~ by thebeerroad on November 13, 2013.

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