So if America’s contribution to the new Craft Beer Craze is the super hoppy Pale Ales with IBUs of over 100, then Cincinnati’s contribution is the Wild Sour Beers, that are purposely fermented with strains of bacteria to create sour flavor.
For many homebrewers, sour beers are counterintuitive. We are schooled that the most important thing in brewing is cleanliness. That means sanitizing all equipment with bleach, but washing away all traces of bleach. That’s important because bleach would harm the sensitive yeast, which is the organism digesting the malt sugars and creating alcohol and carbon dioxide. And, the wort fermenter should be air tight to avoid wild bacteria from entering. Wild bacteria are uncontrollable and create unpredicatable sour flavors, that until recently weren’t popular in America. For a homebrewer, the production of a sour beer was usually a mistake, made from unproperly sanitized equipment or a fermenter not totally air tight.
So what was once considered swill, is making a bit of a comeback, at least in the Queen City.
At one time in beer history, all beers were a bit sour, because pure yeast, without wild strains or bacteria was not available. But for much of our modern brewing history, pure brewer’s yeast is available to the home and commercial brewers, so our palate is not as acceptable of sour beers.
There is a long legacy in Belgium of producing these sour beers. They have three very distinct types, lambics, gueze, and Flanders red ales. Lambics are brewed in the Pajottenland region of Belgium and wort is cooled in containers open to the air to allow wild bacteria in. Gueze is a type of lambic that is a mix of 1 year old and 2-3 year old lambics mixed and allowed to ferment a second time. Flanders red ales are again a mix of an older barrel aged beer with a younger ale to produce a sour version.
Germany also has a few examples of sour beers. One style, Gose, made in Goslar, Germany, is a top fermenting beer, characterized by salt and coriander addition, and uses lactobacillus as the souring bacteria. Berliner Weisse was once the most popular beer in Berlin, and also uses lactobacillus as the souring agent. It’s a weak beer at about 3% alcohol.
It takes balls to embrace the production of these sour beers. The fermentation process is very unpredictable. So why even take the risk of making sour beer? Well Cincinnati’s Rivertown, which produces Divergent, a Berliner Weisse style sour ale describes it this way:
“Flappers have always been a symbol of change and rebellion. Harkening to a time where challenging the norm was all the rage, this (sour) beer embraces and celebrates that vibrant, rebellious spirit.”
Urban Artifact, the new brewery in a century old Northside Irish Catholic Church, produces only wild sour ales. They produce three to be exact, a gose, which they describe as ‘Bready, with fruity esters, and a refreshing tartness”; a Berliner Pale Ale, which is a hybrid take on the sour Berliner Weisse, with a punch of hoppiness , and a Kentucky Common, with a “balance of sweet and tart, notes of cedar, and subtle fruitiness.” Their take is that sour beers “create flavors that are tart and crisp, tropical and wild, and downright funky.”
While there is a measure of the bitterness imparted by hops to beer in the form of IBUs or International Bitterness units, there’s really no standard of measure for how sour a beer is. Some of the Cincinnati sour beer producers have been quoting pH, which is a measure of acidity, but it’s not really a good way to relate to a beer’s sour taste. So, that’s an S.O.S to all you brewing chemists out there – invent a good measure of sour for this growing category!
I have to admit, sour beers are refreshing in warm weather, and they’re very drinkable. I’ve had several of Bad Tom Brewery’s Fink Red Rye Sour, and I look forward this weekend to sampling the Taft Ale House’s new ‘Louisa – the Stavemother’ a Flanders red style sour ale fermented with Brettanomyces, Lactobacillus, Pedicoccus, but not Saccharomycin. Oh, and it’s aged in Napa Valley chardonnay barrels for two months. Named after Taft’s mother, Louisa, it’s kinda funny we’re taking my father there to celebrate Father’s Day.
While you don’t have to be a microbiologist to drink these new sour beers, there’s a lot to be learned to craft them correctly. Kudos to the Cincinnati brewers taking these strides in the Brave Brew World of funky sour beers!