Brooks on Beer: The buzz about sour beers
Jay R. Brooks
For the Contra Costa Times
Most beers run along a sweet-bitter continuum. Generally speaking, the hoppier the beer, the more bitterness you taste. The maltier the brew, the sweeter the flavors. That's true of the majority of ales and lagers being brewed today. But, as they say, there are exceptions to every rule; in the world of beer, not every beer fits into a neat category. Some beers run wild.
Wild ales and sour beers are throwbacks to a time before yeast was well understood. The Egyptians and other ancient civilizations in the Fertile Crescent used yeast to make beer and bake bread 6,000 years ago. They didn't really understand the chemical reactions taking place, so it was tough to control or manipulate them.
It took centuries -- and the invention of the microscope -- before people really got a tap handle on it. In the mid-1600s, Anton Leeuwenhoek discovered yeast cells, but it was Louis Pasteur who figured out how yeast worked and showed brewers the process of fermentation was biological. That discovery is why beer tastes the way it does today -- and why it's not sour.
CONTROL OF THE YEAST
It's hard to imagine beer's place in modern society being the same without brewers wrangling yeast and getting it under control. That control allowed the emergence of different types of beer, with subtle differences and delicate flavors.
But in parts of Belgium -- and a few other places -- time essentially stood still. Belgians liked their beers sour and wild, and they continued making them in traditional ways, even as pilsners and pale ales changed the rest of the beer world. As a result, sour beers didn't disappear; they just retreated to pockets in the Belgian countryside, where centuries-old brewing techniques continue unchanged.
BORROWING FROM OTHER CULTURES
One of the best aspects of being a cultural melting pot is the freedom to do what you want. Nowhere is that more true than in the world of craft beer. When microbreweries first began, brewers looked to the brewing cultures of Great Britain, Germany, the Czech Republic and, of course, Belgium, for their inspiration. Some American brewers tried to make their beers as close to the originals as they could; others used them as jumping-off points. Over the years, many distinctive and new types of beers have been created in this country.
But sour beers were mostly avoided. They required a different kind of brewing that most small brewers didn't understand and weren't really equipped to produce.
Plus, they weren't that popular in the beginning. They taste nothing like the beers most of us are used to, so sour and wild beers are considered an acquired taste. I know beer lovers who have yet to embrace them, even years after first trying them -- but I also know people who have fallen in love with them at first taste. They're not for everybody, but people who do love them, really love them.
It's difficult to generalize about these very complex beers, because they're all so different from one another. But they're all sour, in some cases puckeringly so. Their aromas have been described as "barnyard" or "horse blanket" -- and those are the kinder descriptors. They're neither dull nor something you're likely to chug. You wouldn't want one to quench your thirst on a blisteringly hot day. You have to think about them, and let the amazing blast of innumerable tastes wash over you.
If mass-produced lager is a cheap beach read, the best American sours and wild ales are Proust, Joyce or Kerouac. They're abstract, and different people get different flavors and experiences out of them. They're liquid poetry -- and more and more people are catching on.
These beers are still a small subset of the craft-beer market, but the number of American sour and wild beers is growing by leaps and bounds. It's one of the most exciting trends in beer over the past five to 10 years.
EMBRACING THE WILD SIDE
Some of the best American wilds and sours are made in California. Start with Russian River Brewing and Lost Abbey, then try the sours from Almanac Beer Co., the Bruery and Sante Adairius.
Further north, you'll find excellent wilds and sours from Cascade Brewing and Logsdon Organic Farmhouse Ales. Most of these brands are available here at well-stocked beer stores. Look for Colorado's Avery, Crooked Stave, Odell and New Belgium's La Folie and their Lips of Faith series, and Michigan's Jolly Pumpkin.
If you've haven't drunk the Kool-Aid of wild and sour beers, give them a try. Keep an open mind. You may not like them right away. It's possible you may never like them. But if you do, you'll remember that first sip like the first time you laid eyes on your future wife or husband.
Contact Jay R. Brooks at BrooksOnBeer@gmail.com. Read more by Brooks at www.ibabuzz.com/bottomsup.