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Why Sour Beers?

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The question I've been asked most during events promoting my book, American Sour Beers, is "Why sour beers?" They take forever, risk "infecting" your clean beers, and sometimes exhibit flavors described as horse blanket, vinegar, sour milk, and Band Aid. However, those same microbes are capable of creating tropical fruity esters, rustic spicy, funky, and earthy phenols, and freeing aromatic aglycones otherwise locked in hops, fruits, and spices. Acidity gives sour beers a flavor balance distinct from the usual sweet-to-bitter spectrum. In short, sour beers possess a range and aromatics that are impossible to attain from any other beer.

Sour beer was what all beers were before Pasteur, stainless steel, hops, and refrigeration. They are the heirloom, foraged, farm-to-table, artisan beverage of the first 8,800 years of beer's 9,000 year existence. They can be tart refreshing 3% ABV summer wheat beers loaded with lemon zest, or 12% ABV behemoths with all the richness and depth of your favorite "Imperial" without the alcohol sharpness. You can add your favorite local fruit, dry hop with bold citrusy American (or New Zealand) hops, or age in a barrel from a local nano-distillery.

Buying sour beer can be more challenging than brewing it. They are rare, variable, and expensive. You can brew 5 gallon (or 20L) of lambic-ish beer for about the same price as two 750s of the real stuff. The ingredients aren't what drive the high prices; it is the heightened risk and extended aging required. As a homebrewer the worst that happens is you are out $30, a few hours of work, and the use of a carboy during a year of aging, for a craft brewery the stakes are much higher.

As homebrewers we like to challenge ourselves. For some, this means brewing a standard American lager, or other styles so clean that a minuscule slip-up feels like a rock in your shoe. Perhaps visiting a Chinese herbalist to brew with an ingredient never before added to beer, or recreating an ancient style no one has tasted for 500 years. Traditional mixed-fermentation sour beers require considering a half dozen species instead of a monoculture of brewer's yeast. All of these microbes (Lactobacillus, Pediococcus, Brettanomyces, Acetobacter etc.) have different requirements, optimums, and dreams. It's your job to play them off one another, favoring some at the exclusion of others.
A sour beer can be made as simply as splitting a batch of Klsch, saison, English dark mild, or American blond and pitching brewer's yeast along with bottle dregs from a few of your favorite unpasteurized sour beer. It can also be as complex as an arcane three-hour turbid mash designed to extract tannins and starches into the wort, followed by precisely timed additions of a dozen strains of carefully selected and propagated wild yeast and bacteria. It comes down to how much control you want to try to exert over these amazing microbes.
Expectations and process aren't nearly as rigid for sours compared to clean styles. They don't have to take years or even months, pitch Lactobacillus into 120F (49C) wort to generate most of the lactic acidity in just a few days, follow that with Brettanomyces as the only yeast to complete attenuation and contribute its funky character in a few weeks. Other breweries simply open the fresh wort to the air and allow the wild microbes to do their work over the next two or three years. Still others re pitch the yeast/bacteria cake from one batch to the next like a sourdough starter, not really knowing what microbes it contains (only that it produces delicious results). As you brew you'll develop your own style and preferred microbes that produce results suited to your tastes.

Each batch of sour beer is a unique creation. Unlike clean beers, it is impossible to precisely replicate a commercial sour beer at home, even if you had the exact recipe. Even with identical ingredients, process, and microbes each mixed-fermentation will yield surprising new flavors. Commercial breweries often blend batches and barrels in an attempt to smooth variations, but as a homebrewer I embrace them, blending to accentuate interesting flavors. These beers age gracefully as Brettanomyces continues to scavenge oxygen for decades in the bottle.
There is no better time to be brewing sour beers. There are a half-dozen new yeast labs that have opened recently, and almost without exception they are working with microbes in addition to brewer's yeast. The techniques that a decade ago were the closely guarded secrets of Belgian brewers have been freed by immensely generous American brewers who have reverse-engineered those old world processes, and then struck off in their own directions. If you haven't brewed (an intentionally) sour or funky beer, there is no time like the present!

Michael Tonsmeire blogs about homebrewing as The Mad Fermentationist. He consults as "Flavor Developer" for Modern Times Beer (San Diego, CA), for which he develops the recipes, process, and microbes to produce sour beers. His first book, American Sour Beers (Brewers Publications) was released in June 2014.
 
Thanks for the article! I've been brewing since 97, but have only just begun to venture into Brett. Lacto is on deck soon.
 
A pretty big chunk of the book is available with the "Look Inside" feature on Amazon. Hopefully it works both as a reference and as a cover-to-cover read.
 
The book is a must read for anyone that wants to venture into the world of sour beers. I started brewing sours 2.5 years ago without knowing much about them and without knowing any other brewers that had done one. I wish I had had this book when I started. My first sour made believers out of several people (and brewers)that "didn't like Sour Beers" in the funky side of beer. Besides IPAs, Stouts and Belgians, these are fascinating beers to create and play with. I salute Michael for this book and his activism in the home brewing community!
 
When you work on something for a long time with very little feedback, invariably you start to doubt yourself. I'm so happy that the book has been well received so far! Looking forward to doing more events and actually getting to meet people in person. So far I'm scheduled for Denver, Nashville, Boston, New York, Maryland, and San Diego (with a few other offers still outstanding).
 
I have a question. I haven't had a sour beer for a couple of decades now. I think it was a cherry lambic. As I recall, I was not fond of it.
That being said, I would like to try some again. And maybe start brewing some if I find something that I do like.
Bearing in mind that I prefer malty brews and am not much of a hophead, what would be a good commercial sour to try?
 
Luckily for you, there are only a handful of hoppy sour beers.
Flemish Red (Rodenbach or Monk's Cafe) and Oud Bruins (Petrus, Goudenband) would be where I'd start. Both are brewed with plenty of Munich malt and specialty malts. They tend to retain some malt sweetness to balance the acidity as well.
Depending on where you live there are likely some more local options. Jolly Pumpkin La Roja, New Belgium La Folie, Russian River Consecration, Lost Abbey Cuvee de Tomme, the Bruery Oude Tart, Cascade Bourbonic Plague, Allagash Merveilleux etc. (coincidentally all breweries featured in the book)
With how long these beers take to age the more beers you can try before brewing, the better!
 
Great article!
I had my first sour just a couple of months ago and have been hooked. Your blog has been a tremendous help for me.
Thanks!
 
Great article Mike, and excellent book. Started to read through while on a trip to Brugge. Have been making a few brett beers lately - and completely blown away by the flavors and aromas - looking forward to seeing how these change.
Tobacco - who would have thought I would enjoy a saison that smells like a fresh tobacco leaf?
Cheers, Matt
 
I'm with you garcia. There's a local brewpub that wins awards with their sours, and I've tried every one they've put on tap but I can't get past the 2oz sample size.
 
If anybody makes a West Country White Ale, let me know how it turns up. I'm used to beers that are like having breakfast, not beers that have half a breakfast in them.
 
Sours are definitely an acquired taste, but brewing my own seems to be a big risk.
I'll have to read this whole book before I try.
 
I'd suggest trying sours from several breweries before writing them all off. Some are very sharp and vinegary while others are barely tart (refreshing). Some have huge funky aromas, while others are bright and citrusy. Often a brewery will use a similar method/microbes for all of their sours, search out beers that suit your palate! Certainly find a result you like before you invest in the time and effort.
Today I knocked out a partigyle double sour brew. First runnings tart saison with hibiscus, Mouteuka, Nelson Sauvin, Nelson Sauvin, and some Sauvignon Blanc from New Zealand. Second runnings going for a Berliner weisse with loads of lemon (zest and juice).
 
Just received my copy from Amazon.
Very excited - I'm probably the opposite of most people here in that I dislike "clean" beers of all varieties and really only enjoy sours and other weird stuff like Ginger Wine.
Actually thinking of souring a ginger wine, but I have to finish the book first.
Thanks so much for sharing your knowledge.
 
Never understood sour beers. I "won" two baskets of select sour beers at a fund raiser. I was trying to increase the bids on the baskets and ended up "buying" them. So I tried 15 different sours. Three were good enough to purchase again. Not a good percentage. Still don't understand the want for them. I live in Colorado and visit New Belgium often because it fun. They have a sour. I won't buy it but it is interesting to taste. Zymurgy last issue had a Berliner Weisse on the cover. It looked delicious! I made 5 gallons. I loved it so much I will keep it around all summer! It's a sour but doesn't use a bacteria to brew. At first I really didn't think it was a sour. Tastes more like a cider. Still don't understand the want of a sour but makes things interesting...
 
I'm trying to get more of a taste for Sours and my homebrew group has been "drinking our mistakes" by blending and adding unintentionally Soured beer (and bottle dregs) to infected batches. It's a lot of fun, but also a little sad to know that if you make a good batch, the chances of recreating it are pretty low.
If you're new to Sours, I'd suggest Evil Twin's Justin Blaeber if you can find it. It's an awesome intro!
 
It's amazing how much time you've put into sour beers. I follow your blog and plan on purchasing your book. Great job and I hope you make a profit. Keep it coming.
 
The nice thing about writing is that you always make a profit, although whether I'll make more than if I'd gotten a second job at Walmart remains to be seen.
 
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