Wednesday, June 2, 2010

Apparently It's The Summer of Sour Beers

La Folie, Enigma, Grumpy Troll Flanders Ned now the Great Dane has an "oud bruin" sour red? I guess we know what this summer's trend is. Though, to be fair, Grumpy Troll, New Glarus, and New Belgium have all made "oud bruin"/"flanders red" in the past. And, last summer The Great Dane had a "flanders red" as well (called "Red Flanders" if I remember correctly).

Today (well, yesterday by the time you read this) the New York Times had an article about sour beers.
Most brewers don’t leave the process to chance. They add various souring bacteria and Brettanomyces yeast, which bathe inside the warm, dark womb of the oak barrels, devouring sugars with a rampant aggressiveness. The bacteria create strong sour notes while Brettanomyces adds distinct aromas and flavors, combinations of sweetness, tart acidity, fruit, earth, cloves and barnyard funk.
Not surprisingly, the NY Times has better pre-press fact-checkers than Madison Beer Review [ed note: our motto: "We'll get it right eventually. Please comment."]
Some neighboring Sonoma County winemakers consider the yeast a scourge capable of destroying entire vintages of wine and refuse to sell Russian River the chardonnay, pinot noir and cabernet barrels in which the sour ales age.

“Some winemakers won’t even enter our brewery for a beer because they’re so disgusted by Brettanomyces,” Mr. Cilurzo said.
Mr. Snobby Pot, I'd like to introduce you to Msr. Snooty Kettle.

All in all, I'm happy to see sour beers getting their due. It's quite a conundrum though; very few breweries actually make good sour beers. We'll talk about the relative dynamics of the word "good" some other time, needless to say, it means whatever we think it means. The point is that there are not many "passable" sour beers out there. I can think of, off the top of my head, at least one hundred million pale ales that are "passable" - something that even if I don't "like" I'd at least drink if someone handed me a glass of it. But sours? I can think of good (and great) ones and I can think of ones that if I never swallowed again it would be too soon. None that are "passable".

And, more to the point, as a brewer, do you want to risk a brewery infection on something that you might not be able to pull off? And, if you are willing to take that risk, who's to say your consumers will even drink it?

Even at the best American sour breweries, sour beer accounts for less than 2% of their sales. Is it worth the effort? Given that if you get it right, it can make your reputation? Is it not worth the effort?


  1. I personally really enjoy a good sour beer. I find them very refreshing with a nice palette cleansing quality. Sometimes a bitter IPA or sweet stout are too much for my tired taste buds, in which case a sour beer is a welcomed substitute. The tangy flavors almost seems to reboot my senses – though I must admit that I'm a fan of sour anything really. So I realize it's not for everyone, but I say long live brettanomyces!

    Thanks for the post.


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  3. If given it's proper due, infection shouldn't be an issue. As a homebrewer, I know where to allocate my attention to when it comes to sanitation, so I'm sure the pros do, ten-fold.

    In my opinion, a good sour is definitely worth doing, even if it accounts for only a fraction of a percentage of annual sales. Integrity and reputation are the basis of non-Bud/Miller/Coors breweries.


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