Are sour enthusiasts ruining craft beer?

Hops are not our biggest problem

DarksideFermentation.2010
Within the craft beer community, much has been debated this past year over several pieces addressing the current industry and market obsession with hops. True to the American consuming nature, we do enjoy big and brash over subtle and nuanced in almost everything from automobiles to food to politics to music and film. Driven by West Coast breweries, we lust after the bold, pungent citrus and resin flavors of high-alpha hops, ramping IBUs up past anything considered reasonable by the previous generation of brewers and consumers — who did exactly the same to their predecessors, dating all the way back to the birth of modern craft beer.

To answer this oft-asked question, no, hops and their fans are not ruining craft beer. As a fundamental ingredient in our favorite beverage, one cannot use “too much” hops any more than one can use too much malt or too much yeast. The worth of the resulting product is judged by the craft beer consumer, with a brewery’s IPA commonly their most profitable and largest volume product. No doubt, the amount and intensity of hops included in beers across the stylistic spectrum has increased with the American appetite for new craft beer, and indeed most all our beers produced today are skewing toward the bitter end of the palate. As one who enjoys a good IPA with regularity, such is simply a trend to be acknowledged and not one to fret about as there remains an abundance of less hoppy beers for the consumer to embrace. Hopefully, the highest quality and most balanced beers will win out against excess over time.

BrewersBall.Dallas.2014

Berliner weisse mit schuss (woodruff).

Instead, craft beer watchers should be paying attention to the growing obsession with sour beers. Some of the oldest beer styles known, these “wild ales” originated spontaneously through natural, native yeasts and other microflora present everywhere in our human environment that made their way into fermentation vessels. The same sources that gave rise to sourdough breads, sauerkraut, kimchi and even vinegar and yogurt infected early brews and developed into small regional styles such as Berliner weiss, lambic, saison, oud bruin, gose and the more modern stock ales and even Kentucky common. Until quite recently, the tart and funky flavors of sour ales were limited to a very small and esoteric consumer base that embraced the niche of European imports and the handful of domestic brewers working to replicate or interpret their own.

However, given the expansive growth of the U.S. craft beer market during the past few years the once small captivation with sour beers has caught sail with the increasingly competitive marketplace, and brewers are pushing more and more artisanal wild and deliberately inoculated products out the door — and as something pungently new and novel to most craft beer consumers, their popularity is skyrocketing. By their nature being difficult styles of beer to brew and control, some European breweries specialized exclusively in soured styles with carefully cultivated strains of yeast and environmentally sensitive areas such as the Zenne Valley, not to mention generations of skill in blending and aging batches for proper flavor and consistency. Today, American brewers otherwise producing mainstream popular styles are commercially releasing sour beers as early as one year after the brewery is licensed and open.

So few new brewers handle sour beers well and can produce
the complexity and depth of flavor of their Old World counterparts…

Part of the problem with this trend is that so few new brewers handle sour beers well and can produce the complexity and depth of flavor of their Old World counterparts, and even fewer modern craft beer consumers can critically appreciate the difference. Some brewers attempt to replicate the methods of lambic and geuze producers, creating conditions for spontaneous fermentation with the native regional yeasts surrounding the brewery facilities. This itself assumes that such strains of flora found in American wildlands can produce desirable flavors in the same way as other areas, which is a gamble. Worse yet, more brewers shortcut the natural process of fermentation and deliberately dose their beers with known souring agents such as Brettanomyces, Lactobacillus and Pediococcus simply to generate the desired tartness of flavor in their recipes.

Craft beer consumers forget (or never knew) that such flavor elements like Brett were until recently considered serious flaws and were strictly undesirable in the majority of beer styles. Brewers would go to great lengths to eliminate such contaminants from their equipment and even their physical properties, with many fearing even to attempt brewing a sour batch on the same system otherwise relied upon for their revenue. But many modern brewers of sour beers have a much too casual attitude toward the cultivation and production of these infectious agents, trying as they might to meet the demand of a small, rabid specialty of sour ale consumer.

RealAle.Barrels.2011

What is the focus here?

Granted, a few domestic brewers have succeeded very well in producing some fine commercial soured beer styles on a par with European imports, a few even dedicating their entire operations to such ends, but these are the exceptions. However, craft breweries of any appreciable size now have some sort of internal sour-beer development, barrel aging or batch-blending programs with the commercial release of the most successful results. Thus a cycle begins with more breweries establishing and developing their own sour products to compete with other breweries doing the same, with ever more sour beers of varying quality entering the marketplace.

Experimentation is always good, and brewers who explore the world of commercially acceptable sour beers should be lauded for their attempts to grow and sharpen their own skill set. However, the necessary stylistic history and education of the conventional consumer has not kept pace with their ravenous fascination with the new and different and the unending desires of their own palates. The fear is that a critical breakdown will eventually occur as off-flavor components such as those produced in sour beer profiles are no longer seen as technical flaws in any beer and become acceptable constituents in the stylistic guidelines as they evolve away from their roots. For those who find this idea a bit far-fetched, consider how today’s session beers have migrated from their original style profiles with increasing levels of hops to please the consumer, leaving even traditionally malt-forward beers with an uncharacteristic bitter, citrus or pine note.

The solution? Most consumer markets are free and unregulated, as they should naturally be, and discouraging product research and the expansion of brewing techniques should never be entertained. But consumers must take upon themselves the burden of their own taste training and learn to distinguish the better from the lesser brewing attempts that they find. Seek out not only old, classic sour beer styles but old and classic breweries, almost exclusively imports from the regions from which these historical styles once originated. Learn to compare and contrast the depth and richness of a well-brewed Belgian oud bruin and one made domestically by a brewery before their wooden anniversary, and then make buying choices accordingly based on the quality of product.

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20 thoughts on “Are sour enthusiasts ruining craft beer?

  1. I think this is all a bit silly. I’ve only been enthusiastically drinking craft beers for ~5 years now, but i understand a lot of the basic principles you’re discussing. Yes, “true” sour beers like Lambics and Oud Bruins from Europe have centuries of perfection behind them, almost to an art form. But to take that and dismiss modern (American or other) sours as essentially illegitimate, and say that they will ruin the collective palate of beer consumers is a stretch.
    I have grown quite tired of overly-hopped, in-your-face IPA’s. (hell, there’s prob one NAMED “In Your Face IPA”…) For a while, i was mostly just drinking lagers and pils because I’d gotten bored. Then I discovered sours. Rekindled my interest in craft beer, on a whole new level. I’m interested in learning more about their history and origins, the process of brewing, and i think it’s an exciting thing to try out new sours.

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  2. Great article. It’s a shame that many craft brewers that are doing these “experiments” don’t ultimately dump their infected and bad tasting inferior quality product down the drain instead of serving it to people and telling consumers that their enteric bacteria infected Berliner Weiss is the way it is supposed to taste. The highest rated new brewery on RB last year is guilty of this as an example, and because they are rated highly the new sour beer consumer doesn’t know any better. Sour beers can be great to drink, but only if done right.

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    • Being a regular at that brewery you are referring to, they are upfront about many of their brews labeling them as the experiments they are. Sometimes they make a return, sometimes they don’t… But I’m sure they leave it up to the consumer to decide.

      There is no difference what is happening in the craft beer world now and what happened in the wine world 50 years ago. Where “old world” style of fermenting (“traditional” strains of yeast) were the norm. Now some of the best wineries in the world have adapted to the market demands and produce fantastic products using non traditional methods.

      The bottom line is tradition and quality are not mutually inclusive. Quality beers can be produced using non traditional methods, much like bad beers can be had from using traditional methods. Good Brewers will produce good beers… Bad breweries will go out of business!

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      • I’m not arguing quality versus tradition, or even against tradition or innovation. I agree, all these things are not mutually exclusive. However, without a consumer education in traditional flavors of sour beers I’m afraid anything put out as avant-garde by up-and-coming new brewers is greeted with acclaim, not with critical evaluation. American-made sour beers can be quality beers, but I don’t think most brewers are there yet.

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  3. Couldn’t the same be said of American IPAs? They are a drastic departure from traditional British IPA brewing styles and flavors. They have changed the entire consumer market into a race for the 100IBU ranking where beers are so bitter that the entire pallet of hops flavor is so over powering that the malt isn’t even present. I mean, like the beers you like, but saying that one style needs to hone to the old market while ignoring the obvious contradictions of American brewing seems disingenous…

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    • Nothing to do with your argument, but I believe you’re using “hone” incorrectly. It means “sharpen,” or “practice” as in honing one’s skills. You may have meant “hew” to the old market?

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  4. Just curious – do you have an actual example where a serious flaw in flavor or aroma has been integrated into the style profile? Because your example isn’t great. Citing a swing in balance towards hops is totally different from flaws like diacetyl or coliform bacteria being accepted as style appropriate. Sour beers will follow the same trend as all other beer. Some breweries will try it, few will succeed, and the rest will give up or die trying. There is no issue here, other than the author drumming up “controversy” where there is none. You know what’s running craft beer? Lazy beer journalism.

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    • This isn’t an issue of redefining style guidelines; those that draw up and revise those specs are knowledgeable enough about the expected flavor components. With consumers often experiencing their first taste of a sour beer from a nascent brewer with recognized deficiencies, they come to accept that profile as the norm rather than flawed.

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  5. Pingback: Professor Good Ales » Post Topic » About Sour Enthusiasts

    • Brettanomyces can and will produce acetic acid in the presence oxygen however the amount that is produced is stain dependent. It is not a souring agent in the same way that Lactobacillus is. During regular anaerobic fermentation Brett will produce similar amounts of acid as Saccromyces.

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  6. Yes, yes, yes! “I love sours” they say, “taste this from my local brewery”. Then they hand me a bottle of something that tastes like a blend of nailpolish remover, magic marker, and battery acid. Vile.

    Look, making a good sour requires skill AND patience, not just a wooden barrel and some strains picked from a catalog. Leave it to the big kids, before you wreck the category.

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  7. Reblogged this on PRIDE CRAFT BREWERY and commented:
    This is an interesting article that was posted by a brewer on FB and it generated quite a spirited debate among Tampa Bay brewers and beer enthusiasts. I am of the type that rolls my eyes at whatever is currently hyped or a “hot trend”. I don’t like being a sheep. And I also wonder how good some of these “one off” brews really are that are put out all the time in breweries when they’ve never brewed them before. These R&D beers have inevitably been constructed on paper, brewed, then hoisted for sale in their tasting rooms. Especially with a style so difficult to get right like sours, how many of these can be considered high quality?

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  8. I agree. As with enthusiasts in any field, we can get a little sneery, looking down at the unenlightened drinkers if fizzy yellow water from a multinational conglomobrewery. This I think makes us worry about being seen as being unenlightened ourselves so we tend to clamber to stay on trend. I just wish people would be honest about what they enjoy and not struggle through a pint of something fermented with yeast cultured from a discarded honey badger placenta and then go on to rave about it as the next big thing!!!

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  9. I’m going to slightly agree with the author that there are a lot of breweries attempting “one off” (or a few) American Wild Ales, Saisons, and other sours that cannot hold a candle to the Belgian brewers; some of these brews are downright terrible and should not be bottled. That said, there is a lot of innovation and some incredible sours coming out of a handful of breweries across the US; and even if this trend is “hot” right now, who cares? The beers are solid. Crooked Stave, Jolly Pumpkin, Side Project, SARA, De Garde, FW Barrelworks, Casey, Cascade, and others are focusing almost exclusively on the style and have brew masters that have exhaustively studied the use of certain bacteria, yeast strains, barrels, and fruits. Most have spent a lot of time in Europe learning techniques. There is a sub-set of the sour beer enthusiasts that I’ll call the “sour heads” that seek out beers that will remove your teeth enamel – acetic for acetic’s sake makes no sense to me (I’m looking at you, Upland!). But there is a much larger group of folks that appreciate the deep complexity of a beer like Crooked Staves’ artisanal series; or Cory King’s du Fermier blends; or SARA’s expertly made beers like West Ashley or Saison Bernice. Hot or not, I’m glad this style is now at the forefront of craft beer trends because it does separate the great brewers from the merely good ones. Almost every professional brewer with proper training and equipment can make a passable DIPA since the hops hide imperfections, but the art and science of brewing shines in sours.

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  10. Wow. As a somewhat snobby beer drinker, this far outsnobs-even my sensibilities. This is one of the most thinly veiled “Hey I’m a big fucking snobby douchebag and know much more than you do about sour beers. You drink crappy ones and have a poor palate, but not me.”

    Furthermore, it’s poorly written.

    “Today, American brewers otherwise producing mainstream popular styles are commercially releasing sour beers as early as one year after the brewery is licensed and open.” So? What’s your point, you don’t explain or provide any evidence that this matters.

    “Craft beer consumers forget (or never knew) that such flavor elements like Brett were until recently considered serious flaws and were strictly undesirable in the majority of beer styles.” How is this relevant at all? This article is about [nothing really] but assumedly beers where brett is desired.

    “But many modern brewers of sour beers have a much too casual attitude toward the cultivation and production of these infectious agents, trying as they might to meet the demand of a small, rabid specialty of sour ale consumer.” Another opinion with no explanation.

    “The fear is that a critical breakdown will eventually occur as off-flavor components such as those produced in sour beer profiles are no longer seen as technical flaws in any beer and become acceptable constituents in the stylistic guidelines as they evolve away from their roots.” Who’s fear?? Where is this guy pulling this BS from?

    Just a terrible fucking article all around.

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