Sour Beer—Worth the Risk?

Zwanze Day 2014

Zwanze Day 2014

Sour beer has two holidays in September, which is quite apt. Sour beers have been becoming increasingly popular lately, and are spreading out from the specialty beer stores and onto the grocery store shelves. A complicated and somewhat dangerous beer to brew, sour beer is very old—dating from the time when brewers were not quite sure why what they did worked.

Taming the Wild

Brewing a good beer is finicky work, in part because the most important component of beer—yeast—can be quite robust and unpredictable.  There are hundreds of different kinds of yeast that will ferment sugars, but only a few of these yeast do so in a way that is palatable to us.  Most brewers today strive to keep a clean, isolated brewing area in order to prevent the introduction of wild yeasts into their beers–but not all brewers.

Leaving It to Chance

Belgium is the historical center of sour beers—as well as the source of some of the world’s best beers. (Mendo’s upcoming Anniversary Ale, though not a sour, is also a Belgian variety).  Belgium is blessed with some of the rare yeasts that turn sugar to alcohol in a pleasing way, and because of this, Belgian brewers would encourage wild yeast (and other small beasties) to enter their brewery.  These brewers developed beers that were loved for their acidity, but such beers can also be inconsistent and time-consuming to make. With the advent of Louis Pasteur’s ‘discovery’ of yeast, brewers were finally able to determine what was causing their beer to spoil—or taste pleasantly sour.

Blending for Balance

Cantillon Brewery Mash Tun

Cantillon Brewery Mash Tun

The yeast strain associated with sour beer, Brettanomyces, is feared in most breweries. This yeast, loved by winemakers, is part of the reason for sour beer’s distinctive taste (the other helpers being the bacteria team of Lactobacillus and Pediococcus).  But these wild microbes are particularly unpredictable, and each separate cask from the same batch of beer can come out with a different flavor. Because of this, most modern sour beer brewers will blend their brews to create a consistent flavor.  And non-sour beer brewers prefer to avoid the yeast altogether, which could follow them home and infect their own brews.

Zwanze Day – September 20, 2014

Back in the days of early brewing, no one really understood the importance of cleanliness or yeast—so everyone brewed sour beer. But Belgian brewers kept the tradition alive as it faded in other areas, and Belgium is now considered the cradle of sour beers, particularly lambics. Each year, sour beer lovers around the world wait eagerly for the announcement of Zwanze Day, when the Cantillon Brewery in Belgium releases its special sour of the year.  This year’s brew is a blend of a non-carbonated ‘cereal wine’ and a lambic brewed by the brewer for his son’s 18th birthday. What a great dad…

Several venues in the US will be tapping this once-in-a-lifetime beer, named Cuvée Florian in honor of brewer’s Jean Van Roy’s son. You can find the locations near you, and read an interesting tale of how this year’s sour was born, by visiting the Cantillon Brewery site.

Sour barrels

Sour barrels

Sour Day Beer Day– September 13

Sour beer also has a home-grown group of fans that have set aside the second Saturday in September as Sour Beer Day. This event has been gaining some momentum—thanks to the internet—and several bars around the U.S will be serving a selection of sour beers to commemorate the day. That info is still a bit spotty, though, with no single site providing a coherent list.

Sour Power?

What do you think about sour beers? Are they are refreshing spin on conventional tastes or an odd concoction best left alone? Let us know in the comments below!

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