Pucker up, baby — it’s time to get down with the sour.
Sour and wild ales are popping up on store shelves and bar taps everywhere, marking a new frontier in the nation’s craft brewing scene. And a few local producers are among the pioneers.
Firestone Walker Brewing Co. was an early trailblazer with its Barrelworks line, now based in Buellton.
Libertine Brewing Co.’s all-wild program fueled its expansion from a pub in Morro Bay to a bustling spot in San Luis Obispo. (A third location in Buellton is in the planning stages.) And BarrelHouse Brewing Co. spearheaded California’s first festival dedicated to sour beers, Central Coast Sourfest, returning for a second year Sept. 23 to its Paso Robles brewery.
San Luis Obispo restaurant Eureka! is hosting its own Sour Fest that weekend, featuring 14 sour beers on tap Sept. 22 through 24.
Although sour beers still represent just a tiny fraction of the overall craft beer market, the recent growth in interest shows no signs of slowing down. Breweries across the country are setting up dedicated sour programs, and well-established producers such as Firestone, Wicked Weed and Bruery Terreux are earning acclaim for their tart yet tasty brews.
Here’s a guide to brewing’s sour revolution.
How sour are we talking?
Tastes range from lightly tart and refreshing to seriously mouth-puckering, with fruity or funky flavors from any fruits or spices included in fermentation.
If you’re timid, start with a Berliner weiss-style sour, a light beer with fresh acidity. Then dip into darker, barrel-aged sours, with complex layers of fruit, spice, caramel and wood.
When it comes to taste, Barrelworks master blender Jim Crooks says the sour moniker is misleading.
“It would be like calling India Pale Ales ‘bitter beers,’” Crooks said. “It ignores everything else going on on the palate.” He prefers the term “Belgian-inspired,” reflecting the time-honored process Belgian lambic and gueuze brewers have been following for hundreds of years.
In many ways, making sours is more akin to making wine than beer; long, slow fermentations are aged then blended to get the final product. Like wine, the result should be well integrated, balancing tart and sour flavors with a combination of sweetness and tannin.
What makes beers sour?
The short answer is wild yeasts and microbes from the surrounding environment. The long answer is years’ worth of microbial and fermentation science learning to work with yeasts and bacteria such as brettanomyces and lactobacillus — words that strike fear into the hearts of winemakers and brewers due to their ability to infect and ruin entire batches of alcohol.
But wild-child brewers like Crooks have befriended these tiny organisms, letting them do their thing while gently manipulating them to get the desired results.
“It’s a study in patience,” Crooks said.
Normally, a brewer knows within 48 hours if a beer is any good. With sours, “It’s a minimum of a year before you can tell, ‘Ok, this is going somewhere,’ ” Crooks said.
Once you learn how to harness the microbes, you open up endless possibilities for new beers, Crooks said. “It’s limitless what you can do with different levels of acidity, different fruits and spices, different barrels and vessels,” he said.
How should I drink them?
Serve sour beers at cellar temperature —about 50 to 55 degrees Fahrenheit — in a Belgian-style tulip glass to concentrates aromas.
Because of its acidity, sour beer pairs exceptionally well with food, accentuating fruit in a salad or herbs in a pasta or seafood dish. “It also clears the palate for the next bite,” BarrelHouse sour brewer Spencer Waldron said.
But they also stand up on their own. Crooks says he’ll often start the evening with a lighter sour as a palate-cleanser and come back to another to finish the night.
Many brewers tout digestive benefits to drinking sour beers, but the acidity can be hard on the stomach — so pack some anti-acids before extensive sampling. Crooks’ go-to? Zantac 150.
“Take one an hour before a festival and you won’t get yucky belly,” he said. “It’ll save you the next morning.”
Sally Buffalo writes about wine, beer and spirits. Reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter or Instagram @sallybuffalo.
Central Coast Sourfest
What: Sample sour and wild ales from more than two dozen breweries around the country, including special releases not available elsewhere. Enjoy unlimited tastes, a meal, games and music while raising money for benefitting Lifewater International.
When: 1 to 5 p.m., Sept. 23
Where: BarrelHouse Brewing Co., 3055 Limestone Way, Paso Robles
How much: $70