Turning Sour Stateside
As a barometer of what’s going on in cutting-edge brewing, it’s hard to beat the Great American Beer Festival.
With all due respect to my continental and British friends, it’s in the US that much of the extreme brewing weather is experienced these days and a visit to the GABF usually shows which way the wind is blowing.
When I’ve visited the event in the past, things that have caught the eye have been the likes of double IPAs, with their relentless onslaught of hops, and wood-aging, with oaky Bourbon notes infused into complex, rich beers.
This year there was a certain amount of talk about sour beers – emulations of the great Belgian traditions of spontaneous fermentation and cask maturation that allow microflora and bacteria to turn the beer acidic and sharp – so I worked the festival floor in a bid to discover what was going on.
My first port of call was with Cascade Brewing, the brewery based at the Raccoon Lodge pub in Portland, Oregon. Owner Art Larrance (pictured right) and brewmaster Ron Gansberg – local craft brewing veterans – happily poured me a few samples of their take on the sour beer style.
Portland is a craft beer hotbed, and not long after founding Cascade in 1998, Art and Ron realized they needed to do something a little different to stand out from the crowd. They pulled out of what they describe as ‘the hops arms race’ and focused instead on sour beers.
I kicked off my tasting with The Vine, a powerful (9.2%) blend of three beers – a triple, a blond and a quadrupel – re-fermented with added grape juice. After six months of lactic fermentation in oak casks, it was certainly sour but not too challenging, with some sweetness at the end taking the edge off the lactic tang.
I then moved on to Sang Royal (8.9%), a sour red aged for 16 months or longer, which, with its pleasant acidic bite but mellow finish, reminded me of the classic Flanders sour red, Rodenbach – but the gentler Rodenbach Classic rather than the less compromising Rodenbach Grand Cru.
Next up was the cheerfully-named Vlad the Imp Aler, a strong (10.3%), lactic-soured blond quadrupel. It was understandably beefier than the first two beers I tried, with the pale malt sweetness that filled the palate pinched in an acetic grip. This one was attracting a lot of interest and not just because of its name.
Cascade also produces fruit sour beers. Kriek Ale (6.6%) – a red ale re-fermented with cherries in French oak – had an enjoyable restrained fruit character and was not as sweet as Vlad, and Apricot Ale (8.35%) – a fruited tripel given the lactic treatment – was also fairly bitter, adding an acetic burn to lots of fleshy apricot flavours.
Steep Learning Curve
‘Sour beers are very much a focal point for our brewery,’ commented Ron. ‘Aging beers to sour in oak is a journey and adventure unique to each barrel. You are never completely sure how the beer will end up tasting. It is very exciting and the learning curve is quite steep.’
Sadly I missed out on Bourbonic Plague, Cascade’s gold medallist in the Wood- and Barrel-aged Strong Beer category of the festival’s beer competition, and also slipped up by not getting my hands on some Rosso e Marrone from Captain Lawrence Brewing Co in New York state, which claimed the American Sour Ale title, but I did find plenty of other intriguing sour offerings gracing the festival stands.
Kentucky’s Bluegrass Brewing Company poured me some Quad Lambic, a blend of a quadrupel and a lambic. This one had a firm caramel character from the malt, cut through by sharp, bitter wild fermentation notes.
Moaten, from Two Brothers Brewing Company in Chicago, was described as a Flemish-style red ale, but featured only moderate tartness and sourness – just enough to sharpen up what was otherwise a malty, sweetish beer.
I found a similarly restrained sourness in Confluence, one of many Belgian-inspired beers from Allagash in New England. The pale, brettanomyces-influenced ale had a spicy, earthy saison-like dryness but was not particularly tart.
The most convincingly sour beer on my tour of the stands came courtesy of Cambridge Brewing Company from Massachusetts. Cherries were present as expected in its sour-mashed and oak-aged Cerise Cassée, but I had to look way beyond the glorious acidic notes to find them, and sweetness was conspicuously absent.
The strength was 8.5% but it tasted nothing like that strong, which is always a sign of a good beer in my book. I was reminded, favourably, of Rodenbach Grand Cru.
So sour beers, the next big thing to take over American brewing? Hardly. A useful niche, maybe, but one that will take time to fill, as Ron Gansberg concedes.
‘I think that more and more of our customers are gaining an appreciation for sour beers. Perhaps here in the North West, land of hoppy beers, people are just now being exposed to sour beers. More important are the new customers nationwide that are interested in our North West sour ales.
‘I think that sour ales will continue to gain greater acceptance here in the US. I don't think they will ever command a market segment like IPAs but sour ales are here to stay.’
What may hold things back is the sheer miscomprehension of such beers among the public. The hoppy profile of a double IPA may be incredibly strong but US drinkers have gradually become used to big hoppy beers. The oaky, fortified wine and spirit notes of wood-aged beers are similarly not too daunting, as those are flavours the public knows rather well.
But when it comes to a seriously challenging sour beer – one that curls the tongue and stings the throat – that’s a different matter. Sourness is a flavour more associated with bad beer than good, which is perhaps why some of the brewers are playing it cautious with their experiments.
That may be the right approach. Softly, softly, catchee monkey, as the old saying goes.