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Sours and the City: The Sour Beer Craze 

Wednesday, Sep 16 2015

Ever ahead of the curve, San Francisco was thirsty for sour beers long before they became cool. A landscape defined by adventurous drinkers allowed daring brewers to pursue a style that can easily intimidate casual consumers elsewhere. As a result, in only three years, enterprising Bay Area brewmasters have cemented the region as Sour Central.Sours have transcended the dominion of the geeks and spilled into the common sphere, where they're beginning to displace India Pale Ales as the discriminating beer drinker's favorite.

To Jesse Friedman of Almanac Beer, expanding the style meant spreading the gospel.

"Sours have come a really, really long way," he said. "When Almanac was starting [in early 2011], there was a lot more education we had to do for most people about what a sour beer is."

And what is that, exactly?

Well it's not a clever nickname; they actually have a sour profile. Those tart and tangy flavors come from a fermentation process that uses offbeat bacteria and yeasts. So-called 'wild' strains with clunky names like Brettanomyces, along with lactic acids such as pediococcus and lactobacillus, give birth to funky, lip-puckering characteristics.

The oldest beers in the world were brewed in similar fashion. Belgian Lambics, for example, utilized open-air fermentation, relying on whatever ambient yeasts were available in the atmosphere to produce alcohol. Because of the unpredictability of these microorganisms, Belgian brewers aged batches in ex-wine casks, and then blended the barrels to achieve uniformity.

In the U.S., modern riffs on that Old World method are collectively referred to as American Wild Ales — and the Bay Area has been blessed with notable pioneers in the style, Vinny Cilurzo of Russian River Brewing being a prime example. His wild ales — aged in wine barrels procured from local Sonoma County wineries — helped prime Northern Californian palates for the wave of sour that followed. One of Cilurzo's early masterpieces, Supplication, was released more than a decade ago and remains at the top of its class. It's a brown ale aged for a year in Pinot Noir barrels with cherries added. When it first hit shelves, there were no other domestic beers in the category, and few Americans had ever tasted anything like it before.

"These days, most everyone has tried a sour before," Friedman said. "And they have opinions about what they liked or didn't like. So they understand what they're trying, and we can focus on exciting details."

For Almanac, those details reveal themselves in each subsequent release of its ongoing Farmer's Reserve series, a seasonal offering now in its seventh variation. Each release builds its unique characteristic around a different locally sourced fruit. Its sours catapulted Almanac into the national spotlight, and now its beers are available on both coasts.

Steve Altimari of High Water Brewing fixed his focus on the barrels themselves when launching his newest string of wild ales, the Calambic Series.

"The beers all start with essentially the same base beer," he said. "Which is a Golden Ale with additionalmalt nutrients such as wheat, corn, and oats, to provide a nice, healthy food source for long-term barrel aging.The base beer is 100 percent fermented with our house Brettanomyces strain in stainless steel fermenters."

But the funk doesn't truly take flight until the liquid hits the barrel, where a secondary fermentation gets going.

"Once the beer in the barrels has aged for approximately one year, we introduce the chosen fruit and continue to age for four to six months, depending on the fruit and barrel fermentation timing," Altimari said. High Water most recently unveiled its Central Valley Breakfast Sour, aged with grapefruit, pear, and lychee. As the name suggests, it could be enjoyed before noon, drinking somewhat like a carbonated grapefruit juice. Next up is Ramble on Rose, made with fresh blueberries, rose petals, and pink peppercorns.

As adept at pushing the envelope as Almanac and High Water are, they excel just the same at brewing traditional styles of beer. The Rare Barrel (940 Parker Street, Berkeley) on the other hand, opened in 2013 as a purveyor of sours and sours alone. Attaining a near-instant cult status, its success is a testament to how pervasive the sour scene has become within the Bay Area. The easiest way to corral their elusive goods is by visiting their Berkeley tasting room, open Friday through Sunday. Rare Barrel keeps a half dozen house brews on tap, and coveted bottles, such as its Home Sour Home — brewed with peaches, cinnamon, and vanilla beans — fetch up to $25 a pop.

The runaway success of sour beers in the Bay Area is the result of a perfect storm: courageous drinkers, audacious brewers, and a limitless stable of experimental ingredients. Altogether, they ensure there's no end in sight for a style that seemingly knows no bounds.


About The Author

Brad Japhe

Brad Japhe

I enjoy my whiskey neat, my beer hoppy, and my meat medium rare. I have been covering craft spirits, suds, and gourmet cuisine for a decade, with work published from New York, across Montana, and up and down the Pacific Coast.


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