beer column

my beer notes from yesterday's beer column
on cbc radio's on the coast with stephen quinn:

I said in my 'year ahead' column back in January that I predict 2015 is going to be the year of the sour. While it is a fact that I am trying to convert Stephen to a sour beer fan, I am not trying to force sours to break out in 2015.  I don't have to - 2015 as year of the sour is already off to a running start. In January three local breweries came out with sours: Four Winds with Nectarous, Four Winds and Steel & Oak collaborated on a Gratzer and Parallel 49 put its Bodhi on tap in the tasting room.

Sour beers are a varied lot of beers that have been purposely infected with yeast strains (Lactobacillus, Brettanomyces, and Pediococcus) that cause them to taste sour. When this happens by accident, the beer is considered spoiled. When it is done on purpose, it is considered delicious!

I think a very romantic example of a sour brewery is Cantillon Brewery in Brussels, who use a cool ship (koelschip in Dutch/Flemish), an enormous copper-lined pan in the attic to chill wort (the liquid that once it is fermented will become beer). Beer is only brewed there during the winter (October to April). Each batch is pumped, still steaming, into the cool ship, then vents in the ceiling are opened and a fan turned on. Wild yeasts and bacteria are allowed to inoculate the beer overnight. The next morning the wort flows downstairs into empty Burgundy wine barrels, where it remains for up to four years, fermenting away. The beer is then blended and refermented to make their line-up of beers.

The process is a bit different at a brewery that is not devoted solely to the making of sours. Because the bacteria and yeasts could infect all the other beers being made, much care goes in to keeping them away from each other. Cultures are generally added to the beers once they are in the barrels where they will mature.

Also, because the yeasts are unpredictable, brewers are never sure what they're going to end up with when they make a sour. You can guide the process to an extent, but you can never be 100% sure of what you'll end up with.  This is part of the reason for blending batches together to achieve desired flavours.  This, added to the length of time required to mature the beer, is often enough for a brewer to decide not to brew sour beers. Thankfully, there are brewers willing to take the chance, and the time, to brew these beers.  In Belgium, some have been doing it for over a hundred years.

There are quite a few different types of sour beers. In fact, any beer could be soured. Usually though they fall into a few distinct types. The most popular are: Lambic, Berliner Weisse, Flanders Red and Oud Bruin. But there are others. Last year, for example, Driftwood made a Gose and now Four Winds and Steel & Oak have collaborated to make a Gratzer.  Lambics, Gratzers, Goses and Berliner Weisses are very wheat forward beers.  Flanders Reds and Oud Bruins don't feature wheat at all.

The example I used earlier of the Cantillon brewery and their wild fermentation was about the brewing of Lambics. These are the wild fermented beers that are usually blended together to achieve the desired flavour. Unblended they are pure Lambics. Blended, they are called Gueuzes. They can also be fermented with fruit. These are called Krieks when made with cherries, Framboise when made with raspberries, Bleuet when made with blueberries and the list goes on through other fruits like apricots, strawberries, peaches, blackcurrants, grapes etc. Faros are low-alcohol sweetened beers made from a blend of aged lambic and either young lambic or a much lighter freshly brewed beer, to which brown sugar is added.  Cantillon brews and blends their sour beers, as does Brouwerij 3 Fonteinen, Brasserie Belle Vue, Brouwerij Boon, Brouwerij De Troch, Brouwerij Girardin, Brouwerij Lindemans, Brasserie Mort Subite and Brouwerij Timmermans.  Some other sour makers buy wort from brewers and then do their own aging and blending, such as Brouwerij Oud Beersel and Gueuzerie Tilquin.

From the Lambic family of sours, Bravo Beer Importers has given us a Gueuze to sample. They also gave us a Flanders Red.  Stephen and I also sampled a Faro.  Although all three of these are sours, they are all very different and I think will give Stephen an introduction to the width and breadth of sour beers.

From Bravo Beer:
- Oud Beersel's Oude Geuze Vieille
Brouwerij Verhaeghe Vichte Duchess of Bourgogne

The Oud Beersel Oud Gueuze is a blended Lambic weighing in at 6% abv.  We're getting into the real art of sour beers, the flavours emphasized by expert blending. This is a beer that is blended by a master blender from one, two and three year old lambics. It is bitter and sour and smooth all at the same time. Very complex, but subtle. This beer would pair beautifully with buttery cheeses like bries, goudas and havarti, and sharp cheeses like blue and cheddar.  Oud Beersel was started in 1882 just outside Brussels.  Although it is no longer family run and owned, it was until 2002.  They now purchase their wort from Boon, then do the refermenting, blending and maturing.

The flanders red, the Duchesse de Bourgogne by Brouwerij Verhaeghe is is a 6.2% abv beer that was aged for 18 months in oak tuns. This is the vinegary beer of the three. The sharpness of this beer actually makes it very thirst-quenching and the high acidity pairs well with most foods. It can also cut through the richest dessert. And that beautiful red hue (from the malts) makes it a great beer to serve as a very pretty aperitif.  Brasserie Verhaeghe is a small family-owned business established in 1885 in Vichte in West Flanders.

Also sampled:
- Brouwerij Lindemans Belgian Faro Beer
This Faro is 4.75% abv, so it is considered to be a light beer. It smells quite sour, but with the brown sugar added to it, has a sweetness to go along with its sour apples and cherry flavour. This beer would pair really well with chocolate desserts.  And btw, you'll need a corkscrew to open this one! Six Generations of Lindemans have been brewing since 1822 on the family farm southwest of Brussels . They've brewed the Faro since 1978, resurecting a style that had fallen into oblivion in the 1900s.

What's the big attraction to beers that, if they weren't purposely infected, would be considered spoiled?

The acidity in sour beers makes them perfect for food pairing, and many people who don't like regular beers find that they absolutely love sours. Some biologists believe that humans evolved to enjoy low-level bacterial sourness to encourage probiotic health - meaning that we are wired to love sour beers. I have heard that the ions of acidic food and drink can penetrate the cell walls of our tastebuds and trigger an electrical response. I certainly feel all a-tingle when I drink a sour beer!

Sour beers are not new, before refrigeration and the discovery by Pasteur of yeast, most beers were to some degree sour. Belgium continued to make sour beers while the rest of the world moved away from them, until now. Belgian sours made their way to North America in the 70s but it has taken until recently for palates to embrace them and local breweries to brew them. James Walton of Storm Brewing made a lambic back in the 90s that he had trouble getting anyone to drink. So he tucked the barrels away and left them for 13 years. When he unearthed those barrels a couple of years ago people couldn't get enough of the lambic.

Keep in mind though, that these are not session beers. The high acidity means that you probably won't want to drink more than two of these at a time. With some of the higher percentage sours, I will just have one and very happily nurse it for the night. These are not beers to be consumed absent-mindedly. They demand (and deserve) your full attention.  I would suggest also allowing the beers to warm up if they are served too cold.  Ideal serving temperature is between 8 and 12 degrees C.  If you serve them colder than that, they won't give off as much flavour or aroma.  And please try them with food!

Finding sours on tap in Vancouver is a bit more difficult, but bottles are easy to come by. The three Biercraft locations carry a large line up of sour Belgian beers. The Bravo Beer importers website lists the restaurants who carry their line up of Belgian imports.

Storm Brewing usually has their Flanders Red on tap - you can get a sample at the tasting room and a growler fill. Parallel 49's Bodhi is being released in batches at the tasting room. Stateside Craft on Commerical Drive usually has a sour on tap. Private liquor stores have imported and domestic sours.

If you're travelling to Portland, Cascade Barrelhouse has an entire sour line-up, on tap and in bottles.  Breakside Brewing has also jumped into brewing sours and those are available at the brewery in Milwaulkee OR and at their Portland tasting room.

The three beers that we sampled are available at the private liquor stores and are quite reasonably priced. The Flanders Red, the Duchesse de Bourgogne, retails at about $5 for a 330 ml bottle. The Oud Gueuze Vieille for $9 for 375 ml. And the Faro for $8 for 375ml. When you think about how much work went in to those two lambics - the years of aging, and then blending, plus importing them, they're super reasonably priced!

Additional reading:

A Brief History of Sour Beer - The New Yorker

Lambic Info


Beer Judge Certification Program - style guideline


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