Tuesday, November 6, 2007

Commentary: Sour Ales and Modern Brewing

This isn't a conversation I was specifically invited to partake in, but when it features something I have a few thoughts on I can't help but interject. It appears that Lew Brison has struck up a talk/debate on Sour Beer with Alan at The Good Beer Blog. Alan's post asks a few questions, but in all just sent my mind racing. I began formulating a reply, but once I realized the reply was getting longer than the post, I remember I have my own damned blog!

General Intro to Sour Beers and Rick Sellers

As a big fan of well made sour beers, I think the beer loving world should take a few moments to examine the use of the word "lambic" or "spontaneous" or "wild yeast" in modern American brewing. Lambic, in my mind, should be treated like Champaign, specific to the region the style originated, the Senne Valley (Belgium). I really don't have a leg to stand on in this regard, but I fear that in my lifetime I'll witness the last of the true Lambic beers, due to urban sprawl, pollution and general progress of the world. This saddens me and I want to see Lambics fetch the price they deserve, fear that the mis-use of the name will cheapen the perceptions of this beer-wealthy region.

I'm getting slightly annoyed these days with liberal use of spontaneous and wild yeast too. Spontaneous because more and more brewers are allowing barrels used in beer making for years to 'spontaneously' ferment their product... with all the safeguards that seem to strike me funny for the intent. Wild Yeast hurts to read because most strains of 'wild' yeast come in a bottle. Now, folks like Bristol Brewing who cultivate their own wild strains, they have my respect... Should I even get started on "brett" of all sorts beers being called Lambics?

Yes, I sadly think the current fascination with "sour" beer is a fad of sorts, picking up where barrel aging left off. Now, this isn't a bad thing, don't get me wrong. I guess I wouldn't even say 'fad', I don't see these beers disappearing like my parachute pants after all. I've just seen too many people who clearly don't like sour beer lining up and paying good money for one because, well, they feel like they're missing something if they didn't. I welcome sour beers, they can be the greatest and most refreshing beers around on a hot day.

Is there a correlation between aggressive souring and aggressive hopping? I have a strong "maybe" for you on this. Describing the sourness is certainly as complicated as describing a hop's character in a beer, with lactic, acidic, pungent just atop the list. However, I think the hopping possibilities in modern brewing have greater range in character and quality, and add to that some of the highest IBU beers out there are also sweet as hell, the equation is just odd. Sourness is a tough thing to manage. Right now we're seeing a lot of sweet sour beers, primarily I believe because it is quicker (cheaper) and easier to make these beers - that and I really don't think American palates are ready for a hard lambic. To create a true lambic-like beer requires a willingness to let the beer's pH fall dramatically. Then, over a period of years, the acidity of the beer is softened through blending or additions of fruit. There are a few brewers in the US today who are willing to do this on a limited basis, but certainly not in enough volume to enable a sustainable trend toward more aggressive sourness.

Now, I've had a lot of really well made sour beers from around the world. The brewers in the US have the ability, but I think we'll find the best and most aggressive sour beers coming from the homebrewers of the country, those who brew for the love of it and do not answer to investors.