Some people like sweet stuff. I’m the queen of sour. When I was five, I overindulged on sweet tarts and sour powdered candy. I was the only kid in school with cream cheese and pickle sandwiches. Ketchup was my condiment of choice, and salt and vinegar potato chips my comfort food. So when I tried a kriek beer in Brussels a few years ago, I knew I’d found my ideal style. The dry, tart, cherry brew was smooth and complex and unbelievably refreshing. It lingered long on my tongue, teasing my taste buds.
Kriek is a type of lambic beer made with sour cherries. Lambic is a geographic designation reserved for Belgian beers brewed in the Senne River Valley near Brussels. By royal decree, lambics must be made with 30 per cent malted wheat and two-year-old hops to limit bitterness. A key feature of lambics is spontaneous fermentation, whereby wild airborne yeast is allowed to enter the brewery landing in open fermenting tanks. In Canada, brewers don’t tend to use spontaneous fermentation. Yeasts and bacteria are added with intention, although there is still less control over the final product than with other beers.
According to beer expert Roger Mittag, lambic beer is the most authentic because “It’s probably the way brewers were producing beer from 10,000 years ago until modern times when it was discovered that yeast was creating the alcohol.” Flanders red ales and brown ales (or oud bruins) were originally brewed in the northern half of Belgium and represent another sour beer style. Depending on the style, brewing and aging techniques, sour beer can be lightly tangy or bracingly acidic.
Sour beer is making inroads in the United States. To learn more about the state of sour beer in Canada, Tidings talked to experts at Yaletown, Storm and Driftwood breweries in BC, and À la Fût in Quebec.
yaletown brewing company: gold medal beer
Head Brewer Iain Hill started making sour beers six years ago and produces one 2000-litre batch of oud bruin a year. He explained that brettanomyces or brett is a yeast that imparts flavours ranging from cherry pie to horse sweat and adds depth and complexity when at the right threshold. Wine makers fear brett because it penetrates wood barrels and can survive barrel washing. For makers of sour beer, the tenacity displayed by brett is an advantage. Two bacteria, lactobacillus and pedioccocus, produce lactic acid and add crisp, dry, acidity and pleasant sourness to the beer.
In 2013, Yaletown Brewing Company won a gold medal at the Canadian Brewing Awards in the category of wood and barrel aged sour beer. Hill considers Yaletown’s Oud Bruin to be his “pièce de résistance” and the thing that he is most proud of. It has mild to moderate acidity balanced by sweetness and fruitiness. As with wine, blending is used to control the level of acidity. Hill admits that he has a secret for blending that he keeps from brewer friends like James Walton, owner of Storm Brewing. He says that this secret will “probably come out one night over a beer.”
storm brewing: sour beer pioneer
James Walton, owner of Storm Brewing, is involved in every aspect of his business. “This is one of the few breweries where the owner is the brewer, makes deliveries and washes the tanks,” he says. Walton cruised the scrapyards to build his brewing equipment. He started making sour beers in 1996, but gave up after only a few years. “No one got the style for years and I got tired explaining to everyone what it was.” His 1997 vintage Black Currant Lambic sat in oak casks for about 14 years before he became famous for it across North America, winning two gold medals from North West Brewing News in 2010.
Walton also received recognition at the 2012 BC Beer Awards for his Imperial Flanders Red Ale. The 11 per cent alcohol beer includes malted barley and Walton’s own sour yeasts. A sherry flock forms on top of the brew, protecting it from oxidation. The beer was aged in oak for one year in the same barrels as the 1997 Black Currant Lambic. “The beer is really quite sour,” remarks Walton. “Smelling it gets my salivary glands going,” he says. The crimson-hued brew has some sweetness, malty sourness and notes of oak, barnyard and goat.
As Walton points out, “Ten years ago I couldn’t sell the stuff to save my life, now they can’t get enough of it. Ten years ago it was, ‘who has the hoppiest beer?’ Sour is the new bitter.”
driftwood brewing company: a trio of sours
Driftwood Brewing Company has an ongoing sour program with three sour beer releases to date: Bird of Prey, a Flanders red; Mad Bruin, an oud bruin; and Belle Royale, a kriek-style beer. Made in small batches, these beers don’t last long on store shelves. Jason Meyer started Driftwood with two partners in July 2008. They won silver for Bird of Prey at the 2012 Canadian Brewing Awards, and were also recognized for Bird of Prey at the 2012 BC Beer Awards.
The inspiration for the raptor-like motif adorning the labels of all three beers was a cooper’s hawk trapped in the brewery around the time Bird of Prey was being brewed. Meyer believes that sour beer is the bridge between wine and beer because “Sour beer balances acidity and sweetness in the same way that wine or cider does.”
Bird of Prey has a distinct cherry pie aroma even though no cherries were added to the brew. The Mad Bruin is less acidic, maltier and darker in colour than the Bird of Prey. This beer is dry as a bone, with a slight sweetness and biscuity notes. The Belle Royale is crafted with morello sour cherries followed by over 18 months of maturing in select American oak barrels. Close to 50 per cent of fermentable sugars come from the cherries and not the malt. As Meyer says, “we use a ridiculous amount of cherries.”
The Mad Bruin and Belle Royale beers were aged in wine barrels previously filled by the Bird of Prey beer. The barrels were not washed between fills to make the most of the resident brett and lactobacillus. Walton says that non-beer drinkers like sour beer the most, especially if they don’t like the bitterness that hops imparts. He advises that sour beers are quite versatile and can be paired with fatty nuts, filberts, pecans and almonds, strong cheeses or even steak.
à la fût: beer of the year
Saint-Tite, a town of 4000 between Montreal and Quebec City is the home of À la Fût, a brewery started in 2007 by three engineers who met at the École de technologie supérieure. This young brewery won Beer of the Year at the 2012 Canadian Craft Beer Awards for an aged sour beer called Co-Hop V. A second sour beer brewed with lambic yeasts, Co-Hop VII, will be ready in the summer or fall of 2014.
The award-winning Co-Hop V Rouge de Mékinac is a Flanders red ale made with very tart cherries. Cop-Hop V relies on natural lactobacillus from the cherries and a little bit of brettanomyces and takes 17 months to produce. There is only one batch on the market and another batch will be ready in two months. This five-point-nine per cent alcohol beer can be paired with almost any type of food because the taste is powerful, but not overpowering.
À la Fût’s base malts are organic and sourced locally, about 60 kilometres from the brewery. Mathieu Brochu, brewer and quality control manager, explains that Co-Hop VII is the first lambic brewed with Quebec malts. “It has a special taste of the terroir. Primary fermentation occurs in a stainless steel vessel using an ale yeast. For the secondary fermentation in oak barrels, a blend of wild yeasts from Oregon is used. The wild yeast contains microorganisms like lactobacillus, brettanomyces, and pediococcus.”
Brochu is also brewing another batch of sour beer to blend with Co-Hop VII to create a more complex and flavourful beer. When asked about the popularity of his sour beer, Brochu said, “At the beginning we thought it was for beer geeks only, but my mother loved it.”
Are you ready to sample a sour beer this fall? Pucker up and give one a try.