Friday, August 5, 2011

Ode to Yeast and other Bacteria - The Session

The SessionGetting acquainted with Sour Ale is like studying for a Biology exam. You've got to know your "bugs" and bacteria. And once you do, you'll find a style that will quickly become a strange fascination if not an obsession.

When I began my craft beer journey years ago, little did I know that I'd eventually come face to face with Brettanomyces, Lactobacillus, Pediococcus and Acetobacter. Sounds like some nasty disease, right?

These are the critters responsible for converting sugars into alcohol and producing side effects like Lactic Acid and Acetic Acid.

In the craft beer arena, fans commonly refer to these strains of yeast and bacteria as "Brett", "Lacto", "Pedio" and perhaps "Aceto". Almost sounds like a line-up of characters from an X-Men comic book.

My indulgence into sour ales began quite by chance during a visit to the Liquid Center taproom at New Belgium Brewing Company in Fort Collins a few years ago. I had heard some buzz about a sour wood-aged beer called La Folie - a Flanders Brown Ale.

I had no idea what style a Flanders ale was at the time and since I was given a choice of three free samples at the brewery one day, I asked to try their La Folie.

The server was kind enough to give me a warning when she handed me the small sampler glass that day. She told me, "Word of warning: you'll either love this style or completely hate it." OK - I'd been warned.

My first sniff of this brew reminded me of vinegar. Oh my! I thought how in the hell will I enjoy something that reminds me of that? I braced myself and took a sip.

Almost immediately my face shriveled up like a grape turning into a raisin. Ooowee that was sour! I looked at the server and she just smiled back at me. Despite my initial reaction, I wasn't about to let a beer get the best of me so I took a couple more sips. Hmmm, this isn't that bad once you get used to it.

The hardest part about learning to love sour ales is knowing what to expect. Once you get past that, you slowly realize that sour ale is almost the same sensation as biting down on a sour gummy bear. The most intense part is right at the beginning. Once the shock of it wears off, your mouth quickly adjusts and allows you to focus in on the other parts of the experience - extreme flavor.

La Folie gets most of it's bite from Acetobacter which converts sugars into not only alcohol but also acetic acid which reminds you a bit of vinegar.

I quickly finished off the La Folie sample and knew I had found something unique and wonderful.

From that point forward, whenever I attend a beer festival or brewery event I seek out any and all sour ale that is on the premises. In fact at the Great American Beer Festival in 2009, that was one of my primary targets for an entire session - anything and everything sour ales.

Since then, I must have tasted over 60 or more different sour ales. I even attended the inaugural Avery Sour Fest in 2010 where over 60 different sour ales were featured.

The following list are some of my all-time sour favorites:

New Belgium - La Folie - my 1st love
The Lost Abbey - Veritas 007 - made from Isabelle Proximus
The Lost Abbey - Duck Duck Goooze
The Lost Abbey - Red Poppy
Old Growth - TRiNiTY Brewing - Flemish inspired wild brown ale
Russian River - Consecration - one of my top picks
Cambridge Brewing - Benevolence - a dark sour chocolate ale
Cascade Brewing - Cascade Kriek Sour
Cascade Brewing - Sang Royal - hint of cherries
New Glarus - Old English Porter sour 1870's style
Bell's Brewing - Wild One
Jolly Pumpkin - Oro de Calabaza - yellow and funky
Avery Brewing - Brabant - one of their 1st sour ales

I really could go on for a while but these beers really stood out for me over the last few years.

Are sour ales just a passing fad? Will we see this style fade away over the next few years? Don't count on it. More and more breweries are seeing the light on these beers.

The trick is for breweries is to control those nasty little spores from getting into their other beers and contaminating their regular non-sour batches. I've heard of some horror stories of entire 100 barrel batches being dumped due to accidental infection from Brett, Lacto, Pedio and Aceto.

For those who turn their nose up at sour ales. I completely understand your offense to these beers. They aren't for everyone. Many people need to take a Tums to settle their stomach after a sour ale.

As for me, my stomach can handle sour ales just fine. I plan to continue my love for these wild creatures for many years to come. Long live sour power!

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This article was written as part of the on-going monthly blog carnival series called - The Session - started originally by Stan Hieronymus at his blog: Appellation Beer.

This month's host of The Session #54 (August 2011) is Jon Abernathy at The Brew Site. Thanks for hosting this month Jon!

Related articles you may enjoy:
- The Inaugural Avery Sour Fest (2010).
- Avery Brabant review. (their 1st barrel-aged sour)
- Hot Picks from the 2009 GABF. (sour ales highlighted)

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