My brother-in-law texted me, “Sour beer? You like?” I love the guy, but he’d still be ordering Midori Sours if they still made the stuff. He went on to submit, “The guys I work with rave about them.” He doesn’t work with bearded brewers or tattooed beertenders; he’s a doctor. He works with people who dyed in the wool beer geeks presuppose only drink expensive wine and single malt scotch.
Which is exactly when it hit me. Midori sour! Amaretto sour. Whiskey sour. Sour beer is very likely the next gateway beer! It’s not unlike how Blue Moon ushered in a wave of “craft” beer drinkers with approachable, tasty, Belgian-style witbiers sweetened with orange peel and coriander, or the other weisse/weizen beers before that garnished with sour lemon peel on the rim like my dad loves.
Sour beers…well, “wild ales,” have already reached their tipping point. And it’s not just because Eric Asimov covered them three years ago, which was a watershed moment. For one, people call them “sours,” and the brewers who make them are giving up on their battle to not have everyone call them “sours,” since sour is technically an adjective, not a noun, not to mention many beers infected with Brettanomyces are not, in fact, tart/puckering/tangy/citrusy or sour. But good luck trying to get non-beer nerds to learn (or care about) that there are differences between Brett strains or that they might, like me, enjoy Brettanomyces claussenii’s pineapple accents but dislike Brettanomyces bruxellensis’ “horse blanket” mustiness.
No. Like it or not, there’s a shorthand that goes with any emerging beer style and once it sticks, it’s hard or impossible to put some Teflon between the style and the descriptor. To most, IPA equals bitter, stout equals heavy, and now “sour” equals sour, despite the fact that there are malty triple IPAs, dry and light Irish stouts, and beers fermented or infected not by Saccharomyces (brewer’s yeast) but by wild yeasts that aren’t remotely tart.
With this in mind, Breakside’s new release, La Tormenta, is quite possibly the most ingenious offering to hit beer shelves of late. (Full disclosure: this webmag’s publisher is also employed by Breakside Brewery to promote its beers, yet this writer has received no compensation for this or any other story, but did receive a complimentary bottle for review purposes.)
This is a beer that’s been purposefully infected with the bacteria Lactobacillus. It’s not a yeast, so it doesn’t do any fermenting, but it does throw wild, lemony, or–to some people–“off” flavors. Do you ever not trust, or mind, the date on your milk carton and perform a sniff test? When you jerk your head back, that’s the lactobacilli talking. And it can strike even before the Best-By date because it’s that fast acting.
Blammo. Here’s the situation. Sour beers predominantly take a long time to complete (although it can be said their journey is never finished, which is why some people choose to age—or cellar, if you must—them for a portion of time, perhaps even years). To achieve this result, beers soured by Brett may spend six or twelve months aging in oak casks or, for fancy ones, foeders (really, really big oak barrels). Heck, maturing for two or three years isn’t unheard of. And when a beer requires that much time to condition, it becomes more expensive. You wouldn’t let someone crash at your pad for three years without paying rent, so it’s the same for beer inside a brewery. Price tags upwards of $20 are commonplace for such products.
A 22-oz bottle of La Tormenta retails for $6. That’s downright cheap. Then again, imagine my happy disbelief when I visited the Cantillon brewery in Brussels recently and noticed that the Classic Gueuze—a blend of oaked lambics aged for a period of one to three years—costs only six Euros.
The beer review site RateBeer.com has it classified as a sour/wild ale, but it neither contains wild yeast nor did it spend any time on potentially-perilous oak (100% stainless steel), nor was it aged. It goes from mash to bottle in three and a half weeks. It’s dry-hopped with Mosaic, Citra, and Equinox hops to boost and–to borrow a word I learned from Christian DeBenedetti–complexify the beer with assorted tropical flavors, but it’s not challenging either in terms of producing it or drinking it. It is truly a gateway sour beer.
The taste and the price tag will allow many folks who are sour-curious to purchase it. Others will follow.
Notably, La Tormenta follows the lead set by New Belgium’s Le Terroir, as admitted by Breakside brewers Ben Edmunds and Sam Barber (for whom this creation is his swan song). But while Le Terroir is one of my favorites from New Belgium, all or part of it spends three years in their foeders and retails for $15. That’s the same price as the excellent, new Atomic KangaRue, the collaboration dry-hopped sour ale from The Bruery and fellow SoCal brewery Smog City, which boosts the note of funk. But can we be far off from ShockTop Sour and Blue Sour Moon? Nope. The Big Guys are already doing sour experiments—a beer called Mich Brett that I had the displeasure of trying a few years ago and, yes, you guessed correctly that’s A-B’s creation that’s shorthand for Michelob Brettanomyces—is quite possibly the single worst beer to ever pass my lips. But they’ll keep working on it and coming out with more attempts. And if that doesn’t take, we may just see sixers of AB-InBev’s 10 Barrel Sparkle Party or Apricot Crush on supermarket shelves. And if Cucumber Crush is $9 for that six-pack, I’ll be one of the millions tailgating with it.