Sour beers might not sound particularly appealing, but they’re increasingly sought-after in Vancouver. During Vancouver Craft Beer Week, a sold-out dinner at Merchant’s Oyster Bar focused on sour beers. Chris Bjerrisgaard, one of the founders of VCBW and marketing manager for Parallel 49 Brewing Company, told the crowd that “2015 is probably the year of the sour” and that there’s even more to look forward to in 2016.
So what exactly are sour beers, and why would you want to drink them? The Straight talked with a few people producing them to find out.
Iain Hill, who co-owns Strange Fellows Brewing (1345 Clark Drive), isn’t fond of the term sour, which isn’t great for marketing. “Wine is all sour, but we don’t say it’s sour because that’s the norm,” he noted on a break at the brewery. Wine is generally acidic, but beer is not. “Sour beer is usually sour because it has acid in it,” he explained.
The process is complicated, but in a nutshell it’s created either by aging the beer with specific cultures or by adding a lactobacillus culture to a batch of wort in the brew kettle. The latter sours the beer more quickly, creating an appealing tartness.
“True sours”, those cultured or fermented, are typically aged like wine in a wooden barrel for at least a year, picking up bacteria and flavour along the way. These include beers such as lambics, gueuzes, and Flanders reds; Strange Fellows has a sour oud bruin in the works for a December release.
“Kettle sours”, or “quick sours”, don’t need to age very long. At Strange Fellows’ tasting room, there’s a cultured sour called Roxanne on tap, which is made with black raspberries. A sour grisette will be out by the end of June, and a Berliner Weisse by the end of July.
“A lot of people are dabbling in sours in Vancouver,” confirmed Nigel Pike, who owns Main Street Brewing (261 East 7th Avenue). In a phone interview, he told the Straight that most of these are kettle sours, since full sours require a big commitment. Not only does it take time for breweries to make them, sour beers occupy space in barrels, tie up cash flow, and create issues with bacteria on equipment.
He noted that local interest in sour beers follows an American trend. “We’re generally a year or two behind the States, and they had their sour moment.” In Vancouver, interest in and awareness of sour beers is “small but growing”, and they’re still relatively difficult to find.
“Anything sour these days just flies [out of the brewery],” he added. When Main Street released its Cantus Fermus kettle sour in late May, it sold out in three weeks. (Look for a new batch in the tasting room in mid-July.)
So what’s appealing about sour beers? “It’s the complexity,” Pike said. While it helps if you appreciate sour, sharp flavours, the initial pucker does mellow. “It’s a shock to your mouth,” he explained, but then “you get these deep, rich flavours that come through.”
Main Street Brewing currently has the kettle-soured, slightly tart Red Reifel Rye Saison in its tasting room and for sale in 750-millilitre bottles. It’s also pouring a kettle-brewed Checkpoint Charlie Berliner Weisse in its taproom and at its sister restaurant, the Union (219 Union Street).
Pike said that at both locations, the Berliner Weisse—a German-style light sour—is served with syrup that can be added to taste, as is the tradition. “You add a little sweetness to take away from the tartness,” he explained. At the brewery, a choice of red raspberry or green woodruff syrup is available. At the Union, there’s a house-made Thai basil and raspberry syrup that complements the restaurant’s Asian flavours.
The Berliner Weisse style is also low in alcohol; Checkpoint Charlie is just 3 percent ABV. “It’s a refreshing patio lunchtime beer that’s going to allow you to get on with your day.”
Over at Parallel 49 Brewing Company (1950 Triumph Street), three kinds of true sours are currently available for tasting and for sale in 650-millilitre bombers. At the VCBW event, head brewer Graham With presented two of them.
Aged in French Chardonnay barrels for over a year, the Sour White has “a big Chardonnay, buttery gooseberry flavour to it”, he told diners. The newly released Lil’ Redemption cherry sour is a tart, fruity beer that was aged in Cabernet Sauvignon barrels with wild yeast and sour bacteria for two years and then blended with sour cherries.
Parallel 49’s latest release, the Apricotopus, is a crisp, dry summer saison that was blended with apricots for a hint of sweetness with the tartness. It rings in at 6.3 percent ABV. The Lil’ Redemption is also high in alcohol, at 6.7 percent, and the Sour White carries a big 7.5 percent.
Back at Strange Fellows, Hill notes that since sour beers are often higher in alcohol, they tend to be sippers. But that doesn’t rule them out on hot summer days. “Many types of sours are very refreshing,” he explained, comparing the tartness to that of lemonade.
Pucker up, and give one a try on the patio.