In a transition that seemingly happened overnight, Vancouver’s craft brewers have stepped away from the IPA craze and moved toward another type that is just as flavourful but with the potential to appeal to a much broader group of imbibers, according to local “cicerone” Paul Pyne.
As a cicerone—akin to a sommelier, but for beer—Pyne says that sour beer’s tangy tasting notes, which vary wildly from style to style, can win over beer, wine, and cider drinkers alike.
“You’re not going to convert a Molson Canadian drinker or a wine drinker to craft beer by giving them a superhoppy northwest IPA,” Pyne says during an interview with the Georgia Straight at Big Rock Urban Eatery in Mount Pleasant, where he is a bartender. “But a sour, a nice lambic, or a gose of some kind—they can go over very well. I’ve often brought sours to wine parties, and it really kick-starts conversations.”
He says that this type of beer gets its sharp, acidic taste from the addition of some volatile ingredients. When brewers pitch strains of bacteria—like Lactobacillus (the same kind used to turn milk into yogurt) or Pediococcus—into their brew, funky things start to occur. Pyne stresses that this process has the potential to throw a real monkey wrench into a brewmaster’s process if not handled correctly.
“It’s very unique in brewing because it makes your brew house very susceptible to infection, and when you’re working with bacteria and yeasts that are raw, you can potentially contaminate other products by making a sour beer in your brewery, so it’s very finicky in that way,” Pyne says.
There are key differences in how a sour can be produced: some are created through what’s called mixed fermentation, which uses the natural process of clean starter yeast and the addition of bacteria, the more controlled option. Spontaneous fermentation, as its name suggests, employs natural bacteria and yeast in the air to “spike the beer and cause it to start fermenting”, according to Pyne. As such, spontaneous fermentation also takes much longer. (Think of making bread without yeast: doable, but not exactly quick.)
Yet another method involves “kettle souring” the brew, a process that is relatively instantaneous compared to a standard aged sour. Although kettles may make more sense for a brewery—aged sours take much longer and tie up resources and equipment—Pyne says the flavour profile of an aged sour is much more multidimensional.
“Some bacteria, like Brettanomyces, takes a full year to develop, so by consuming oxygen and all the other sugars and bacteria, it can be ready in three months, but it’s not going to be desirable yet,” Pyne says. “It goes through stages of disgusting and gross before it comes back down to being uniform and wonderful.”
Common sour-beer styles include lambic, gose, oud bruin, Berliner weisse, and Flanders red. According to Pyne, “the main difference is the malt build and the ingredients that go into them. A lot of them are quite wheat-heavy, which gives them more of that body and thickness.”
Fruit is often added as well, for two reasons: the naturally occurring sugars add to the beer’s fermentability, which can help speed up the process. The unique flavours of different fruits also help to balance out the beer’s sour quality with sweetness, making for a less aggressive, more palatable taste.
Some local easy-drinking sours include Four Winds Brewing’s Nectarous, a delightful dry-hopped sour with notes of apricot that should be at the top of every sour-beer virgin’s list. Another is Steamworks Brewing Co.’s Kettle Sour, which gets its tropical taste from Mosaic and Nelson Sauvin hops. Parallel 49 Brewing’s Bodhisattva, a sour white, is aged in French Chardonnay barrels, making for a deliciously crisp finish.
Graham With, head brewer at Parallel 49, knows all about the trickiness that comes with brewing sour beer.
“When we started brewing at Parallel 49, there wasn’t a big guide on how to brew sour beers, so we thought, ‘Let’s just start brewing and we’ll learn as we go’,” With says by phone.
Their first sour release, Lil’ Red, a 4.5-percent Berliner weisse made with sour cherries, “didn’t quite turn out as hoped”, according to With. However, the brewing team had another sour on reserve, which they had actually begun brewing before Lil’ Red.
“Lil’ Redemption was the first sour beer we brewed. We put it in wine barrels and let it age for three years,” With says. At 6.5 percent, the cherry sour was vastly different than its predecessor and definitely lived up to its name, according to Pyne, who sampled both beers when they were first released.
For With, the shift to sours is simply a way for brewers to showcase their inventiveness:
“I like my hops, too, but I think a lot of the reason for the rise of sours is people can’t get the hops they want to get, so it’s causing them to be a little more creative with their beers,” the brewer says. “I hope we see a lot more sour beers that are well-aged.”
Sour beers go great with food. Check out our curated list of local sour beer food pairings, courtesy Paul Pyne, here.