Pucker up

Are sour heads the next hop heads?

John Johnston

Recently, New Belgium Brewing in Fort Collins added Snapshot to their year-round lineup, which is billed as a citrusy and tart wheat beer. Although not listed on the bottle, Snapshot utilizes a mixed-fermentation which includes lactobacillus (a yeast strain which can impart “tart,” “sour,” and “barnyard” characteristics). As far as sours go, Snapshot is quite tame compared to some of its mouth-puckering counterparts.

“We wanted the beer to be approachable, and at the same time you don’t want to overstate the ‘sour’ claim when there are plenty of big sours out there,” says Bryan Simpson of New Belgium.

In addition to Snapshot, Simpson also mentioned that New Belgium recently doubled their wood beer capacity as they plan on having something sour in the market throughout the year.

They’re not alone. More and more breweries are utilizing mixed-fermentations with non-isolated yeast strains like lactobacillus and brettanomyces. And almost as many new breweries are focusing exclusively on these wild-fermented beers. So should we expect more breweries to start brewing year-round sours and increase barrel programs?

Ron Jeffries of the Michigan-based Jolly Pumpkin Artisan Ales, one of the first breweries to exclusively offer sour and barrel-fermented beers, says that more consumers are enjoying them, but feels they are unlikely to become the next IPA.

“They take a long time to make, are hard to make well, and can be challenging to understand, and well, they are higher-priced too,” Jeffries says. “Will Aston Martin be the next Toyota? Probably not.”

Nick Mader of Crooked Stave in Denver also points out the similarity between the traits of sour beers and wine, and the potential bridge to beer for wine drinkers. “There are many wine drinkers coming into our taproom and not expecting to enjoy our beers. One beer in particular, Surette, has vinous characteristics and finishes very dry and oakey due to the yeast and barrel aging,” says Mader.

The real draw for drinkers is typically a combination between wanting to try something different and a greater knowledge and appreciation of these types of beers.

“Wilds/ sours have become much more approachable to drinkers because there is more familiarity,” says Mader. “A lot of drinkers will be converted to wilds/sours because of the rising exposure of these beers at local establishments,” Mader continues.

One of these local establishments is Grimm Brothers Brewhouse of Loveland. Russell Fruits of Grimm says they strive to always have a barrel-aged beer on tap.

Brewing sours is not just a novelty at Grimm, “it’s an important part of business from the standpoint that it gives us a creative outlet and an opportunity to reach out to a more diverse community of beer drinkers,” says Fruits. Much like the easydrinking Snapshot of New Belgium, Fruits mentions a series based on their popular Berliner Weisse, which is traditionally a low alcohol beer with light, tart acidity, and is accompanied with German syrups in their taproom.

It’s likely the popularity of sours will continue to increase as more consumers become exposed to them, but due to longer cellaring times and additional steps in fermentation, don’t expect to see bombers of lambics and funky barrelaged beers next to the chardonnay at your local liquor store.

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