If you've ever ordered a sour beer unwittingly or out of curiosity, chances are you were more than a bit surprised by what you tasted. Shocked is probably more like it — maybe even disturbed. Sour beers are characterized by their tartness, and they run the gamut from pleasantly lemony to downright Warhead-like. Because sour beers are more difficult to make, they're also elusive: difficult to find in a bottle and even harder to find on draft. But as the sour stuff's fanbase grows, East Bay breweries are stepping up to meet demand.
Sour beer is produced by the introduction of lactobacillus and pediococcus, two strains of bacteria, and brettanomyces yeasts, otherwise known as brett. Before the advent of refrigeration and advances in sanitation, most beer was probably at least a little bit sour, as these bacteria and yeasts are naturally occurring. Now, after decades of attempts to eradicate them, brewers are intentionally adding these elements into their beer to achieve an intriguing, food-friendly, pleasantly acidic beer.
Sour beers are barrel-aged, because the porous quality of wood allows oxygen to diffuse very slowly through staves, which in turn feeds the brett, explained Alex Wallash. He's one of the co-founders of The Rare Barrel, an all-sour brewery and tasting room (which will soon open to the public) in Berkeley that plans to release its first sours at the end of the year. Wallash and his partner Jay Goodwin — who was the head of the barrel-aging program at The Bruery, an Orange Country brewery that was noted for its sour program — share a deep love of sour beer. The Rare Barrel was partly born out of their frustration that there aren't more available.
"When it comes to acquiring them and drinking them, they aren't easy to find on draft," said Wallash. "We kind of said, 'Jay knows how to make them, we love them, and there isn't enough of them out there.... Let's start a sour brewery.'"
It takes months of barrel-aging beer before sourness begins to emerge — and many more until the desired flavor is reached. At Drake's Brewing Company's on-site taproom, The Barrel House, where there are always several small-batch sours on tap, the sours I tried that had been sitting in barrels for six months had a funky nose and an almost barely detectable tartness to them. Years of experimentation have paved the way for the brewery to widely release two sours in the next year: a Flanders-style red and a lighter-bodied blend of its Blonde Ale and Hefeweizen.
"We're definitely trying to hit specific points on a consistent basis with our sour program," said brewer Travis Camacho, who recently overtook Drake's barrel program.
Unlike other beers, sours actually get better with time. "Sour beers can be aged longer, and they preserve really well in bottle," Wallash explained. "An IPA is best to drink at the brewery, the day it has been packaged, to get the freshest hop flavors. But you can put sours in your cellar, and they're going to age well."
The length of time required to make a good sour (anywhere from six months to three years) is a huge reason why they're not as widely available. The other is that there are an incredible number of variables that can affect the production of a well-balanced sour — only some of which the brewer can control. That makes them fun to play around with, but very difficult to replicate, because most sours are aged in used wine barrels, which have their own internal community of bacteria and yeast after years of storing wine.
"Whether it's the malt for the base beer, the strains of bacteria and yeast, the time we add the yeast and bacteria and in what quantity, the addition of fruits and spices, if we use red white, white wine, brandy, or tequila barrels.... The list goes on. What we're trying to do as we start out is limit those variables so that we can focus on fermentation," Wallash said.
But because sour beer takes longer to develop, "You can sit there and taste it, and ask, 'Is it going the way I want?' And if it isn't, you can add new bacteria or leave it the way it is. It's forgiving that way," said Morgan Cox, brewer and co-owner of Ale Industries, who soured half of the first batch of beer he brewed more than a decade ago and significantly expanded his sour production two years ago.
"It takes a good year or two for a batch of sour beer," Cox continued. "I think that we are in the pre-wave of local sours, and that we're going to see more as breweries grow in capability. There's a huge investment in sour beers you're not going to see a return on for years." That investment includes the willingness to dump a barrel or two that don't taste right.
"You can't really tame them," Camacho said. "You can work with them to the best of your ability, but we expect a fair amount of loss."
But as difficult to perfect as they can be, good sours are undeniably complex, which makes them both enjoyable to brew and drink. The brewers I interviewed for this story agreed that in many ways, sour-beer-making is more like winemaking than brewing. And like wine, sour beers are best savored and explored, not downed.
"The flavors you get in sour beers make me think. It's a beer you can contemplate over. What does this remind me of?" said Wallash. "I'm intrigued by them."
General manager Ray Hsieh said that for at least two years after The Trappist opened in December 2007, he had to explain to customers what sour beer was. Today, he said he's ordering more sour beer to meet customer demand.
"Consciousness is much higher," Hsieh said. "People know about them and are actively searching for them. The types available now are so much more varied. A lot of domestic producers have become more nuanced in their production ... and absolutely gotten better." The Trappist is planning an event in November specifically focused on Lambic beers, a special kind of sour that is made by spontaneous fermentation — "the wild yeasts and bacteria in the atmosphere that percolate into open vats and cause fermentation," Hsieh said.
From April to October, Drake's holds "Sour Sunday" at Jupiter every third Sunday of the month, showcasing local sours. The last one of the year will be held on October 20, and is tentatively slated to feature dark sours (meaning porters and stouts).
Vinnie Cilurzo, brewer and co-owner of Russian River Brewery, one of the earliest California breweries to cement its sour program, said there's a certain allure and mystique to sour beers: "The beer is more in control than you are .... There's something kind of refreshing about that in this day and age, when breweries have exact release dates and distributors get all up in arms if you don't meet them. Sour beers are the opposite: They tell us when they're ready."
Where to Buy Sour Beer
Drake's Barrel House (1933 Davis St., Bldg. 177, San Leandro, 510-568-2739)
The Trappist (460 8th St., Oakland, 510-238-8900)
Trappist Provisions (6309 College Ave., Oakland, 510-594-2339)
Ledgers Liquors (1399 University Ave., Berkeley, 510-540-9243)
Whole Foods Market Oakland (230 Bay Pl., Oakland, 510-834-9800)
Star Grocery (3068 Claremont Ave., Berkeley, 510-652-2490)
Beer Revolution (464 3rd St., Oakland, 510-452-2337)