August 5, 2011

Session #54: Sour Beer

We live in a desert. It's been known to get hot here in the summer. While I'm the same as Rob and will drink any beer no matter the weather, I see the appeal of seasonality in beer styles. When it comes to summer, many people lean towards light and crisp beers - the proverbial lawnmower beer. Rob has been pushing witbier as a perfect Phoenix summer beer, but August's Beer Blogger Session topic is on sour beers giving us the opportunity to explore a rare beer style that I would love to see on more local beer lists.

Jon at The Brew Site is this month's host, and he describes the topic as follows:
I've been gradually exploring Sour Beer and finding myself seeking out and trying various beers which fit into the sour realm (yes, I'm purposefully avoiding the word style here as it is entirely too loaded): beers inoculated with wild yeasts, soured with fruit (often in conjunction with those wild yeasts and barrel-aging), lactic acid beers like Berliner Weisse-influenced beers and the rare Gose, and so on. It's a challenging area, both in acquiring a taste for soured beer and in brewing them. Fortunately many brewers are being adventurous and branching out these days, giving us many more options.
Sour beer has become the uber beer-geek rage the past few years. Any trip to a beer festival will find the longest lines at places like Lost Abbey and Russian River that are making Belgian-style lambics and fruit sours. Despite that, the majority of beer drinkers would be shocked to learn that sour beer exists. Even in the smaller community of craft drinkers, sour is still an aquired taste. Many people, myself included, are skeptical when trying their first sour beer but grow into loving the complexity of these beers after time. As a light, refreshing, acidic beer, I think Berliner Weisse is an excellent starter beer to begin exploring sours.

Berliner Weisse is a traditional style that traces it's roots back to the 16th century. It is a very pale, wheat-based beer that gets it's tart acidity from Lactobacillus. Traditionally this was done using a sour mash, although many brewers now use a commercial lactobacillus culture for consistency. All grain has natrual bacteria and beer spoiling organisms on them - this is one of the reasons beer goes through a boiling step. In a sour mash the mash is cooled to a temperature around 110 after starch conversion and additional grain is added to begin the sour culturing process. After 18-24 hours the beer would then be boiled and fermented with a normal beer yeast, though some breweries used a no-boil method by running off straight from the mash tun into the fermenter.

What makes this the perfect sour beer to enjoy in the Phoenix heat? First, it is low in alcohol (generally 3-3.5% ABV). You could drink it all day by the pool without over indulging. Second, the crisp, acidic tartness is very refreshing, similar to a cool glass of lemonade. The BJCP style guide for this beer includes the comment that Berliner Weisse "has been described by some as the most purely refreshing beer in the world." Finally, the beer is traditionally served in Berlin with a shot of flavored syrup which allows drinkers to back sweeten the beer to their preference. As a result, this is a very approchable beer for people who may be a little frightened or put off by the term "sour" when applied to beer.

Some commercial examples of the style available in Phoenix include Hottenroth from The Bruery and Festina Peche from Dogfish Head. I would love to see a local brewery step up and make one as well - not just as a brewpub seasonal, but in bottles as well. Until then, I think I'll brew one myself to get through the dog days of August.

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