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When people consider the qualities of the beer in their glass, patterns tend to emerge. Citrusy hop aromas leap from a mug of IPA. Notes of banana and clove permeate a German hefeweizen. Traces of dark chocolate and coffee weave their way into a rich stout. As American brewers continue to apply their creative approach to traditional and Old World beer styles, our bank of common beer descriptors enlarges dramatically.
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Ten years ago, if you overheard somebody gushing over complex aromas of "horse blanket" and "sweaty saddle" in beer, you might have pegged them as misguided at best. As sour beers and so-called "wild ales" have become more prevalent, however, these traits have gained a revered status. In the age of acquired tastes gone mainstream, a beverage that reminds you of a stinky cheese can be a uniquely enjoyable expression of terroir.
So how do brewers put the pucker and funk in their sour brews? It's a careful mélange of wild yeast (brettanomyces) and bacteria (lactobacillus and pediococcus). Produced for centuries in Belgium, many styles of sour beer have reached a peak of popularity in the States, particularly in California. Numerous West Coast breweries carry on the traditions of European sour beer production, with some opening tasting rooms devoted to the barrel-aging and souring process, not the least of which include Portland's Cascade Brewing Barrel House, Buellton's Firestone Walker Barrelworks, and Bay Area's own Drake's Barrel House.
The Bay Area's longest-time claim to sour beer fame, however, is Santa Rosa's Russian River Brewing, a mecca for aficionados of the tart arts. The brewery's location in the heart of wine country is a natural choice for a producer whose beers often blur the lines between wine and beer; they're even sometimes aged in used wine barrels from neighboring wineries. (Wine country is also an odd place to cultivate brettanomyces: Old wives' tales abound of winemakers refusing to set foot in the brewery for fear that the "big bad brett" yeast will cling to their clothing, travel home with them, and infect their wine — nothing that burning your clothing and praying to Bacchus won't cure.)
Russian River's influence has trickled down to younger brewers. This year's SF Beer Week saw a record number of events highlighting sour brews, anchored by Triple Rock and Jupiter Brewpub's annual Sour Sunday extravaganza. A number of breweries debuted their first wild ales, many of which wore their homebrewer-inspired creativity on their sleeve. One such standout was Bison Brewing's My Funky Valentine, a collaboration with homebrewer and Beer by BART co-owner Gail Ann Williams. The barrel-aged Baltic porter was handed over to Williams for some home-spun doctoring that incorporated multiple strains of brettanomyces grown in her kitchen.
Beer Week also brought news that Copenhagen's famous gypsy brewer, Mikkeller, is set to open a bar in downtown San Francisco later this year. Beer geeks' ears perked up at the press release promise of a "sour room" in the cellar that will showcase mouth-puckering treats from around the world.
The most exciting recent development in sour beer, however, is firmly local: a Berkeley brewery that exclusively creates sours. The Rare Barrel, founded by Jay Goodwin and Alex Wallash, should have its first beer ready by the end of the year. The team has already amassed 200 oak barrels, with room to expand to 1,500. Goodwin, who will handle brewing and blending duties, cut his chops as the head of the barrel-aging program at The Bruery in Orange County, one of the country's most successful and creative breweries.
The most interesting aspect of The Rare Barrel project is its unique approach to production. Traditional sour beer creation in Belgium often separates the brewing operation from the fermentation and aging. Some blenders will buy "wort" (unfermented beer) from various local breweries and transport the liquid back to their facility to be exposed to ambient yeasts and aged in their own barrels. The Rare Barrel plans to weave this model into the process. Goodwin and Wallash will brew the wort at various locations around the Bay Area and transport it back to their facility for fermentation with proprietary yeasts and bacteria.
The only way to make this approach more traditionally Belgian? Build wooden rafters and fill them with cobwebs and stray kittens. Let's just hope that the general public also embraces the funk, starting with these places.
One of the finest cellars of local and European sour ales, overseen by a wildly competent staff and paired with chef Adam Dulye's inspired beer-friendly cuisine. 742 Valencia, 626-8700, abbotscellar.com.
Drake's Barrel House
A shrine to all brews that spring from a barrel. You can expect the full lineup of Drake's beers, a couple guest taps, and a handful of homegrown barrel-aged offerings that typically include a couple rotating sour creations. 1933 Davis, San Leandro, (510) 568-2739, barrelhouse.drinkdrakes.com.
Russian River Brewing
Just an hour pilgrimage north to arrive at ground zero for the American Wild Ale movement. In addition to scores of Belgian-inspired and hoppy creations, they always have a few taps devoted to brewmaster Vinnie Cilurzo's own prototypical American sour brews. 725 Fourth St., Santa Rosa, (707) 545-2337, russianriverbrewing.com.
The Bay Area's home of Belgian and specialty beer always boasts a bottle list with carefully curated sour selections. Their upcoming collaboration bar with Denmark's Mikkeller promises a worldly selection of tart brews in a dedicated sour tasting cellar room. 460 Eighth St., Oakland, (510) 238-8900, thetrappist.com.