Sours and the City: All About the Latest Beer Craze

Ever ahead of the curve, San Francisco was thirsty for sour beers long before they became cool. A landscape defined by adventurous drinkers allowed daring brewers to pursue a style often intimidating to the casual consumer. As a result, in just the past three years, sours have transcended beyond the dominion of the geeks and into the common sphere. Have a glimpse at what local breweries and brewmasters are doing to cement the Bay Area's status as sour central. 

To Jesse Friedman of Almanac Beer, expanding the style meant spreading the gospel.

“Sours have come a really, really long way,” he said. “When Almanac was starting [in early 2011], there was a lot more education we had to do for most people about what a sour beer is.”

And what is that, exactly?

[jump] Well it's not a clever nickname, they actually have a sour profile. Those tart and tangy flavors come from off-beat bacteria and yeasts that are used in fermentation. So-called 'wild' strains, with clunky names like Brettanomyces, and lactic acids like pediococcus, and lactobacillus, give birth to funky, lip-puckering characteristics. The oldest beers in the world were brewed in similar fashion. Belgian Lambics, for example, utilized open-air fermentation, relying on whatever ambient yeasts were available in the atmosphere to produce alcohol. Because of the unpredictability of these micro-organisms, Belgians brewers aged batches in ex-wine casks, and then blended the barrels to achieve uniformity.

In the U.S., modern riffs on that Old World method are collectively referred to as American Wild Ales. The Bay Area has been blessed with notable pioneers in the style. Vinny Cilurzo of Russian River Brewing, being an obvious example. His wild ales — aged in wine barrels procured from local Sonoma county wineries — helped prime Northern Californian palates for a wave of sour that was to soon follow. One of his early masterpieces, Supplication, released over a decade ago, remains at the top of its class. It's a brown ale aged for a year in Pinot Noir barrels with cherries added. When it first hit shelves, there were no other domestic beers like it, and few Americans that had ever tasted anything like it before.

“These days, most everyone has tried a sour before,” Friedman said, “and they have opinions about what they liked or didn't like. So they understand what they're trying, and we can focus on exciting details.”

For Almanac, those details reveal themselves in each subsequent release of their on-going Farmer's Reserve series, a seasonal offering now in its seventh variation. Each release builds its unique characteristic around a different locally-sourced fruit. Its sours catapulted Almanac into the national spotlight, and now their beers are available on both coasts. 

Steve Altimari of High Water Brewing fixed his focus on the barrels themselves when launching his newest string of wild ales, the Calambic Series.

“The beers all start with essentially the same base beer,” he said. “Which is a Golden Ale with additional malt nutrients such as wheat, corn, and oats, to provide a nice healthy food source for long term barrel aging. The base beer is 100 percent fermented with our house Brettanomyces strain in stainless [steel fermenters].”

But the funk doesn't truly take flight until the liquid hits the barrel, where a secondary fermentation gets going.

“Once the beer in the barrels has aged for approximately one year, we introduce the chosen fruit and continue to age for four to six months depending on the fruit and barrel fermentation timing,” Altimari said.

High Water most recently unveiled its Central Valley Breakfast Sour, aged with grapefruit, pear, and lychee. As the name suggests, it could be enjoyed before noon, drinking somewhat like a carbonated grapefruit juice. Next up is Ramble on Rose, made with fresh blueberries, rose petal, and pink peppercorns. 

As adept at pushing the envelope as Almanac and High Water are, they excel, just the same, at brewing traditional styles of beer. The Rare Barrel, on the other hand, opened in 2013 exclusively as a purveyor of sours. Attaining almost instant cult status, their success is a testament to how pervasive the sour scene has become within the Bay Area. The easiest way to corral their elusive goods is by visiting their Berkeley tasting room, open Friday thru Sunday. They keep half a dozen house brews on tap, and coveted bottles, like their Home Sour Home — brewed with peaches, cinnamon, and vanilla beans — fetch up to $25 a pop. 

The runaway success of sour beers in the Bay Area is the result of a perfect storm; courageous drinkers, audacious brewers, and a limitless stable of experimental ingredients. All together they insure there's no end in sight for a style that seemingly knows no bounds. 

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