As mistakes go, it was a pretty good one. When Jeff Rosenmeier, the owner of Lovibonds Brewery in Henley, poured himself a sample of his flagship wheat beer, he knew something was wrong. ‘I could smell it before I tasted it,’ he says. ‘It was sour. But I thought: “Wow, that’s good”.’
Suspecting that he wouldn’t be the only one to think so, Rosenmeier decided to turn a mistake into an opportunity. After a spell in wild yeast-infected Pinot Noir barrels, Sour Grapes (as it was now known) was entered into the ‘Wood- and Barrel-Aged Sour Beer’ category at the World Beer Cup in San Diego, California. It won. ‘It was a complete shock,’ says Rosenmeier. ‘That just blew me away.’
Rosenmeier’s triumph in May 2012 marked the start of a growing infatuation with sour beers in this country. Breweries across the UK – from Buxton Brewery in Derbyshire to Wild Beer Co in Somerset – have begun to experiment in earnest.
You only have to wander into The Kernel Brewery, one of London’s most well-regarded young breweries, to see quite how taken Britain’s craft brewers are with sour beers: a shelf full of other brewery’s beers is dominated by sour offerings from the UK, America, Belgium and further afield.
The Kernel makes a beer called London Sour: despite the name, it’s a Berliner weiss, a style that has become increasingly popular in recent months. The beer’s sourness comes from lactobacillus, a type of bacteria also used in the production of yoghurt and sauerkraut. Its clean, bright tartness has made it a favourite amongst Britain’s more experimental brewers.
‘I’ve been wanting to make sour beers for a long time,’ says Colin Stronge, the head brewer at Buxton Brewery, which has produced a number of Berliner weisses. ‘I was never allowed to do it where I worked before, but I’ve been let off the leash here.’
Buxton also makes an Imperial Russian Stout (‘Tsar Bomba’) that was inoculated with a yeast strain called brettanomyces and then barrel-aged. Brettanomyces (well known to wine lovers) is a key component in some of the world’s most revered Belgian beers, like the trappist ale Orval or the lambics of Brussels and the Senne Valley.
At Cantillon, whose brewery can be visited in the Anderlecht district of the Belgian capital, all the beer is produced using spontaneous fermentation; that is, wild yeast from the atmosphere causes the fermentation. The beer is then aged in oak and chestnut barrels.
British brewers are increasingly interested in experimenting with this way of making beer. At Wild Beer Co in Somerset, more than 140 wooden barrels are in use, adding complexity and, frequently, sourness to the beer inside. Brewer Brett Ellis (an American, like Rosenmeier – sour beer may have its roots in Europe but the current fashion began across the Atlantic) was inspired to co-found the brewery by his experience of traditional Belgian sour beers, the new wave of American efforts and even one traditional British sour beer.
‘I started reading about it,’ he says. ‘I hadn’t really had it before. A friend got me a bottle of Cantillon, another gave me a bottle of Gales’ Prize Old Ale, I also had a bottle of La Roja from [the American brewery]Jolly Pumpkin. I had all these sour beers and I thought… let’s do this. Let’s open a brewery.’
SOUR GRAPES HOPS
Perhaps Cantillon’s most revered product is its gueuze, a blend of young (beer that has been aged for a year) and old (aged for three years) lambic beers. Due to how it is made, gueuze’s flavour varies from vintage to vintage: in that respect, it is more like wine than most beers.
The excitement over Belgian and American sour beers rather obscures the fact that Britain has its own (mostly forgotten) tradition of sour beers. George Gales & Co’s Prize Old Ale – now produced by Fuller’s – is a remnant of this tradition, but elsewhere family brewers are going back to the future: Elgood’s Brewery, which has been refreshing the people of Wisbech in Cambridgeshire since the 19th century, is in the process of producing a lambic-style beer.
One of the reasons sour beer is increasingly popular is its suitability with food. The best of all for matching are aged gueuzes, according to Mark Dorber BS, the owner of The Anchor at Walberswick and The Swan Inn in Stratford St Mary, both in Suffolk. ‘It’s like aged champagne,’ he says. ‘It has that depth of flavour. Like old Chablis, it has that same profundity, complexity, dryness and earthiness.
One of my regrets is not having laid down a cellar full of sour beer.’
MATCH MADE IN HEAVEN
Dorber, the man who transformed The White Horse in Parsons Green into one of London’s beer drinking destinations during the 1980s and 1990s, says aged gueuze works with a dizzying variety of food.
‘Ham hock terrine, off-cuts of any kind, pork pie with jelly, rich meat dishes, an endive and blue cheese salad, crab, a pike quenelle with oyster mayonnaise,’ he says. ‘The bone-dry acidity of the gueuze works so well. With the fruit versions, you can have partridge, or fruit sorbets and syllabubs. They are stunningly brilliant beers. I love them.’
Mitch Adams, landlord at The Thatchers Arms in Mount Bures, Essex, is another sour beer fan. He recently had The Kernel Brewery’s London Sour on draught at the pub. It’s a beer that appeals to those who don’t normally drink beer, Adams says.
‘A lot of people enjoy the Kernel beer when they’re given tasters of it,’ he adds. ‘We’re talking about it [to customers]like it is a white wine or a cider: “Have a taste, don’t think of it as a beer”. If you’re eating something and it looks like a baked bean but tastes like something else, you’re going to think it’s disgusting. It’s about being able to give it to people who wouldn’t sit and drink pints of Adnams. They’re not your average beer drinkers.’
Nonetheless, sour beers are not for everybody, explains Dorber. The intensity of flavour in a gueuze can baffle the uninitiated. ‘A very small proportion are initially interested and the caveat when you sell a sour beer is to prepare people for how it will taste… sometimes that’s not enough,’ he says. ‘They say “Oh, I don’t like that, it’s sour!” In which case, you’re left having to fund their failure to enjoy it. ‘Sour beers are such strange flavour sensations, you have to approach things carefully. You don’t want to patronise people. They’re very difficult beers to sell, without a shadow of a doubt.’
Nonetheless, once people get it, they really get it. ‘We’ve seen this since we opened our bar [Buxton Tap House],’ says Stronge. ‘They say “Sour beer? Are you mad?” But it’s a case of getting them past that first sip.’
WE’RE SWEET ON SOUR
A few food matches to get you started…
The Thatchers Arms, Essex
THE BEER: The Kernel London Sour
MATCHED WITH: Ceviche of gilthead breamwith chilli, lime, coriander and red onion
‘We served this at a recent food and beer matching dinner: most of the room didn’t like the beer on its own but loved it with the food. That really showed off how beer and food matching can work.
‘On another occasion, we served venison carpaccio with Duchesse de Bourgogne [a Flemish red ale that is the beer world’s answer to fine balsamic vinegar]for a couple’s wedding, as the first course. We didn’t make the dressing for the carpaccio too acidic, so the beer really finished it off. It completed the dish – it was the extra ingredient.’
The Anchor at Walberswick and the Swann Inn in Stratford St Mary, Suffolk
THE BEER: Cantillon Gueuze
MATCHED WITH: Ham hock terrine with capers and cornichons
‘Aged gueuze really is the best thing to go with this: it works brilliantly, cutting through the richness. ‘The acidity is not necessarily a problem [for drinkers]. There are plenty of white wine drinkers who will not be deterred by that one jot. They are used to something in that range.’