It’s 5pm in the afternoon and after a day of talking about BrewDog’s new sour beer facility Overworks, brewery co-founder James Watt is still bubbling with excitement. ‘We don’t want our sour beers to be scary,’ he says, as he sips from a glass of Punnet, a 5% sour featuring raspberries and blueberries, which has spent time in cognac and red-wine barrels, ‘so we are going to be offering a whole range from the challenging to the accessible.’
Even though sour beer seems to be challenging IPA for the craft beer crown, the reality is that it’s still a small proportion of British brewing’s output. It’s a niche product, a look-what-we-can-do brew and sometimes a miss more than a hit – (for me a celery-flavoured sour was a real low).
This is why the newly opened Overworks, in whose mezzanine bar BrewDog’s founders James Watt and Martin Dickie hosted a media launch, overlooking a panoply of barrels, could be such an important step in the sour beer revolution.
This could be the push that sour beer needs – as influential as Punk IPA was on the hop-centric breweries that emerged in its wake.
Based in Ellon, this is a standalone part of BrewDog, built on a patch of land across the way from the main brewery – after all, you don’t want wild yeasts and various bacterium infecting Punk. It cost £4.5m, although, according to Watt, ‘it started off at £2m, but we kept adding more and more equipment’.
Quality not quantity
It’s also very much a small-scale operation, Watt says. ‘This side of the brewery is about getting out to drinkers some of the most amazing things we can make and if that means it’s 3-5000h/l (hectolitres) a year we don’t care,’ he told Imbibe. ‘They will be a premium bottled product, which we want to go beyond our bars and into restaurants. They won’t be in supermarkets.’
To put that volume in a wider context, the main brewery annually produces 450,000h/l and has a total capacity of 8/900,000h/l.
If you want another sign of the duo's serious intent, then how about this: BrewDog hired Richard Kilcullen, formerly of US sour beer supremos Wicked Weed, as brewmaster.
Guiding us through a tasting of Overworks’ first commercially available beers, he came across as a passionate advocate of making beers that include various fruits (and carrot in one experimental beer tasted) and have spent time in a selection of barrels, while being inoculated with brettanomyces and/or lactobacillus and pediococcus.
Even though professing admiration for kettle-soured beers such as Gose and Berliner Weiss, he prefers his sour beers to have spent time in wood.
‘I think what we have seen in the US with sour beers is a sort of evolution in terms of what the concept is.,’ Watt says, 'At first they were really lactic and acidic and aggressive, like our IPAs, but as things have changed, now we are getting balance.
At first [US] sours were really lactic and acidic and aggressive. Now we are getting balance
'Pyraster, for instance, is a pear sour. There is plenty of brett funk on the nose and it is not overly aggressive. We wanted a really sessional beer, dry and drinkable. This is the kind of sour I like to make.’
The three sour beers tasted had a refreshing tartness and eloquence, as well as a generosity in their spirit of fruitiness. Pyraster had a funky barnyard-like note to the nose and was elegant and juicy. The amphora-aged Mariangela, a tart saison with blush orange and strawberries, was mineral-like in its mouth feel and blessed with a dry finish. Punnet was light and delicately refreshing, a summer’s day beer to be drunk on a punt, perhaps.
Like it or loathe it, it’s always hard to ignore BrewDog. When you think you’ve understood it (lots of hops, good staff training in their bars, off-colour marketing), it does a George North-like side-step and comes up with Overworks.
Besides, Dickie and Watt could be bursting with pomposity, yet in person both demonstrate a mixture of passion, persuasion, self-effacing humour and business and brewing acumen. Unlike the beers they are not sour.
‘I just feel that we are just starting to get going,’ says Watt. ‘I think that all we have done in the first 11 years of our history is put ourselves in a position where we can go on and do something good, work with amazing people who love beer. It’s not so much the outcome, it’s the journey. We are as excited about this as we were in 2007 when we started.’
Read Ben McFarland's article exploring sour beers here