Feel the funk: Ben McFarland explores the rise of sour beers

Ben McFarland

21 March 2018

The Belgians might not like the term ‘sour’, but after IPA and imperial stouts, these beers – whatever you call them –are the next stop in your drinks journey. Ben McFarland tells us why it’s OK to drink hamster

Lambic smells a bit like a hamster. It also tastes like a hamster smells. But, if you want to consider yourself a true connoisseur of craft then we’re here to tell you – you need to be drinking it.

You have to learn to love lambic though. It provides delayed gratification better than any other beer style, and whether you’re creating it or drinking it, perseverance pays off.

Sour power

Sour beers are not fermented in the same way as normal beers. They undergo mixed or wild fermentation during which several types of bacteria and yeast work together to convert the sugars in the mash into alcohol.

Brewers of these wild beers either do this using controlled fermentation or, if they’re going even wilder, open-air fermentation. The former sees brewers deliberately pitch specific bacteria and yeast strains into its fermentation tanks, whereas open-air fermentation is when tanks are intentionally exposed to spontaneous airborne inoculation from naturally occurring yeasts and bacteria that are floating around.

Brettanomyces, Lactobacillus and Pediococcus are the triumvirate of bacteria and yeast strains synonymous with sour beers.
Brett is the main source of funk. It’s a lackadaisical, disobedient little rascal that laughs in the face of brewers who desire full control over fermentation. It creates flavours of fruit and funk ranging from Lilt and kumquats to farmyards, acute earthiness, cellar mustiness and, classically, sweaty horse blankets.

Then there’s Lacto, a bacteria that is the source of the unadulterated sourness, switching sugars into lactic acid. You’ll find it twisting the cheeks
of gose and Berliner weisse drinkers.

Lastly, you have Pediococcus, a bacteria often (carefully) referred to as Pedio. It does the same thing as Lacto, but with much more intensity and, sometimes, a side serving of funkiness. It has a strong symbiotic relationship with Brettanomyces and, beyond lambics, the likes of Duchesse de Bourgogne and Russian River Supplication are classic examples of
how well they work together.

The journey from lager to lambic is not one to be undertaken in a single leap. They may both be beers, but just because you once cried along with Gazza to Pavarotti’s Nessun Dorma doesn’t mean you’re ready to plunge yourself into Wagner’s Ring every night.

There are many obstacles to full seduction, reckons Armand Debelder, owner of the lauded Lambic producer Drie Fonteinen. Like a truly epic album or a classic novel, its true greatness doesn’t reveal itself immediately, it really does require a bit of investment.

For many, that day has come. As the artisan beer scene has matured, affection for lambics has spread beyond the hardcore beer drinkers who zip their anoraks right up to the top and now, having seldom been seen in pubs and bars, a growing number of indie-beer outlets are also feeling the funk.

Growing interest
Cave Direct, a well-established specialist Belgian beer importer, is due to open the UK’s first barrel-ageing and blending project in Hackney Wick. Breathing life back into an old Belgian tradition when bars and cafés blended their own lambics, the company will be sourcing spontaneously fermented wort from both British and Belgian brewers, blending them on-site and serving them fresh to customers.

‘We have seen a huge increase in sales over the last two years,’ says Jonny Garrett, marketing manager at Cave Direct. ‘People are getting used to dry beers and sour flavours. Sweetness is on the wane and peoples’ palates are drying out – just look at how well prosecco is doing.

‘There’s much more interest in craft beer or “slow” beer, as the Italians call it – beers that take longer to make and have greater depth of character. Once you’ve explored India Pale Ales and Imperial stouts, it’s time to start exploring the sour spectrum.’

Lambics and gueuze are often shuffled into the category of sours, a convenient umbrella term for any style of beer, new world or old, that is tart and acidic, ranging from Berliner weisse and gose to Flemish reds and wild beers – essentially anything that is fermented using wild yeast or bacteria (see box).

‘It’s a relatively new term for people who like to put things in boxes,’ said Mark Tranter, the man behind the brewery and blendery Burning Sky. ‘Brewers in Belgium have been making these beers for generations, but they never call them or consider them sours – in fact they would regard it as a rather derogatory descriptor. Acidic is a term that someone like Fred Boon would use.’

These beers – especially lambic and gueuze – appeal to white wine drinkers and, thanks to their relative rarity, to collectors.

‘It’s about palate development,’ says Tranter. ‘And there is an element of the unknown – they are beers that we can’t really control.’

The joy of six

Forget missionary-position lagers and bitters, these soaraway sours will add a bit of schwing to your beer list

1 Burning Sky, Cuvée 2017
Mark Tranter isn’t mucking about, he’s doing things properly. You’ll find the former head brewer of Dark Star on the edge of the Sussex Downs, in a village called Firle, where he has created a working shrine to wild yeast and wood.

Not content with being the first British brewer to put in several enormous oak foudres, Burning Sky has also installed its own bespoke coolship in which naturally occurring yeasts floating in the Sussex air fuel the fermentation.

After the initial spontaneous inoculation, the beer will be aged in oak wine barrels to produce a rare example of a British lambic – likely to be released next year. In the meantime, keep an eye out for Burning Sky’s Cuvée, a blend of Saison à la Provision, which undergoes a secondary fermentation using Lacto and Brett, and Belgian lambic that’s been aged in Sussex.
6.5%, £36/6x750ml; Burning Sky, 01273 858080

2 Drie Fonteinen, Oude Gueze
On 16 May 2009, thousands of litres of lambics, languidly maturing in Drie Fonteinen’s warehouse in Beersel, exploded. A dodgy thermostat had failed to turn off a heater, the mercury rose to more than 60°C and 5,000 bottles shattered.

Worse still, more than 80,000 bottles of gueze were ruined – oxidised and unfit for consumption. It bankrupted owner Armand Debelder and, within months, he’d lost the lease on the brewery.

Thankfully, dogged devotion, blind faith and a healthy contempt for basic business economics are core characteristics for a lambic brewer, and Armand has breathed life back into a family business that began in 1953.

‘It was very hard,’ recalls Debelder. ‘Very few people were doing what we were doing. We thought very seriously about calling time on the beers, but we kept going.’

Today, love for lambic has seldom been stronger and Drie Fonteinen is considered by RateBeer to be the third greatest brewery in the world.

It continues, rather aptly given the name, to source lambics from three producers – Girardin, Boon and Lindemans – bringing bitterness, balance and Brettanomyces respectively.

While Debelder endeavours to create Drie Fonteinen’s ‘green apple’ signature every time, using a blend of one-, two- and three-year-old lambic, his is not a quest for consistency.

‘Nothing is exact,’ he says. ‘That is what’s so exciting, creating new tastes every time with no pressure to conform. I do what I want to do. I like it when anything can happen.’
6%, £58.70/12x375ml; £52.40/ 6x750ml, Beer Direct

3 Goose Island Beer Co, Sofie
Given that Goose Island boasts one of the most impressive barrel-ageing programmes in the US, it makes sense that, beyond its iconic Bourbon County Stout, the brewer is working wonders with wood in other ways.
Say hello to the Sour Sisters, a series of Belgian-style wild fruit ales, each with a female name, and each matured in a different kind of barrels. Designed very much for the dinner table in 765ml bottles, the range includes Gillian, Matilda, Lolita, Halia and Sofie.

Up first, Gillian is brewed with white pepper, honey and strawberries and aged in wine barrels. Matilda is an Orvallian-style Belgian pale ale that showcases Brettanomyces beautifully; Lolita is a wine-barrel-aged aperitif that blows raspberries up your nose, and brings bright, jammy flavours to the palate; and finally, Halia is a hazy beer that, again, has been aged in wine barrels, this time, filled with whole peaches.

Yet, it is the saison-style Sofie that we have chosen – principally because it is a superb stepping stone into the world of sours. Dry hopped with Amarillo hops and then matured in Cabernet wine barrels with orange peel and a bit of Brettanomyces, Sofie wears its tartness very gently and is deliciously dry.
6.5%, £62.50 per case; AB InBev, 01422 377560

4 Magic Rock Brewing, Salty Kiss
Hailing historically from Leipzig in Lower Saxony, Germany, gose is laced with lactic acid, coriander and salt. It’s sharp, it’s sour, it’s sometimes served with syrup and, just like Keith Richards, only just survived the 1960s. In its early years, gose was delivered in frothing barrels to more than 90 Gosenschenkes (gose taverns) where locals would often chase it with a liqueur made with cumin.

Never more than a local niche, it went missing during World War II, reemerged briefly in the 1950s, and then slipped back into the shadows during the 1960s under communist rule.

While there are now two gose breweries in Leipzig, it is Huddersfield where this fresh and fruity gose is brewed. Using sea buckthorn and sea salt, there’s a terrific tingle of tartness and a superb salty send off – like a Gooseberry Margarita with a salt rim.
4.1%, 24x33cl £27.94; Cave Direct, Cave Direct

5 Rodenbach, Grand Cru
A remarkable beer from a remarkable place. Its hallowed home of Roeselare is a Belgian beer basilica where you’ll find a forest of 300 ‘foeders’ filled with its famous Flemish red ale.

Before it’s welcomed into the wood, Rodenbach’s beer is brewed using myriad malts, mostly Vienna, and hopped using old hops for preservation purposes, rather than for bitterness or aroma. Fermentation in cylindro-conical vessels follows, using a bespoke culture of mixed yeast, which is laced with the distinctive Lactobacilli.

A month-long secondary fermentation takes place before the beer is decanted into the wooden tuns where, for a period of 18 to 24 months, critters come out of the cracks, microflora emerges from the oak, and Brettanomyces brings something to the party.

Rodenbach Classic (5%) is a blend of three-quarters young and one-quarter old beer, while aged beer makes up more than two-thirds of the Grand Cru (6%), which goes beautifully with blue cheese. Terrifically tart, both have their sharpness rounded off with a small dose of sugar. Beneath the burgundy colour lies a swirl of dark cherry, sherry and balsamic vinegar. It’s dry and tart, with a faint farmyard funkiness.
6%, £61.48 /24x330ml; Cave Direct, Cave Direct

6 Wild Beer Company, Modus Operandi
The Wild Beer Company does exactly what it says on the tin. Cynical of conventional styles, with an adoration of both anarchic yeasts and the wonders of oak, Wild Beer forages for flavour, celebrates the seasons and talks up terroir from its brewery in Somerset.

The most famous of its funky fermentations is very much its flagship blended beer Modus Operandi, an English old ale that undergoes ageing of European and American influence. After brewing, the beer is matured in French wine barrels, American ex-bourbon barrels and some second- and third-generation oak that adds an acidic edge to the swirl of cherry wood, sloes and vanilla.
7%, £58.02/24x330ml, Cave Direct, Cave Direct

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