Beer guide: Pucker up and greet the sour-beer boom

Matthew Lovett
Patrick Gangwer, barrel room manager at Kindred Beer

When Kindred Artisan Ales hit the market in early 2016, launching a sour beer program was part of the long-term plan.

“When I started Kindred, it was started with the intention of making sour beers, Brett beers, barrel-aged beers, using the microflora and everything else,” said Patrick Gangwer, Kindred's barrel room manager. (The brewery recently re-branded as Kindred Beer.)

That original intention came to fruition in June, when Kindred released its first two sour beers: Spring Thaw, a golden ale with pinot noir and grape skin, and Wanderlust, a saison with peaches and Riesling must.

But Kindred isn't alone in expanding into sour beer development. Breweries all around the Columbus area are making efforts to establish programs dedicated to sour and barrel-aged brewing. As breweries try to stand out in a crowded craft beer market and consumers look for new beer experiences, sour-beer brewing has provided a new outlet.

“From the brewery side of things, if you want to differentiate yourself and stand out on a shelf, you gotta produce new flavor profiles,” said Colin Vent, head brewer at Seventh Son Brewing. “You can only do so much with malt and hops. When you realize you've also got acidity as a tool, well, that's just something to add to the mix.”

This coincides with shifts in the culture of beer consumption; beer drinkers are drinking less for drinking's sake. For instance, Vent said social drinking apps like Untappd are creating a culture of “trying as many different [beers] as possible.”

“We're getting more and more of a consumer base that is educated. Educated in what they like and what their palate is more attuned to. [They're] finding that beer isn't just something you swill on a Friday night with buddies,” Gangwer said.

For all of the influx in sour beer production, it doesn't come easy. Chris Davison, head brewer at Wolf's Ridge Brewing, said getting a program off the ground often requires resources that exist outside of a normal brewery. This includes obtaining the barrels for aging the beer, space for those barrels and time to let the souring components run their course. (The time beer spends fermenting in barrels varies, from three months to three years or even longer.)

It therefore helps to have a separate sour facility, Davison said. Wolf's Ridge makes do in one location, however, brewing current sour offerings such as Red Legacy, a Flanders red ale, and the Terre Du Sauvage series in the same building as the rest of its beers.

“It's definitely a time, labor and financial commitment to make these more true, barrel-aged or oak-aged sour beers,” Davison said.

There are also potential problems stemming from the predominant microbes involved in souring. The ingredients that generally contribute to the ripe fruit and sour flavors of the beer —Brettanomyces(a type of yeast), Lactobacillus and Pediococcus (lactic acid bacteria strains) — can easily run rampant in a brewery. If one of these microorganisms attached itself to a brewery worker's clothes, it could indeed ruin — literally sour — an entire batch of a clean beer, like a pale ale or lager.

For Vent, that makes having a dedicated sour operation like Antiques on High useful. Slated to open sometime before the end of 2017, Seventh Son's sister bar in the Brewery District will focus on the sale of barrel-aged and sour beers. Antiques will also be a sour-specific packaging facility, helping prevent any cross-contamination. (All of the beer for Antiques is currently fermenting away in barrels, so don't expect to see any prior to its opening.)

“What we're planning for Antiques on High is going to be the old-school, long-form, wood-aged … slow, deliberate souring,” Vent said. “Not a quick turnaround sort of thing.”

Once you throw everything together in a barrel, it's a wait-and-see game. Though blending different barrels together can help balance flavors, the constraints of barrel-aged brewing make absolute consistency from batch to batch difficult. Each barrel's beer is unpredictable and has to “tell us when it's ready,” Gangwer said.

“I don't know if these full-on sour barrel projects are going to be repeatable, if they're gonna all be one-offs [or] if I'm going to try to angle to bring the same type of beer back each time,” Vent said. “I don't know; we're going down a little bit of a weird road with it.”

Despite being seen as somewhat of an innovation in craft beer, all of the complications and precise practices associated with sour brewing are reminders of just how vintage this style truly is.

“I think the surge of barrel-aging and sour beer is just kind of bringing historical adaptations of brewing back into the fold. We like the whimsy and the faith we have to take in it,” Gangwer said.