They’re racy, complex in flavour and have that good kind of funk you find in many of the world’s best cheeses. These are sour beers, a unique style that borrows some of the most intriguing aspects of wine for a drink thats unlike any youve had before.
Foreshadowing one the most interesting developments in the local craft brewing scene, our winemakers podcast from 2011s 30 Days of Local Beer discussed the potential of Ontario wineries and craft breweries collaborating. Everyone thought it was a great idea, but quizzically couldnt explain why it wasnt happening. Local wine professionals neednt be mystified any longer. This year Amsterdam has been working closely with Flat Rock Cellars to release its first beer aged in an old Flat Rock Cellars barrel. This collaboration, believed to be an Ontario first, is part of the Toronto brewerys barrel aged beer and sours program.
Flat Rock was a natural partner for Amsterdam, as winemaker Ross Wise brewed beer at Limburg in his native New Zealand before turning to grapes. Although Amsterdam brewmaster Iain Mcoustra isnt a winemaker, he has a deep love of Niagara wines, especially those from the Bench so he saw the fit as a natural one. Wise has been invaluable in helping establishing the program lending both this palate and expertise regarding the barrels, says Mcoustra.
Sours are a unique family of beer styles, mainly Belgian in origin, that rely on the use of bacteria and sometimes wild yeast to provide refreshing, layered and intriguingly funky beer. Their diverse taste profile is hard to describe, but picture if a cool climate wine had a love child with the wildest ale youve ever had. Still sour is a bit of an unfortunate misnomer because it carries the negative connotation of something tart or spoiled. Much like a good pickle or sourdough bread these beers arent bracingly tart. Instead they have a pleasant tangy bite thats deeply satisfying. But make no mistake, sour have an edge that you wont find elsewhere in the beer world. You can thank acid for that.
Its not uncommon for these beers to have a pH (a measure of acidity) in the low to high threes. Thats about 10 times more acidity than a typical pale ale and is more inline with the low threes of racy local Riesling. Unlike most beers that are fermented in steel tank then bottled, sours are commonly aged in oak barrels. Thats where the wineries come in as a natural partner. After about a handful of years, the vast majority of wineries will retire a barrel becuase it no longer helps provide the precise seasoning the winemaker is looking for in his/her wines. With sours, breweries can give these barrels a second life, providing these beers a traditional and ideal environment to age and develop.
The breweries are particularly interested in any barrels that show signs of Brettanomyces. Producing a sweaty, horsey, barnyard-like aroma, Brettanomyces is inherent and cherished in many styles of sour beer. As odd as it sounds those characteristics, which typically smell funkier than they taste, are intriguingly pleasant in the right beer. Its not unlike the famously pungent washed-rind cheese Époisse. But, Brettanomyces is almost universally loathed in wine as a flaw because those aromas can quickly become dominant. Brettanomyces also brings with it acetic acid (what makes vinegar taste sour) and is virtually impossible to control or eradicate. Given that, many wineries would be happy to burn any barrel showing signs of Brettanomyces let alone sell them to an interested brewer.
Brettanomyces is also equally viewed as a flaw in many beers for the same reason as wine. This is why Mcoustra keeps his Brettanomyces beers in a separate area of the brewery and wont brew any other beers in equipment that has touched one. Similarly, visiting winemakers wont even go near the area for fear that Brettanomyces might travel back to the winery on their clothing. Although its the rock star of the sour beer world, Brettanomyces isnt the only bacteria responsible for the unique profile of sours. Both Lactobacillus and its cousins pediococcus, which are responsible for that tang in many cheeses, yogurt and fermented pickles like sauerkraut and kimchi, are also put to good use.
Amsterdams program isnt just about wine barrels, though. Mcoustra is aging a Belgian-style wit (wheat beer) in an old Tennessee whiskey barrel that was first soaked with Tequila Tromba—Reposado and Añejo tequila is often aged in used American whiskey barrels. Its a beer that should surprise many with its tropical pawpaw, banana, coconut, vanilla and smoke flavours, which meld nicely with the pithy citrusy wit flavour profile. The agave character comes through nicely on the finish and gives this beer crossover potential for oenophiles, beer lovers and cocktail aficionados
Mainly thanks to a few influential brewers near wine regions in California and Oregon, sour beers have been an area of growth in the American craft beer market over the past few years. But, the idea of sours is just catching on locally in way thats reminiscent to how hoppy India Pale Ales have become popular locally after American craft brewers began experiementing with them. Still, risks in brewing them, the longer aging process and the limited capacity of barrels will mean these sours should remain a niche even amongst hardcore beer lovers.
Thats why Amsterdam is using the program as R&D to innovate and push things with its brewing, but also the local beer palate. Some of these beers will be introduced to the public in the coming months through beer events like OCB week, one-off tastings at bars and beer dinners. For Mcoustra those are ideal environments to broaden the range of tastes with open minds and bit of education.
If these beers do make a breakthrough Mcoustra believes it will be via a dry fruit beer base along the lines of Amsterdams Framboise. In that scenario the fruit can work with and soften some of the funkier notes in a sour beer. Hes experimenting on one such Brettanomyces beer thats being aged in used Flat Rock Pinot Noir barrels. It has the classic Niagara sour cherry joining the ripe fresh raspberry flavour of the Framboise, while the slightly barney and funky band-aid notes that usually immediately hit you in a Brettanomyces beer, are underlying supporting characters. Theres also a great lingering kirsch note and refreshing acidity on the finish that could pair beautifully with richer meat like a Magret duck breast.
One of the first beers to look out for from Amsterdams sour and barrel program is a Belgian-style golden ale that was aged in older Chardonnay barrels from Flat Rock. Its a beer that draws you into the glass with golden apple and peach notes, barrel spice and hints of vanilla. Theres also a nice creamy feel and a hint of Chardonnay character that goes very well with the off-dry sweetness and slightly hoppy edge thats typical of the style. Sometimes golden ales can be a little aggressive in their youth, but the Chardonnay barrel aging has mellowed this one nicely. It will be interesting to see what chef Scott Vivian and his team might pair with it during the OCB Week and Canadian Beer News Amsterdam vs. Flat Rock Dinner at Beast.
Expect to see more Ontario craft breweries experimenting with barrel aging and sours in the coming years. Not only does this represent the cutting edge of brewing, but the synergy between local breweries and wineries can only help push each other and expand local food, wine and beer culture. Whether youre a beer lover, an oenophile or both, that development can only lead to very good things.