In the niche within niche world of sour beer enthusiasm, Michael Tonsmeire is, quite simply, the man. Known as The Mad Fermentationist (after his popular homebrewing blog of the same name), the Washington, D.C.-based Certified Beer Judge, brewing consultant and accomplished beer writer released American Sour Beers, his first full-length book on the subject, just last summer. Since its publication, American Sour Beers has been making a killing amongst homebrewers, introducing inventive and detailed souring methods to anyone up to the challenge of working with wild, unpredictable yeasts and bacteria strains.
Last weekend, Tonsmeire dropped by Prospect Heights’ homebrew shop Bitter & Esters for a book signing and meet and greet, and the neighborhood beer nerds turned out in droves. When I arrived, Bitter & Esters’ John LaPolla greeted me apologetically, telling me my 6 p.m. interview would have to be delayed due to the unanticipated crowd, each of whom wanted a bit of the famous Fermentationist.
“It’s a bigger turnout than I expected, but I guess that makes sense,” explained LaPolla as groups of grown men piled into the shop’s rear event space, giddly clutching their well-worn copies of American Sour Beers. “It did take me a year to get him here.”
Encouraged by LaPolla and the rest of the B&E crew, several of the local homebrewers had brought along bottles of their own puckery concoctions. Corks were popped, caps were tossed aside and sample cups full of richly layered Sour Bruins and Flemish Reds were happily distributed. Sour beers derive their tart flavors primarily during fermentation, when brewers pitch strains of hungry bacteria like pediococcus and lactobacillus into their sugary base. Wild yeasts like the funky Brettanomyces are often utilized in tandem with these bugs, conjuring their own sour properties under the right conditions. For ultimate flavor complexity, many brewers further age their sour beers in oak barrels, adding fruit or dry hopping the batch with citrusy hops to achieve a desired effect. Because of this, as well as the fact that these bacterias generally ferments at a slower pace than traditional brewer’s yeast, these fickle little brews require more time, dedication, patience and faith than almost any other style — especially in comparison to the two-week-turnover IPAs that have dominated the conversation for so many years. And while they’re definitely not for everyone, sour beers have recently taken a special seat at the beer aficionado’s table.
“It was not good when we first tried it,” one homebrewer told me, pouring me a sample of her partner’s homemade sour brown aged for a year in pinot noir barrels and fermented with tart cherries. “I was like, ‘Oh no! Set it all on fire!’ It was like getting punched in the face — too tart, too acidic, like pure vinegar. But now, after two years sitting in the bottle, it’s just awesome.” It was awesome–earthy and mellowed, with layers of caramel, prune and sour stone fruit.
Over the course of the evening, I managed to wait out the thick of the geek squad and grab a seat next to Tonsmeire at one of the shop’s tall, chemistry lab-style tables. Over pizza and even more sour beer, we chatted about his beloved style’s rise in popularity as well as New York City’s role in fueling America’s newly developed taste for tart.
Meredith Heil: What do you think of the New York beer scene?
Michael Tonsmeire: I stopped by Other Half before I came here and their sours were really good — well, their Bretted beers, I should say. I tried a Brett Saison aged in chardonnay barrels and the Rosso [a Grand Cru aged in red wine barrels], which had a nice sort of little roasty edge to it. I feel like a lot of breweries, when they’re just starting out with sours, are often a little tame with their grain bills — bunch of Pils, a little bit of wheat and let the bugs speak. But, like with Other Half, sometimes if you’re more bold, you get really great beers with a little more character. You’ll get flavors that are really fun and weird and surprising and exciting. As much as a I love pale sours — and I do, I love pale sours and I love Lambics and all the rest of the standard stuff — as more breweries get into sours, I’m hoping to see more variety and interest all over the spectrum.
As far as New York goes, Captain Lawrence is pretty close to the city and they were one of the first breweries doing really awesome sour beers on the East Coast. I think they won GABF gold the first year they were open.
Oh–and Peekskill. What a great brewery.
MH: Definitely. I feel like Peekskill introduced this area to sour beers in a way, at a real basic level, with their Simple Sour.
MT: Totally. It’s such a food friendly beer, a real sessionable beer.
I had something from Grimm with hibiscus that may or may not have been sour — it was sort of tart, maybe. Either way, it was good.
MH: Yep, the Color Field. It was a wild ale with hibiscus, rose hips and chamomile. You liked it?
MT: Yeah, that was a nice one, very creative. That’s what New York is great at, you know, picking out little cool things and making them great. It’s sort of a microcosm of America — it’s a big enough city that you can do something weird and cool because you have enough people within a 10 mile radius that there’s bound to be a bunch of people really into it. And I think that’s awesome.
But, the problem around here, obviously, is that traditional sour beers take a lot of space and a lot of time and when you’re a little brewery, that is really expensive.
MH: Especially in New York.
MT: Exactly. And it’s cool to see a place like Other Half doing sours, but obviously they need some of those neighbors to move out if they really want to do a lot of sour beers. Because honestly, in the space where those four barrels will sit for a year, you could have a tank pumping out 10 barrels of IPA every other week, and that makes a lot more money than something sitting around.
That being said, when you have a tasting room, it’s great to have some weird stuff that gets people to come in. Breweries can always send their IPA around the city and people can get it at a great local beer bar, at Covenhoven or wherever, but when they make some weird beers just for the tasting room, people will make it a destination. They can sell that $18 bottle over the bar and that’s a great little profit to have. That’s very much the West Coast model right now — a lot of those breweries are doing not only a tasting room at the brewery, but three or four more tasting rooms around town where you can try the latest small batch Stone or whatever. Obviously, the local laws are different and what have you, but I think, particularly for a small business, being able to have that one-to-one relationship is so important.
MH: Definitely, and I think that relationship helps sour beers go over so well with people who might be intimidated or put off by the concept of a tart beer, or even just the word sour. These days, I see more and more people who I wouldn’t even think were into beer go up to a bartender ask to try a sour. SingleCut’s Sour Lagrrr–I was seeing people go into sports bars and ask for that beer. It was blowing my mind.
MT: Exactly. To me, sour beers have this reputation: This is a beer nerd beer, and you have to really love this stuff to drink it. But no, they’re actually nothing like most beers! If you love IPAs, there’s a good chance you’re not going to like sour beers. If you love wine or you love Kombucha or you love yogurt or all sorts of other things, sour beers might be the beer you’ve been waiting for. That’s the great thing about sour beers — its this whole other part of the palate. I mean, almost all beers are on the dry-bitter, sweet-malty spectrum, and this is just–it’s not a different part of the spectrum, it’s a entirely different spectrum.
To me, clean fruit beers are almost always disappointing. You’ll have an American wheat with cherries–the sweetness is drained from the cherries, and it doesn’t have the acid that a cherry has either. But when you infuse those beers with just a little pop of acidity, it brings out the fruit, it brings out those quenching, juicy kind of flavors. And now, you can even do crazier things by using a lot of these new American hops that are all pineapple and citrus. You can dry hop a Berliner Weisse with those, which works so beautifully because you’ll have acidity and citrus and that all makes perfect sense.
Hopefully, that kind of experimentation is what this wave of beer nerdery is opening up. It’s like, don’t be tied to styles — don’t be tied to, “Oh, we’re doing a sour beer, do you want to do a Berliner Weisse, a Lambic.” No, no, that’s been done. Take elements of that, take flavors that you like, take techniques that you like–that’s what great restaurants do! Most of these big time chefs aren’t slavishly recreating a rustic Belgian mussels and frites–they’re using local potatoes, they’re using whatever local seafood they can get.
Of course, there’s always going to be breweries that just replicate the standard stuff, and that can work–there’s room for both of those, particularly with 3000 breweries now. But I think more breweries need to get a specialty and figure out how to make really awesome beer that’s their own thing and not just another Porter, another Pale Ale. There are breweries brewing about as good a Porter and Pale Ale as you can make, and it’s hard to break into the market like that. It’s a lot easier when you say, “Hey, here’s our own thing. Here’s a unique thing you’re only going to taste here.” New York probably used to have what, probably 300 breweries before Prohibition? Let’s see if we can get it back up there.
So, which sours to try from Brooklyn and beyond?
Finback Starchild (4.6% ABV)
A sour ale brewed with grapefruit peel from our brothers in Queens. Light, tart and refreshing.
Captain Lawrence Rosso e Marrone (10% ABV)
A big Flanders Bruin dosed with red wine grape and aged on Brett. This OG GABF winner is not for the faint of heart.
Other Half Grand Cru Rosso (8% ABV)
This funky Brooklyn-brewed Belgian Strong Dark Ale aged in red wine barrels and peppered with Brett captured Tonsmeire’s heart, so that’s good enough for us.
Peekskill Simple Sour (4.5% ABV)
An effervescent kettle sour with a lemony bite. It’s a tried and true summertime thirst quencher.
Threes Internal Contradictions (3.7% ABV)
This Berliner Weiss from Gowanus newcomer Threes Brewing has been turning heads with its juicy nose and perfectly light body. Keep your eyes peeled for one of the fruit-aged versions, including Mango, Raspberry, Sweet Cherry and Tart Cherry.
Grimm Color Field (5.2% ABV)
Another one of Tonsmeire’s picks, Grimm’s recently released Wild Ale as floral and delicate as a field of Spring tulips.
SingleCut Kim Hibiscus Sour Lagrrr! (3.5% ABV)
This bubbly, bisquity Queens-brewed sour made a killing last summer, winning hearts and claiming unlikely lines all over the city. Worth a try.
Evil Twin / Intangible Ales Sour Bikini (3% ABV)
A tart version of the Evil Twin’s perennial crusher, the Sour Bikini is an experiment in lemony, beach-ready greatness.
Prairie Artisan Ales Puncheon (7% ABV)
Oklahoma’s Prairie took a Farmhouse Rye, dropped in some oak barrels and bugged it up with a few different strains of bacteria, resulting in this medium-bodied, spicy and tropical flavor explosion.
South Carolina-based Westbrook knows their way around a sour ale, and their version of this smoky Berliner Weisse proves just that. Lightly smoked and pleasantly sour up front, flavors that eventually mellow for a bready finish.
Some more sour beers to try, courtesy of St. Gambrinus Beer Shoppe.