After a revolutionary regenesis in the late 2000s, the American craft beer scene has settled. Brewers are rediscovering the simplicity of the Pilsner, leveling out IBUs, and embracing the universality of the sub-5% alcohol by volume beer. A decade after the boom, the gleeful arrogance of 2007 has given way to a careful reverence for the classics.
And what fun is that?
The sour beer, at one point, offered a return to iconoclasm. Absurdly low pHs became the new yardstick for blowhard beer nerds as they rushed to get new bombers of spontaneously fermented elixirs into their bottle-trading circles. For a flash, “funk” became the new “dank.”
But breweries like Minneapolis’ Fair State Brewing Cooperative brought the sour back down to earth. Wielding Lactobacillus like a balm, they sent fun and fruity kettle Sours out to the market, reeling in a solid base of curious, but not entirely thrill-seeking, drinkers. No one’s asking them to atone for that – Fair State’s track record of quality holds up regardless of your preferred level of acidity – but it’s exciting to see what Minneapolis’ foremost fermenters can do when they decide to take a batch truly off the rails.
Lichtenhainer is indeed a sour beer. It’s barrel-aged and spontaneously fermented like Saison Dre, Flyover Country, and other standout Fair State 750 mLs. The tart is not unlike the eminently popular Berliner Weisse. But the X factor is the 100% beechwood and oak smoked malt.
Lichtenhainer is the kind of beer that makes you stop mid-sentence when you drink it. It shrinks the room.”
“[Lichtenhainer] is intended as a vehicle to demonstrate that two very polarizing beer flavors do indeed complement each other very well,” says Fair State brewer Niko Tonks. “It's one of those beers that we knew from the very start would be a slow mover in the marketplace, but we hoped that it would find enough of an audience to justify us continuing to produce it, and lo and behold it has.”
There’s no way around the aroma – it’s definitively ham. Black Forest ham, with the tartness of the yeast providing the meat and the smoked malt emulating the bark. It’s not what beer is supposed to smell like, and that’s what makes it so enticing. Each peppery aftertaste begs for an indulgent noseful chased with another beguiling sip.
Lichtenhainer is the kind of beer that makes you stop mid-sentence when you drink it. It shrinks the room. One minute, you’re jousting with some friends over the relative merits of Kyrie Irving, the next you’re running your tongue over your teeth obsessively to try and chase down the combination of sense memories flowing down your throat.
Nothing in the beer languishes, not even the color. It sits in a tulip goblet with an eerie iridescence. Light passes through its transparent body, shining through like yellow cellophane. Inside the thin color is equal proportions smoke and tart. First, the Berliner tart turns your saliva into modeling clay. A current of smoke travels up your nasal passage as you notice a swirl of sediment in the glass. Nothing makes complete sense, and all is well.
Piggy aroma aside, nothing about the beer is confrontational.”
Dating back to 1886 Germany, the Lichtenhainer is by no means a new or progressive beer style. But as more palatable sours like Goses and Lambics have come into fashion, the door has been left open for this smoky, low-ABV Berliner to make a reappearance. Right now, the beer is exceedingly rare (only five Lichtenhainers are listed on BeerGraphs), and the Beer Judge Certification Program does not list it as a veritable category (the closest approximation would be Rauchbier, which only captures one aspect of the style).
The Lichtenhainer remains esoteric and largely virgin territory for American craft brewing. It trades on two of the most marginalizing flavors in brewing, which is a jeopardizing strategy. Both are, as Fair State notes, acquired tastes. Separate, tart and smoke are polarizing. Combined, they’re preternatural bedfellows.
In the hands of Fair State, the Lichtenhainer has a utilitarian charm. Piggy aroma aside, nothing about the beer is confrontational. Lichtenhainer is a smooth straw ale at its heart, and lager-loving head brewer Niko Tonks uses the wheat in the malt bill to add a softness that tempers the pH. It’s a fascinating brew that never topples over the gunwale and becomes unapproachable.
“Our approach to producing sour beer is not dissimilar from our approach to producing any kind of beer – we want to make beer that is enjoyable to drink, plain and simple,” adds Tonks. “Lichtenhainer sits pretty far towards the ‘challenging’ end of the spectrum for us, in that some people will dismiss it out of hand due to either smoke or sour, but it's a really rewarding beer to bring to liquor store tastings or beer festivals.”
Fair State made Lactobacillus a dinner-table term in the Twin Cities, and now they’re putting a beer that tastes like German barbecue into their year-round tap offerings. It’s a reminder that plenty of daring formulas await in the future of American craft brewing – and that arrogance is not always the best way to resurrect them.