There’s no denying the popularity of sour and wild ales over the last few years. Today’s modern sours, along with classic sour styles like German Berliner weisse and gose and Belgian oud bruin, Flanders red and lambics, are quickly becoming one of the fastest growing segments in the industry. According to Nielson, in 2017, sour ale’s dollar sales were nearly seven times what they were in 2013.
While wild ales aren’t necessarily sour ales and vice versa, the two lend themselves to being produced together. Wild ales have the presence of a wild yeast (often captured with an open vessel called a coolship) or some kind of unrestrained microflora like Lactobacillus (Lacto) that are used in place of traditional brewer’s yeast. Oftentimes (but not always), the introduction of a wild yeast or bacteria creates a sour ale. There are other ways to add acid to a beer though aside from wild fermentation, like adding fruit or lactic acid directly and then allowing them to age in wooden barrels.
Some of the original sour and wild-dedicated breweries include Cascade Brewing in Portland, Oregon, The Rare Barrel in Oakland, California, and Jester King Brewing in Austin, Texas, all of which have been around for several years now and soley produce sours and wilds. Lately though, breweries across the country that already have “regular” brewing facilities are building out additional locations that focus on wilds and sours. These include Wicked Weed Brewing’s Funkatorium and Hi-Wire Brewing’s South Slope location, both in Asheville, North Carolina, The Hold at Revelry Brewing Company in Charleston, South Carolina, the Black Heron Lounge at Freemont Brewing in Seattle, Washington, The Bruery’s Bruery Terreux in Orange County, California, and Upland Brewing Company’s Wood Shop in Bloomington, Indiana. The latest to join the pack is Batch Brewing Company in Detroit, which recently announced it would open the Funk Room, dedicated to wilds and sours, at the end of this year.
Wilds and sours are typically brewed in dedicated facilities because once wild yeast is introduced it can be hard to keep it out of other equipment. And, the need for longer aging times means less room for other brews.
“Many of the bacteria and yeast strains we’re working with in the new facility are incredibly hard to eliminate from the process equipment once introduced,” explains Stephen Roginson, the founder and CEO of Batch. “Likewise, many of these projects take six months or longer to ferment. Tying up our current equipment for that length of time doesn’t make sense from a production standpoint, nor does potentially infecting clean fermentation with ‘wild bugs.’”
The small town of Asheville, a craft beer mecca that’s home to about 30 breweries and counting, was one of the first cities to gain a sour-dedicated taproom from a local brewer: Wicked Weed opened its Funkatorium there in 2014. But founder Walt Dickinson says he knew sours would be part of their brand even before they opened the original Wicked Weed back in 2011. In fact, the first two beers they ever made were sour beers.
“Black Angel, our dark sour with cherries aged in bourbon barrels, was instantly a huge hit,” says Dickinson. “Unfortunately, we had so little space that we had to limit the beer to only one keg per week tapped every Friday. There would be a line waiting when we opened just to get that beer.”
Now, with the Funkatorium up and running, Wicked Weed has been a huge player in educating people about sour beers and wild fermentation. These beers often appeal to people who say they don’t like beer. “The style is still really niche and we believe sour beer will be a great way to get new drinkers who don’t really identify as beer drinkers to try beer. Maybe they identify as a wine or cocktail drinker, but we have seen that sour beer can get them excited about beer for the first time.”
In fact, making sours is in some ways closer to winemaking than typical beer brewing, says Dickinson. “The process of making sour beer uses a more natural approach to fermentation working with bacteria’s and wild yeast—a very different mindset and skill than a traditional brewery.”
Batch has had a popular taproom in Detroit’s revitalized Corktown neighborhood since 2015. As Batch began to outgrow its current space and was forced to ship its beers to another location for packaging, an expansion became inevitable. And while the company still plans to expand its existing brewery, when an old auto repair garage in Detroit’s Milwaukee Junction/North End area became available, Roginson jumped at it. He quickly realized that an additional facility would give him room to experiment with mixed culture, sour beer, wild fermented cider, and maybe even wine, as well as gaining the much needed space for packaging. He couldn’t resist the more bucolic style of making beer.
“[Wild yeast fermentation] is a much more rustic approach to beer making—it’s quite romantic, actually,” says Roginson. “You know your friends that talk to their plants? I do a lot more talking out loud to the beers in our Funk Room than I do to our conventional beers, which typically have very predictable timelines. With Empire Pale Ale, I might say ‘Why is fermentation two days longer this batch? Did our pitching rate change?’ At the Funk Room, I pour a sample off a tank and find myself cooing to a beer, ‘Ummm, that’s delightful. You still going, or are you ready?’ Totally different thing.”
Upland had been playing around with sours since 2006 but were limited in how experimental they could be for fear of contaminating their flagship brews like Dragonfly IPA and Champagne Velvet. The Wood Shop, which opened in 2016, is next door to Upland’s Bloomington Brewpub and is completely dedicated to sours. The Brewpub pumps wort under its parking lot and into the Wood Shop, where most of the aging takes place in large oak tanks that hold 30 to 90 barrels of beer—something that just wasn’t possible in their old space.
Aside from needing a separate area, the challenges of running a sour ale program are different than a typical brewery. For example, all of the equipment, specifically small equipment like valves, gaskets, hoses, and pumps, needs to be carefully separated between brews to prevent cross-contamination. But barrel separation is vital as well.
“The biggest challenge in managing a sour program is the fermentation and blending of beer,” says Upland founder Pete Batule. “Each vessel has its own individual fermentation that develops its own flavor profile. We have to take special care with how the barrels are handled and we maintain highly trained sensory tasters to make sure each blend is right.”
Patience is another challenge, thanks to the volatile nature of wilds and sours, adds Batule. “These beers take from three months up to three years to mature and we cannot release a beer until its ready. And with the fermentation being wild, the process is not nearly as predictable as our other ales and lagers.”
With all of these breweries open new wild and sour dedicated facilities, it would seem the brewers at least are ready to put their stake in the ground in the name of the genre. But will sours and wilds remain as popular with consumers as they are today? “Wild and sour ales have been brewed for a very long time and I don’t see them going out of style,” says Batule, referring to the ancient German and Belgian traditions. “They may not be at the peak of popularity forever, however I think the rise in popularity will raise awareness and increase the overall consumption of sours in the U.S.”
Roginson agrees, and he’s not worried about the new facility becoming obsolete in a few years, instead seeing it as the brand’s place for experimentation. “We’ll see how long consumers are fascinated by sour beer, but we’re not stopping there at the Funk Room. It is truly our fermentation laboratory and test kitchen for fermentation experiments that we’ve been unwilling to launch in our conventional facility.”
Dickinson, however, is adamant in his belief in the staying power of sours, promising the Funkatorium will remain devoted to the genre.
“Sours are here to stay—the Funkatorium will always be a home for sour beer and sour beer lovers.”