“Is sour the new IPA?” I asked Bennett Erickson, manager at Sunset Beer, a cozy Echo Park tap room and craft beer shop. I was visiting for their California Wild Ale night, which featured beers from southern, central and northern California. Internally, I winced. No self-respecting beer lover would be so crass as to reduce a complicated artistic and scientific process to marketing flash.
“Is it a trending thing?” he mused, “Yes it is, but the interesting thing about it is that... certain ones surge in popularity at a time... and you’ve got everything from like, lightly tart ales to really over-the-top acid-driven beers. I mean it’s a really wide category. Much wider than something like an IPA.”
Here in the heart of Los Angeles, everything handmade is fetishized, so it makes sense that a beer style hundreds of years old could be trending. However, hype aside, sours aren’t for neophytes. They are time-consuming and (kettle sours aside) difficult and expensive to make. But it’s an exciting style to work with and innovate upon.
Home of the West Coast IPA, inventors of steam beer, California is a state full of brewers unafraid to master sour tradition introduced by mostly Belgians and Germans and mold it into something newer, by delivering taste profiles that run the gamut from a puckering tartness to a gentle citrusy bite.
The perceived sour quality in sour beer is very different from the taste of something gone bad. It’s more like an intense zestiness. Which is ironic, as the yeast and bacteria strains that give sour beer their perceived sourness – variations of Brettanomyces, Lactobacillus,and Pediococcus – are sometimes contaminants that can spoil beer or wine. Using good technique and under the right conditions, they turn from spoilers to little sorcerers that conjure beer magic.
There are several brewers within a few miles of Sunset Beer working their wizardry on sours and I spoke with a couple hoping to get insight into their process.
Take this thing that is so nuanced and such a personal experience and reduce it to a goddamn number.”
I felt especially lucky to talk to Mark Jilg of Craftsman Brewery in Pasadena. Mark is a bit elusive and kind of the Bernie Sanders of craft beer with his rock-solid integrity, wiry hair, and wariness of the press. Making sour beers in California since 1995, Mark has issues with hype in the beer industry. For him, beer is an intensely personal means of expression.
Among his chief concerns are a lack of letting the consumer reach their own conclusions. Like a visual artist who wants to create a two-way dialogue, he detests slapping labels on, well, labels.
“What do they put on the labels?” he exclaimed, getting a bit worked up, “They tell you the titrable acidity!" Should we care about the exact measure of the amount of acid present in a solution? ”Take this thing that is so nuanced and such a personal experience and reduce it to a goddamn number," he grumbled.
I later visit Mark at his operation in an industrial park in Pasadena. He is one of the few local breweries with large enough oak barrels to ferment an entire batch of beer (eleven 600-gallon tanks and six 1,400-gallon tanks) along with a variety of barrels complete with their proprietary set of microflora.
Mark had me sample some sours he is working on straight from the barrel at different stages in the aging process. Particularly delicious was Cuvée de Masamoto, barrel-aged for over a year and made with peaches and nectarines from central California’s family-owned Masamoto farm. The “not quite ready” version tasted just like I bit into a perfect peach.
A few days later, I met up with the laid-back Naga Reshi of Dry-River Brewing located right in downtown L.A. He was joined by Agustin and Adrian Ruelas, two of the four members of Brewjeria, what I would call “elevated home-brewers.” They just finished collaborating on Madre de Tierra (Mother Earth), a sour brewed with juniper from Joshua Tree in the California high desert and grapefruit citrus from the Ruelas brother’s neighbor’s backyard in Hacienda Heights.
As Damian Marley’s “Welcome to Jamrock” played in the background, I cozied up to a picnic table. Wort boiled behind me, and I was surrounded by reclaimed woodwork.
Their collab started with an initial fermentation using a Belgian Tripel as the base beer and adding Brettanomyces Trois afterward, along with Brett C and T a Belgian golden ale yeast. “Three different yeasts,” said Naga. “And then after it was fermented... we filled one of those vats with the juniper and the grapefruit juice so we got the flavor and the saturation and then packaged it directly in the keg, and it’s all naturally fermented.” There was a little lacto left in the resident tanks, Naga remembered, putting the yeast/bacteria count at four.
Similar to what West Coast IPAs did to the traditional IPA, Reshi said they are working on West Coast Sours, where the beer is barrel aged for a year or two, soured, put back into stainless steel tanks and then dry hopped – “You have sourness, and you have hoppiness, so it’s combining, you know two worlds that are colossal.”
What’s the difference between a home-cooked meal and craft macaroni and cheese?”
Much like Jilg from Craftsman, Reshi has a relative disdain for labels. Referring to the Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau, he said “We have to say Belgian Ale fermented... that’s all legal. Like I would never say this is a Belgian ale. This is not a Belgian beer; it’s from East L.A. It has nothing to do with Belgium... it’s like, you have to pick something.”
In the wake of recent corporate buyouts of craft breweries, he maintained that independence is integral to creating distinctive, hyper-local sour beer and that independence is currently under threat.
“What’s the difference between a home-cooked meal and craft macaroni and cheese? The love that goes into it.” I smiled. “We can say love here, he says...I know it’s L.A., but we can say love... it’s not weird... it’s a safe space.”