For most of human history, beer was often probably sour, the tartness invoked upon fermenting hooch by naturally occurring bacteria and yeast that without refrigeration (or covered vessels) couldn't help but make its way into the final product. But as modern technology and scientific advancements crept into brewing in the 1800s, beer became the clean tart-free lagers most commonly consumed today.
But a small segment of European brewers continued to make these traditionally sour beers -- from lambics and Berliner weisses to Flanders reds, all infected with organisms like Brettanomyces, Lactobacillus and Pediococcus -- and in the last decade, American brewers have also begun experimenting.
Starting today and for the rest of this week, obsessive fans and curious newbies will have a chance to try more than 150 examples of these acidic anomalies at Beachwood Sour Fest 2013, one of the most unprecedented odes to the genre.
Held every two years by one of SoCal's best beer bars, the event is a daily and ongoing adventure through brett-fermented saisons, aged rare gueuzes and barrel-aged wild ales, which will this time take over the entire guest tap lists at both of Beachwood BBQ's two local outposts.
We sat down with molecular-gastronomist-turned-BBQ-joint-owner-and-beer-geek Gabe Gordon to talk about his love for the oft-maligned style and why he decided to give people an opportunity to try some of the most sought-after and hard-to-make beers available. Turn the page.Squid Ink: What was the first sour beer you had?
Gabe Gordon: The first sour beer I ever had was Gueuze Girardin and I loved it from the minute I had it. This dude named Logan Perkins who was a rep for an importer -- he was this crazy guy from New Orleans and he just moved out to California to rep out here -- he walked into Seal Beach Beachwood about a week after we opened and with a Cajun accent said, "I'm gonna taste you on some beers," and pours this Girardin.
I had read about sour beers, but I hadn't had one yet and I was instantly blown away: I had finally found my perfect beer. It was lower in alcohol, I could drink it all day and I had never had anything else like it. Two months later, I got a case of the first batch of Russian River Temptation and I had to hand-sell every bottle.
SI: What did you tell people in order to sell it?
GG: I put the bottle on the counter and said, "Okay, so it's totally not like any other beer you've ever had. It's acidic and it's got this amazing wine quality to it because of the chardonnay grapes. Buy it and if you hate it, whatever, I'll take it and drink it myself." I sold all 12 bottles and after that, I tried to get as much sour beer as I could get my hands on.
SI: When did you decide to do an entire festival for sours?
GG: The impetus for the original Sour Fest was when I got six kegs of Lou Pepe Framboise from Cantillon and I had no idea what to do with them. What kind of occasion is there to put such a rad beer on? At the time there weren't a lot of other beer bars out there at the time, so I didn't have to put it on immediately and make my tap list stand out. My tap list is already rad, so how cool would it be to have a festival around these sour beers? I think we got about 50 kegs together for the first one.
We opened Seal Beach Beachwood in 2006, I started saving in 2007 and by 2009 we had kegs all over the place and we knew we were ready to have a festival. I'm spending so much time trying to procure these kegs -- and it was strictly because I wanted to drink them -- and so the only logical thing to do with them was throw a festival. Sour Fest started because we needed an excuse to pour Cantillion's Lou Pepe Framboise.SI: You've amassed quite a collection of rare beers. What are the benefits of saving beers instead of tapping them immediately?
GG: I am a devout hoarder of beer. I love aged beer. Not hoppy stuff, but barrel-aged stuff -- anything that comes from a barrel, I want to hold onto it and see how it tastes later. I am fascinated by how beer changes in the bottle. It's awesome. And so, for me, I know that every year Stone and Churchill's [in San Diego] are going to do a sour festival. I know that every year, you are going to have access to fresh sour beer, but what does the beer taste like when it's old? Wouldn't it be nice to have fresh and vintage beer side by side?
At our Sour Fest, we do tons of verticals and it's really cool to see a 2010 Temptation next to a 2011 and 2012 one. If the breweries are librarying their own beer, then you might see verticals like that at other festivals, but we are doing the cellaring ourselves. We have tons of climate-control storage where we keep kegs and bottles for aging. I must have 40 Russsian River kegs just hanging out right now.
SI: How would you define a sour beer?