Okay, so adjectives like “barnyard-y,” “horse blanket” and “gym socks” might not sound like the most appetizing descriptives for a beverage, but when it comes to the acidic wonders of sour beer, they're all the rage.
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?
GG: I use the term 'sour beer' really loosely. Not all lambics are sour. Not all sour beers are lambics and there are saisons that are sour and Brettanomyces beers that aren't sour. For the festival, I use beers that all have theoretically wild yeast and even though most of these beers are not probably spontaneously fermented and so they're not technically “wild,” they all fall under our umbrella for “sour beer.”
SI: What do you find so enticing about sour beers in general?
GG: Sour beer is the most perfect beer when it comes to food. For me, it's the ultimate foodie beer. You would have thought they invented it for that reason. I can't imagine a more versatile genre of beer that'll do well with food. So if you love the notion of beer pairings and you're in love with pairing food and beverages together, this is a great event to come to. And not because we're going to be doing crazy pairings or anything like that, but because you can really explore the beer and why it works with different foods.
Also, sour beers are really complex. There is so much going on in the nose, there's high acidity level, high carbonation and tons of nuanced flavors in sour beers that you don't get from really hoppy ones and really malty beers. Much like you would have a lemon sorbet or a piece of pickled ginger as a between or an intermezzo, sour beer is a palate cleanser in every sip because of the high acidity. You get less palate fatigue.
SI: Why do you think sour beers have lived on even though we can make clean beers fairly easily?
GG: There was a long time when lambics were the stuff that old men drank because if you think about it, it's probiotic. It's basically the same mix of bacteria that you find in your yogurt and kefir and shit you spend $8 for a shot of at Whole Foods. It's good for your gut ultimately. So it fell out of favor and that's why they started sweetening them. But that to me is like Italian soda. There's no point.
SI: What do you say to people that are put off by the idea of a bacteria-infected beer?
GG: It's okay to not think of it as beer if you want. We get that comment all the time that this is not like any beer someone has ever had. It reminds them of cider or champagne or some kind of white wine. And those things are all fine, it can remind you of whatever you want. It's still technically beer. It just might not taste like what we've all had pounded into our heads every 30 seconds from a commercial from Budweiser.
Sour beers have this wet hay, horse blanket funk that is traditional of the style. As much as that may not sound very appealing, it is appealing to a very large sector of craft beer drinkers. Sour beer is up 30% from last year, so it is obviously appealing to a larger and larger segment of the market.
SI: There are 150 kegs, five major brewery events and two locations to choose from. How do you suggest people tackle the overwhelming Sour Fest?
Well firstly, call your boss and let them know you won't be coming into work this week and then keep checking the Hop Cam and Twitter so you can see what's being tapped. We have this massive list that we are tapping our way through, and the only way to know what's going on is through our website and Twitter. The reason we do this for six days is so you can really take your time and really learn and understand and evaluate what it is you are drinking.
These beers are hard to make. None of them were made overnight. They all spent time in barrels. They all spent time aging. Forget that I've aged them. Some of these beers were aged for two years, five years, three years. Somebody's put a whole lot of faith in nature, because that's what making sour beers is. You hope that your culture and your barrels don't go the wrong direction. And that's the beauty and mystery and deliciousness of sour beer.
Beachwood Sour Fest 2013: The Ultimate Acid Trip starts Tuesday, Sept. 3 and runs through Sunday Sept. 8. Visit Beachwood's event page for more information on brewery nights. Check out the complete beer list here.
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