As most craft beer enthusiasts know the new “it” beers are sours. What the resinous Double IPA was to craft beer two years ago, the cheek pinching sour ale is today. As a craft brewer and beer nerd myself I loved the citrusy, bitter IPA and now the more tart the better. Drinking these beers can be pure bliss, but introducing them into your brewery is the stuff nightmares are made of.
The most important ritual in brewing, whether it be at home or in a 200 barrel brewhouse, is sanitation. This means keeping everything but your grain, hops, water and yeast the hell out of the mix. The process of boiling the hopped wort ensures the sanitation of the liquid that is to become beer. The use of extremely hot water and chemical sanitizers ensures that any tanks, hoses, clamps and gaskets that come in contact with that liquid and the yeast are clear of any unwanted bacteria that could cause potentially spoilage. To brew a sour beer is to invite some of these normally uninvited guests into the party to get funky.
Some breweries allow wild yeast from the air to spontaneously ferment their wort. Others systematically introduce select bacteria in addition to brewers yeast to create flavors unachievable from the use of yeast alone. These bacteria can create mouth puckering tartness, extra crisp dryness, mustiness and downright funkiness. It can often times be a guess of what the final product will end up tasting like, but the gamble and mystery are half of the fun of working with new and experimental ingredients and techniques.
So the decision to bring a known beer spoiler into your brewery purposefully has been made, what now? Now one needs to do everything in their power to sanitize, sanitize and sanitize again, anything and everything that comes in contact with the bacteria or wild yeast laden beer. The fear here is that these rogue flavor changers will end up in a batch of beer that they are supposed to be absent from and take over, spoiling that beer.
At Milwaukee Brewing Company, like most breweries we work hard to keep our beers consistent and free of anything that may compromise their integrity or flavor. But as beer nerds ourselves we are in love with the funky beers that are spreading throughout the craft beer world these days and have dreamt of a time when we would begin to dabble in this category. We have finally faced the fear and began our sour beer program and I was lucky enough to brew our first experimental batch.
It was decided that a Berliner Weiss would be the style, a very light, low ABV, tart German wheat ale. This style gets its subtle tartness from the use of lactobacillus, a bacteria often used in making soured dairy products such as yogurt and sour cream. Lactobacillus, unlike brewer’s yeast, consumes the sugars provided by the malted barley and wheat and produces lactic acid instead of alcohol or carbon dioxide. After a month and a half in primary fermentation with ale yeast and lactobacillus the Weiss had achieved a subtle tartness and dryness that make it an wonderfully refreshing beer for summer. I then moved the beer down to our cellar where it aged for another several weeks and then added 25 pounds of Strawberries. Don’t expect a fruit beer here, the Strawberries don’t outshine the magic the lactobacillus has created, but rather compliment it with a subtle sweetness in the middle of the taste.
As the brewer here at the Ale House I have the privilege of being able to brew most of our company’s one off and experimental batches because of the size and flexibility of the brewhouse. You have the privilege of being able to try beers here that are not available anywhere else and revel in the creative nature of a craft brewing scene that grows more diverse and exciting with every passing day. Keep an eye out for upcoming beers from our Brewer’s Choice Series and for further experimentation in the world of sour beers.