HOUR FOR SOUR
Alice Neville on the beer world’s new flavour frontier
ARE YOU HO-HUM about hoppiness? Wary of wheat beers, put off by porters or sick of stouts? Have you got malt malaise?
Fear not, my friends, as a new beer frontier is here – and it’s sour.
I use the term “new” loosely, as the broad range of styles encompassed by the sour label are among some of the oldest around. But there’s certainly a renaissance of sorts going on among the craft brewers of New Zealand, and it’s a trend that’s trickled down from overseas.
“I’ve noticed the shift when we’re at [beer] festivals,” says Lee-Ann Scotti of Oamaru-based Craftwork Brewery, which launched in 2014. “We were doing festivals where everything was pale ales and we would take one sour beer. But I’ve noticed now that pretty much every type of brewery will have one kind of sour beer.”
These beers are finding new fans, often because they taste so different to what many of us think of as “beer”.
“Craft beer is really starting to gain momentum and we’re getting a lot of new people coming in,” says Kieran Haslett-Moore of Kapiti Coast-based North End Brewing. “And as we get to expose our beers to more people, it’s important to show them that beer doesn’t have to be bitter, it doesn’t have to be big-hopped – there are other axes of flavour it works on.
“Give them a really fruity, complex, lightly tart beer and you see the lights go on in their head – they suddenly realise there’s a whole world of beers out there.”
At the same time, of course, those of us who can’t get enough of the hop-forward pale ales can struggle a little with sours.
“But I think the market’s maturing, so we’re starting to see people accepting these beers,” says Haslett-Moore.
“I’ve been in the beer world for quite a long time and I remember back in the day when we’d taste Belgian sours, we’d have people who were utterly shocked that anyone would drink these things, and shocked that everyone else in the room wasn’t tipping them out. We’ve come a long way from that.”
Sour beers are often compared to wine or cider, and they have a complexity that makes them work very well with food. “As a brewery we’re quite focused on the culinary side of things,” says Haslett-Moore. “I’m a former cheesemonger and my partners are restaurateurs and chefs, so we do like going in on these angles that are a bit more food friendly.”
Broadly speaking, sour beers are made by intentionally allowing wild yeast strains or bacteria into the brew. There are a few ways in which to do this, one of which is kettle souring – bacteria is added to the beer in the boil kettle before fermentation. This is the quickest and the least risky way to make a sour, but critics say the beer often lacks the complexity of its slow-poke brothers.
Barrel ageing is a slower but much-favoured method among sour aficionados. Soren Eriksen of Warkworth-based 8 Wired has what is thought to be the largest barrel-ageing programme in the southern hemisphere, with 250-plus barrels. In this method, the beer is fermented with a clean yeast, then put in wine barrels and wild yeast and bacteria is added. A secondary fermentation then occurs.
Another option is to use barrels already infected with brettanomyces (a word that strikes fear into the hearts of winemakers) and let the funky yeast do its thing.
And it takes quite some time to do
that thing. Craftwork’s Red Bonnet, a Flanders red ale, spends a year in pinot noir barrels, then six months in the bottle. They also do a sour cherry version of the same beer. Instead of being bottled after a year in the barrel, it sits on sour cherries – from Maheno, just south of Oamaru – in glass carboys for six months, then goes in the bottle.
Two years for a beer? “People say, ‘I don’t know how you can be so patient’, but time flies and before you know it, it’s time to bottle,” says Scotti.
The time it takes to make barrel-aged sour beers is not the only prohibitive aspect. It’s a risky process – there’s a very real chance you could infect your entire brewery and ruin the beers that aren’t supposed to be sour.
“It’s always a roll of the dice,” says Haslett-Moore. “Luckily so far we haven’t dumped anything in any quantity.”
North End’s main package format is cans, but its sour beers – those with the “zoo of bacteria”, as Haslett-Moore puts it – are hand-bottled so there’s no chance of infecting the canning line.
Which brings us to perhaps the most intriguing way to make sour beers – spontaneous fermentation. This involves taking the wort (that’s beer that hasn’t been fermented yet) and leaving it outside overnight in a coolship – essentially a large, flat vessel that allows a decent amount of surfaceto-air contact – to pick up some wild yeast from the air. It’s then put into barrels and a secondary fermentation kicks off. These beers are known as lambic ales. This process can only be done in winter and it’s best if it’s pretty chilly, so Oamaru is ideal, says Scotti.
North End has developed a different method of spontaneous fermentation, inspired by the sourdough techniques used at its sister company, Olde Beach Bakery. “We make starters from the air of the brewery, then use those to innoculate barrels of unfermented wort and let them ferment in the barrel,” explains Haslett-Moore.
The first of these beers, Rustica, is being launched at Beervana (12-13 August in Wellington). For the first time, there will be an entire bar at the Westpac Stadium event dedicated to sour beers. Also launching at Beervana is Craftwork’s Bruxelles Ma Belle, a sour beer aged on apricots.
Wellington brewery Garage Project has recently acquired a warehouse for the sole purpose of experimenting with sour beers, safely separate from the main brewery and with its own bottling line. Dubbed the “Wild Workshop”, it’s housed in an old printing press on Marion St where the GP team will ferment beer that they’ve brewed in their Aro St brewery.
They’ve got hold of some foeders (large porous barrels) that were formerly used for cognac, and even a few amphoras to experiment with. “It’s a whole new playground for us,” says Garage Project co-owner Jos Ruffell. “Part of the fun is seeing what happens.”
Ruffell and the team were always keen for this sour-focused space to be in the city, so their spontaneously fermented beers have a true Wellington flavour. “It’s about finding an expression of a different type of terroir,” says Ruffell. In Belgium, urban centres are traditionally where spontaneously fermented beers are made too, says Ruffell.
They plan to install a coolship on the roof, and one day hope to have roof panels that open and close, allowing wild yeasts in to spontaneously ferment the beer.
For brewers, part of the appeal of these beers is the traditional aspect, says Ruffell. At one stage, before the advent of modern sanitation and pure yeast strains, all beers were made this way to some extent.
And thanks to the use of wine barrels and the sheer length of time they take to produce, “There’s a romance to them,” says Ruffell.
Garage Project’s Pete Gillespie fills a barrel with beer to be aged