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

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