July 31, 2013 Updated: August 1, 2013 at 8:54 am
Ewww, bitter beer face!
Remember those Keystone Light commercials that made us think that was a bad thing?
For craft beer lovers these days, bitter beer face is a happy face. Sour beers are hot stuff, with a 31 percent jump in sales last year, according to GuestMetrics, a company that tracks restaurant and bar sales. This spring, all 400 tickets to the Avery Boulder SourFest sold out in minutes. At major beer festivals, sours often have the longest lines.
All for a type of beer that, for most first-timers, tastes somewhere between lemon juice and spoiled wine. But when you get past the initial pucker effect, the beers hide amazing diversity.
'We have a hard time keeping them on shelves. Everything we do is sold out right away," said Jeff Aragon of Paradox Beer Co. in Woodland Park, who makes several sours. "A lot of that crowd, the wine crowd that would always snub their noses at beer, have really found something in these sours that they really like."
Many brewers believe it is the natural progression of a beer lover's palate.
"Sours are the new hoppy beer. For a while the cutting edge beers were all super high hops. Now those have a wider acceptance, so sour is the new extreme," said Chris Wright, founder of Pikes Peak Brewing Co. in Monument.
But Wright doesn't make a sour. In fact, only a handful of brewers in the Pikes Peak region do, largely because of the difficulty in making them. Microbes are introduced in the brewing process, requiring a special fermenter. They're tough to remove and if they accidentally contaminate other equipment, the whole operation has gone sour.
"Brewers are afraid of them, intimidated by them. It takes someone with serious adventure and training to even begin to think about approaching them, the more natural and free structure," said Jason Yester of Trinity Brewing. "Whether a beer is a craft beer or a macro beer, I just can't stand boring beer."
"I could go on for days answering this question."
I believe he could. His responses to my questions about sours totalled more than 1,700 words. A microbiologist by training, he has been experimenting with sours for more than a decade and continues to develop new techniques. His sours are well-respected in the craft beer community and loved by customers, accounting for 50 percent of what he has brewed in recent months.
The first time he tasted one, he was "absolutely intrigued by them. I loved that my palate was finally being challenged." As a brewer, he enjoys the challenge of making them, of letting go and "allowing the bugs to make the decisions."
"The brewer must learn patience and the ability to listen with their palate. Only when the timing is perfect should a sour be packaged and that's determined by taste alone," he said. "Standard beers are all about following established procedures and recipes. Any trained brewer can make those beers. It takes someone with a higher degree of passion and adventure to choose the wild/sour path of a brewing career."
But are sours too unapproachable for the general beer-drinking public? Are they a fad to keep brewers and beer geeks interested until the next thing comes along?
Duane Lujan at Rocky Mountain Brewery in Colorado Springs is known for pushing the beer envelope, with beer flavors from fruit to Chinese food. But he as only brewed a couple of sours over 5 years, because of the fear of contaminating other beers. He also said they go against his personality, his need to know how a beer is going to turn out.
He sees sours as a fad having their day in the sun.
"I think it will have a hard time keeping up its momentum due to its acidic nature. This type of beer doesn't allow for more than one bottle at a time," he said. "If someone is a big sour beer fan, enjoy the next year or two before the next beer takes over as industry darlings."