Brewmaster’s Corner – Episode #9: What You’re Calling This Beer Name Leaves a Sour Taste in Your Mouth

Oakshire Brewmaster Matt Van Wyk samples beers

By Oakshire Brewmaster Matt Van Wyk

Ahh, Oregon Craft Beer Month… I love thee.  And how you keep me so very very busy.  As we crank through the month of July here in the great state of Oregon, and as we tick another beer event off of our calendar, I am reminded of one of my greatest irritations, and that is the references to, and the naming of, the now wildly popular Belgian-inspired ales laced with Lactobacillus and other such organisms that folks refer to as “sours.”

I’ve been watching the social media outlets comment on the fantastic week long and annual fest Block 15's Nick Arzner at home in the cellarput on by the folks at Belmont Station in Portland, Puckerfest.  How I wish I could get up to Beervana this week. However, last night, I choose the second best thing, a Corvallis brewer night at The Bier Stein in Eugene, where I was treated to a wonderful beer called Golden Canary from Nick Arzner at Block 15, and the 1st Anniversary beer from Dave Marliave at Flat Tail Brewing. Both beers were lovingly tart with varying degrees of acidity. Brettanomyces and Lactobaccilus danced in harmony.  They were magical in fact. Nick’s mastery of blending different barrels is phenomenal. You would do yourself a favor to pay a visit to the folks in Corvallis.


Anyway, on with my rant.  I hate using the word “sour” as a noun. For example, “Dude, I just drank three awesome sours from Cascade!” Yes, the beers I drank last night were sour and acidic, and certainly we need to use descriptive words in talking about this new found love for these ‘new’ acid beers.  So using the term “sour ales in” your sentence is acceptable to me. You used “sour” as an adjective. It describes. Ok, I’ll admit, in our country, it is very hard to talk about beer and beer styles when our industry is rather new and most craft drinkers have not been at this very long.  95% of the country doesn’t even prefer better beers. Often we’ll be saying, “It’s like a xyz beer,” because we need something familiar.  Certainly calling it a sour ale describes what the drinker is going to experience.  But what about an all Brettanomyces fermented beer.  Will it be sour?  Perhaps eventually. Will it be different than a Saccharomyces fermented beer? Most definitely.  And what about beers with a hint of tartness, but not a full blown, jaw-twinging, pucker inducing Lambic-style beer?  Will we see the next great competition like the great IBU arms race of the 2000’s?  “Dude, that triple IPA is sooo not as bitter as my quadrupel IPA!”  I fear calling the beer style sours, may lead


us down the wrong path and tell the consumer, that more sour equals more better. That, I believe is wrong. Just yesterday I was adding pitchers of a Lactobacillus culture to several of my sleeping barrels.  I was certainly attempting to make them more sour. And I just packaged a beer called Inception Ale that will find it’s way to the Puckerfest taps at Belmont Station and to the tap takeover tonight at the Bier Stein.  I wish it had a higher sourness level, but does that make it worse than the beers that make you pucker? Maybe for some, but the strong Brett aromas and the mild tartness work for me, and they might work for you.  Having a beer that falls on the lowest end of the pH scale does not signal a mark of quality in my mind. Often, that just messes with your gastrointestinal function the next morning. Can I get an “Amen”?

Matt Van Wyk pours some barrel-aged sours at Oakshire's barrel room in Eugene, Oregon
Furthermore, I realize in the wine industry, we often refer to the broad category of wines as “reds” and “whites,” but I think that is probably just a function of our lazy nature. Or even the fast that ignorance about the types of reds and whites leads us to generalize. And of course there is the old British style called bitter, but that’s a whole seperate argument and history lesson. For now, I need an all emcompassing description. But more importantly, I want to use correct grammar and not use an adjective in place of a noun.

Saccharomyces cerevisiae

“So what to do?” you ask.  I have a solution. We don’t need to decide on a beer style name per se, lest we start arguing about CDA v. Black IPA. Yikes, let’s not go there.  And we can’t use Lambic, because as much as we are inspired by the Belgian tradition of spontaneous fermentation, most of these American beers are innoculated with critters and the folks in Belgium are pretty particular about who uses that term. And guess what, they’re not giving it out to those of us in America.  “Belgian-inspired ales” doesn’t really work because there are so many styles of Belgian beer that it doesn’t really tell the consumer anything about it.  Well, if you’ve had a conversation with me, you have heard me refer to the beers that Cascade produces, and Block 15 produces, and those that we have aging right now as “Wild Ales.”  To me that’s a term that covers a wide range of beers aged on or fermented with organisms other than, or in addition, to the regular Saccharomyces strain of brewers yeast.  Using a more broad term than “sours”  will cover funky, sweaty, barnyard beers fermented with Brett, and also sour beers with Lactobaccilus of all levels of acidity.
Some will argue that the term “wild” doesn’t really tell me much about the beer either, but I respond with Kolsch, Pilsner, Porter, Gratzer, Marzen……. What do these tell you about the beer you are about to drink?  We’re smart creatures. We don’t need to use reds, whites, stouts, bitters, sours.  Some also will argue that Brett and Lacto aren’t actually wild. They can be controlled. True, once you know how they behave and what they will do in your brewery they become much more predictable.  But I might invite you into my barrel room where we can taste from about 36 oak barrels and each one is doing something different and has a different expression. The critters I’ve added are making there own schedule, and they often do it at what ever rate they want. To me, they are still wild. And we keep our wild stallions across the street from our brewery. Perhaps I was influenced by Jeff Sparrow’s book, Wild Brews. He is a friend form Chicago, so maybe that’s where it came from.  I just know that as we continue to introduce craft beer drinkers to beers that are sour, tart, acidic, funky, tannic, horsey, sweaty, and such, we’ll need a common language. Drinking a “sour” doesn’t work for me. Drinking a wild ale works for me.  What do you think? The forum is open…..