One of the quickest ways to ignite a lively discussion among beer geeks is to bring up sour beers.
A growing number of craft beer drinkers enjoy these funky, tart, acidic concoctions, while others find them even more distasteful than weak mass-market lagers.
For those who enjoy a trip to the sour side, one of the most creative breweries in the Bay Area is Berkeley’s The Rare Barrel, which opened its taproom in December 2013. It is gaining a national reputation, with gold medals at the only two competitions it has entered – the World Beer Cup in March and the Great American Beer Festival in October.
Co-founder Alex Wallash described an early experience with sour beers, tasting New Belgium’s La Folie with a friend.
“She took time to position it and let me know what to expect, that it would be something different,” he said. “I didn’t love it, didn’t hate it, I didn’t know what to make of it. Then I had another, and it started cascading from there. We tell people about what we call the ‘Three Sip Rule’ – the first sip is going to shock your palate, the second sip may still be a little something new. By the third sip, you’ll be cruising.”
Wallash described the process for creating The Rare Barrel’s unique flavor combinations.
“Our high-level philosophy is to start off with intent and then let flavors dictate where the beer goes,” he said. “When our beers get to about five or six months old, they’re like teenagers – they’re not fully developed. They still have some rough edges, but we have an idea what the personality will be like when they’re adults.”
Of the finished beers, Wallash said, “blending is a big component – we have hundreds of barrels to choose from.”
I tried a few recent selections at the taproom.
• Hypnotized is a red sour beer aged in Ensorcelled barrels (Ensorcelled is another Rare Barrel brew – dark sour with raspberries). The beer boasts a subtle tart raspberry aroma, with a very light body and delicious delicate flavor of fresh, slightly sweet raspberries and a barely perceptible earthy funk. With distinctive but mild flavors, Hypnotized is a great introduction for newcomers to the world of sours.
• Egregious is a dry-hopped golden sour beer aged in oak barrels. The dry hopping provides a potent aroma featuring resinous and tropical fruit notes, along with a touch of Brettanomyces barnyard funk. The flavor is an intriguing blend of bitterness and tartness. Although the carbonation level is low, the combined punch of the hops and the acidity of
the base beer create a pleasant prickly sensation on the tip of the tongue at first, followed by a prickliness on the roof of the mouth during the finish.
• All Systems Go (Batch 3) is a Flanders-style red sour beer aged in an oak barrel with coffee beans. The beer pours with a weirdly beautiful geometric head of large, firm bubbles – like tiny, identically sized tapioca floating on the surface. The aroma is fresh-roasted coffee with just a hint of tartness. Acetic red wine vinegar-like sourness dominates the flavor with just a hint of caramel sweetness and an earthy coffee roast on the finish.
An earlier dark sour called Shadows of Their Eyes, with dark roast and chocolate notes, inspired All Systems Go. The brewers experimented with adding coffee to the base beer in Erlenmeyer flasks in different preparations – cold pressed, brewed coffee, ground beans and whole beans.
Whole beans extracted the aroma and flavor without the astringency, and the brewers shared the base beer with Adam at SoMa’s Sightglass Coffee, who recommended a few roasts to complement the flavor profile. The brewers selected one, added 5 pounds of beans to a barrel, and, as Wallash said, two days in, the flavors were “perfect.”
“It’s all about letting the beer speak to us and responding to the flavors it’s presenting,” he added.
Derek Wolfgram is chief operating officer of Los Altos Hills’ Silicon Valley Sudzers Homebrew Club, which welcomes beer enthusiasts. For more information, visit sudzers.org.