Brewers Gone Sour

By Jill Redding

In 2006, five American craft brewers took an epic trip to Belgium that forever changed their perspectives on brewing.

“I came back from that trip with a vision of starting a sour program,” said Adam Avery, whose Avery Brewing Co. in Boulder, Colo. now has about 220 barrels in its barrel-aging program.

Tomme Arthur, another one of those five travelers (dubbed the “Brett pack” for their affinity for brewing with Brettanomyces yeast), is now running one of the largest domestic barrel-aging programs at Port Brewing/The Lost Abbey in San Marcos, Calif., with 600 barrels, of which approximately 250 are devoted to sour beer.

Adam Avery and Tomme ArthurThe two brewers shared several of their latest creations and their thoughts on sour beers to a standing-room-only crowd at the Big Beers, Belgians and Barleywines Festival in Vail, Colo. January 6-8. “It’s fun to share these with people who can grasp what’s in the glass,” said Avery, speaking to the “Brewers Gone Wild” seminar audience that consisted of beer media, homebrewers, brewing professionals and beer lovers.

It’s been said that “sour is the new hoppy.” India Pale Ales have been king in this country for many years, but sour beers are now all the buzz. While still focusing on their vast portfolios, Avery and Arthur are devoting considerable resources to their barrel-aging programs and are having a blast in the process. Avery Brewing even experimented with a “ghetto coolship” at one time, said Avery. “I had visions of doing it the way Cantillon does it [with its shallow open fermenters known as coolships],” he said. “I wanted to see what the Colorado air could do for our beer.”

Avery ages most of its beer in wine barrels, specifically its sour beer. Avery’s Brettanomyces house strain was harvested from bottles of Drie Fonteinen that Avery brought back from Belgium.

“We are still totally in the learning process,” said Avery, whose brewery launched the barrel-aging program two years ago and will be releasing the sixth beer in the series soon.

However, Avery said, “I can’t say that I see sour ales being the next big thing. It’s such a small niche already. I don’t really see it exploding.” Although, he added, “In 1996 we couldn’t sell IPA, and now we can’t keep enough in stock.”

Regardless, sour beers are a great draw for bringing new craft beer drinkers into the fold. “With beers like this, you definitely will steal some wine drinkers,” Avery said.

American brewers such as Avery, Arthur, Russian River’s Vinnie Cilurzo and Allagash’s Rob Tod (who were both also on the trip to Belgium) are bringing America’s burgeoning barrel-aging scene to the forefront. What sets it apart from the Belgians, said Arthur, is that “the notion of sour beer in Belgium has no wood character.” In fact, Arthur related the story of how Jean Pierre Van Roy of Belgium’s renowned Cantillon Brewery tasted his award-winning Cuvee de Tomme and promptly looked for a place to spit it out.

But the innovative New World brewers continue to influence the Old World brewers. Van Roy’s son, Jean, dumped an entire 44-pound box of American Amarillo hops into a Cantillon brew with Avery and Arthur urging him on, with only a shrug of his shoulders at the suggestion.

The trip had far-reaching effects. Tod built a successful coolship at Allagash; Cilurzo now has 500 barrels in his Russian River stash (100 percent devoted to sour beers) and is planning to add up to 300 more; and the fifth brewer from that trip, Dogfish Head’s Sam Calagione, built an enormous tank made of Palo Santo wood for aging Palo Santo Marron.

Is sour the new hoppy? We’ll see how it plays out, but in the meantime it’s been a treat to sample such beers as Avery’s Quinquepartite and The Lost Abbey’s Veritas 008. Quinquepartite, Latin for “consisting of five parts,” was blended from beers aged in five oak barrels: two Cabernet Sauvignon barrels, a port barrel, a Chardonnay barrel and a Zinfandel barrel, fermented with Brett. The 008 version of Veritas is an oak-aged version of Port Amigo, a Mexican lager, with black tea and lemon zest.

“We did 70 cases of it and it’s gone,” said Arthur.

A version of this article will appear in the March/April 2011 issue of Zymurgy.

Jill ReddingJill Redding is editor-in-chief of The New Brewer and Zymurgy magazines for the Brewers Association. She is a BJCP beer judge and loves attending events like the Big Beers festival to further her beer education (and drink great beer, of course).