Don’t Fear Sour Beer


Note: This column originally appeared in the Santa Barbara News Press on March 6.

Malty or hoppy, light or dark; for many, these terms are the only real words to describe the way a beer tastes. And that’s a shame.

For starters, describing a beer as simply light or dark is akin to describing a wine as simply red or white, and the color of a beer can be very misrepresentative of its taste.

For example, not every dark beer tastes like Guinness.

But the real crime is assuming that there is nothing in beer beyond flavors from malted barley or hops. Granted, we Americans love our hoppy beers and the bitter bite of an IPA, but the world of beer has so much to offer.

What if I told you that one of my favorite styles of beer is neither malty nor hoppy, but sour? And what would you think if I told you that two local breweries are among the country’s best at producing sour beers?

If you’ve spent much time at Telegraph Brewing Company’s tasting room in the Funk Zone, you probably don’t need to be convinced of their prowess in that realm. The brewery’s Obscura series, which produced the Great American Beer Festival medal-winning Petit Obscura, is the showcase for brewer Paul Rey’s sour beers.

And if you’re a fan, there’s good news on the way – Telegraph has a new sour coming out this month. It’s called Obscura Peche, and Telegraph’s owner, Brian Thompson, explains what makes the beer special.

“There’s a long tradition in Belgium of fruited Lambic, and ‘peche’ is French for peach,” Thompson said. “It’s 100% locally grown peaches that we added directly to barrels of a lighter sour beer. It’s probably only a 5% (ABV) base beer that we aged in wine barrels. They were red wine barrels, although there’s not a lot of color coming necessarily from the barrel.”

The beer went into barrels last summer, and spent about seven months there. It was also introduced with the bacterium, lactobacillus (lacto), and a special strain of yeast called Brettanomyces (Brett). The two work together to produce lactic acid and a host of funky flavors to help balance out the sharp tartness of the lacto.

It sounds disgusting, but the result is truly refreshing and may just change the way you view beer in general.

“It’s quite tart and very dry,” Thompson said. “The peach character really comes through in the aroma. The fermentable sugars in the fruit fermented out at this point, but you do get a nice, subtle peach aroma in the nose.”

Similarly, anybody who hangs around at Firestone Walker’s Barrelworks facility in Buellton has already been converted to the joys of sour beer. But if you haven’t, Jim Crooks and Jeffers Richardson have a treat for you.

Crooks and Richardson run Firestone’s barrel-aging and wild beer program in Buellton, and the two will celebrate the release of Barrelworks’ first bottled beer Saturday. It’s called Feral One, and it will only be sold at Barrelworks.

Feral One, like Obscura Peche, is aged in wine barrels along with Brett and lacto. But unlike Telegraph’s fruited Lambic-style ale, Feral One is brazen enough to go into the world without the help of a familiar fruit.

I was fortunate to get a sneak peak at the beer in late February, and was amazed at the aromas of grapefruit and the subtle finish of vanilla – all presented alongside a refreshingly tart beer.

The best part is that no flavor dominates another, as each component of the wildly complex beer plays together in harmony.

“Hey, you can make acid; acid is not a hard thing to make in this day and age…but you can’t make complexity without having some age and having some time in barrels,” Crooks said. “These beers, the Belgians were always about blending those flavors back into the products. It’s about knowing that something isn’t ready to go just because it’s scorchingly sour. Sour is only one component. What you’re looking for is the complexity from the barrel aging and the interaction synergy in the wood to react on the flavors.”

Feral One, which is a multifaceted name that hints at the wild nature of the Barrelworks itself as well as the fact that it is the facility’s first release, is a blend of several sour beers. The resulting cuvee is a true masterpiece in the style.

More information, both about the beers blended into Feral One and about Saturday’s release party, can be found at Firestone’s website or at SantaBarbaraBeer.Wordpress.Com.

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