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Sour beers have a long history — and a promising future

Pucker Up

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My tongue is raw. A flight of Westbrook's Goses will do that to you. Freehouse's Sourlina Peche will too. Two Blokes' Tart Vader? Yup. And maybe swilling that whole bottle of Revelry's Red 5 Standing By led to my current predicament. Sure, my tongue hurts a little bit. But there's something far more serious going on in my head: I'm addicted to sour beers.

I think it started five or so years ago, when I first began dipping my toes into the world of craft beer. The higher ABVs got me in the door (woo, college), the taste had me hooked. What I wouldn't give for a Flying Dog Raging Bitch on a sun-dappled patio ... but I digress. Craft beer became a favorite pasttime, but sour beers, specifically, crept slowly into my drinking life. It was New Belgium's Lips of Faith Tart Lychee that got me. Would you believe they carried this beauty at the local Buffalo Wild Wings? My server sister would sigh deeply, plop down next to me after her shift, and we would down the most interesting brew we'd ever encountered. "It's so ... good!" we would exclaim. One night, of course, I had too many Tart Lychees, and the sour taste in the back of my throat the next morning put me off for a few years. But I knew I'd be back.

What was next, Wicked Weed's Funkatorium? It was a fated trip to Asheville during what turned out to be a hurricane evacuation last October. The flight of four sours at Funkatorium was so good — but it wasn't enough. I needed more.

I came home to Charleston after that Asheville trip and realized that local breweries were cranking out (or at least hosting on tap) the good stuff — those sours aged in wine and bourbon barrels, that perfect, wild storm of palate destroyers that also got you buzzed. I returned to the first sour I'd had in Charleston, Westbrook's Gose. In this wide, wide world of sours, I had a newfound respect for the salty beer. And if I was gonna love sours, beers that, to some, appear to be a passing fad, you better believe I was gonna learn more about them.

A history of horse blankets

"Before the advent of refrigeration and advances in the science of fermentation in the mid-nineteenth century, almost all beer was, to varying degrees, sour," writes Christian DeBenedetti in a 2013 The New Yorker story, "A Brief History of Sour Beer." "The culprits were pre-modern sanitation and poorly understood, often naturally occurring bacteria including Lactobacillus and Pediococcus, as well as Brettanomyces yeasts, which can contribute a hint of tartness and characteristic 'funky' flavors and aromas, sometimes compared to leather, smoke, and 'horse blanket.'"

Sour beers, to the best of most beer nerds' knowledge, hail from Belgian monasteries, where brewers would let troughs of wort (liquid beer before it's fermented) ferment in the open air. Bacteria, spider webs, dust, and hearty Belgian breezes? Come one, come all.

There are a few Belgian breweries, like Brussels's Cantillon, that sour lovers hold in the highest regard. DeBenedetti writes, "The Cantillon brewery, founded in 1900, in Brussels's Anderlecht neighborhood, still brews the most uncompromising examples — specializing in lambic, spontaneously fermented sour ale, and gueuze, made of blended, aged lambics." But perhaps the most incredible thing about sour beers is not their history, but their future; in 2015 the Independent wrote that climate change was "ruining traditional brewing methods" at Cantillon. An alarmist headline? Undoubtedly. But the warmer winters the brewery is experiencing can in fact affect their brewing, with beers unable to cool at the desired temperatures. It's too soon to say what a changing climate could mean for Cantillon — and all sour beer — lovers. But I think it's pretty clear that we need to consume as many as we can before disaster strikes. Right?

Louis Pasteur is a buzzkill

The Tart Vader at Two Blokes is a bright, refreshing sour wheat - JONATHAN BONCEK
  • Jonathan Boncek
  • The Tart Vader at Two Blokes is a bright, refreshing sour wheat

The reason sours had to make a comeback in the first place is because in the mid-19th century nerd boss Louis Pasteur revealed how, well, dirty, the process of brewing sour beers was. In HuffPo's "Once, All Beer Was Made This Way: The Rebirth of Sour Beers," Kurt Michael Friese writes, "Once Pasteur pulled back the curtain on what was really going on, biochemistry invaded the artisan-controlled world of brewing, with both up- and downsides ... they could mass-produce an identical beer anywhere and in any season."

In America, of course, there was also the whole Prohibition travesty, which limited production of alcohol of any kind. Once Repeal kicked in only a few breweries were still around from pre-Prohibition era, and these were producing "near-beers," malt beverages with no alcohol. Friese writes, "the nation was awash in adjunct light lager, which was cheap and easy to produce."

In 1979 President Jimmy Carter lifted regulations that had inhibited the growth of small breweries. So while craft beer may smack of bearded millenials brewing beer in their garage, the growth of craft breweries started in the early 1980s. Thanks, Jimmy.

Brews beer is it anyway?

Will Chesak of Charleston's Rafa Distributing points out that American craft brewers look to Europe for brewing inspiration. "Many of these beers have only recently, in the last decade, been available in the U.S. and many are still relatively scarce. These styles in Europe were also on the brink of extinction in the later half of the 20th century as industrial lager continued to make producers of these type of beers leave the market for financial reasons. Luckily, some continued their craft and kept these alive," says Chesak.

Some of the first breweries to produce sour beers in America were Allagash, Jolly Pumpkin, New Belgium (all of which you can purchase in Charleston), and California's Russian River and Lost Abbey. One of the more heartening sours-are-great stories comes from Anderson Valley, whose gose put the brewery on the craft beer map. Way back in 2013 Anderson Valley released their The Kimmie, The Yink & the Holy Gose, a 4.2 percent version of the German beer style — goses require, among other ingredients, salt and coriander — and the beer took off, leading to more goses.

Incidentally, Charleston helped lead the charge as well. In 2015 Draft Mag's Kate Bernot wrote, "Anderson Valley's gose quickly caught on and became a large focus of the brewery's Highway 128 Session Series... Those cans — along with another popular version from South Carolina's Westbrook Brewing — are the most visible example of the rise of this once-obscure style."

The science of sours

D9 Brewery Systema Naturae - JONATHAN BONCEK
  • Jonathan Boncek
  • D9 Brewery Systema Naturae

Chesak says that, when describing our favorite palate-punching brews, the word "sour" is a bit of a misnomer. "When we are talking about 'sour' beers we are really talking about beers with differing levels of acidity (one person's sour might be another person's tart), usually dependent on the yeast/bacteria used in their production as well as other factors like malt bill, aging, etc, will determine how acidic the beer is," Chesak says.

So why do we like sours? "Humans are meant to regard sour as poisonous and therefore to avoid," says Chesak. Despite this, people like me still flock to the latest sour beer release or tap takeover. "It's a style that continues to pick up new drinkers every day as drinkers' palates develop and become accustomed to the sometimes intense and unusual flavors and aromas," says Chesak.

As for the brewing of sours, well, that's something I could write a book about, if I were in the business of writing books. Rather, I'll give you an idea of how delicate the process of brewing sours can be, at least in relation to a brewery's other non-sour beers.

Asheville's Sierra Nevada facility has been brewing their gose, Otra Vez, for a couple years now — but you wouldn't know it if you were touring the brewery. Sierra Nevada's product development manager Bill Manley says, "The lactic cultures in a beer that isn't supposed to feature them is considered a flaw, so we do our best not to have tour groups or materials in-and-out of the lactic cellar on the off chance that the culture may be tracked around to other locations in the brewery." And while Manley assures us that this is more of a "best practice" than a real concern, we appreciate the attention to detail. Locally, Revelry, Westbrook, and Edmund's Oast all have dedicated barrel rooms for sour brewing. Elsewhere in the state, Anderson's Carolina Bauernhaus and Greenville's Birds Fly South both specialize in sour brewing, too.

Sours in South Carolina

JONATHAN BONCEK
  • Jonathan Boncek

I tried as many sours as I could pour in my mouth for this feature, but happily, I still haven't tried them all. While my search for the best sour this side of the Mason-Dixon continues, here's a quick look at a sour for every palate, either available at a local brewery, or distributed to local beer stores:

Gateway sours

Westbrook's Key Lime gose. A variation on the brewery's original gose, the Key Lime adds a hint of sweetness to lessen the blow. The Carolina Bauernhaus' Poquito Mojito is as refreshing as an actual mojito — featuring lime and mint flavors, of course — without all that uncessary sweetness. Dogfish's SeaQuench Ale, made with lime peel, black limes, and sea salt, feels like something I would drink by the sea — although, fair warning, my friends tell me this beer was more sour than they expected.

Sour sours

Anything from Wicked Weed. Say what you want about this sellout brewery, their sours are consistently ranked as some of the best on Beer Advocate and Untappd. My personal fave is the Oblivion Sour Red. Freehouse's Sourlina Pecha is delicious and tart — I'll even drink it straight out of the bottle, I know, I know, pour form.

Classic sours

I love the solid sourness in Rodenbach's Grand Cru, and at 6 percent ABV, this bad boy can serve as more than just a session sipper. Duchesse De Bourgogne, brewed by Belgium's Brouwerij Verhaeghe, is a classic Flemish red ale that also stands the test of time — and mouth appeal.

The best sour I tried? Woof. I love 'em all. But if you really want a steal, head to Bottles and grab a bottle of D9 Brewery's Systema Naturae. Brewed with cherimoya and elderflower it packs a subtle punch — and at $3.49 a bottle, it's wallet-friendly. You can thank me later.

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