Sour Beer Styles for the Budding Sour Brewer
I remember when I first started brewing and meadmaking, the second batch I ever made was actually a mixed fermentation mead using Lactobacillus and wild yeast I'd captured off malted barley. My co-worker at the time had given me a set of instructions on how to capture Lactobacillus that nearly made my eyes pop out of my head.
I had absolutely no knowledge yet on anything mixed, wild, or spontaneous fermentation related. Armed with handwritten instructions that were quite foreign to me, I set out to capture yeast and bacteria with a mason jar, some wort, and some barley. With all credit going to my old co-worker, it worked! The end result was a mead with quite a curious funk. Years later, I still have a bottle sitting on my bar as homage to my first experiment in mixed fermentation.
I imagine many brewers out there considering sour fermentations for the first time might feel like I did that first batch. While the process may still resemble standard brewing methods, mixed and wild fermentation often follow a different set of rules than we usually deal with using Saccharomyces, our typical brewers yeast.
Anyone new to brewing sours may have good knowledge of very popular sour styles in commercial brewing; such as American wild ales, or Belgian-style mixed/spontaneous fermentations. Commercial breweries have also produced interesting new beers, like hopped sours, kettle sours, or whatever wonderful, wild things the brewer can dream up. Not that the budding sour brewer can't replicate these off the bat, but there can be a certain steeper learning curve to working with mixed or wild cultures.
This article serves the purpose of trying to alleviate some of that overwhelming information intake, by offering you some sour beer styles that are slightly more "gentle" to the new sour brewer. From there, your new knowledge base from hands on learning will hopefully prepare you for any sour brewing path you set your sights on.
Berliner Weisse - A wonderful sour ale style; although it nearly met its demise in the 20th century. Described by Napoleon's troops as "The Champagne of the North"; the style dates back as early as the 15th century. Typically pale in color, with a wheat and pilsner base, and brewed to a low alcohol percentage. Hops are not present in any force, as hop acids often harm the Lactobacillus bacteria necessary to sour this style. Characteristically tart, moderately acidic, and sometimes fruity. The lactic acidity necessary to the style comes from Lactobacillus; although the gentle use of Brettanomyces for a very mild funk is not unheard of. Often drank with a Woodruff or Raspberry syrup added. The Berliner Weisse style thankfully made a resurgence into the American Craft brewing world, and many renown breweries produce an excellent take on this centuries old style.
This beer is easier to brew, as the well-modified malts of today eliminated much of the need to perform complex mash steps; and can easily be replicated with malt extracts as well. Many Berliner Weisse brewers use a kettle souring process to quickly and efficiently sour the wort without needing dedicated souring equipment. I myself have used kettle souring for my Berliner Weisse, and found the process quite easy and simple. However, the Berliner Weisse style can also be made using traditional souring methods in the primary fermentation, leaving many great souring options to the brewer.
Gose - A German sour, with some unique characteristics; even for a sour ale. Hallmark traits of this historic ale include a refreshing, tart, and slightly salty profile. The Gose style originated centuries ago, and was spontaneously fermented. Gose was historically brewed with 100% wheat, but has since changed to a mixture of ~30% pilsner and ~70% wheat. This style does not require hop additions, unlike most beers we've likely brewed before. Unless legally required (in some commercial breweries) hop additions are discouraged to allow Lactobacillus to prosper. If you are required to, or simply want to add hops, very low-acid hops are preferred at a very low IBU count. Additions of crushed coriander, although not historically included, have become a staple of this style.
The simplistic malt bill for this style makes for a great first-time sour brew; especially considering the ease of malt conversions to extracts for the extract brewer. This style is also quite cheap to brew, due to the light malt bill and omission of hops. The souring process, much like that of the Berliner Weisse, allows for either kettle souring or traditional souring methods; making this a great candidate for the budding sour brewer. Another interesting option for this beer is to boil or not. No hop isomerization necessary means no true requirement for boiling. One downside for skipping the boil is lack of volatilization of undesired compounds; like DMS (dimethyl sulfide, responsible for the cooked vegetable off-flavor). Lactobacillus and either a German or Kolsch ale yeast work well for kettle souring, or a Sacchromyces/Lactobacillus blend for traditional souring. Feel free to experiment with the type of Lactobacillus and yeast you use!
Lichtenhainer - An interesting and far more rare sour style, you'd be hard pressed to find this beer in a commercial brewery. Originating in Germany, this style hit its height of popularity in the 1800's. High to moderate in acidity, and with a very unique twist for sours; it features a strong smokey aroma, fruity esters, and bready malts. Josh Weikert, who wrote an article on the Lichtenhainer for Craft Beer & Brewing, describes the style as "the platypus of beers".
Lichtenhainers feature smoked barley, wheat, Lactobacillus, and ale yeast. Kettle souring is an option for this style, as well as traditional souring. Funk is not a characteristic of this style, eliminating the desire for a Brett influence. Much like the Gose and Berliner Weisse, this style is low in alcohol and hop influence. A shortened boil is also allowed in this style, as well as younger, more "crude" flavors. Not to say that off-flavors are welcome in this style, but there is a bit more leeway towards them. Not everyone will enjoy this style, as the smokey and lactic sour combination may send some new-to-sour friends scattering. But for your friends who do enjoy the style, you'll have captured their curiosity.
Münstersch Alt - I must admit, this was a style unknown to me until a good friend of mine was reading over this article, and mentioned this style. The style originated out of Pinkus Müller, a small brewery located in Westphalia, Germany. The style itself is a bit enigmatic; it's considered a very close relative to the Düsseldorf Alt style. It however has one large exception: it blends together a fresh, pale altbier with a bit of aged Lactobacillus-infected beer. The commercial example of this unique derivative of the Düsseldorf Alt belongs to Pinkus Müller, who produces the Münster Alt. The flavor is described as lightly malty, herbaceous, fruity, and refreshingly acidic.
The malt bill of this style consist of 40% wheat, with the remaining 60% being an equal(-ish) mix of pilsner and munich malts, with a slight touch of crystal malts if needed for color. Do note, this beer is a good bit lighter in color than the standard altbier. Thus, a lighter golden color is desired; as opposed to the light amber to bronze colors of the standard alt. Hop characteristics are herbal, and are light to moderate in strength. Since the lactic sour/tartness is a complimentary flavor to this style versus a primary characteristic, a shorter kettle souring duration is advised. Another souring method you could use is separating a small portion of the beer out to add Lactobacillus cultures. From there, using a standard ale yeast to attenuate the beer as normal, and blending the two back together to preference would be an effective way to brew this style.
American Wild Ale - A broad category, can refer to a Brettanomyces, mixed, or wild fermentation. The neat aspect of this category is that any sour fermented interpretation of a base ale falls under it. Meaning a sour blonde, hopped ale, dark ale, and more can be considered an American Wild Ale. Many brewers pull inspiration from traditional Belgian sours, and add their own spins to them. These beers can be oak aged, fruited, spiced, and herbed.
You can create an American Wild Ale using any souring techniques comfortable to you. Whether you like kettle souring, sour mashing, using pure or mixed souring cultures, or spontaneously fermenting, you lead the way. The one downside to this stylistic freedom is looser guidelines for those newer to sour brewing. This usually equates to a bit more required knowledge of various sour culture behaviors, interactions, and limitations (such as interactions between hops and Lactobacillus, or pH limitations). There is no shortage of American Wild Ale recipes on the internet or in literature, so finding a starting point should be of no particular challenge (besides having to choose just one to brew).
A vast number of resources exist to guide those unsure about certain cultures or souring techniques; such as the Milk the Funk wiki and Facebook page, The Sour Hour podcast, Dr. Lambic's Sour Beer Blog, WildBrews by Jeff Sparrows, the r/homebrewing Subreddit, The Mad Fermentationist, and too many more to list.
I've linked a series of related articles from a variety of resources to terms here that may be new to some. The resources I listed above have been a fantastic help to my education on sour beer brewing, I have no doubt they'll assist you on your sour brewing path.
There are also many more styles of sour beers besides the ones I've listed here. In fact, I've practically omitted all Belgian sour styles due to their complexities and traditional brewing practices. Belgian-style sours often have a well-defined style and set of practices, such as Lambics and the Flanders styles, that require compliance to be labeled as such styles. Additionally, some of these styles benefit from blending; a practice so intricate, some Belgian families have made businesses of blending lambics alone. The world of sours is a wonderfully complex place, with no limit on unique creations.
Thanks to Kellen Owens, my friend and a brewer at Red Bus Brewing Company in Folsom, CA. Without his knowledge of the Münstersch Alt, the style would have surely sailed right past me. A point he brought up in discussion was that sour beer brewing can be one of the most forgiving brewing styles, I'd have to agree with him. For example, Brettanomyces as a fermenting culture are very hardy, and difficult to kill on accident. This hardy characteristic can be a double-edged sword for eradication; but useful when desired. Additionally, there is no one way of souring a beer. A large number of different souring methods are applicable to many sour styles, meaning you can accomplish a desired end result effectively in many different ways.
All in all, I hope this article has left you armed with an idea or direction on where to start. There is a trove of great information out there on sour beer brewing, where you'll always fine an answer to your questions. If you enjoyed this article, have a question, or feedback, don't hesitate to leave a comment below!
Talk to you soon,