Pucker Power: Calgary breweries make sours a tasty staple

In the arms race that is craft beer, the ammunition changes, but the goal is frequently the same. Which craft beer drinker can tolerate and wax poetic about the hoppiest IPA? Who has sought out the biggest barleywine? Who can gulp down the most eye-watering sour beer without the hint of a grimace?

Sour beers have entered the competition becoming very trendy in the past few years. They are, without a doubt, also one of the most contentious beer styles. The familiar “I don’t like hoppy beers” refrain in now more likely to be, “I don’t like sour beers!” Nonetheless, they have their fans and they are legion.

Sour beers are derived from ancient Belgian brewing practices that would typically involve open fermentation as in, a large trough, open to the air, little to protect or shelter the beer from the elements. This fermentation method allowed the introduction of “wild” yeast that was in the air and bacteria due to less than ideal sanitary conditions. The barrel-finished beers were able to take on unique flavours native to certain areas or brewers in much the same way that terroir influences a wine. If you have tried a Gueze, Lambic, or Berliner Weisse, then you have tasted a traditional sour beer. In the “new” world, the beers are normally “American Wild” Ales or, simply, sours. Modern breweries have the ability to control and direct the effects of the yeast and to introduce bacteria in a controlled manner. Yeast is available that mimics the “funkiness” of truly wild yeast, and bacteria can be added in a way that allows the brewer to choose the type, the character and the amount.

The Dandy Brewing Company has a reputation as a go-to taproom for a variety of sours. “Since we started so small, we were able to experiment with so many styles,” says Derek Waghray, director of quality and operations at Dandy.  “It’s kind of funny that we ended up being most well-known for our sours and that is what we focus on. We are doing well with them. Right now, our menu is 70 or 80 per cent sours.”

Many of Dandy’s sours incorporate fruit into the beer. Pineapple has added to sours frequently and blends seamlessly with the tartness in the base beer.

Nearly every local brewery is producing sour beers as staples or a special releases. The style has many degrees of tartness and “funk.” For the uninitiated, Blindman Brewing of Lacombe brews their popular kettle sours, which are a gentle introduction to sours. On the other hand, The Monolith side of Blind Enthusiasm Brewing Company in Edmonton and The Establishment Brewing Company here have been blending and producing true barrel-aged, mixed fermentation beer similar to those available from the Belgian brewers such as Cantillon Brewery and Brewery 3 Fonteinen.

Cabin Brewing Company, locally, has released many kettle sours, which also incorporate fruit into the final product. As head brewer Jonas Hurtig notes, “we don’t vary the malt too much. Most of the sours we do have wheat malt. It adds a nice body. I like the flavour of wheat in a sour. If you are adding fruit, you want to keep minimal colour. We buy (fruit) puree that is specifically for brewing. We add it to the fermenter since there is a bunch of sugar in the fruit and you want it to ferment out otherwise you get exploding cans!”

“The purist would say they these aren’t sours. They are soured, but they aren’t mouth-puckering, burn-your-cheeks sour. I always like to brew well-flavoured, balanced, drinkable beers. I brew for my palate so that’s why it toes the line between sour and tart,” Hurtig explains further. “I like having one around all the time as something different (from Cabin’s hoppier beers). The beer drinking community in Calgary almost demands it. I don’t think we brewed our first sour until we were four to six months in, and it was because people just kept asking for it. It’s a good thing to have to balance out the rest of the beers. It’s almost like a palate cleanser.”

The market is there. As Waghray notes, “We didn’t want to touch (IPAs) too much since there was a lot of good quality IPAs. When we moved down here (to the Ramsay facility), we started brewing our lagers, which quickly overtook the other beers as the biggest sellers. But, now, it’s pretty equal between the lager, the sour, and the IPA. I find people either like them or hate them. I think there is a small degree of conversion. I find people usually know pretty quickly whether they like them or not.”

Any of the beers or styles mentioned in the article can be purchased locally (with some patience in some cases). Here are a few more recommendations to start with:

Cabin Brewing Company – Four Alive: With a nod to a favoured childhood drink (if you don’t know what I’m talking about, check the colour palette on the cans), this kettle sour blends passionfruit, guava, mango and pineapple in a slightly hazy beer base that looks fondly back on summer even though we appear to be in winter (boo!).

The Dandy Brewing Company – Baltus Van Tassel Cherry Sour: A step up from a kettle sour in the tart department, this beer does a beautiful job of blending cherries into the beer in a way that shouts, “Welcome to Fall” even though it seems like we’ve hit winter (boo!).

The Establishment Brewing Company – Ruby, My Dear: If you want to try something a bit more on the adventurous side, this limited release barrel-aged sour incorporating raspberries is delicious. Hopefully, there is still some left when you read this.

Jay Nelson is a beer geek, not snob, who has written for a small number of mostly forgotten publications, in a wildly erratic manner, since being named the editorial editor of his high school newspaper. He is a non-award winning homebrewer and a non-BJCP certified judge, although he aspires to both.