Sour beer ain't no Bud Light.
With new breweries and bottle shops popping up what feels like daily in Bend, brewers are stretching our palates and our perceptions of what beer is by innovating recipes and reinventing old brewing techniques.
Sour beer is one such revival. Originally popularized in Europe, sours differ from other brews in production and taste. Tart and funky, these beers can cause an existential crisis—is this even really a beer?
"Most beers you drink, you're tasting bitter and sweet, you have the combination of the two. What sour does is bring the sides of your tongue into the equation," said Jimmy Seifrit, head brewer at 10 Barrel Brewing Company. "It can get people excited about beer that are burned out on hoppy or malty beers."
Traditional brewing takes place in a sterile environment to prevent the intrusion of wild yeast, while sour brews rely on exotic yeast strains and specific bacteria, most commonly Lactobacillus, Brettanomyces, and Pediococcus, to develop their signature pucker.
Here's the dumbed down explanation of a complex and technical process. Wild yeast strains breakdown sugars, similar to the normal brewing process, but produce a byproduct of lactic and acetic acids, which give sours their tart taste.
Beyond the alternative taste and extended ageing times (it can take well over a year to brew a sour right), the science of sours can also be risky. Contamination of the original yeast strain can be a major concern for larger breweries with a signature taste.
"It could take over our yeast and all the sudden you're drinking a 10 Barrel beer that has sour notes. It's a nightmare," said Seifrit who brewed 10 Barrel's Raspberry Crush. "Our souring program is held in a large room that only a few people have access to. We don't want any contamination."
Larry Sidor, former head brewer at Deschutes Brewery and current brewmaster for Crux Fermentation Project, explained that he faced resistance when working on the Deschutes Dissident, the original Central Oregon sour first released in 2008.
"The reason most brewery owners don't want to do it is because it takes time, they're in the Bud Light thinking," said Sidor.
With more creative freedom at Crux, Sidor is currently working with four different souring processes including a 300-year-old culture from Germany. With barrels aging already, Crux hopes to release their first sour in June or July.
The sour brewing phenomenon continues to gain traction as several other breweries plan to get some sour action this year, too. Enthusiasts can pick up lots of options at bottle shops around town, which now carry a wide selection of sours.
For our money, sour beers are becoming the new IPA, soon every brewery will have their own. The Source staff, wondering what all the fuss was about, got into the sour patch and tried some regional favorites and imports. Here are our responses.
Duchesse De Bourgogne
Brouwerij Verhaeghe, Vichte, West Flanders, Belgium
6 % ABV
Bri: So this is like, the best beer ever. Belgium got it right with this Flanders Red Ale. Tart and vinegary, with a great rich color and smells slightly of permanent markers, it's got that kind of funk. I want to drink Duchesse all day, and at a reasonable 6%, that would be totally feasible.
James: Holy Eddy Merckx this is one great Belgian. Tart, well balanced—I would drink this all night long if it didn't cost $10. One of the world's best beers.
Jake: It smelled oaky with hints of vanilla and cherry. Hefty vinegar overtone with slight spiciness. Yeah. It was good.
Elysian Mortis Sour Persimmon Ale
Elysian Brewing Company, Portland
Bri: For calling itself a sour, I expected much more sour. The beer has a tart and sweet flavor, but it's not quite enough, and finishes flat. Where is the citrus from the persimmon? While this is one of Elysian's 12 beers of the apocalypse, don't expect us to be drinking this one come judgment day.
James: Once you get over that fact that it's not really a sour, it's an okay enough beer, though it's kinda metallic tasting.
Jake: Actually quite flat with no tartness, and it didn't perk up at all throughout the entire gulp. The combination of ingredients was quite funky and had a very dry and bitter aftertaste.
Bend Brewing Company, Bend
Bri: Great color! Pinkish like a rosé making the drinker look instantaneously high-class. While the beer smells fairly yeasty, it delivered a sour punch that made me pucker more than any of the others that I tried. My favorite.
James: Looks like a rose' tastes like an effervescent sour. Win! Very nice, though not sure about the label art...
Jake: The sweet and sour taste blasts off like a rocket on your palate. The injection of pomegranates and hibiscus gave it a fruity kick. What sours are all about.
SOURS IN CENTRAL OREGON
Bend Brewing Company: Ching Ching
The Ale Apothecary: Sahalien
Deschutes Brewery: Dissident
10 Barrel: Raspberry Crush on tap, and around 50 barrels of another sour, which will age for 18 months, according to Seifrit.
Crux: In the process of ageing it's first sour, which is yet to be named