Saturday, July 2, 2011

Which American brewery produces the best sour beers?

Russian River, Captain Lawrence, and Raccoon LodgeRussian River - 43%
Jolly Pumpkin - 21%
Cascade - 8%
New Belgium - 4%
New Glarus - 4%
Lost Abbey - 3%
Allagash - 2%
Avery - 1%
Bruery - 1%
Ithaca - 1%
Captain Lawrence - 1%
Goose Island - .8%
Cambridge - .8%
Tröegs -  .6%
Other - 2%

423 Votes

I've got to say that the results to this poll were surprising.  I was expecting Russian River (my favorite) to win, but getting as many votes as numbers 2-5 combined?  Damn.  I think their sours not only tend to be the most consistent but also their best beat anyone else's.  What is their secret? In my opinion: control, time, and blending.  They go to great lengths to control the timing and amount of microbes each beer receives, killing most of the resident microbes in the barrels between each beer (150-160 F pressure wash).  After a clean primary fermentation they remove the yeast and pitch about 1,000,000 cells of Brett per ml (according to Vinnie the 100,000 cell noted in Yeast was incorrect) followed a few weeks/months later with their house lactic acid bacteria culture (amount varies).  They age their beers longer in barrels than many other American producers, using a temperature (62 F) and humidity controlled warehouse to minimize seasonal variation.  Tasting and dumping "off" barrels before blending using acid beer (Sonambic) and Brett positive beer (Sanctification) as needed to dial in exactly the balance they want for the particular beer.  Sadly a lot of these methods are difficult to implement at home, but they are clearly worth considering.

I was surprised to see Jolly Pumpkin and Cascade so high, and Lost Abbey so low on the list.  I'd guess distribution plays a big roll in JP's 2nd place, while some of their batches are remarkable, due to less control (they rely on wild microbes that have colonized their barrels) and time spent in the barrels they have more variation (not that this is necessarily a bad thing since they pleasantly surprise me sometimes).  Cascade certainly makes some really unique sour beers missing that lack a funk character (they only use a house culture of Lactobacillus) so I can see that their beers might really appeal in particular to Brett sensitive people.  Is Lost Abbey having a quality control/image problem?  I think their "on" batches have been right up there with some of the best American sours (they certainly get stellar ratings on RB/BA), but they have put out some clunkers (not to mention their carbonation and customer service issues).

The rest fell about where I expected, for the most part I suspect the issue is limited production/distribution.  I've heard that The Bruery, Captain Lawrence, and New Belgium are all stepping up sour beer production significantly in the next year or two, so hopefully American sour beers will become a more frequent sight at the local beer store.

Who did I miss for those with "Other" votes? Upland? Trinity? Iron Hill? Alpine? Freetail?


Anonymous said...

I'm really surprised Captain Lawrence didn't get higher. I mean 1%? That was very surprising to me, but I suppose you are correct - distribution is a big factor here.

Draconian Libations said...

I personally find Jolly Pumpkin beers to be some of the best I've ever had. Each new bottle surprises me because I never thought I'd love every beer a single brewery makes. RR is world class, but I find JP to be right there with them...

DragonOrta said...

I think the absence of votes for Lost Abbey might be based more on their non-sour beers than their sour beers. Infections, undercarbonation, and complete lack of customer service are enough to make most customers reach for something else.

Eric said...

I'm certainly another Russian River fanboy, whether it be sour, Belgian-style, or hoppy.

Lately though, the Bruery has been impressing me with their sour line up: Sour in the Rye, Marron Acidifie, the spectacular Oude Tart, and more recently, Tart of Darkness.

Draconian Libations said...

Dragonorta, Lost Abbey definitely could use a lesson or two in customer service. They could also be more helpful to homebrewers. I really enjoy their beer, but I will reach for a bottle of RR or JP based on Vinnie and Ron's accessability and genuine friendliness to us. Have you ever emailed either of them? Class act guys! Then try to contact Tomme Arthur but don't hold your breath...this affects my beer buying habits for certain.

HolzBrew said...

Jolly Pumpkin in second doesn't surprise me. Evrythng I've tried from them is top notch. But you are no doubt right that distribution greatly influences the voting. Do you have anyway of telling where geographically the poll votes came from? East coast versus west versus mid-west?

dg said...

Distribution certainly influenced my vote. I voted for Jolly Pumpkin because they and New Belgium are only ones listed from whom I can get a variety of sour beers. A couple of them I'd never even heard of.

The Mad Fermentationist (Mike) said...

I can't tell where the votes came from, but the distribution of hits on the website are pretty well distributed, last month California/Oregon/Washington were all in the top 8 states with California being double any other state.

100% agree on the generosity of Vinnie and Ron (not to mention Scott from Captain Lawrence and Ron from Cascade, but of whom have answered my queries in the past as well).

Ryan_PA said...

To be honest with myself and you, I would not vote for Tomme on any front, between his general attitude with Angel's Share debacle and his litigious approach to Moylan's.

That said, distribution will be a driving force, as well as general preference. I think the spectrum of sour notes in the Russian River line would appeal more broadly to folks. I do love me some JP and NB though. With NB expanding to the East Coast, I plan to become more familiar with them.

Clstal said...

I'm thrilled to see JP get some love - I've been a fan for a while, though I struggle with their bottled product's inconsistencies.

I would *love* to get my hands on some RR, but thus far haven't managed it - hoping their distribution extends to MI soon!

Also thrilled to see some sour beer writeups, articles, and media attention -- thanks!

Jorge - How To Brew Beer said...

I was just over at thinking about what would be a good sour beer to try out since I've never had one... looks like I'll give Russian River a try if I can find any around here...

Anonymous said...

Hmm. I love the RR beers (those on the sour side of the chalkboard) and definitely put them on top of the domestic heap. I have tried several of the other brewery's sour offering and have like many. I will however disagree with the ranking and remarks regarding JP. I had the pleasure of going to Ann Arbor last year and went to the JP pub with a fellow beer lover (and ex-pro brewer). We had a sampler with our wives of all perhaps ten beers on tap. While I LOVE sours, I could not settle on even one of the JP beers on tap that night to drink a full glass of and we bailed.

The Mad Fermentationist (Mike) said...

Jolly Pumpkin doesn't give their beers much time to age in the barrel (the Bam series only gets ~2 weeks). As a result they really benefit from bottling and additional aging. It is rare that I have a JP beer on tap that really wows me compared to the bottles (just had a sample of Weizen Bam on draft that was mediocre at best). If you haven’t had many in bottles give them a shot.

Anonymous said...

Having lived many years in Portland (Cascade) and a couple in the Bay Area (~Russian River), I now live within 100 miles of Jolly Pumpkin. As a consequence I have been lucky to have easy access to the top three on this list and it's my guess that Cascade is so low because most have never had the chance to try them.

sweetcell said...

i would have voted for Deschutes, based on their Dissident ( best sour i've ever tasted.