Friday, April 12, 2024

Did I Wreck Sour Beer in America?

My book, American Sour Beers, is turning ten next month! I wrote it from the perspective (and experience) of a homebrewer. I wanted to experiment and learn. I really didn't know much about brewing commercially, creating consistent blends, adapting recipes as a barrel program matured, developing flavors that would sell etc. Looking back I have to ask, did my book help launch 1,000 barrel programs, without providing the knowledge brewers actually needed to succeed?

Over the last decade American craft brewing had an explosion of breweries ramping up barrel-aged sour production, followed by a pretty rapid decline (including multiple mid-sized breweries closing their programs and sour-focused breweries closing). Part of that is the inherently less-predictable nature of mixed-fermentation (when you order a cherry sour beer, what are you expecting? Kriek, cherry juice, cherry vinegar etc.). Compare that to a bourbon-barrel vanilla-bean stout where you have a pretty good idea of what the intent was. I suspect at least part of it was the oversaturation of the market combined with the high prices.

Despite brewing my first sour beer in 2006, becoming a brewery consultant in 2011, writing a book in 2014, and opening a brewery in 2018... I haven't been consistently happy with the barrel-aged mixed-fermentations I made until the last couple years. I certainly never released a beer that I thought was bad, but there were certainly had batches that were too sour, muddled, under/over carbonated, or just didn't "pop." During that time we've also released some amazing beers that I still love!

At Sapwood Cellars we've relied on our local club members, and the people who walk in the door to buy ~10,000 bottles of barrel-aged sour beer a year. That may sound like a lot, but it's less than 5% of our production (and we're a pretty small brewery). There really hasn't been much interest in barrel-aged sour bottles in our limited distribution range. They tend to be beers that sell best when you can explain them directly to the drinker, rather than just have them sitting on a shelf! If only there was a way I could talk directly to beer drinkers interested in sour beer...

Rather than bury the lead more than I already have, Sapwood Cellars barrel-aged mixed-fermentation sours are now available for shipping within much of America through a Membership Club administered by Tavour! Shipping is available to: WA, CA, OR, NM, NV, CO, MN, NY, DC, CT, NE, MA, FL, PA, NH, NJ, ID, TX, KS, IN, WI, MO, IA, IL, MI, ND, VA, RI, NC, SC, and MD.

The first installment of the club is $146 (including shipping) for one 500 mL bottle each of six beers: 

Growth Rings 2023: Three-year-blend of barrel-aged Sours, essentially our cuvee of bases, barrels, and microbes showing off our house character. This one isn't refermented with wine yeast, so the dregs would be a good option if you are looking for microbes! It was the second highest-rated "Gueuze" on Untappd in 2023!

Barrels of Rings: Our pale ale base, mixed-fermented in wine barrels and then dry hopped right before bottling. Citrusy-funky with restrained acidity.

Jammiest Bit: Our homage to Hommage, a barrel-aged sour on loads of sour pie cherries and red raspberries. Fruity, funky, tart etc.

Botanicia: A blend of pale sours aged in gin barrels that we then infused with dried limes and quinine. A weird play on a gin-and-tonic... but with a lot more acidity and funk!

Elliptical Orbit 2023: A continuation of the "Dark Funky Saison" series still with my original collaborator and homebrew buddy Alex. For this one he roasted Geisha coffee beans and we infused the barrel-aged dark sour with Geisha cascara (dried coffee cherries). 

Fruit of Many Uses: We sequentially racked the same barrel-aged tart/funky base onto second-use Chardonnay wine grapes, cherries, raspberries, and white nectarines. All of the fruit was whole/local.

Over the next couple weeks I'll be posting my detailed tasting notes on each of the beers, along with recipes, lessons learned, and suggestions for brewing something similar at home! I'll repeat for each club release, assuming enough people sign-up for the club to make it viable. 

Over the last five years it isn't "one simple trick" we learned that improved our beer. It's the accumulation of 100 little things from ingredient selection, to blending, to process refinement, to equipment that we've figured out. It's sitting down with each beer, drinking, thinking, taking detailed notes, and iterating. So much of it is not doing it by myself, having Scott, Ken, and Spencer to push to do things I wouldn't have (Botanica was Ken's baby, and Barrels of Rings was Scott's). Both are delicious, and they are certainly beers I would not have brewed if it was all up to me!


Anonymous said...

I think the reason that US sours are not more broadly popular is that acetic acid is far too prevalent in them. Many producers seem not to realize that acetic is in direct opposition to repeat drinkability. Lactic acid is less pungent and more pleasant, and therefore more drinkable. If you want to sell more sour beer, do everything you can to minimize acetic acid. It should be a very minor contributor to the overall flavor, if at all. As a famous sour brewer once said in front of a large audience at CBC, "If you have acetic acid in your sour, you're doing it wrong."

Anonymous said...

Was it Rodenbach's head brewer?

Anonymous said...

This has to be a joke. $150 for 6 beers. What?

The Mad Fermentationist (Mike) said...

Shipping beer is expensive. Sadly we can't direct ship, so the beer is freighted to Washington where Tavour legally takes possession and sends it to other states. In house the six bottles would be $109 (including tax). So you're spending $37 to save a trip to Maryland... And we're losing $34 to Tavour. Thems the breaks.