By: Joe Gunn
Sour beers. Ugh. I used to love them so much. What I used to call “sour beers” were why I fell in love with beer. Belgian ales in general were the first to make an impression on me, mostly Trappist kinda of stuff. I drank my share of garbage before discovering craft beer, which admittedly, took me longer to figure out than it should have. See, I was more into wine at the time. It seemed more artistic to me. It was delicate and made eating food a thousand times better. I thought it had a level of artistry that beer not only couldn’t achieve, but had no desire to do so. Beer was for football, BBQs, and the shower. Too rough to be taken seriously.
My opinion changed when I got a job at a small Belgian Beer Emporium on 15thSt. in Philadelphia called Monk’s Café. I believe it’s still there today. Strong Belgian ales became the most exciting thing I came across in years, but they just let me know that there were better options out there. Nothing was life-changing until I had my first lambic.
Cantillon Gueze. It was the most amazing thing I had ever had. It’s been 15 years and it’s still my favorite. There is nothing like it on Earth. I was instantly hooked on the style and from that moment on, I considered myself a beer guy, at least to the point to where I found it interesting for the first time. I knew nothing about it, but it opened my eyes. It wasn’t just the ridiculously-complex, beautiful taste, but the feeling that there was something special behind it. Not sure if it was effort, tradition, or soul, but it certainly deserved a better fate than beer pong.
Like everything else I want all of the time, I could barely get any of it. It drives me nuts. To get any substantial amount of it, I had to fly across an ocean, ride a tiny Uber through streets that were barely big enough for it, and convince a guy at the door at Cantillon I was French. We bought everything we could and smuggled it back in my luggage in the sleeves of cashmere sweaters. To see where it was made was actually worth the trip in itself. It’s a small, mostly wooden building, with a pungent smell you couldn’t forget if you wanted to. A wood-burning stove heats the place. Cobwebs are left intact to capture airborne yeast, and a cat is employed to chase away gnomes or something. It seemed like it took a thousand generations of the van Roy family to perfect the science of it all.
This brings me to my new nemesis, the hot new trend of kettle souring. It’s been around commercially for five years or so, but has become a plague over the last couple. Very simply put, kettle souring is a process of making a sour beer by separately souring a batch of wort, and using it as a flavoring, as opposed to allowing natural yeast to feed on the beer’s sugar. The benefits are huge. What could take a year or two can now be done over a weekend with no one in the building. Obviously, the financial implications of that much saved time are immense. Another clear advantage for the brewer is it eliminates the risk of wild yeast contaminating the whole brewery. I get it, that’s a real pain in the ass, but that’s what makes it so funny. I’ll pay anything for funny.
While these perks are gigantic, the drawbacks are more glaring. Wild souring produces layers of unpredictable complexity, while kettle souring produces a single sour note and is used as more of a additive than a cohesive ingredient. Beer drinkers have fallen in love with this style because traditional sours are too expensive and too hard to come by. It’s why heroin got so popular in the craft narcotic scene.
Don’t get me wrong, I think it has a place in brewing. Styles like Berliner Weisse and gose thrive on a lone sharp sour note, so traditionally, they make some sense. Seeing how many of these are available nowadays should tell you something’s up though. About 20 years ago, you could find Nodding Head’s Ich Bin Ein Berliner and Leipziger Gose in Philadelphia. That was pretty much it. Presently, the term Berliner Weiss is thrown around pretty loosely to the point where I’m not sure what it is anymore, and some breweries now offer like 32 different goses in flavors I thought were reserved for water ice. Most other modern sours lack creativity and seem to have a very similar, stringent, syrupy aftertaste. Kettle souring has become the new way to hide a shitty beer, it’s like the new bourbon barrel aging. It’s even priced similarly, though it doesn’t take the time or expense. Even the brewers know it isn’t that special of a technique. The ones who I’ve talked to, who defended using it, tend to agree, it’s not very clever.
I’m not trying to be Old Man Cranky Pants about it, but I just think we should be careful about what we celebrate in craft beer. To me, the art of brewing is the heart of the whole operation. I think experimentation should be encouraged, but if someone’s experiment works, we don’t need a million takes on it. Just because people like something, it doesn’t mean it’s good. I think being overly supportive of styles based on shortcuts and tricks can be counterproductive. Overall, I think we’re on the right track. We don’t even get to this kind of conversation unless there’s a ton of us that care so much, so I applaud the passion of the movement. Let’s just keep our priorities in line.
What do you think of kettle souring? Share your opinion in the comment section below or on Philly Loves Beer’s social media (links below).