Prior to 1883, nearly all beers were sour. It was then that a Danish mycologist and fermentation physiologist figured out how to isolate single yeast cells, which opened the door to pilsners and IPAs. So popular were these new beers that they drove sour ales to the verge of extinction. As recently as 2010, sour beers of all sorts could only muster up 15 entries at the Great American Beer Festival. One hundred and forty years after sour ales became yesterday’s news, we feel obliged to help their resurgence.
A little bit of this and a little bit of that. And when we say little, we really do mean little.
If you think that sour beers are a relatively new phenomenon, then think again. Sour beers actually date back to 7000 BC – the earliest archaeological evidence of beer fermentation – which is 5,000 years before Khufu built the Great Pyramid of Giza.
In fact, sour beers were the norm until 1883. It was then that Emil Christian Hansen, a Danish mycologist and fermentation physiologist, described the first techniques for successfully isolating single yeast cells. This was a landmark event, because until then, all yeasts were a mixture containing various forms of brewing yeast, wild yeast, bacteria, and molds; it was wild yeast that turned beer sour with age.
The invention of single-strain yeast ushered in a new era in beer making, as it not only gave beers consistency that was impossible to achieve when wild yeast was part of the mix, but also prevented them from turning sour with age. Today, single-strain yeasts are used to produce many of our favorite craft beers, including ales, lagers, and pilsners. The popularity of these styles grew so fast over the last century that it put sour beers on the verge of extinction. As recently as 2010, sour beers of all sorts could only muster up 15 entries at the Great American Beer Festival.
The yeast used to make most of today’s sour beers goes by the name Brettanomyces – what we affectionately call “Brett” – and it’s a cousin of the domesticated yeasts that humans have brewed with for thousands of years. It’s often called wild yeast, not only because its natural habitat is fruit skins, but also because of its volatile temperament and unpredictable fermentations. While our sours are brewed with a Lactobacillus blend, we nonetheless prize Brett for its hints of tropical fruit, spiciness, earthiness, and funkiness, and we are happy to carve out our own chapter in sour beer’s comeback story.
Anything spicy, such as fajitas or chili, complements the tart flavor of sour ales, as do the richness of a fatty cut of beef, such as a ribeye. Because cured meats and sausage tend to be extremely salty, they make the perfect partner for a refreshing sour ale. Try pairing slightly fruity sour ales with assertive cheeses, such as goat, sharp cheddar, or Gorgonzola.