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Summer, Summer, Summertime
Issue 17: Time to sit back and unwind.
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Every year, as we head in to warmer months, I am reminded how much I love to be outside doing literally anything, but also how much I hate being hot. It’s a weird space to be in considering New York in the summer can get quite sticky and we all plan to embark on a Hot Vaxx Summer in some capacity. Well, I don’t know if you are. But you can catch me eating and drinking outside, doing all the activities, and doing whatever else a Hot Vaxx Summer entails. Invite me to your parties, I will come and it will be fun.
Despite my displeasure for the heat, one of my favorite things to do in the summer is sit out side with a cool beer in hand — especially a sour. My love of these beers led me to talk to some of my favorite brands about the wide world of sours, so we’re doing something different this week. We’ve got some long-form writing about beer!
If you’ve browsed the selection at your bottle shop recently, you may have noticed a dizzying array of sour beers, a relative newcomer in the canon of beer styles. Sour-style beers have been around for centuries, but once considered niche, they’re growing in popularity and becoming a staple of brewery lineups. Refreshing, decidedly tart, and sometimes funky, sours bridge the gap between bitter-loving IPA devotees, casual wheat beer drinkers, and many beer fans in between.
Three of the biggest players in the sour game — Cascade Brewing, Crooked Stave, and Grimm Artisanal Ales — discuss their process and inspiration to make some of the industry’s most tart brews.
Cascade Brewing started 1998 in Portland, Oregon brewing traditional ales, but shifted to producing almost exclusively sours a few years later. Speaking via phone, Head Brewmaster Kevin Martin credits Cascade’s dominance in the sour category to founder Art Larrance and former head brewmaster Ron Gansberg. “They identified the untapped niche and then made the investment in to it. At the time, Cascade was doing standard beer and it was hard to stand out. They decided that sour beer was one area that no one was really doing anything with.”
Cascade’s sours were immediately popular, but Martin says it was a slow climb to where they are now. “We didn’t become a sour powerhouse overnight. Initially we just released 1-2 sour beers out of 10 taps. There was apparent interest and then we won some awards.” Because the process of making sour beers can cause contamination (especially with open-air fermentation), Cascade opened a sour production facility in 2010 and “that’s the point where we went to full-on dedicated sour program,” Martin says. “It used to be that we made 10% sour beers to 90% non-sours, and now it’s 90% sour and 10% non-sour. By 2014-2105, we were all-in on sours.”
Cascade focuses on what they call Northwest-style sour. “It’s our focus on clean and fruit-forward sours and we’re not as reliant on funk. Our beers showcase the fruit and bounty of Oregon,” says Martin. Part of what’s so exciting about sours is that there are so many wildly different options. “Everyone — brewer and consumer — has to find their own identity and what they like on that spectrum of sour and funky-sour beers,” he says.
Crooked Stave out of Denver takes a more data-driven approach to their beer. Based off founder Chad Yakobson’s master’s thesis, The Brettanomyces Project, Crooked Stave was founded in 2013, when, according to Yakobson, “You could count on two hands breweries that were making exclusively sour beers.” Crooked Stave focuses mostly on beers brewed with the wild yeast Brettanomyces (Brett), a yeast that used to be considered a contaminant and often avoided in the production process.
Walking around the Crooked Stave brewery is like a tour through a winery-lab hybrid. Many of Crooked Stave’s sours are fermented in giant oak foeders or retired wine casks, and a visit to the brewery could be mistaken for a vineyard. In other sections of the brewery there are beakers and lab goggles to dive deep into different yeast strains, while steel pipes run along the ceiling to transfer beers to the right place without cross-contamination; all a nod to the fact that Crooked Stave was born out of Yakobson’s master’s thesis.
“Sour beers are really unique and creative,” says Yakobson, which is evident in the wide range of sours that Crooked Stave produces. Relying heavily on fruit in the fermentation process, Crooked Stave’s lineup includes the popular Sour Rosé, a bubbly and bright sour that is fermented with raspberries and blueberries. It’s easy drinking and an excellent introduction into wild, fruit-forward sour beers. Other sour varieties are spontaneously fermented by the wild yeasts and bacteria that hang out in the brewery, resulting in beer that’s uniquely specific to Crooked Stave.
Brooklyn-based Grimm has been producing innovative and exciting sours since 2013, but due to previously complex laws in New York State, Grimm was a “nomadic brewery” until 2018, when they opened a dedicated home for Grimm. Until then, They developed recipes in their Brooklyn kitchen and brewed wherever they could find a home, making limited runs of many types of beers.
“Five years ago, I shied away from putting gose on our beer labels because nobody knew what that was,” Co-founder Lauren Grimm tells me, “Now, I hear people saying ‘I love gose.’” Grimm brews a lot of different varieties of beer and they are most known for their wide range of sour beers. Of their 100+ varieties that they’ve brewed, over half fall under the sour category. From dry-hopped sour, to gose, to Berliner weisse, to barrel-aged golden sours, Grimm is consistently pushing the boundaries of sour beers. “It’s an evolving process...everything we do is in a state of flux,” Lauren says, “The way we brew is to brew many one-off beers which allow us to have a certain amount of agility and to shift, change, and refine our process and ingredients.”
“We maybe have 3 main recipes that we are always tweaking,” she says. Some varieties, like the Berliner Weiss are “a shorter turn-around and are less complex because they’re not aged.” Others, like those that are barrel-aged “are much more complex and take years to make,” and in their new brewery, they have the space to experiment with beers that take longer to develop.
These longer-developing beers also tend to cost more, but in a market that is becoming more interested in sours, “people want to experiment with different tastes and are willing to pay more for new and exciting options.” There are a handful breweries like Grimm that focus mostly or exclusively on sours, but many breweries are starting to develop their own sours which “will push sour producers in the US to make better and better sour beers,” Lauren said.
Sour beers are still a tiny dot in a world heavily saturated with hop-heavy IPAs, and though it sometimes feels like sours are everywhere, there’s a ton of growth still yet to happen to make the category as prominent as other major styles. But as breweries start dialing back on intense bitterness and heading more towards drinkable and funky brews, sours will find themselves going beyond just niche and positioned to become a major beer category.