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December 2010

Sour Beer 2: How I Learned To Stop Worrying And, Um, Appreciate Sour Beer

Combine water, malted grain, hops and yeast, and you have beer. Add bacteria and you have sour beer.

Mike Roy, the brewer at the Hyattsville brewpub Franklin's, doesn't like the term sour. It's too limited. He prefers to call them wild beers.

The sour in sour beers is acid imparted by bacteria, typically lactobacillus or pediococcus. To varying degrees, bacteria make beer tart, but lactobacillus doesn't taste like anything. That's why brewers add fruit to sour beers, age the beer in wine barrels or infect it brettanomyces (brett), a family of yeast that can impart earthy flavors ranging from smoke and leather to wet dog. Brett will also eat the sugars regular brewing yeast won't, resulting in a drier beer.

Because beers made with brett are not necessary sour, but are lumped in with them, Mike says the term wild beer is a better umbrella term that encompasses both sour and brett beers.

Depending on how much bacteria and brett a brewer adds, you can have a very dry, exceedingly tart beer (Hannsen's Oudbeitje), or a sweet, dry beer with just a hint of tartness. Then again, bacteria and yeast are living organisms, so you're never completely sure what they'll do to the beer. And even when brewers successfully control the yeast and bacteria, the range of flavors the microorganisms can produce is astonishing.

Wild, huh?

Mike is a fan of Oudbeitje, but lucky for the rest of us he's working on sweeter, more approachable beers at Franklin's. And if you're at all interested in exploring sour beers (er, wild beers), the Franklin's Funk Project will be a good place to start.

"It's not that you don't like sour beers, you just haven't found the one you like."

Sour (or wild) beer is a difficult style for the uninitiated. If your first sour beer is Duchesse De Bourgogne -- a big, sweet and sour Flanders red ale -- you're probably not going to be a fan of the style. Trust me. However, replace the Duchesse with a Monks Café or Helios from Victory and you'll wonder what all my fuss is about.

It's odd that a style of beer can have so much variation, but that's exactly why sour beers are as interesting as they are vexing.

Until recently, I was convinced that sour beer enthusiasts (sour geeks?) relish their little niche of the beer world. Unlike the rest of us slobs, they have sophisticated palates that can cut through the vinegar and barnyard flavors to discern qualities in a beer style most people would find repulsive.

It turns out I'm wrong, again. The people who like sour beers are an evangelical bunch. They're happy to talk about their kooky beers with anyone willing to engage in a conversation about infections, horse blankets and the romantic qualities of Belgian farmers (this may explain the limited popularity of sour beers).

28990016 I met up with Mike and fellow sour beer enthusiasts Nathan Zeender and Mike Tonsmeire for another beer tasting. Unlike the tasting I did at Granville Moore's, the goal of this session was to try a range of beers that were more approachable to the uninitiated. The beers included Helios, Petoskey Pale Ale from Leelanau, Fantome Hiver, a few sour beers Mike is working on at the brewpub, and a few homebrews.

Some were good, some were great, and a couple just didn't work for me (the Petoskey Pale Ale was too tart and dry, and a homebrewed Flemish red ale that Mike Roy brought tasted too much like a Flemish red ale). But given the chance, I'd try every beer again.

I brought the Fantome on Nathan's recommendation. Nathan is the rare individual who liked sour beers from the start. Nathan also has a barrel of sour beer in his basement. He's committed to the style, clearly.

The beer was Fantome's winter offering ("hiver" is French for winter), which is fine except for the fact that it was a saison, rather than a traditional sour ale, like a gueuze. Saisons tend to be sweet, refreshing beers, often served in warmer months. According to Nathan, style and tradition don't mean much to Fantome brewer Dany Prignon, who is more artist than beer maker. Prignon doesn't follow recipes much and brews what he likes. So, the Hiver might be a saison or it might be a lambic, but it almost always has a sour quality. You simply won't know what's in the bottle until you open it.

The bottle of Hiver we tried poured a hazy straw color, was mildly sour with a rich body and a bit tart. All in all, it was decent.

28990014 The Helios was a different story. This wasn't my first experience with the beer and it won't be my last. Although a little tart, the beer was slightly sweet, dry and very crisp. Easily, one of my favorites of the night. Helios is also a saison that gets its dry, tart qualities from the brett Victory's brewers add to the beer (ok, my theory about saisons not being sour beers is shakey).

Then there were Mike's beers (that's Mike on the right). He makes his funk beers by adding a small amount of lactobacillus and brett to samples of the brewpub's regular lineup. The result was drier, slightly tart versions of the original. They were delicious.

However, don't rush over to Franklin's for these beers just yet. The first Funk beers are still a couple months from being ready. In February, the first two beers, Gotta Have That Funk (a dark, copper brown ale) and Higher Ground (a tart tripel-style ale), will be available in limited quantities on draft and in bottles at the brewpub. Sometime in the spring or summer, Mike will release Miss Lucifer's Love, a funked fruit beer made with currants.

Because the Funk beers include brett, Mike keeps them in a corner of Franklin's basement. Tucked behind stainless steel tanks and sacks of malted grain are a trio of plastic containers and four small kegs. This is the home of Funk.

28990006 Judging from the sample he brought to the tasting, the Higher Ground is the farthest along. It has all the traditional fruity sweet qualities of a Belgian tripel, but it's just a bit drier, and the tart, sour flavors are subdued. By February, I expect it to taste more like Helios, with a more pronounced tart flavor and crisp finish.

In the mean time, here are a few other sour beers to try, as recommended by Nathan, Mike Tonsmeire and Belgian beer expert Bill Catron: Helios, Lindemans' fruit beers (kriek and framboise in particular), any of Jolly Pumpkin's Bam beers (Bam Bière, E.S. Bam, Weizen Bam Bière, and Bam Noire), Fantome, Orval, Founders' Cercie and Dogfish Head's Festina Peche

If I've learned anything in my sour beer trials, it's that there is no sour beer, but there are many, many sour beers. It may be the most varied of all beer styles, which makes it among the most interesting. When you order a pilsner, even if you've never had that particular pilsner before, you know what to expect. All pilsners tastes more or less the same. That consistency doesn't exist with sour beers. It's a wild beer style that demands exploration and I'm beginning to understand why sour beer enthusiasts enjoy them as much as they do.

In fact, I am too.

I wanted to do a follow up photo with the Duchesse for this post. So I popped the cork, poured a glass and took the pictures. Afterward, I decided to give the old gal one more try. Now that I've tried all these sour beers, I was curious to see if the beer was as repellent as before. At least I knew what I was getting into this time.

28980009 You know, it wasn't that bad.

The first taste was still a slap in the mouth, but once I got used to the vinegar I began to taste caramel and dark cherries hidden underneath. It was malty and sweet like I'd expected the first time I bought it, yet it was more effervescent than a traditional ale. Over the course of the next three hours, I watched the Bucs lose to the Falcons and polished off the 750 ml bottle of Duchesse De Bourgogne.

I didn't love the beer, but I certainly didn't hate it. And considering where I started with the Duchesse, that's quite something.

I know it's a cliche way of wrapping up this series, but I do think I'm acquiring a taste for sour beer. Developing a taste for lonely Belgian farmers will take more time.

It's Beginning to Look a Lot Like Christmas Beer

XMASGREATLAKES2 Waiting in line for my Gingerbread Latte the other day, I heard the delightful strains of "Santa Claus is Coming to Town" wafting through the air. I absolutely loath this song, and started muttering to myself, in true crackpot fashion, "God isn't it too early for this crap?"

It dawned on me pretty quickly, that no, it ain't. Merry frickin' Christmas, everyone! "The Holidays" is here! Amongst all the stress of shopping, abhorrent music, family-driven guilt, and special, Holiday-themed television shows ("Join us as The Situation and JWoww learn the true meaning of Hanukkah..."), there do shine some bright lights on these cold winters' nights-- Christmas Beers! Following close on the heels of Oktoberfestbiers, the Christmas subset of Winter Seasonals run in a wide range of styles, from Sierra Nevada's Celebration IPA to Delirium Noel. Amongst these well worn winter travellers, there are a few new additions to the DC areas yuletide selection: Here are a few that I have come across in the past couple weeks.

XMASSCHLAFLEYS1 Schlafly Christmas Ale
St Louis, Missouri
Style: Spice Ale
8.00% ABV

Appearance: Transparent, reddish-brown with a light, short-lived head. Lots of bubbles!

Aroma: Dry, grainy and mild, with bright spice notes of cinnamon, clove, nutmeg, and citrus.

Taste: Vibrant, with tingly effervescence on front (you can still hear the bubbles minutes after pouring). The attack is dry and sharp, with malty undertones and flavors of bright orange peel and a hint of hops. More cinnamon and clove come forward on the round, creamy mid-palate, leading to a dry finish with a wallop of spice, with an almost chalky texture persisting after swallowing.

This beer is a good deal drier than most holiday beers, and has a gorgeous sparkle. If you are a fan of a lighter Pilsener style, but want something with a bit more festive umph, this is a great selection, which is still pretty widely available in the $10 to $13 per six-pack price range.

XMASGREATLAKES1 Great Lakes Christmas Ale
Cleveland, Ohio
Style: Winter Warmer
7.50% ABV

Appearance: Clear russet-gold with light, short-lived head.

Aroma: Sweet and spicy, with notes of Cinnamon-sugar, grains, caramel and red fruit preserves.

Taste: Tangy, sweet and slightly sour on the front, complimented with hearty mulling-spice flavors. Medium bodied and very slightly creamy, with malt and toffee notes in the middle, leading to a very slightly sweet, nutmeg and cinnamon accented finish.

This beer has a lot going on, and is definitely one to sip and mull over (har). Sour, malt, and spice characteristics mingle beautifully, and it is far less sweet and syrupy than the ABV would imply. Unfortunately, this low-production ale is in hot demand. The distributor's first drop came and went very quickly; a second drop was made this week to select retailers, and most of them are keeping it under their respective hats. If you don't mind paying $15 + for a six-pack, ask your favorite retailer what he has kicking around the back room. Otherwise, keep an eye out for this on draught in the coming weeks; I'm sure if the better beer bars in town have any, they will release it soon.

XMASFIRESIDE121st Amendment Fireside Chat
San Fransisco, California
Style: Winter Warmer
7.90% ABV

Appearance: Dark brown, opaque, with red highlights, and a full, foamy, off-white head.

Aroma: Dark and roasty aromas of dried oats, with sour fruit, mulling spices, and just a hint of sweet maple.

Taste: The attack is wine-like and sour, featuring flavours of fermenting fruits and sour citrus, along with a hint of grain and a bit of spice. Maintains a dry character in the middle, though sweeter fruit flavors come through, leading to still more fermented-fruit flavors, accented with clove.

XMASFIRESIDE2 Though not labeled a Christmas Beer, the Fireside Chat's packaging does feature a kick-ass picture of FDR chillin after what must have been one of his more upbeat radio addresses, and that's good enough for me. If you like a heavy, mildly-sour, slightly-spicy beer that lacks the intense sweetness of most heavy winter brews, give this one a go. It comes in a convenient, fridge-friendly can, and is easy to find for about $11 a six-pack.

If you need a a little Christmas, right this very minute, or just a momentary booze-induced escape from the holiday nightmare, I hope I have provided a little bit of inspiration. Whether you revel in or revile this time of year, act fast, as the season -- and these beers -- will be gone before you know it.

Must Haves: Dolcezza gelato (and warmer weather)

Must Haves focuses on some of D.C.'s best dishes.

I don't have much of a sweet tooth. I like desserts well enough, but aside from a few slices of pumpkin and pecan pie during the holidays, I can generally take or leave the sweets.

That said, Dolcezza makes a mean gelato.

Looking at the picture above, you may assume that even in 40 degree weather I seek out the creamy dessert. I don't, but I did for this post. I've been meaning to swing by the Penn Quarter farmers' market where Dolcezza has a booth, but didn't get around to it until the temperature crashed the other day. 

For my trouble, I came away with a half pint of Crookneck Pumpkin gelato. Honestly, I could've taken the Mexican Coffee (which was spectacular), Tahitian Vanilla Bean or Valrhona Chocolate Amargo, too, but like I said, I have a weakness for pumpkin.

9 The poor woman manning the booth also had a selection of sorbets, including Heirloom Apple Cider and Honey Tangerine. They were good (especially the apple cider that's made with locally sourced apples), but I prefer the sorbet selection during the summer months when Dolcezza rolls out flavors like Mojito, Meyer Lemon Vodka and Strawberry Tequila.

I also prefer the summer months.

If I was a brighter man, I would've swung by one of Dolcezza's stores where I would have had a larger selection and heat. But I'm not a bright man. However, I am a man with pumpkin gelato, and that counts for something.