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.

Franklin's New Brewer Plans to Make a Best Beer Bar even Better

There's been a changing of the brewing guard in Hyattsville.

Charles Noll, Franklin's first and only brewer, has returned to upstate New York. In his place, owner Mike Franklin has hired Mike Roy, a New Hampshire native who was brewing and bottling at a Boston area brewpub chain.

Understandably, the switch caused some concern among Franklin's regulars. It caused a little concern for me. After all, I did just name them a Best Beer Bar. That means something, folks. Sure, Franklin's has also been touted by The Washington Post and the Washingtonian, but it's the seal of approval from your favorite blog that carries the weight around here. Charles was a talented brewer who built a loyal following and put the brewpub on local beer geeks' maps.

So how does Mike Roy follow that? By building on Charles' success and putting his own signature on the brewpub.

Although Franklin's is a favorite among local beer enthusiasts, the restaurant side of the operation is the money maker. Given the rise of craft beer and the notoriety Franklin's has gained, owner Mike Franklin sees an opportunity to improve the brewpub's brewing operation, a lot.

When Mike hired Mike (I know, this can get confusing), the owner told the brewer that if nothing else he expected him to maintain the popularity of the beer program. Ideally, though, both Mikes want Franklin's to be among the premier craft beer spots in the Baltimore-Washington area.

Based on the beers Mike Roy has produced in his short time at Franklin's, the new guy just might do it.

"You don't need 100 taps to be a great beer bar," Mike Roy told me. "You can have 10 taps and have a great beer bar."

(Quick aside. During the transition from Charles to Mike, the production of beer dropped a bit. As Mike Roy gets his new lineup of beers brewed, Mike Franklin put regional craft brewers on tap, including Heavy Seas, Troegs and Dogfish Head. He could've cut back on the number of beers available or put something cheaper on draft, but he didn't. That's worth noting.)

Out of the gate, Mike Roy is giving local beer geeks exactly what the want: hops and Belgian-style beers. Big, hoppy beers were a signature of his predecessor, and they will remain a staple of the Franklin's lineup, but they won't dominate the draught list as they did. Even Mike's first hoppy beer wasn't an IPA. Instead, Mike led with his hopped Scotch-style ale, Hop Zen. Scotch ales are traditionally a favorite of the malt-head set, thanks to their sweet, rich character, but Mike adds just enough hops to not only balance the malt, but give the beer a pronounced bitterness. It's a good beer.

In a couple weeks, the Hop Zen will be followed by a double IPA he's calling Hop Madness. Here again, Mike goes a little nontraditional. Most double IPAs follow the recent craft beer trend of big alcohol bombs (not that I'm complaining), ranging anywhere from 7 percent A.B.V. (Hair of the Dog's Blue Dot) to 18 percent (Dogfish Head's 120 Minute IPA), with most imperial IPAs pushing double digit A.B.V.s. So where does Mike's Hop Madness come in? At about 8 percent. As breweries continue to wage Cold War-like campaigns to make bigger, badder beers (See BrewDog v. Schorschbraeu), Mike is rolling out a double IPA his customers can quaff a couple of without  falling off their stools.

During our interview, Mike gave me a sneak peak of the double (yeah, it's a good gig). While the beer is still a couple weeks from finishing, the flavors were all there. The bitter Columbus hops were braced with a dark, caramel malt, and the Simcoe buds gave the beer a beautiful citrus, hoppy nose and taste. It's going to be a good beer.

In addition to the hoppy beers, Mike has brewed a couple Belgian-style ales, Golden Opportunity and Dubbel Vision. If anything, this is the style Mike plans to use to make his name. Golden Opportunity is a 6.5 percent Belgian-style golden ale that's a little sweet and fruity, with the tell-tale clove notes and enough carbonation to give the beer some bite. Dubbel Vision, a Belgian-style dubbel, is richer than the golden ale, with a slightly molasses-like character, but only bit higher in alcohol 6.8 percent A.B.V. Of the five beers Mike has on draught now (there's also a red ale, dry stout and a porter) these two Belgian-style ales are his best. (If you're keeping score, Mike has made a golden ale and a dubbel. So yes, a Belgian-style triple is on the way. One day, that triple might be available by the bottle in Franklin's General Store.)

Mike also plans to tinker with Franklin's standards: the Twisted Turtle Pale Ale, the Bombshell Blonde, the Sierra Madre Pale Ale, and the Private IPA. It's not yet clear how different these beers will be, but Mike says that when he's done, only the names will be the same.

Belgian yeast strains and hoppy Scotch ales aren't the only things Mike brings to Franklin's. He's also started a blog to keep customers informed about the beers on tap and what's coming up. It's part of his plans to interact with his new regulars, so they can stay in the loop on what he's brewing and he can find out what's working for them and what's not.

Mike says he likes feedback and enjoys interacting with his customers. I might chalk this up to a new employee saying the right thing about his customers, but Mike is a gregarious guy. I stopped by Franklin's to do a quick interview, but we ended up talking for two hours, including a good 30 minutes on yeast strains, hops and beer brewing software. When we were done, he waded into the crowd waiting for him at the bar.

During our conversation, we also covered how he got from Boston to Hyattsville. In short, Mike's previous job at the brewpub chain Beer Works wasn't the best situation and Franklin's gave him the opportunity to take over the brewing operation of a thriving business.

He actually cut his teeth at the do-it-yourself brewery, IncrediBREW. By guiding novice brewers through the brewing process, Mike ended up cranking out dozens of beers a week and learning a lot about raw materials, yeast strains and the brewing process.

Now he's in a situation where he can use his 10 years of brewing experience to make a good beer operation great. And as head brewer, it's his vision that will take the brewpub where he and Mike Franklin want it to go.

"The day that I rest on what I did in the past is the day I need to get out of this industry."

Franklin's: Stellar beer bar, great brewpub, completely unlikely success

Franklin1 Franklin's is a great brewpub, but it shouldn't be.

Before opening the Hyattsville establishment in 2002, Mike Franklin never ran a restaurant and had zero brewing experience. None. The guy sold toys, for Pete's sake.

He chose the location based on the fact that he liked the old building that now houses the shop attached to the brewpub. It's also walking distance from his house.

You know what else is walking distance from his house? Squat.

This is Hyattsville, Md. Located between the Northeast D.C. and College Park, and famous for absolutely nothing at all. There's a small neighborhood and a few gas stations, but not a whole lot else. There was even less back in 1992 when Mike decided to buy an old hardware store and convert it into an "urban survival store," replete with toys, games, knick knacks, and a damn fine selection of craft beers and wine tucked away in the back. Originally, the shop also had a sandwich counter, which was the precursor to the brewpub.

After a few years, Mike got to a point where he figured he either had to grow his business or sell it, so he gambled on growth.

Although he sold Bud and Miller in the shop, Mike noticed that a lot of his regular customers were buying the craft beers he stocked. In the late 90s, brewpubs had a slightly better success rate than restaurants (meaning they were failing a little less than restaurants), so Mike figured he had an audience that wanted craft beer and the data to justify launching a brewpub.

Recap 1: A two-story brewpub located close to nothing that features a menu that's more bistro than bar grew out of a beer cooler and a sandwich counter. This shouldn't work. Yet, Mike and wife Debbie have one of the best beer bars in the D.C. area. Go figure.

"This turned out to be a 'build it and they will come' story," Mike said.

Despite Mike's complete lack of restaurant and brewing experience, he clearly knows how to run an operation. Since the day it opened in 2002, the place has been a destination for Mike's Hyattsville neighbors and beer geeks throughout the region.

Luck seems to be a reoccurring theme for Mike. While he was building Franklin's, Mike hedged his bets and had the space designed so that if he couldn't find an affordable brewing system, the areas he set aside for the tanks could be converted into dining room space.

Franklin2 No need. Mike lucked out and found out about an Ohio brewpub that was going under and auctioning off its brewing equipment. He headed north, placed a bid, and called Debbie to let her know he just bought a brewery.

As every brewery needs a brewer, Mike put the word out that he needed someone to run the operation. Two dozen applications and five in-person interviews (beer tastings) later and Mike found Charles Noll, Franklin's resident brewer.

Given the consistent quality of Charles' beer, it's clear that Mike got lucky again.

Like Mike, Charles didn't set out to be in the brewing business. He graduated from college in New York with a degree in criminal justice. But Charles was always more interested in home brewing than busting perps, so he followed his sister out to California to try and get into brewing. He did. While living out of a campground in Northern California, Charles went from apprenticing at a local brewpub to enrolling at the American Brewers Guild.

Once a certified brewer, Charles headed back to Albany where there was a growing craft beer scene, but fewer people vying for jobs in the industry. There he spent a few years as head brewer at the now-defunct Malt River Brewpub. Although he was able to produce a few beers based on his own recipes, most of the beer was brewed using a mishmash of previous brewers' directions. Eventually, it became clear that the Malt River Brewpub was not long for this world, so Charles began checking help wanted ads. He found Mike's.

Franklin3 Recap 2: the toy guy (right) who never ran a restaurant or a brewery hired a criminal justice grad (left) whose primary brewing experience came from a failed brewpub where he followed other brewers' recipes.

Of course this would work. And it has.

Enough about the back story, let's talk beer. Charles makes good beer. And to be clear, the only recipes that Charles brought from Malt River were his own. At any given time, Franklin's has eight beers on draft, five of which are constants ... sort of. Anarchy Ale is the house beer, but no two batches are alike.

The ale tends to be a hoppy style, but Charles tinkers with the recipe with every batch to keep the beer geeks happy and avoid too much repetition. The rest of the standards - the Twisted Turtle Pale Ale, Sierra Madre Pale Ale, Private I.P.A, and Bombshell Blonde - cover most of the popular beer styles. Charles also tries to keep a stout or porter on tap most of the time, but like the Anarchy Ale, the recipe changes. During my recent visits, Charles had worked up a batch of pepper stout. (I liked the stout, but didn't get any of the pepper. However, a guy seated next to me at the bar nearly gagged on his sample because it was too "hot" for him. I guess spice is relative.)

For the rest of the taps and the rest of the year, Charles produces a regular rotation of seasonal beers. This summer it's been the Summer Wheat Ale and a German-style Helles. With fall closing in, Charles' Oktoberfest will be returning. During the holiday season, a Christmas ale is produced, and spring means Maibock.

Along with the seasonals and standards, Charles brews up a variety of rotationals, including red ales and malty session beers, like Mission Accomplished, which was still on draft when I stopped by last.

On top of all of this (because producing more than 2 dozen different styles of beer a year just isn't enough), Charles has a firkin.

Actually, let me back up. Franklin's has a nitrogen tap, which makes any beer poured through it very smooth and creamy (think Guinness), albeit artificially. (Beer taps in the U.S. use carbon dioxide to force the beer from the kegs to the taps. The CO2 also preserves the beer longer, reducing waste. While efficient, it does inject additional carbon dioxide into the beer. Replacing the carbon dioxide with nitrogen allows the beer to come out at its natural CO2 level, but with a bit of added N.) The natural way to do this is to use a beer engine, or handpump, which requires the bartender to manually pump the beer out of a beer cask. This is the way most British ales are drawn in the U.K. However, you can't use a standard keg with a beer engine (American kegs are designed for the gas systems), so it can be a pain for most American bars that don't want to deal with special beer taps or casks. That's not the case with Franklin's. Because the beer is brewed on-site, it wouldn't be a big deal to keep a couple casks on hand for the beer engine. Charles said his biggest problem is lack a space to set up a beer engine and cooler for the beer cask.

Franklin4 So until Mike builds him a beer engine station (please Mike, build him a beer engine station), Charles has a firkin to fall back on. Firkins really are the second best thing to a beer engine. Basically a firkin is a 9 gallon keg that Charles can fill with one of his standard, seasonal or rotating beers, or he can whip up something special. And because the firkin relies on gravity, not a CO2 tap, the beer comes out completely unadulterated. Every Friday, Charles puts a new firkin on the bar. Rarely does it see Saturday morning.

If that's not enough to convince you that Franklin's is a great beer bar, they also sell and fill growlers. Although Mike did a great job designing the place, sometimes you'd like to drink the beer at home. That's where growlers come in. You can buy one of theirs or bring in your own.

(Being able to fill any growler is big. I have a growler from a North Carolina brewery that I once took with me on a trip down to one of my favorite beer bars in Durham. Although the place sold growlers, they would only fill their own. They really didn't care that I carted that damn thing four hours, hoping to fill it with some of North Carolina's finest hoppy goodness.)

Franklin5 And if that's still not enough to convince you, consider that Mike Franklin still has one of the best selections of craft beers in the area. The sandwich counter was converted into shop space when the brewpub opened, but he never stopped selling beer and wine. In fact, he's expanded the shop's beer selection since the brewpub opened.

There are a few places in the area to get fresh beer: District Chop House, the Rock Bottoms and the Capital City locations. None of them produce beer as consistently good as Franklin's. Add to that the extra touches like the growlers, craft beer selection and Friday firkins and you have one of the best beer bars in the D.C. area.

That's not to say I don't have a few quibbles. First off, Franklin's is a restaurant first and a brewery second. That means the food is quite good (the onion rings are kick ass), but this isn't a restaurant review. As bars go, it's not much of one. But that wasn't Mike's goal. He intended to open an establishment that would attract neighbors, families and beer enthusiasts, in that order. To that end, he has succeeded.

Franklin6 But I'm a purist at heart. I like my bars to be bars. At Franklin's you're just as likely to see a family having dinner as you are a few guys unwinding over drinks after work. All that being said, Franklin's is a God-send to beer geeks with kids. There are few places around here where mom and dad can enjoy a well crafted beer while the kids root around for a new toy or fist-fulls of candy. I also like Mike's decision to put the bar on the second floor, away from the toys and (most of) the tots.

The bartenders are another issue. Every bartender I've encountered has been very friendly. On the other hand, I've swung though on a slow Friday and had to work to get the bartender's attention ... while sitting at the bar. Other times, I got the impression that the bartender was content to give me the beer menu and allow me to engage in a bit of self-study. I don't expect the bartender to go though the ins and outs of every beer with me, but a good bartender should be knowledgeable about the beers and (most importantly) willing to talk about them. I would also expect the servers in a brewpub to be knowledgeable about the beers.

Franklin7 Then there's the general store and Web site. Both do a great job of hiding the great selection of beer and wine for sale. Unless you wandered past the stuffed animals, candy bins, greeting cards, various tchotchke and into the back of the store, you would never know there was a large selection of craft beers, imports and wines available. And no where is it posted that you can buy a bottle of wine from the shop and bring it into the restaurant for a $10 corkage fee (although why you'd want to drink wine at such an excellent brewpub is beyond me). Unfortunately, the Web site is no help. The section on the store has more information on the shop's former life as a hardware store than anything on the beer and wine available. I wonder how many regulars have gone elsewhere for craft beer unaware of the selection Mike keeps hidden in the back.

But how can I blame Mike for a few miscues when he's running an otherwise great beer bar? After all, it's not like the guy has ever done this before.

Score: 14 or 20 (beer: 6 of 8, atmosphere: 3 of 5, bartenders: 3 of 5, other elements 2 of 2)

The Best Beer Bars so far: Birreria Paradiso (17 of 20), The Galaxy Hut (16 of 20), and Franklin's (14 of 20)

Want to see more photos of Franklin's? Check them out here.