Some describe sour beers as acidic masterpieces.
Others call them vile swill with an extra dose of funk.
Think of brewing sour beers as one part chemistry experiment and one part waiting game. They can take years to age and require a brewer with patience and room for long-term barrel storage.
Count Shane Johns, head brewer of Tacoma's Engine House No. 9, as squarely planted in the sour camp. He’s been brewing that category of beer for close to a decade and his style of sour beer aging has become one specialty at the Tacoma brewpub that opened in 1972.
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This Saturday and Sunday, Johns has organized E9’s second Sour Fest, a two-day ode to European and American sours.
With a tap and bottle list nearly 50 long, including five sours from E9, any beer drinker will find something to discover.
I asked Johns to explain sour beers to neophytes. Here are edited excerpts from an email interview.
Q: Can you explain to readers who know nothing about sours - what exactly is a sour beer? How are sours made?
Sour beers are complex, acidic beers typically matured in oak then blended like wine. Think of them like wine of the beer world.
There are (several) classic styles of sour beers: Berliner weisse, Flanders red, Flanders brown (oud bruin), straight lambic, gueuze, and fruited lambic.
American wilds are conceptualized around one of these styles. I could go on for hours on how they are produced. In a nutshell, wort (unfermented beer) is inoculated with a mix culture of yeast, brettanomyces and bacteria. Then placed into an oak barrel and allowed to ferment and mature from one to three years; then it is blended for taste and complexities.
There are obviously exceptions to this production method. Berliner weisse production is done completely different, oud bruin isn't produced in oak barrels and how you inoculate the wort can change depending on the brewery.
Q: How long has E9 been producing sours?
The first one was produced by my predecessor Doug Tiede in 2003. We bottled it when I came to the E9 in summer of 2004. It started my love affair with sours. It was drank strictly in the brewery with visiting brewers. Doug gave me a 5-gallon and a 10-gallon oak barrels in 2005 and the green light to produce sours in them. Pretty much been producing small batches since then.
Q: What was the first sour E9 produced? Are you still brewing it?
The first commercially available sour from the E9 was Love Child Kriek. We started that project in 2010 and released it in December of 2012. It was a blend of two different beers - one in French oak and one in American oak. Aged on cherries from High County Organic Farms in Chelan. I haven't produced the Love Child again. Which doesn't mean I won't - the barrels just haven't been ready yet.
Q: Is brewing sour beer more - or less - complicated than other types of beer?
The brew day itself is pretty standard. Sour beers take time to produce and are alive. They will continue to change and develop for the lifetime of the product.
It's less about hard science and more about learning to work with mix cultures and oak barrels. How the beer will develop when you add fruit to them. What works for your barrels/brewery. You have to learn to be patient and understand the beer. I wouldn't say it's complicated to produce a sour. I think you just need to be passionate about them. If you’re not, the time and energy you have to put into make a good one will become frustrating.
Q: For someone who is drinking a sour beer for the first time, what do you recommend?
Stick to the classic easy-to-get beers. Rodebach; Liefmans; Oud Beersel; Boon; Duchesse; Hanssens. Anything from these breweries should do the trick.
Q: What about advanced sour beer lovers - what should they be drinking?
Cantillon; De Cam; Girardin; Drie Fonteinen. And pretty much anything they can get produced in the states. There a whole lot of good sours being produced in the United States. Just have to seek it out.
Q: At Sour Fest, which sours are you looking forward to, specifically?
Well I personally spent a year hunting these kegs and bottles down for this event so pretty excited for all of them. But just for fun, I think I'm excited for Logsdon beers, de cqGarde beers and anything from Europe that we’ll have on draft.
Engine House No. 9 Sour Fest
What: A festival celebrating sour beers with about 50 sour beers by tap or bottle.
When: 11 a.m.-close Saturday Aug. 23 and Sunday Aug. 24, 2014
Where: Engine House No. 9, 611 N. Pine St., Tacoma; 253-272-3435 or ehouse9.com
E9 sours on tap: Golden Berry Wild and Verre Violet, which earned gold and silver medals, respectively, at the Washington beer awards; End of a Era; Rhubarb Wild and Raspberry Wild
GUEST TAPS STARTING LINEUP
Logsdon Peche and Brett
Jolly Pumpkin Madrugada Obscura
Firestone Walker Agrestic
Trois Dame Foret Noire
Del Ducato Baciami Lipsia
Bear Republic Tartare Rouge
Almanac Valley of the Heart's Delight
Lost Abbey Red Poppy
10 Barrel Apricot
10 Barrel German Sparkle Party
De Proef Barrel #1 Belgian Sour
De Garde Blu Bu
De Garde Rum Barrel Black Cherry Bu
New Belgium Love Peach
GUEST BEER BACKUPS
Trois Dame Grande
Logsdon Cocoa Bretta
Bruery Sour in the Rye
Almanac Blackberry Reserve
Logsdon Far West Vlaming
Schooner Exact No Sacc
Snipes Belita Cumpleanos American wild
Alvinne Morpheus Wild Undressed
Elysian Sour Great Pumpkin
Destihl Raspberry Berliner Weisse
Anchorage Between the Staves
Uinta Birthday Suit Sour Farmhouse
Hanssens Artisanaal Experimental Cassis
Hanssens Artisanaal Experimental Raspberry
Hanssens Artisanaal Oude Kriek
Oud Beersel Oude Kriek
Silver City Le Fat
Tilquin Oude Gueuze
Drie Fonteinen Golden Doesjel
Drie Fonteinen Hommage
Lambick X 2010-2011 Private Domain
De Ranke Kriek
Panil Divina Batch #2
Bruery Oude Tart
Rodenbach 2011 Vintage
Rodenbach Caractere Rouge