Pucker face

Sacramentans have yet to embrace sour beers

Don’t sour if you can’t read her p-p-p-pucker face, Sacramento. Sour beers are an acquired taste.

Don’t sour if you can’t read her p-p-p-pucker face, Sacramento. Sour beers are an acquired taste.

Centuries ago, brewers in Belgium did their work outdoors, and frequently their lax approach to sanitization and sterility of equipment led to funky infections in their beers, with sourness and intensely pungent aromas often dominating. Yet people drank these ales and, over time, such idiosyncrasies became desirable.

Today, Belgian-style sour ales remain popular in the land of their origin, and in recent years, American brewers coast to coast have begun exploring the style in full force.

The sour condition is caused by several microbes—once taken for granted by the Belgian brewers—which were eventually isolated and identified in the post-Pasteur modern-microbiology era. Today’s brewers actively culture these critters and apply them to beers as desired, with Lactobacillus and Pediococcus being the favored bacteria for producing the face-twisting tartness of many sours. Brettanomyces, a genus of yeast, though, is sought after for the complex scents of wet horse, hay and goat that it imparts. These aromatic qualities are considered distinctly separate from sourness, yet are generally included in any discussion of “sour” beers.

At River City Brewing Company, brewmaster Brian Cofresi produced a small batch of sour ale three years ago. The beer, named Consternation after Cofresi’s initial worries over whether the weird beer would succeed, has held its character well over the years, he said.

It has also lasted in spite of waning consumer interest. Cofresi only made 18 kegs of Consternation. He served small portions on a limited basis at several events during Sacramento Beer Week, and he still has several left and reports that most local beer drinkers have wanted little to do with it.

“It just wasn’t a big seller here,” he conceded, with a sigh of defeat. The beer did, however, take second place at the 2009 California State Fair.

“I’d like to make more, but people have these preconceived notions about what Belgian ales should taste like. They’re used to drinking Duvel, and when they taste these, they say, ‘This beer is sour!’” Cofresi has served Consternation on tap, and he believes that bottling the beer will enhance its appeal.

While Consternation was brewed in company with an infection of Lactobacillus bacteria, which produces lactic acid and results in simple sourness, some brewers focus solely on Brettanomyces, known among brewers and beer fans as “Brett” and credited for producing a powerful plethora of aromatic “barnyard” scents.

Peter Hoey, owner of local Odonata Beer Company, favors Brett over “Pedio” and “Lacto.” And while his last batches of Brett beers are dwindling (he says the remaining kegs are currently in San Francisco), he is not now in a position to make more.

“Right now we’re renting a brewing facility used by other breweries, and they don’t want me making sour beers on their equipment,” Hoey said.

The concern is valid. Brettanomyces is notorious for lurking within nooks, cracks and crannies of equipment—especially wooden barrels—and the yeast can survive sanitization treatments to which other yeasts would quickly succumb. Just a trace of remaining Brett cells could infect the subsequent beers that run through the system, ruining an entire batch.

Hoey plans to build his own brewery by the end of 2010. Until then, Odonata, which was launched in fall of 2009, must refrain from brewing funky or sour ales and, frankly, local beer drinkers can wait. While San Diego; Boulder, Colo.; the San Francisco Bay Area and other beer hotbeds all have their own sour-beer festivals, Hoey doesn’t expect enthusiasm to arrive any time soon in the Sacramento beer market.

“Sour beer is a craft-brewing niche, and they’re hard beers to sell.”