Two Great Sour Beer Brewers on a (Difficult?) Style

Eno Sarris, February 12, 2015

Talk West Coast and you might be talking big bold hoppy IPAs. But that's not super region specific. Talk San Francisco and the Bay Area these days, and you might actually be talking about sour beers. 

There was one godfather of the style around here, and in some ways that brewery up in Santa Rosa primed the region for today's best new sour brewers. "We're lucky enough to have grown up in a place where Russian River is already making great sour beers," said Jay Goodwin of The Rare Barrel at San Francisco Beer Week's Opening Gala. The Bay Area's drinkers know Consecration and are ready to taste your sour beer. 

That's not true everywhere. Sours are a notoriously acquired taste, sometimes referred to as vinegar or salad dressing or wine by its haters. "Sour beer is such a unique thing because it can appeal to someone as this extreme, the craziest thing you can have in beer, and there are other people who say I don't like beer but I like this," admitted Goodwin. 

It ends up attracting fervent admirers. Jesse Friedman of Almanac Beer Company admitted that he's seen people turn their nose up at sour beers. But it hasn't mattered once he got his brewery going. "That's totally true, and I encounter that all the time, and meanwhile I'm sold out of beer," he said. "I can't make sour beer fast enough. " 

That first part -- getting going -- was maybe the toughest part. Souring takes time. "Main challenge was waiting that first year before we were ready to sell our beers," Goodwin said. "You could taste it along the way, and we were doing all this hard work, but it was in relative isolation. It was hard not to share what you were working so hard on. The payoff was great, though."

Friedman admitted Almanac's losses were huge at first, as they waited, but pointed out that the reward has been worth it. "It's higher risk, higher reward, he said. "The margins are eventually better because the price is better."

Those prices have been soaring. Friedman: "We set our price three years ago, and at the time, we were mid-high, and now everyone has passed us." He pointed out that Almanac's many great sours retail for $9.99 to $10.99 in most of California, and at 375 mL, that price is now more than competitive. 

Speaking of competition, what is it like to brew mostly in a category that has the a top-five average rating on most sites? Do the high averages make the style hard? Is it hard to separate from the pack? Do the high scores serve to under-rate the style in ratings? 

Friedman referenced a famous phenomenon. "Is it the Amazon phenomenon where 95% of the people give it five stars or one star? Because they are either sh**ting on it because they're angry about how bad it is, or it's five stars because they are ratifying that they made an excellent choice," he wondered. 

Turns out, it's not so much that. Take a look at how scores in the sour category on Untappd shake out, with average score on the bottom and numbers checked in on the side. People just love sours. 

Perhaps the market is just beginnning to understand better what a good sour tastes like, though. Maybe as they get to know the style, you'll see some lower scores. "People talk about complexity and funk in sour beers, but sometime's that's too big of a tent," said Goodwin. "You're including off flavors if you're not used to them. Maybe you're interpreting this off flavor as funkiness when really you don't want to drink anything that smells like your foot." 

If that's the case, then time should sort out the style a bit. Goodwin: "I'm not surprised that people appreciate when they get a good sour, but without knowing any of the data, what I taste in sour beer is a big range of people doing it really well, and people doing it really poorly. So many new breweries, and it's such a difficult fermentation. The key is consistency. If you're doing these beers consistently, people are very appreciative."

In the meantime, the high ratings aren't that difficult for the brewers. As Friedman says about the scores in the style, "That doesn't make it a hard style, it just makes it a highly-rated style."

At the Gala, both brewers brought all-time classic sours to the table. Friedman's Almanac had their Valley of the Hearts Delight on tap, their best beer on our leaderboards. Brewed to their trademark puckering citrus sour taste, the Valley is made with hand-foraged apricots in a nod to both Almanac's farm-to-table philsophy as well their focus on urban farming. 

On the other side of the aisle, Goodwin's Rare Barrel also brought a signature sour: Ensorcelled, a dark raspberry sour that inspired one of the longest lines of the evening. "What separates this raspberry sour from a typical one was that we decided to use a dark malt bill but not one with a lot of sweetness, " Goodwin said, "so you get a slight roast in there that almost reminds you of the seed of the raspberry, almost a complete raspberry picture on the palate." This beer won them the gold medal at the 2014 World Beer Cup in the American-Style Sour Ale category -- the first competition they ever entered. 

In the end, how could high average ratings in the style be a problem if you make great sours consistently. As Friedman put it, "the fanbase that's rating them so highly is so fervent, it's a very excited group, and so it's a great group to be a part of." 

Eno Sarris writes about baseball at FanGraphs, beer at BeerGraphs, and tweets about baseball, beer, bratwurst, and bringing up babies on twitter