If something is fashionable, I usually avoid it like the plague. I have to say I don’t think I would have started rock-climbing or brewing 20 years ago if they were as fashionable as they are today; rock-climbing is now full of metrosexuals and wannabe outdoor types and brewing is full of hipsters who are more concerned about the bushiness of their beards or how complex their tattoo sleeves are, rather than the quality of their raw ingredients or the oxygen pickup in package.
That also goes with beer styles. My heart sinks and my brain starts to wander every time a young, enthusiastic craft brewer at an event starts to tell me about their latest crazy Saison or dry hopped Mosaic IPA. I am generally given carte blanche to brew what I like here at Thornbridge, as we think the best recipe for success is to be brewer-led and set the trends rather than follow them. This year we brewed a Biere de Garde, a beer I was personally really satisfied with and all the brewers thought was something special. However, the first batch didn’t quite sell as quickly as I anticipated, but I am sure if we had called it a Saison, it would have flow out the door, regardless of quality! I thought this was a real shame and wish people would be a little more open minded.
After IPAs and then the Saisons fad, the next big thing amongst the craft fraternity was Sours. There are a broad range of sour beer styles, ranging from incredibly complex, spontaneously fermented Lambics, through to barrel aged beers where a clean beer is inoculated with Brettanomyces and Lactic bacteria and then matured for a period of 12-18 months. Then, on the final end of the spectrum, short of adding pure lactic acid to a beer, there are kettle sours. Kettle sours seem to the beer hot on the lips of hipsters at the moment. I have tasted numerous kettle sours here and in the US. With a few notable exceptions, I have to say the UK versions I have tasted are appalling. I would describe them mostly as phenolic, wort-infected messes ranging from little to moderate acidity, sometimes made almost palatable with additions of fruit.
So, I decided despite sours being all the rage, to give them a bash, as the ones in the US were pretty clean and I thought a well-made ‘simple sour’ could be a good summer drink. On further investigation, it seems the predominate way sours were approached in the UK was to hang a bag of malt in the copper prior to the boil for three days. The flavour defects I was picking up all made sense to me now. The volume of inoculum produced from simply hanging a bag of malt in the tepid wort would nowhere near be enough to outcompete wort bacteria.
For me, the only way to avoid such off flavours was to propagate a good starter of Lactobacillus brevis to add to the kettle. Seeing as our very good friends from the Wild Beer Co in Somerset seem to specialise in sour beers, we thought it would be a good idea to bring Brett Ellis, their head brewer, up for a couple of days and discuss recipe formulation and process. With these details decided, the pure culture of Lacto was propagated in good time and added to the base wort. The next day, I was happy to see the pH of the wort had dropped to 3.6 in less than 14 hours; indeed, if it dropped any further we might have fermentation problems. We then boiled the wort to lock in the sourness and kill off the bacteria and dry hopped in the Hopnik with a moderate amount of Amarillo. The final beer had a pleasant grapefruit tart character, but was crisp, clean and the dry hopping with Amarillo really complemented the sourness. Coming from Bakewell, there was only one name we could feasibly call this beer – TART!
I now think we have nailed our process of producing excellent quality kettle sours and as I feel we are pretty much in control of the microbes involved, you can certainly expect different types of sour beers from Thornbridge in the future. In fact, we made one just yesterday for the US market, this time rather than dry hopping with pellets, we filled the Hopnik with bags and bags of fresh sticky Galaxy hop cones. This batch is off to America, but we have something very similar on the way for the UK market…