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The surprising twang of sour beer
If you know nothing about the process of beer-making, you may imagine a glamorous confluence of golden hops and tawny nectar, not a proliferating cloud of yeast cultures and bacteria. The thing is, yeast cultures and bacteria are exactly what makes beer beer. It’s not all hops and water. In fact, certain styles of beer, like sours, depend on particular bacteria to create their signature flavors.
Sours are a favorite of mine for two reasons. First, they aren’t yet booming in popularity here in the U.S., like the IPA or lighter styles. Because of this, many sour beers you’ll find right now, local or not, are made in small, high-quality batches. Second, late summer in Michigan is hot, and to me, nothing is more refreshing than the zing of a sour beer. Think of the effect freshly squeezed lemonade has in the summer.
Sour beers are said to have originated from the early days of beer-making, when stainless steel containers weren’t available for aging. Bacteria got into the wooden barrels that were used back then and gave the beer a sour or tart flavor.
Today, brewers have identified which bacteria and yeasts create sour flavors they want. Sometimes perfecting the right combination can take years. To make things even more interesting, sour beers change flavors as they age, making them difficult to perfect. The entire process is lengthy and quite costly — another reason sour beers are so hard to come by.
But our beloved Mitten State is living up to its beer-making reputation. We are not just producing delicious sours; we’re leading the pack.
Jolly Pumpkin Artisan Ales, with locations in Detroit, Ann Arbor, Traverse City and its original location in Dexter, Michigan, has become Michigan’s leading sour beer maker. Jolly Pumpkin has multiple sour beers on their roster, with new ones created every year, each with its own level of tartness. La Rioja, my favorite, is one of the most distinctive sour beers in Michigan.
Many sours are lighter in color and are akin to a cider, sometimes having a vinegar-like twang. Some sours borrow and take on flavors like green apple and citrus. But some, like Jolly Pumpkin’s La Rioja, are in their own category. La Rioja, while still being a sour beer, is actually an amber, with raspberry and citrus flavors rather than the apple taste many have.
While beers like La Rioja are enjoyable, they’re an acquired taste. For the beer drinker who is newer to sour beers, the Oarsman Ale by Bell’s is a standby that would be a good taste-tester. Citrus is the main flavor in this sour beer, and, if that bacteria thing creeped you out, the Oarsman Ale is not made with bacteria, just wheat and malt.
Breweries like Bell’s and Jolly Pumpkin are doing great things with all of their beers, let alone experimenting with their sours, but it can be easy for these bigger operations to experiment, as they both have the time and the money to spend on cultivating their sours. As of now, the only local brewery in the greater Lansing area experimenting with sours that we at City Pulse know of is Eagle Monk brewery, which currently has their Sour B-A Olde English on tap.
But even though you won’t currently find sours on every tap menu in the greater Lansing areas, the prospect of seeing more in the near future look good for those of us who love our sour beers.