They sound more like nasty infections than the ingredients used to make great craft beer.
Lactobacillus. Pediococcus. Brettanomyces.
But the first two, which are bacterias, and the third, a wild yeast, are the key ingredients in making sour beer, a style of craft beer that’s becoming more and more popular in Wichita, especially as the craft beer craze grows. Central Standard Brewing at 156 S. Greenwood is known for its sour beers – and for its sour-crazed brewer, Ian Crane. Most of the other local brewers either offer or are working on sour beers for their lineups, including Wichita Brewing Co., which just released its version. Sour beer also is for sale in many of Wichita’s most craft beer-centric liquor stores.
The flavor of sour beer is unique. It tends to taste a bit vinegar-y and funky, and it makes your mouth pucker. There’s no bitterness in a sour, and it drinks smooth. Many of them are fruity. Wine drinkers tend to love sour beers.
“It’s technically the oldest beer style in the word,” said Chris Arnold, whose River City Brewing Co. brews two different sours. “As people are finding them, they’re falling in love with them.”
Later this month, Arnold is putting on Wichita’s first Sour Beer Festival, where he’ll offer samples of a long lineup of sour beers produced by local breweries as well as some of the most popular sours from around the country. Tickets will go on sale next week, and the event will be at 6 p.m. May 19 at River City, 150 N. Mosley.
The first sour beers were made in Belgium, where brewers would let their beers sit outside to absorb the natural wild yeast in the air. Once upon a time, all beers were sour. It wasn’t until the past 160 years that the advent of refrigeration and microscopes that could isolate yeast cells that lager beers became the norm.
Belgian sours are still the standard, but American brewers have learned to make good sours, too, using a couple of different methods. One is quicker and involves accelerating bacteria growth with added temperature, said Crane, who sounds more like a scientist than a beer maker when he discusses his favorite topic. The other takes time and involves letting the beer sit for weeks, months or years in oak barrels. Central Standard recently acquired 7,000 feet of warehouse space near the brewery plus two dozen wine barrels, which they plan to use to expand their sour beer line.
“For 10 years before we were even a business, sour beers and funky beers were a big passion of mine,” said Crane, whose brewery almost always has one of its two standard sours on tap: Red Cicada or the dryer Hop Theory. “It’s something I’ve been working on for a long, long time. We love old-school Belgian tradition that falls right in line with sour beer. It’s definitely a big deal and a passion for us.”
The word “sour” has negative connotations, Crane said. So when he’s introducing people to sour beer, he has a rule.
“When I tell people about sour beer, and they’ve never had it before, an important rule that I try to give people is the three-sip rule,” he said. “You take the first sip, and your palate is going to be a bit shocked because of the acidity and the sourness. You need a a second sip to reevaluate and realize this isn’t too bad.”
By the third sip, Crane said, many people are hooked.
Sour beer comes in so many different varieties, from lightly tart and refreshing to mouth-puckering sour, that people can usually find one they like, Arnold said.
Those who love it, though, really love it.
“A lot of people who say they don’t like or drink beer at all will drink sour beer,” Arnold said. “It doesn’t taste like beer. It’s nothing like what they think about in a beer.”
Goebel Liquor at 352 S. West St. sells many types of sour beer, said owner Rob Miller. The interest in sours has exploded in the past three or four years, and he has a special section in his single bottle sales section dedicated to them.
Shopping for sour beer is difficult because they aren’t necessarily labeled as sour beers. People have to know what they’re looking for and educate themselves. Some of the most popular sours Miller carries, he said, are New Belgium’s La Folie, Duchesse De Bourgogne Belgian Ale, Silly Sour Belgian Ale, Cuvee Des Jacobins Rouge Flemish Sour Ale and Monk’s Cafe Flemish Sour Ale.
“People embrace it,” Miller said. “It’s not a fad. It’s been around a long, long time – hundreds and hundreds of years.”
Sour Beer Festival
What: A sampling of local and national sour beers
When: 6 p.m. May 19
Where: River City Brewing Co., 150 N. Mosley
Tickets: A price hasn’t been set yet, but tickets will go on sale next week at River City’s Facebook page