Courtesy of Rachel Mesaros

Sour beer — defined as a beer that has an intentionally acidic, tart or sour taste — has grown in popularity among microbreweries along the Central Coast. The surge and how the beer is produced has taken people by surprise.

“Sour beer and it’s how’s and why’s may never be completely understood,” head brewer and founder of MadeWest Brewery in Ventura Mike Morrison said.
With 518 microbreweries that opened in California in the past year, craft brewers are always looking for new ways to stand out, allowing sour beer to
gain momentum.

Graphic by Rachel Mesaros

The history
In the early 1900s — before the process of refrigeration and development of fermentation — all beers could be considered sour because they were brewed in an open container, which allowed yeast in the air to ferment the beer, giving it a sour taste. It wasn’t until 1996 that the process of using wild yeast in an open wooden-aged barrel was discovered as the fermentation method behind creating sour beer.

According to the New Yorker, William Reed — a former brewer at the Boston Beer Company — accidentally brewed one of the first commonly known sour beers in 1996. Described as tasting like a liquid Sour Patch Kid, Reed called the sour The Brewhouse Tart. It was a Flanders red ale, meaning it was fermented with a mixture of conventional and wild yeasts. Two local breweries — Libertine and Barrelhouse — are at the forefront of increasing sour beer options in San Luis Obispo.

Bringing sour beers to San Luis Obispo
Libertine started in Morro Bay, California and specializes in creating a variety of sour beers, or as they like to call them, Wild Ales. Libertine’s brewing process is done at both the Morro Bay and downtown San Luis Obispo locations.

“Most of the process is the same as a clean beer brewery: grain is ground in the mill, the ground grain meets with the hot water and then gets boiled and hops are added to it,” Libertine head brewer Dan Miller said. “The thing that separates us [Libertine] from clean beer breweries is that we cool it down quickly and then put it in an open top fermentation vessel for about two to three days.”

The open top fermentation vessel is visible to any customer who walks into the downtown San Luis Obispo Libertine, which offers customers insight to the process behind the beer they are about to order. However, this is only half of the process in creating a Libertine sour.

“Generally the beer will sit in the open top fermentation for about three days until most of the sugar has been converted into alcohol … Then we transfer it to our production facility in Santa Maria where most of our oak aging happens and the flavor is added,” Miller said.

A rising trend
When creating a fruity wild ale, Libertine adds whole pieces of fruit into the barrel and lets the yeast eat it to create the discrete flavor. This is common for most breweries that create sour beers. Uncommon to other local breweries in the area, Libertine uses Morro Bay salt water to create one of its most iconic sour beers.

“I recently turned 21 and tried my first sour beer the other day. It was the Morro Rock Gose from Libertine, which I later found out is brewed with seawater from Morro Bay and avocado honey,” sociology junior Lauren Ashworth said. “Sour beer is becoming one of my favorite types of beers, but I also have yet to try a variety of different beers since I’m used to drinking whatever is cheapest.”

Graphic by Rachel Mesaros

While students may be attracted to sour beer’s unique taste, they tend to be discouraged by the price. Sour beers are usually more expensive than other types of beer, such as IPAs or Porters.

“There is a price difference when it comes to sour beers, you won’t see sour beers hitting market price at, like, seven bucks for a bottle,” BarrelHouse Brewery manager John Pranjic said. “They require a lot more time, both either in a barrel or in a coolship or however you are storing them. The price structure comes out more like a bottle of wine; the longer you have it in the barrel, the better ingredients you use, how long you store it, that all affects the price.”

Despite the higher price of its sour beers, BarrelHouse increased their sour beer production by at least 1,000 percent since last year. Pranjic explained that the demand for sour beer has increased, from customers asking for it more and from brewers at BarrelHouse wanting a challenge. The goal for BarrelHouse Brewery is to keep up with the sour beer trend by introducing a third sour beer in the next year.

“It’s very artful how a sour brewer gets the final product, it requires a lot of work, but it’s worth it,” Pranjic said.

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