Two of Birmingham’s major independent breweries are introducing — nearly simultaneously — new product lines: a category of beer known broadly as “sour beer” that, until fairly recently, has mostly been the province of serious beer aficionados. The style has been catching on around the United States over the several years, earning increasingly frequent write-ups in popular periodicals and appearing at more and more local breweries — including, now, both Good People and Avondale Brewing.
Sour beer is the result of a brewer intentionally going against the grain of pasteurization and exposing the beer, over a long period of time, to various bacteria that many generations of brewers had painstakingly sought to eradicate from their product. The custom, as with many unusual and unique varieties of beer brewing, is a Belgian one, perfected over many generations. In contrast to the sterile environments maintained in other forms of brewing, sours are fermented over very long periods of time (sometimes up to four years) in wood barrels and made to mingle with bacteria in an almost alchemical process that is distinctly old-world. Sometimes, for instance, the barrels are Burgundy wine barrels, to give the beer an unexpected flavor; in fact, some sours taste more like wine than beer, and they are similarly acidic.
The beers at Avondale’s “Sour Room” and Good People’s “Funk Farm” will also include a kind of subset of this genre, known as “wild ales,” a style that has been cultivated particularly enthusiastically in the United States. It tends to have a sort of musty, yet also wine-like flavor; as with most of the beers in this category, its flavor is very difficult to describe.
The main secret behind wild ales, the common denominator, is often a genus of yeast called Brettanomyces — generally called “Brett” for short. As described by The New York Times, Brett is “a cousin of the domesticated yeasts that humans have brewed with for thousands of years. Often called wild yeast — a reference to its natural habitat (fruit skins) and to its volatile temperament — [it] can lead to unpredictable fermentations and gushing beer bottles, aromas politely described as funky, and fear. Most brewers work hard to keep it out of their tanks by sterilizing every piece of equipment.” Those who brew sours, however, welcome it into their tanks and barrels.
Avondale’s “Sour Room” will occupy a separate building from the rest of the brewery (though this is partly out of necessity, as a brewer wants to avoid the exotic bacteria and yeast strains from sours mixing with the more conventional beers). They were inspired to carry out the project by Wicked Weed, a brewery in Asheville, North Carolina, that has a separate tasting room called the “Funkatorium” where all their wild and sour oddities are served.
The brewery is rolling this project out at a large scale. According to Darnell, they will be “trying to open with 10 to 12. We have 12 taps [in the new, separate tasting room]; not all of them are going to be wild and sours — we’re going to have a couple of clean beers for the people that might not enjoy that but they want to come over here — so we’ll have like a regular saison and tripel, and the others are going to be a mixture between Brettanomyces beers, some kettle sours and some barrel-aged sours as well. So yeah, we’re hoping to at least open with 10 to 12, and then try to keep a good, hopefully eight to 10 at all times — if our production can keep up and handle it, that is.”
The Sour Room is located in the other half of a building that houses the restaurant Wasabi Juan’s, just across the parking lot from Avondale’s sprawling backyard and large brewery and tasting room. Darnell says that they expect to have it open by Friday, August 26, though it may be open sooner if they can put the finishing touches on it in time. Anyhow, according to Darnell, it has been in the making for a long time: “We first started talking about the sour room probably about a year and a half ago, and it probably took us about six months to get planned and in place and we’ve been working on it ever since.”
Meanwhile, across town, the folks at Good People are hard at work on their own offering in this genre, a project that has been dubbed the “Funk Farm” (after that funky scent and the flavors that accompany it). As Good People describes their new offerings, they are “mixed-fermentation sour ales,” fermented with “non-traditional microbes and wild yeast,” and they will be available on a somewhat-regular basis — another of the many idiosyncrasies of sour beers is that they are unpredictable, as to some degree they are at the mercy of the yeasts and microorganisms that make them what they are.
Good People’s sour beers have been waiting a long time to surface as well, as co-founder Jason Malone explained: “We really started curing our first barrels and filling them up in the fall of last year, so October 2015. That’s when we started doing our full-on production; prior to that, we did [research and development], test batches and the like, for about a year or so.”
The Funk Farm’s first offering will be “a sour blonde ale,” said Malone. “The best way to really describe it is that it is a mixed-fermentation sour blonde ale. We aged that for about eight months in oak wine barrels and blended it with raspberries and blackberries.”
The next offering — Good People are rolling theirs out more slowly than Avondale, essentially one at a time — will be a farmhouse ale fermented with Brett yeast. “It was also aged in oak barrels for roughly the same amount of time,” Malone explained. “And this is slightly technical, but during the aging process in the barrel, that’s when the tartness and the sourness and flavor development happens for both beers. That’s why it takes so long: because of the microbiological activity going on in the oak barrels.”
Avondale’s offerings will only be available on tap at the tasting room at first, but they hope to have bottled offerings within about four to six weeks. Good People will be selling their sours in bottles that will also only be available at the brewery itself — at least at first. Both companies intend to scale up their sour beer operations, though, assuming the products are well-received by the buying public.