The current fad for sour and wild beers is a rebellion against standardisation. While it is currently in full flood, what roots it eventually puts down are yet to be seen and much will depend on ironing out problems with rogue acids such as acetic (i.e. vinegar), butyric (rancid butter), capryllic / octanoic (stale goats’ cheese) and isovaleric (parmesan), flavours that rarely if ever taste good in a beer.
Heritage beer styles that have perfected the use of sharp edges, musty aromas, citrus tang and sherried flavours to enhance and complement more regular beer flavour components have mostly been around for a couple of centuries – which is a lot of practice time.
The main purpose of the various new methods of producing sour and wild flavours is that they cut past the time-consuming, risky and highly skilled parts, and allow use simple, easily replicated techniques to get roughly inside the zone.
One exception to the cost-cutting rule is the recent elevation of Kveik beers, as a category of beer made utilising a mixed yeast culture deemed to be representative of those used in a disparate band of farmhouse ales, mostly in Scandinavia and around the Baltic rim.
Many international beer judges and writers hold the few heritage forms of traditionally acidic beers in the highest regard. Equally they tend to acknowledge that there are a few newer beers that have started to show some promise, albeit inconsistently. What is less pleasing is the fact that their creators appear intent on charging the same for these fast beers as are charged for their much slower and more accomplished role models.
One of the things that gets industrial brewing a bad name is the habit in large companies of prioritising cost saving over taste making. While craft brewers are usually of the technical-authentic persuasion, the complexities, skills and sheer expense of using oak casks to age beers makes corner-cutting highly appealing. Kettle-souring is a technique in which boiled wort is acidified, cooled, worked on by cultured microorganisms for a couple of days, sterilised and then returned to the fermentation vessel. This is said to emulate the souring that occurs via the slower, woodier route and in some ways it may. While a few kettle-soured beers seem nearly as good as authentic versions, thus far at least, many frogs need to be kissed before the occasional prince emerges.
Adding sweet things to sour things to soften their impact or mask flaws is a well-known principle in the food and drink business. The latest example of this is the fruit sour fad. With additives and extracts becoming evermore convincing, and sometimes delicious in their own right, we suspect it will not be the last.
The twin origins of the word ‘funk’ are from late 17th century England, meaning a strong or bad smell, and late 20th century North America, meaning jazzy, trendy or cool. This double meaning helps when trying to describe the key characteristics of this new category of beers in which fermentation relies mostly on cultured Brettanomyces yeast. They are definitely funky, though many to date feature acids that would persuade a maker of authentic Lambics to pour the beer away.
Kveik beers came into being in 2019, following painstaking research by Norwegian beer writer Lars Marius Garshol, who has traced dozens of local, originally farm-based beer cultures in northern Europe, which depend on making beers from locally available grains, fermented by yeast that is skimmed and reused. In the wild, as it were, they are often made to highly specific local rules but sharing a loose common theme of using much-recycled mixed yeast cultures for fermentation, often containing a soup of only partially recognised strains. Whether this is transferrable to commercial craft equivalent remains to be seen.
Blended or ‘cut’ beers
Many countries have or had lengthy traditions of blending beers of different styles, as opposed to different vintages. For example, in Flanders, the term versnijbier (sometimes versnijdbier or mengbier) most often refers to a beer made by blending a Lambic with an Ale, with the aim being to capture aspects of two different styles that would be difficult to conjure through a single production process. These are usually worth sourcing and trying.