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Some call sour beer “an acquired taste.” But why should it be hard to acquire? The average American eats more than eight pounds of pickles a year, and in my summer-camp days I’ve seen kids with Fun Dip addictions clamor for salt and vinegar potato chips. And yet sour beer is considered extreme, or as Lost Abbey brewer Tomme Arthur put it, “the final frontier” of expanding your beer palette.
Arthur and fellow sour beer ambassador Vinnie Cilurzo, of Russian River Brewing Company, led a private tasting at Savor this year, pouring two rare beers each. As it was a beer festival, these were extreme even by sour beer standards — but hey, pickle eaters have gone just as far. If you come across one of these rarities, challenge your palette and give it a shot.
Toronado 20th Anniversary (Russian River) — Russian River was commissioned to brew this to honor Toronado, San Francisco’s legendary beer bar. Cilurzo grew up on his parents’ winery, and this influence is clear in his techniques, from blending batches to putting wine yeast in his bottles (for what he describes as a mineral flavor).
The 20th Anniversary is a blend of five different beers, including a Belgian quad aged in bourbon barrels and two dark Belgians aged in red wine casks. The result was a deep, dark, and sweet sipper, which was delicious on its own but clashed with the puckery sourness of the wild yeast.
- Cable Car Ale (The Lost Abbey) — Poured a sunny apple-juice color and had a lovely sweet-tart flavor, though it smelled creamy, like Cream of Wheat with brown sugar. (Don’t ask me why.)
- Cuvee de Tomme (The Lost Abbey) — Tomme Arthur’s namesake begins as a Belgian strong brown ale brewed with raisins but is transformed in bourbon barrels where it soaks in the flavors of the added dried sour cherries. Dark brown and almost uncarbonated, it sipped sweet and hot —- the abv was measured at 10.5% before aging and had climbed in the barrel. The sourness here not only paired with the cherries but also balanced the intense sweetness that bourbon barrels can impart. It was only about 6:30 p.m. when we had this, but it felt like Cuvee de Tomme would be my favorite of the festival; sure enough, it held up to all contenders.
Beatification (Russian River) — Tasting this beer is almost a “see what happens” mental exercise. It’s 100% spontaneously fermented, which means all the yeast in it came naturally from the air in the brewery. To make it, Cilurzo took a cue from food safety guidelines and kept the brew at a sultry temperature range that you’re supposed to avoid: bacteria love it around 80 degrees F.
The flavor was all sourness, with aggressive grapefruit acidity that reluctantly faded into an oak finish. If you’re new to sour beer, this would send you straight to the spittoon. But if acidity’s your thing, Beatification is a sweet, delicious vinegar bath.