Scott Lewin Ventures into the California Sour Beer Scene, Sept 22-25, 2016
Have you ever been handed an opportunity so awesome that you had to pinch yourself to make sure it was real life? I recently found myself in such a situation: I was fortunate enough to be chosen, along with one of our brewers, Gary Jollimore, to make a pilgrimage to California to visit one of our 20th anniversary collaboration partner breweries.
The reason this particular weekend had been chosen for our trip was a special one: on Saturday, September 24, BarrelHouse would be hosting the inaugural Central Coast Sour Festival, the first of its kind in the area. It was going to be Sour Mecca: a place for lovers of tart, complex, funky, wild ales to sample as much of the stuff as they could handle.
A quick primer on sour beer: it has its roots in Belgium, with centuries-old breweries such as Cantillon using open fermenters to allow the wild yeasts and bacteria present in the air to ferment their beer, and then aging in barrels or massive wooden tanks called foeders. Like many traditional beer styles, North American craft brewers got their hands on it and immediately began to push it to the extreme.
In Ontario, sour beer production is in its infancy, and it’s still a rare thing to find sours on tap in bars and at the LCBO and Beer Store. The category is definitely starting to grow, with small releases of barrel-aged sours found periodically at some of Ontario’s more adventurous brewing operations. The trend has been slower to catch on than some others because sour beer production is not something you can simply add to your regular brewing schedule. Sour beer gets its character from a variety of fermentation agents, usually in combination with traditional Brewer’s yeast (Saccharomyces). Brettanomyces, Lactobacillus, and Pediococcus are the most common players in the world of funky fermentation, the first being a different breed of yeast, the latter two being types of bacteria. The resulting product tastes nothing like what one would consider a “regular” beer.
We got right to work, hopping from tent to tent, sampling wild creations from iconic breweries and recent upstarts alike. I started with the beer that had travelled furthest for the festival, from an American legend in Belgian-style ales - the Golden Brett by Allagash Brewing in Portland, Maine. It was a nice 6.5% brettanomyces-fermented American wild ale. Nicely balanced with some funk from the Brett, it was a great starting point. From there things get a bit hazy, but I did make a point of writing down anything that blew my mind. The list of breweries on hand was enough to weaken the knees of any serious beer nerd. Well-established California breweries Green Flash, The Lost Abbey, The Bruery, Lagunitas, and Firestone Walker were on hand, as well as plenty of new and upcoming outfits such as Council, Libertine, Corralitos, Telegraph, Almanac, and Modern Times. BarrelHouse had their own offerings on tap of course, including the release of Rosiline, a strawberry rose sour that was put into French oak barrels back in 2014. The highlight of the day for me, was Dionysus. They had both my top choice of the day, as well as the most interesting beer I tried. “Super Funkadelic” was a gose dry-hopped with Mosaic and was just bursting with notes of guava and just the right amount of sour punchiness, while their “Peach on Through” was unlike anything I had ever tasted. It was cobbler in a glass, with peach, vanilla, cinnamon, and a light tartness.
Hanging out around the campfire with the brewers sharing bottles, there was non-stop trading of tips, tricks, and advice. To me, this was the part that made this such a unique festival. For most beer fests, you show up in the morning, set up, pour all day, tear down, and either hit the road for home or crash in a hotel. Having everyone camping out together the night before as well as after the event made it such a great community-building weekend. It reinforces for me once again how important it is for craft breweries to get along as the industry gets more crowded and competitive in Ontario.
I was pretty beat by the end of the day, but made sure to stick around the fire where some bottles from the Rare Barrel were passed around, and people gathered around for another round of Hammerschlagen. A keg of Templeton, BHBC’s light, simple gateway beer, was hooked up. It was exactly what I needed after drinking sours all day long. We took turns plugging our phones into a speaker to bust out our favourite 90s/early 00s pop jams and an impromptu dance party went down.
By midnight I hit the air mattress in the teepee, exhausted, sunburnt, and confident that I had just experienced a weekend that will be very tough to top.
Thank you to BarrelHouse Brewing Co. for being incredibly welcoming hosts. For a few days, we were part of the California sour beer scene and it’s something I’ll never forget.