Lauren Woods Salazar, the wood cellar director and blender for New Belgium Brewing in Fort Collins, Colorado, has a sour beer problem.
She loves sour beers when they are complex and meditative. She adores them when they’re refreshing and simple. The problem is to find just a few words to let consumers know what to expect from a growing genre of beers that are, yes, sour, but also something else. Producers of these beers, intent on finding language to better describe differences within the style, have so far been stymied.
Salazar hoped that those attending her learning session at BevCon in Charleston, South Carolina, in August—titled Sour Beer Omnibus—might provide new input. “We’ll all get on the bus and try to figure this out together,” she said at the outset. An hour later the attendees had a better idea not just about what makes one sour beer different from another but of the challenge brewers face in describing that difference in a few words, but Salazar didn’t walk away with any new suggestions.
“It’s a fun conversation to have,” she said. “I think we’ll be having it for years.”
She and several other brewers were more optimistic in the spring of 2016, when they began what she called an “amazing crusade” to find a way to distinguish these beers based on the way they were produced. “A year went by, and we could not agree on one thing,” she said. For instance, when they showed others colleagues in the industry labels with logos meant to indicate whether beers were made in stainless steel vessels or wooden ones, “Nobody knew what they meant.”
Salazar served two beers at BevCon that illustrate how production can differ, and therefore how different the resulting beers may be—Tartastic Lemon Ginger Sour Ale, which is made relatively quickly in stainless steel tanks, and La Folie Sour Ale, which is matured in massive oak barrels known as foeders for up to three years.
“How do you differentiate?” she asked. “How do you explain the difference between a beer that’s been part of your life for years and one you can make in 10 days?”
The label for La Folie proudly touts its oak barrel pedigree. The label for Tartastic does not call it a “stainless sour,” although well into the attempt to write a description of 18 words, Salazar thought it might. But then she sat down with members of the marketing department. “They said, ‘You’ve got to be kidding me. You want me us to say this is a lesser beer?’” Salazar said. “They giggled at me.”
While she doesn’t consider sour beers that touch only stainless steel any lesser — “It’s okay to be simple, clean, funky” — she understands that if it were possible to create an index that measured the “complexity” of a sour beer, consumers would equate “less complex” with “lesser beer.”
She’s seen that with the description “more sour.” “Everybody wants the most sour beer possible. I’m confused by that,” she said. She would not like to see measures of acidity that are useful to a brewer, such as pH and titratable acidity (TA), used the way IBUs (international bitterness units) were a decade ago. “That was an ugly time,” she said, when brewers bragged about how much bitterness they could jam in a beer, and drinkers ranked beers based on listed IBU.
Salazar may consider more than 20 kinds of measures when she’s blending, of which pH (the lower the number, the more acidic) and TA (a higher value is more acidic) are just two. “They can be great if you use them as tools to educate,” she said, “but not as weapons.”
As Salazar predicted at the end of her session, the conversation will continue. Meanwhile, she observed while confessing she is as guilty as anybody, brewers default to calling members of a diverse family sour beer.
“Every day,” she said. “I try to figure out how to break these words apart.”
Stan Hieronymus has been writing about beer since 1993, including hundreds of articles for scores of publications and eight books – the most recent being Brewing Local. Find him on Twitter.