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Taste for sour beer may be due to evolution

sourThe power of sour is undeniable. For centuries, breweries have been making sour beers that range from mildly tart to toe-curling, tooth enamel-eating sour. Sour beers that go by names like gose (pronounced go-zah), lambic, Berliner Weiss and more are seeing a surge in popularity rivaled only by the IPA craze of the past few years. And, with the hot, humid summer months coming, you will see more and more of these thirst-quenching beers on local shelves.

But, why do we humans have such a craving for sour things? It all goes back to biology. Sour tastes are generally associated with acids that are found in relatively few places when it comes to food. Somewhere in our evolutionary history, we lost the ability to synthesize vitamin C meaning that we had to get it from our environment in the form of food. Acids in the form of vitamin C are key nutrients in holding off a number of deadly conditions like scurvy and also help to build our immune systems. Since sour meant acid to our ancestors and that satisfied our body’s need for vitamin C, our collective physiology made us seek out acidic foods like citrus fruits.

Now that we have an idea why some of us are inclined to enjoy sour flavors, let’s take a look at how sour beer developed.

Before yeast was discovered in the late 1800’s, most beers were at least a little sour. This was because the role of yeast was not known to brewers and beer was usually brewed using open-topped fermentation vessels. Wild yeast “infected” the sugary pre-beer liquid known as wort and caused the magical process of fermentation to occur.

Once the properties of yeast were understood, breweries began to control the amount of sour flavors in their beers. Some breweries, particularly those in Belgium continued allowing their wort to “spontaneously ferment” by withholding yeast and allowing natural yeast to inoculate the liquid. From these breweries come beers such as gueuze, an intensely sour beer created from blending one, two and three year-old lambic ales.

Other sour styles such as German goze, are produced by intentionally adding yeast strains that add sour flavors to the finished beer. This style is also characterized by the addition of salt and coriander. Yet another style is Berliner Weiss a German wheat beer made with Lactobacillus bacteria and usually, but not always, served with flavored syrup. Yet another sour beer is Flanders Red named for the area of Belgium where it is made as well as the red color and sour flavor it obtains from the red wine barrels it is aged in.

Sour beers have emerged as one of the hot trends in craft beer today. You can look forward to more and more sour beer produced by craft brewers in the coming months and years.

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Posted by on June 15, 2017 in Beer, Beer Styles

 

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Sour Beer, Warm People

Traditional wooden lambic barrels; the L on th...

Image via Wikipedia

Back in late February and early March of this year, I had the opportunity and pleasure to take a nine day pilgrimage to the Mecca of beer: Belgium. While I was there I tasted nearly 50 different beers and fell in love with nearly all of them. But, even with the astounding variety and selection available in that great country, my mind kept wandering back to the first beer I tried – just a couple of hours off the airplane – in Brussels.

I found myself wandering in the city center historical district as night fell and the city began to light up and transform into a magical fairy tale land. It was damp with the near constant mist that this part of the world gets and the air was cold on its way to frigid. I wrapped my jaunty red scarf around my neck and snuggled into my wool coat as I walked through the cityscape.

At last I found myself standing in front of a bar that looked both inviting and adventurous. Sitting at tables outside the place were several patrons sipping at their beers, seemingly oblivious to the elements, laughing and joking. I stepped inside and was immediately awed at the bar with it brass beer tower running the length of it. There had to be 40 taps, all with Belgian beers, all calling my name.

But, before I had left the United States I made a pact with myself to try a specific type of beer first upon arrival in Belgium. I wanted a beer that was out-of-the-ordinary for a wayward gentleman from Jacksonville, FL. Something that was rare if not non-existent back home. I had promised myself a gueuze as my first Belgian brew.

Gueuze is often referred to as the champagne of the beer world for its effervescent, acidic, and very dry flavor. It is also a brew that is extremely limited in production as it can only be produced in a very small geographic area immediately south of Brussels, Belgium. The reason for this is two-fold. First, gueuze is a spontaneously fermented beer, meaning that yeast is not added by the brewer; rather wild yeast is allowed to inoculate the beer while it cools in a large, open copper tub usually in a room on the upper levels of the brewery with open windows to let the yeast blow in. This yeast is only found in the river valley of the Sienne near Brussels. The second reason that gueuze can only be produced in this region is that Belgian and European law governs the production of this beer and allows it only in the designated appellation region.

To understand why this beer is so special and why I chose it as my first beer in Belgium, you need to have an understanding of what it takes to make this unusual beverage. It goes beyond the spontaneous fermentation; there is also an extensive aging process. Gueuze is a blend of several lambic beers that have been aged in either oak or chestnut barrels. Lambics require an extensive amount of time to fully ferment – up to three years. Gueuze is made of older, three-year-old lambics blended with younger one- and two-year-old brews. The older beer imparts the majority of the flavor and aroma characters while the younger brews supply sugars to restart the fermentation process. A good gueuze will be allowed to ferment at least one additional year, but unlike most beers, this brew can be cellared and aged for up to 20 years. The flavor will mellow and deepen, just as a wine’s, the longer it spends in the cellar.

Back in Brussels, I sat near the end of the bar and smiled at the pretty waitress sitting two stools down at the end. Later we struck up a lively conversation about beer and how different American beer was from Belgian. The bartender asked in French what I would like to drink, when he realized I was American he switched seamlessly to English and repeated his query. I explained what I had decided and asked for him to make a suggestion. I immediately went to a tap and drew a tulip glass of a deep golden liquid with a slight haze; he made sure that the pour had a rich head that he scraped even to the top of the glass with a beer knife. Before he sat it down he looked at me and asked if I was sure I wanted this beer, he warned that it was very different than any other beer I have ever tasted. I assured him that that was what I wanted and he set it down in front of me. He explained that I was about to taste one of the best gueuze beers brewed in Belgium: Cantillon Lou Pepe gueuze.

The pretty waitress watched with a mischievous smile as I smelled the beer. My eyes must have gotten quite wide as the waitress and other staff let out a small laugh at my expense. The aroma filled my nose with a plethora of surprises. I could smell sour apple and grape along with vinegar and grass. There were notes of cherry and, of all things, a musty old blanket that evoked a barn in the summer; not unpleasant, more reassuring and homey. There was also the famous Belgian funk, a smell that is hard to describe, but easily identified when you smell it.

I brought the glass to my lips and took my first sip. An explosion went off in my mouth as the intensely sour flavor of the beer shocked my uneducated palate before it mellowed and flavor nuances began to unfold. I could begin to taste the sour apple and fruit flavors my nose had detected, but I also noticed oak from the aging barrels along with citrus notes from the hops. Lemon rind and earthy notes began to creep into the sweet, clean finish. Again, the staff laughed, but it was a friendly laugh, welcoming and knowing. They all could tell that that first sip had hooked me and gueuze had just shot to the top of my list of favorite beers.

Anais, the waitress, informed me that most Americans do not react as I did. Most take a sip of a gueuze and immediately ask for something else. After a brief burst of French conversation with the rest of the staff that had gathered around (it was a very slow night in the bar), she announced that my first few beers, including the gueuze were on the house if I agreed to allow them to suggest my next few choices. I readily agreed and, for the next couple of hours, had a delightful evening tasting new beers and making new friends.

Some gueuze to look for and try:

Cantillon Gueuze 100% Lambic, Brasserie Cantillon
Aromas of the barn with pleasant funk and lemon. Flavor of lime with an acidic, tart finish.

Oude Gueuze, Hanssens Artisanaal
Citrus, oak, and florals on the nose. Big wood and earth on first sip with a sour apple, dry finish.

St. Louis Gueuze Fond Tradition, Brouwerij Van Honesebrouck
This golden amber brew smells of tart lemon and green apple. The flavor is sour, fruity, and funky.

At the end of the evening I understood why many people fall in love with the country of Belgium. It certainly isn’t for the weather; it’s for the people and their passionate love of beer. These people were friendly beyond anything I had experienced before. They embraced a fellow beer lover and ushered me into their world of extraordinary beers with a fervor that was astounding. They were remarkable in every way and I can’t wait to go back again.

Until next time,

Long Live the Brewers!

Cheers!

Marc Wisdom

 
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Posted by on October 7, 2011 in Beer, Beer Styles, Belgian

 

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Belgium: The Adventure Begins

Flying, especially flying in coach is exhausting enough for short trips. Try flying in cattle class from Atlanta to Brussels, Belgium. Nine hours of uncomfortable seats, bad food, edited movies, and a man who smelled like the inside of a shoe that was used to store rotting fish. I just kept telling myself that the reward would be a vacation of a lifetime, marveling at the sites of Belgium, drinking the beer, eating the food.

Within less than an hour I was indoctrinated into international travel in nearly the worst way possible; a team of pick-pockets stole my wallet. They got my credit cards and about $100. But, the upside is that they did not get my passport. That little blessing saved me what would surely would have have been an excruciating trip to the American Embassy. As it was, the Brussels police were difficult enough to deal with.

When I arrived at the police station, the desk officer just stared at me and, after a few minutes, said, “Je ne parle, Anglase.” This, in French means, “You’re screwed.” OK, really it means, “I do not speak English.” But, what it amounted to was my first translation.

Apparently the Belgian justice system has not caught on to the fact that Great Britain is only a few miles off of their coast. So, while French, Dutch, and German are recognized languages in Belgium, English is not. After waiting for what seemed like hours an officer arrived to take my statement, I was finally taken to the back for interrogation. That is exactly what they called it, too: interrogation. I pictured a smoky back room, lit with only a single, bare light bulb hanging from the ceiling, a plain wooden chair in the middle, and devices of medieval torture hanging from the walls. Where he took me was a dingy office with an ancient PC and torn cloth office chairs.

The interrogation consisted of the officer first informing me that the report he will write is unofficial and therefore will most likely not result in a prosecution even if they catch the thieves. Contrary to the desk officer, this one was much friendlier and spoke perfect English. For the next hour I went through the details of the theft.

I was getting onto the Metro train.

A pretty girl stopped short in front of me.

I ran into her.

Her partner – another pretty girl – bumped into me from behind.

Both the girls immediately got off the train.

The doors closed.

I saw them with my wallet.

The world crashed down around me.

I must have told the story three or four times. Finally, after two hours at the lovely Brussels police station, I was released and pointed in the direction of my hotel.

Three hours in Belgium and I still had not had a beer. The world was not right.

I called my credit card company and was informed that they could not get new cards to me for five or six days. This presented a whole new problem since my ATM card had been lifted, with my wallet and all I had was 280 euro to last me nine days. Somehow I did not think that would cut the proverbial mustard. So, pride in my pocket, I called home to Florida, informed my parents of the situation and, like any son in Europe alone for the first time, asked them to wire me money. They did and the weight of the world was lifted to a degree.

For the rest of the day I made it my mission to shake the bad welcome and find some good beer. But, first I had to check in to my hotel. I had booked my stay ahead of time in a small boutique hotel about two blocks from the Metro line. It was situated in a residential area full of four and five story buildings, one right up next to the other with no space in between. This is typical in Europe in the cities. I was pleasantly surprised at its old world charm and cleanliness. At only 43 euro a night, the tiny single room I had was comfortable and functional. Since I only planned on sleeping there, it was all I needed. I showered, shaved and put on clean clothes (after nearly 28 hours of travel, pick-pockets, police, and financial straightening I really needed this).

About 6:00 PM I steeled my nerves and took the Metro again. This time with my money and Passport safely zipped in and inner pocket of my coat. The Metro was full of people leaving work, going to dinner, or heading to the Centrum District to drink. The atmosphere was lively and friendly.

I left the Metro station and walked out into Brussels’ historic city center, the Centrum, and strolled cobblestone streets looking for the right place for my first beer. The smells of sweet waffles filled the air and a cart selling them appeared as I rounded a corner. The line was not long so I joined it and got a hot-off-the-waffle-iron treat. The batter is not the same as we know it in the States. It is much sweeter and the sugar in it is grainy. But, the first bite assured me that this would not be my last Belgian waffle in Belgium.

Hunger satisfied for the moment, I continued my search for a cold Belgian beer. I found it in a place called Madou Lambic. As I walked in I was greeted cheerfully in French, but as soon as the staff understood I was American they effortlessly switched to English. I ordered my first beer, a gueuze (pronounced gooze) from Cantillon Brewery, a local Brussels brewery. Before he poured it, the bartender made sure I understood that it is a very sour beer. I assured him I was aware of this and asked him to pour it anyway.

The beer is a light golden color with good carbonation and a frothy head. I later learned that any Belgian worth his weight in salt will not serve a beer without a head. I watched a bartender later in the week stir a beer with a straw because the head had dissipated too quickly.

The first sip was a shock to the senses, when they say sour they really mean it. But, it wasn’t sour in a bad way. On the contrary it was refreshing like very tart lemonade can be on a hot summer day. I struck up a conversation with another bar patron and soon we were laughing and telling stories. The bar was slow so many of the staff came over and joined us. Several rounds were purchased for me because they wanted me to taste their favorite beers. But, when it was my turn to buy, they would not let me pay. These Belgian people – pick-pockets excepted – are pretty nice folks.

After spending a couple of hours in the bar, the jet lag was catching up to me. It had been nearly 36 hours since I had slept and it was time to remedy that situation. One of the bar staff escorted me to the appropriate Metro station and pointed me in the right direction. Mind you, I was not drunk, they were just being friendly. I found that to be a universal theme while in Belgium, the people truly are helpful and accommodating.

Below are the beers I drank my first day in Brussels Belgium. I kept a list and will add the beers I drank with the appropriate article.

Jupiler, a mild 5.2% ABV lager made with maize (corn). This beer is the working-man’s beer of Belgium and is available everywhere – including vending machines in the train stations.

Chimay Rouge(Red), a flavorful, copper colored brew that weighs in at 7% ABV. Wonderful, tasty, and fruity, this beer reveals a subtle apricot flavor as you sip.

IV Saison, a sweet, frothy brew with a medium head. Lots of fruitiness, particularly pineapple and apricot, pours a cloudy, but bright yellow. Easily drinkable and definitely a beer I would drink again and again. Indeed, I brought a bottle of it home with me.

That brings my first report to an end. There will be much more in the coming days.

Long Live the Brewers!

Cheers!

Marc Wisdom

 
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Posted by on March 27, 2011 in Beer, Travel

 

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