Foeder for thought
Is the popularity of sour beer on the wane?
Sunday 14 March 2021
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I remember my first proper experience with a sour beer like it was yesterday. Sat in the window of famed Bruges’ beer café ‘t Brugs Beertje one evening in the summer of 2012, I recall thumbing through its dauntingly large beer list for some time, before eventually deciding I would like to kick back with a bottle of Cantillon Gueuze.
Although I’d tried sour beers before, these experiences had been fleeting and did not cement themselves to my psyche in the same way as the one I was about to have ultimately did. They had been part of tasting flights on my visits to taprooms in the United States, or at bottle shares with friends, which were still a pretty infrequent thing for me back then, as I was an IPA fiend first and foremost.
This was different however, it was just me, my partner Dianne, and a couple of hours stretched ahead of us with nothing else to do other than enjoy some tasty beer, chat inanities and watch the world go by around us. My idea of a perfect evening.
It allowed me to focus fully on what I was drinking—the intense tartness of the first sip, that mellowed to reveal notes of fresh lemon juice and prickly gooseberry as my palate adjusted to the beer's remarkable acidity. What I found most interesting about this experience was not its initial shock value, but that after a few sips how balanced and insanely drinkable it was. I remember excitedly handing the glass to Dianne a few sips in. “You’ve got to try this,” I proclaimed.
“Eurgh,” she said, scrunching her nose up at the beer and reacting in a way I will never, ever forget. “It smells like the first piss of the day.”
Fear not, though. Times change, and eventually sour beers would be a gateway into greater beer appreciation for her also (in fact these days, Hackney Brewery’s excellent Millions of Peaches fruit sour is one of her all time favourites.)
After that fateful bottle of Gueuze my own journey into the world of sour beer continued with aplomb. It would take me from the foeder halls of New Belgium in Colorado, to those at both Boon and Rodenbach in Belgium. I visited as many breweries making sour beer as possible, like The Rare Barrel in California, and Garage Project’s Wild Workshop in Wellington, New Zealand. Meanwhile, my cellar filled with an increasingly large selection of lambic, gueuze and whatever other acidic delights I could get my grubby hands on.
For a while it felt like this was the pinnacle of beer to me, and I embraced it dearly. I’d even declare a “Sour Sunday” each weekend, so I had an excuse to work through my growing stash.
But recently, I realised my interest for sour beer has waned, somewhat. My cellar is largely depleted now, bar the odd bottle from a couple of favourites like Burning Sky or Mills. Instead I prefer the quick fix and satisfaction from cans of lager and IPA. I rarely find an excuse to open a big bottle. Perhaps it’s just a symptom of lockdown, or changing tastes.
I also considered, however, that it might be part of a wider trend among beer enthusiasts and that not just my enthusiasm is on the wane. When was the last time you invested in some sour beer? Did you pick out a special bottle of farmhouse saison recently? Or like me, do you beeline for the relative comfort of IPA and lager more often than not...
These thoughts were, in part, spurred on by a blog post BrewDog founder James Watt posted on his LinkedIn profile in November 2020. Titled “My 10 Biggest Mistakes as BrewDog’s CEO” in a somewhat uncharacteristic turn, Watt dove into a few instances when things didn’t go quite to plan for his business. One particular entry on the list that caught my attention was about the Scottish brewery’s Overworks sour beer project, subtitled “Oversized Overworks.”
“We mistakenly misread the market for sour beers and put together an amazing facility that was simply far too big,” the post read. “Consequently, we were under pressure from the outset and ended up making far too many different sour beers than we could hardly even keep up with what was going on.”
Overworks went as far as putting a beer called Funk Punk (which was not explicitly a “sour” beer, but was certainly funky) into a national supermarket chain. Having seen breweries in the US like New Belgium, Allagash and Russian River scale up sour beer production significantly, I assumed that Overworks would do the same for these styles in the UK. Sour beer for the people, so to speak. On reading Watt’s post however, I was surprised to learn this wasn’t going to be the case for now.
“Rather than look to scale it, we are just going to cap it at 1,000hL (100,000 litres) each year and focus on making the absolute best sour beers that we can,” Watt tells me in an email after I contacted him to ask why he decided to halt plans to expand BrewDog’s sour beer facility. “We started [Overworks] because we adore sour beers and we still do, but we just realised that the market for these beers is pretty small, and likely to stay pretty small in the UK.”
The market for these beers is pretty small, and likely to stay pretty small in the UK
A foeder is a large oak vat, commonly used in the making of wine and cider, and now increasingly popular with brewers making sour beer. Visit a modern brewery and you’re almost certain to spot one (but sometimes no more than that.) Much larger than a wine barrel, reduced surface area means that less beer comes into contact with wood during maturation, so the resulting beer picks up less tannin (and therefore is less cloying on your palate) as a result. While BrewDog has a handful at its facility up in Ellon, at New Belgium in Fort Collins, Colorado, 64 of these vessels—each holding up to 20,000 litres of beer—tower above you in a warehouse they affectionately refer to at the brewery as “the Foeder Forest.”
“I won’t lie. It has not been easy,” Andrew Emerton innovation & speciality brand manager at New Belgium tells me when I ask how challenging it is to find a market for such a large amount of sour beer. While the Colorado brewery’s master blender Lauren Limbach is responsible for what goes in the bottle, Emerton takes charge of making sure it’s something you want to buy.
“Maneuvering about 60 foeders of sour beer around a rapidly changing craft beer market is like a sloth trying to catch a bumblebee,” he says. “However, to this day, I don’t think we’ve had to drain a single foeder due to lack of an outlet and it’s simply due to a ton of planning, research, and some amazing retail partners.”
Perhaps best known for its dark sour ale La Folie, and golden dry-hopped sour Le Terroir, Emerton oversaw these beers transition from annual specials to being available year round, further cementing their popularity. While he’s invested in plenty of one off, limited run sour beers in wine-sized bottles to create a little hype around the brand, he’s also done something a little more off kilter—put a year round, foeder sour beer into cans. The resulting beer, the simply called ‘Sour IPA’ was a 30% blend of foeder beer with a fresh, Citra-hopped IPA.
In the US, New Belgium are not alone in that they’ve successfully managed to produce what any brewer in the UK would consider a “large scale” sour beer program. I was curious to find out from Andrew why he thinks what has worked in the US hasn’t seen the same success on the other side of the Atlantic.
“To be honest, I don’t know that there’s a large appetite for wood-aged sour beers [in the US] but there is a large appetite for just ‘sour beer,’” he says. “I don’t think drinkers in the US care whether it’s wood-aged or kettle soured. What matters is the word ‘sour’ has made a small leap from the fringes and into the ‘early majority’ of craft drinkers.”
Shifting huge volumes is something most producers of sour beer don’t really have to think about. Take, for example, Gloucestershire’s Mills Brewing. Back in 2017 when I first tasted Foxbic, their incredible beer/cider hybrid produced in collaboration with lauded cidermaker Tom Oliver, I was able to pick up half a dozen bottles with relative ease. Now the beers, made by husband and wife owners Jonny and Gen Mills, often sell out within 10 minutes of them going live on their online shop.
In fact, come to think of it, I used to find a lot of my favourite sour beers easy to pick up at leisure. Take for example some of the aforementioned gueuze... Perhaps it’s the growing exclusivity of sour beer, and the effort involved with its purchase, that has caused my drift back to the comfort of beers I can obtain whenever I want.
“I think we would potentially have to start putting a significant portion in keg to try and shift a significant increase in our output. But that’s only a guess,” Jonny Mills tells me when I ask if he would ever consider scaling up his tiny operation (releases typically consist of less than 1000 bottles.) “[But] it’s difficult to know for sure. We don’t plan on testing it and have no plans to expand production.”
While Mills aren’t expecting to grow on their own humble operation, and we probably won’t see any large scale sour beer production in the UK as exists in the US or Belgium, it isn’t stopping newcomers from entering the fray. Take for example Yonder Brewing & Blending in Somerset. Established in 2018, Yonder immediately made their mark with big bottles of wild and funky beer styles. Unlike Mills, however, their proclivity for wild and sour beers hasn’t prevented them from also producing a range of “clean” beers, with cans of lager, bitter and IPA complimenting their funkier offerings.
“Many breweries would start with the higher turnover beers then add the mixed fermentation range as a side project once they are more financially stable,” brewery co-founder Stuart Winstone tells me. “Yonder had to offer them straight off the bat; it’s what I am most passionate about. It hasn’t been easy, but I don’t regret a thing!”
Stuart is honest in his admission that there is almost certainly a limited market for specialist sour and mixed fermentation beers. Making these beers is borne from genuine love for them, as they’re never going to be the biggest seller, although Stuart also admits the market for them is not growing as fast as he thought it would five years ago.
I do think that once you get the bug for mixed fermentation it’s easy to become obsessed
“I do think that once you get the bug for mixed fermentation it’s easy to become obsessed,” he tells me. “I just wonder if less people are going down that rabbit hole these days.”
Perhaps what’s happening is that certain beers—be they lambics, mix-culture saisons, or other sour and funky delights—are simply settling into their niche. By their nature these beers are never going to become mass produced. Some take two or three years to make, and they cost a great deal more than standard lagers or pale ales. But there’s still a healthy interest, with small producers like Mills and Yonder finding their place in a highly competitive marketplace. That Yonder decided to enter it in the first place is proof that there’s still a desire out there to make these beers, and they likely won’t be the last to try.
“If you’re a brewer without some sort of barrel program these days, then what are you?” New Belgium’s Andrew Emerton is confident of a positive future for sour beer but still urges some caution.
“If you’re looking to scale a wood-aged sour program, now is not the right time,” he says. “It is easily the most complicated thing I’ve ever worked on in my entire career. But the beer is awesome.”
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