Is Sour Beer the Next Big Brew?

(Originally posted in The Toronto Standard)

Is Sour Beer the Next Big Brew?


Photo: Dan Grant (@BrewScout)

There are some trends that scream to be embraced.  Television on demand, following R.A. Dickey  on Twitter (@RADickey43), tomato paste in a tube… they just make sense.

But sour beer?

This area has exploded with malty goodness in recent years.  Trying to keep track of the local brew scene is a bigger head spin than an IIPA keg stand.  Craft beer guide Mom ‘n Hops just listed its 100th Ontario brewer in February (breweries, brewpubs, contract brewers, nanobreweries) and LCBO sales of this province’s craft beer increased by nearly 30% in the last annual reporting period.

The good news story doesn’t end with the brewers, either.  Consumers are seeing an influx of new styles and events aimed at getting beer on a more even footing with wine, in terms of prestige, without sacrificing its competitive price advantage.

Perhaps somewhat surprisingly, wine is a factor in one of the biggest beer trends in Ontario right now.  I spoke to four industry experts about what’s driving the current enchantment with small batch brewskis, and each raised their hand at the suggestion of barrel aging. “Right now, a lot of brewers in Ontario are experimenting with barrel-aged beers,” says Mirella Amato, Proprietor at and Canada’s only Master Cicerone. “While there have been barrel-aged beers brewed in Ontario for a number of years, these were few and far between, usually brewed to mark a special occasion. Starting last year, a number of Ontario breweries have brought in barrel aging programs and these breweries are now releasing a range of barrel-aged beers, with rich vanilla, coconut and toasted notes.”

Chris Burek, managing editor at Moms ‘n Hops, adds to that, noting that Scotch, bourbon and wine barrels are all adding their characteristic flavours to different types of beer, and pointing out that Ontario is home to one of only two cooperages in Canada (The Carriage House, Prince Edward County).

Note: If you can get your hands on an Old Kentucky Bastard, from Burlington’s Nickel Brook, you won’t be disappointed.

Two styles that are peaking right now are porters and stouts, notes Roger Mittag, creator of thePrud’homme Beer Certification Program, and driving force behind the Ontario Brewing Awards.  Evidence of the their eminence was fully on display earlier this month at Dark WaterSeries – 2013, which featured 23 different porters or stouts of the 39 dark beers on tap.

Note: My favourite right now is Harry Porter & The Fair Grounds Coffee Bean, from Etobicoke’s Great Lakes Brewery.

Robert Pingitore is the owner of Bar Hop, which hosted Dark Water. Since opening last spring, the King Street West venue has been one of the most supportive locales for furthering beer appreciation. “Pubs are doing their part by teaming up with craft brewers to hold specific events, showcasing a particular brewer’s beers,” he explains, describing what has come to be known as a Tap Takeover. “Within my own establishment it’s important that when patrons visit Bar Hop they get a unique beer experience. That usually revolves around patrons trying beers they’ve never had before and getting a bit more information on the background of the beer, who brews it, type of style and ingredients used, et cetera. I try to educate the staff the best I can so they can help the patron choose a beer that’s right for them, changing people to craft ales one beer at a time.”

A  movement he sees gaining traction is cask-conditioned ales. “Cask Days’ attendance tripled this year, and I can only see it getting bigger.” The annual event started by Bar Volo in 2005, was so popular in 2012 that many casks went dry during the third session and partial refunds had to be issued, according to Burek.

“More and more people are also seeking out beers that have a sour flavour profile, which would be created by some wild yeast they use to brew, or the aging process,” add Pingitore.

That’s right, sour beer, which as the name implies, has a tart profile that some people – like this writer – find refreshing (think of how lemonade cuts your thirst on a hot day) and others find entirely off-putting.  The style already boasts a cult following stateside, and is now not-so-surreptitiously taking its message to public houses here.

Note: Bier Markt on King Street recently hosted the first ever Canadian pour of Rodenbach (Flanders Red Ale), which is revered in Europe. This is completely unlike any other sour beer you’re going to find in Ontario, and is only available on draught. I highly recommend trying it.

Now try to picture Molson and Labatt collaborating on a recipe. No, right? In the craft beer scene however…  “A lot of our brewers are getting together and sharing ideas, which is fantastic,” says Amato.  Bellwoods Brewery is one of the leaders locally, having already teamed up with renowned Evil Twin Brewing (formerly of Denmark, now in Brooklyn, New York), then again with Luc Lafontaine, former head brewer at Dieu du Ciel!, in Quebec.

Note: Look for Bellwoods’ second collab with Evil Twin – a barrel-aged, sour stout – to be released before long.

If sour or winey beers seem a little unconventional, Moms ‘n Hops’ Burek figures you’re just seeing the start of it. “Great Lakes did an oyster stout, HogsBack (Ottawa) released a bacon-based stout, Beau’s (Vankleek Hill) released another edition of their gruit (an ancient style that uses herbs in place of hops). There’s no doubt in my mind that brewers will pushing and breaking past the limits of what ingredients can be used in brewing. With so many breweries in Ontario now, brewers will need to find a way to stand out. F&M Brewery (Guelph) did a smoked meat and Brussels sprouts-infused cask beer for Cask Days.”

So who is drinking this stuff?  Increasingly it’s women, and they’re also taking more of a leadership role in the industry.  When I mentioned Mirella Amato is a Master Cicerone, what I neglected to say is she one of only a half dozen on the planet, and another of the original six is Nicole Erny, from the Bay Area in California.  That’s pretty decent representation in a traditionally male-dominated industry.

Mittag’s Prud’homme program currently features nearly equal gender enrolment. “I’m actually really excited about the fact that more women are getting into the industry, and more women are becoming interested in beer,” he says, noting “it opens up the perception of beer to a higher level as well as brings in a new approach to selling and serving.”

Says Burek, “Women are really starting to appreciate beer now more than ever. At many festivals or events they can account for 50 per cent or more of the attendees. Women are also delving into the world of homebrewing, and even taking brewmaster positions, like Mary Beth Keefe at The Granite (Toronto).”

As far as what to expect in the coming months, “I think you will see more small brewers focusing on paler lagers such as pilsners, helles or even Kölsch styles,” figures Mittag. “Cans continue to be pushed as well as large format bottles. High alcohol Trappist styles are also on the horizon. There’s a huge trend out West to go big on the draught offerings with 60 to 100 taps not uncommon.” More festivals? Mittag says yes, “but they will be small, one-day events.”

Amato, meanwhile, is also looking ahead to an increase in seasonal beers and special releases. “This is a very exciting time for craft beer in this province and, if the past two months are any indication, I think there will also be a dramatically increased interest in craft beer from the general public.”


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