My bold prediction for the trendy style of 2016? Sour IPA.
Okay, so maybe it’s not such a bold prediction. After all, India pale ales are far and away the darlings of the craft beer world, and it’s not even close. It’s to the point where we don’t just have regular ol’ IPAs, but also black IPAs, red IPAs and white IPAs. Coffee IPAs started to take off last year. Right now, we are in the midst of a tropical IPA movement.
And outside of these IPA derivatives, we’ve also seen the heavy-handed hopping of other styles: hoppy stouts, hoppy browns, India pale lagers. So why shouldn’t the sour IPA have its moment in the sun?
New Belgium Brewing’s “dry-hopped sour ale” Le Terroir was a hit when first bottled in 2011, but wasn’t released again for a few years due to the time required to make it. The beer spends up to three years in the brewery’s oak foeders (picture really large barrels), where wild yeast and bacteria impart the sourness so many appreciate. Once ready, the beer is dry-hopped and then bottled.
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Were all sour IPAs made in this manner, my “year of the sour IPA” prediction would indeed be bold. Few breweries have the means, let alone the time, to make a beer like Le Terroir. But there are two things that make the time right for sour IPAs.
One is the way in which many breweries are producing sours today. Rather than aging beers in barrels or foeders, breweries are turning around “quick sours” in about the same amount of time they could other styles. These beers are inoculated with bacteria (usually Lactobacillus, which produces lactic acid) before fermentation, whereas a beer like Le Terroir begins life as a “clean” beer before acquiring its sour qualities after fermentation through barrel-aging.
The inoculation can come from a process called sour mashing, or the beer can be traditionally brewed and then inoculated after the mashing process. Some breweries, as well as homebrewers, are even using yogurt to contribute the bacteria. This is greatly simplifying the process, but brewers are able to add sourness or acidity to their beers in just weeks (although most concede that these quick sours are less complex than those that spend months or years in barrels).
The other reason sour IPAs are poised to explode in 2016 is that more people are developing a taste for sour beers in general. Breweries are cranking out serious production of these quick sours — beers like goses or Berliner Weisses—and selling them not by the hand-dipped, 22-ounce bombers, but in six-packs. Sierra Nevada Brewing Co. recently released Otra Vez, a gose-style ale brewed with prickly pear cactus and grapefruit. A brewery as large as Sierra Nevada wouldn’t have released a year-round sour if it didn’t think people were ready for it.
And where do sour IPAs fit in with all of this? People love sours, and people love IPAs. Put ‘em together, and you have a style that incorporates the flavor profiles of two very popular categories. At least that was the logic behind Hop Rocks Sour IPA, a collaboration between Charlotte’s Wooden Robot Brewery and Durham’s Fullsteam Brewery.
“It just kind of became a hybrid,” said Josh Patton, co-founder and CEO of Wooden Robot Brewery. “We were pushing for a sour, and they were pushing for something hop forward.”
The beer was released before Wooden Robot opened and generated a lot of buzz for the upstart brewery as well as Fullsteam. When Wooden Robot opened last year, they brewed the Return of Hop Rocks. Whereas the collaboration with Fullsteam was a sour mash, this one was kettle soured and hopped differently. The brewery also plans to brew a higher-gravity, imperial version of the beer called Hop Boulders.
“I really think they’re just a product of sours and IPAs as standalone styles that are really popular right now,” said Patton on sour IPAs. “We really just saw it as a gateway into sours. We had a lot of people saying they didn’t like sours, but then they tried it and really enjoyed it.”
Daniel Hartis is the digital manager at All About Beer Magazine in Durham and author of “Beer Lover’s The Carolinas” and “Charlotte Beer: A History of Brewing in the Queen City.” Reach him at email@example.com or on Twitter, @DanielHartis.