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The serious side of sour beers

Charlotte’s Wooden Robot Brewery collaborated with Durham’s Fullsteam Brewery to brew Hop Rocks, a sour IPA.
Charlotte’s Wooden Robot Brewery collaborated with Durham’s Fullsteam Brewery to brew Hop Rocks, a sour IPA.

On a recent trip to Charlotte, I had to laugh when I went to Birdsong Brewing Co. and saw they had a sour beer called Yoshimi Battles Pink Robots, abbreviated on the taproom chalkboard to Pink Robots.

Many of Birdsong’s beers are named after song titles. In this case, Pink Robots are the bad guys in the Flaming Lips classic.

Anyone who read my column last month knows how I feel about sour beers. If you missed it, let’s just say it’s no surprise I skipped the sour, opting for the Fake Plastic Trees wheat ale instead. Yoshimi would be proud.

And say what you will about sour beer fans, they’re nothing if not passionate.

Between the death threats and other ill wishes, I also got friendly recommendations for sour beers that people thought might change my mind.

Wicked Weed Brewing’s La Bonte Pear was one positive example. And when the guys from the 919 Beer podcast were grilling me on the column and getting my reaction to various sour beers provided by fellow guests from New Belgium Brewing, I took a shine to the dry-hopped sour Le Terroir.

I’m still skeptical, but those experiences should give internet comment writers a reason not to kill me quite yet. Last month, I was trying to be funny. This month, I’ll try to be serious.

Multiple brewers and other hardcore beer lovers have told me they also thought sour beers were gross at first – but that they have since come around to liking the tart, salty, funky flavors.

Clearly, people can identify with the opinion that sour beers aren’t great. So I don’t think the hate was simply because I shared an opinion.

I also made two errors about the brewing process, which we quickly corrected after people pointed them out. But I also don’t think the anger came because people believe only brewers can have an opinion on beers.

I think it was mostly that the column was judgmental. The day it came out, I was to the craft beer world what the High Sparrow was to Game of Thrones. Plenty of people lined up on my side. Plenty others advocated for my demise.

In writing it’s easy to be negative and easy to be positive, but hard to be both. But the best writing does both, and I should’ve tried to do the same for sour beer. Because it’s true that the same flavors that turn off people like me also entice other people.

I still don’t want a salty beer as a thirst-quenching summer drink, but I can’t deny that other people do.

People also love being on the cutting edge of trends. Funky beers are a great example of that.

Both lovers and detractors of yeasts like Brettanomyces say it gives a musty “horse blanket” aroma to beer. And it certainly proves you’re a craft beer insider if you’ve had enough beers with a whiff of horse blanket that you can not only identify but also enjoy and recommend it.

Wine can sometimes have notes of gasoline, pointed out a college friend of mine, Nikko Carlson. He now brews for Star Point Brewing in Carrboro and argued that that won’t turn off serious wine drinkers, nor should the horse blanket description turn off serious beer drinkers.

Brewers also like sour and funky beers because they can charge a lot more for them than for other beers. It works because a small but growing and vocal crowd is willing to pay extra for the exotic flavors. It’s a microcosm of the rise of craft beer in general – people willing to pay more for something different than the status quo.

That’s not to suggest that brewers are simply using the free market to cheat beer nerds out of their money. Sour beers take much more in terms of storage space and financial risk than typical craft beers.

Ben Woodward from Haw River Farmhouse Ales, for instance, opened his Saxapahaw brewery in October 2014. A couple of months later he filled barrels with the start of a sour beer. It ought to be released this summer, almost two years after the initial investment.

Brewing times for other beers can be measured in days or weeks.

“So you understand why some of us who are doing this, we take it seriously,” Woodward said. “It’s something we put a lot of blood, sweat and tears into.”

I don’t doubt that. And who knows? Maybe one day he or some other brewer will convert apostates like me.

Doran: 919-836-2858; Twitter: @will_doran

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