303: A BRIEF HISTORY OF COLORADO’S LONG LOVE AFFAIR WITH THE SOUR BEER
“There has always been something special about the craft beer scene in the state of Colorado. But given its location on the map, it could have been easily lost between two boisterous coasts. However, when it comes to beer, Colorado has been a key player in innovation. This innovation involves all facets of the craft beer scene from boundary-pushing styles to the style of containers that hold those delicious brews.
If you want proof – all you have to do is look at the important innovations and trendsetters that have come before. Oskar Blues Brewery made cans cool – Dale’s Pale Ale is a staple, and now breweries across the country are switching from glass to aluminum. Great Divide Brewing Company has made stouts mainstream, which has led to sightings of its Yeti all across the country. White Rascal by Avery Brewing Company has become synonymous with being everyone’s first craft beer. Avery uses White Rascal as a gateway beer leading to bigger beers like Pump(KY)n and Uncle Jacob’s Stout – helping to make double-digit ABVs commonplace in the beer marketplace.
But while Colorado has been crucial during the formative period of craft beer, that doesn’t mean the state has stopped since. Over the years, Colorado brewers have been pouring their hearts and souls into a certain area of brewing. That distinction title belongs not to one particular beer, but to a particular style – the sour.
In many ways, this has become one of our state’s defining beer styles. California is known for its dank, hop heavy clear IPAs. On the opposite coast, Boston is known for its ridiculously hazy, juicy and more fruit forward IPAs. While Colorado can offer IPAs of each variety that rival the two coasts, our wide dedication to different ingredients and methods is what stands out.
First, What Do We Mean By A Sour Beer?
The sour beer style encompasses many different sub-categories but in general, they are tart, funky and can be pucker-worthy. They can be brewed a number of different ways and often include wild yeast or sour inducing bacteria to give them their distinct flavor. To call them just sour is a disservice and as you will see Colorado sets a standard of excellence for this beer style in all its forms. To further illustrate our point about the range of the sour beer style, here is an example of just a few of them — American Wild Ale, Flanders Red Ale, Gose, Lambic, Kettle Sour and Berliner Weisse.
In Brussels, you will find breweries such Cantillon and Brouwerij 3 Fonteinen who have been fastidiously working on the art of the sour beer for more than 100 years. The Gueze and the Lambic style these breweries produce are protected and sacred. They can only come from the region where these breweries are located — it’s the yeast from their air that makes it special. The sour beer scene in the United States, for this reason, needs to be considered in respect to that heritage — there is too much respect for its history and tradition to do anything else.
With this in mind, there is no doubt that the state of Colorado, has given the sour beer not only an American touch but a flare only found in the Rocky Mountains. This is because the sour beer style in the United States started with an idea, a dare and a fascination from the brewers at New Belgium Brewing Company in Fort Collins. At a time when not many were focusing on the style, the brewers at New Belgium set out to see what they could do personally. Little did they know then, but they would become some of the forefathers of sour beer, not just in Colorado, but the entire country. However, we do not want to discredit the important contributions to the start of the sour movement from breweries such as Russian River Brewing Company and Allagash Brewing and those have continued to push it like Jolly Pumpkin Brewing and Jester King Brewery. All of those breweries are important, but there is something special about the timing and national movement that can be traced back to New Belgium.
In 1997, the crew at New Belgium began a project with just seven barrels. This would be the beginning of a cultural beer shift from the typical American styles to what could be with the exploration of sour beers.
“Colorado became an island in the middle of the United States” for sour beers as Lauren Woods Salazar described it – she was one of the founders of that island at New Belgium. It started small and locally with beer people getting together – digging into flavor profiles and showing off their newfound knowledge and taste details.
This small group who started playing with sour beer in Fort Collins would then launch the sour beer movement with the release of La Folie. This beer was the result of their slow and methodical process to capture the essence of sour beer. This beer announced its presence with a gold medal at the Great American Beer Festival in 1998followed by its national release. The beer drinkers of Colorado wouldn’t know what to do without sour beer – they seek it – it’s ingrained in their beer heritage. While the style wouldn’t take off overnight — La Folie created the consumer and perhaps, more importantly, the sour brewer in Colorado.
Salazar said it best — “The brewers of today are the beer drinkers of yesterday who grew up on sours.” La Folie and New Belgium created a foundation and a generation of sour drinkers and creators. In fact, during our talk, Salazar recalled that she still has the tasting notes from a visit by Troy Casey and Chad Yakobson– founders of Casey Brewing and Crooked Stave respectively – showing the growth and foreshadowing the sour future.
Taking the Next Step
While New Belgium expanded its barrels and foeders eventually — leading to a forest of wooden barrels at New Belgium — other brewers were taking their appreciation for the sour beer style to the next level. Other larger scale breweries — like an Avery Brewing Company locally — introduced sour programs. From this grew the idea of focusing a brewery solely on sour beers.
Two men who shared tasting notes with Salazar in 2010 would go on to open breweries focused on the style – a bold risk – requiring the right location. To create legitimately good and important sours like Casey Brewing and Blending and Crooked Stave Artisan Beer Project requires immense time, patience and upfront cost. The best of these beers can take months and even years before they are ready.
There was one place where the chances of success could justify the required risks and that’s Colorado. Beer drinkers who were not only familiar with the style but were ravenous in their pursuit of it. After writing his master’s dissertation on the fermentation characteristics of Brettanomyces yeast, Yakobson started Crooked Stave Artisan Beer Project in 2011. It wasn’t until 2016 that he brewed his own beer – for the first five years of his operation all of the beers were brewed at other locations such as Funkwerks and Prost, and then the finished wort (unfermented beer) was transported back to his original location in Sunnyside to let the sour-inducing yeast do its magic.
In the barrel with fruits and yeast, these beers were a controlled experiment of what could be done with sour beers. It’s hard to imagine there being a better place for such a unique venture than Colorado. The lines of people for each release at Crooked Stave also signaled a change – people understood the scarcity and didn’t want to miss out on special beer….”
Click here to read the full article.