FLX Sour Culture Is Aging WellOct 01, 2023 09:00AM ● By Jimmy Guignard
All beer used to be sour beer. Before Louis Pasteur isolated yeast in 1857, beer was created by the yeast and bacteria floating in the air or living in the wood that held the liquid, what brewers call wort, that ultimately became beer. Pasteur’s discovery helped brewers isolate strains into brewer’s yeast and set beer drinkers on the path toward “clean beer,” the mass-produced kinds like Budweiser, Pabst Blue Ribbon, and, more locally, Yuengling and Genesee. Reproducing the same beer flavor from batch to batch is an impressive feat. You could say those yeast strains flattened the beer world like McDonald’s flattened the world of food.
Some might also say those yeast strains made the beer world boring, that PBR every day can get old. Thankfully, as a part of the microbrew revolution, brewers in the US saw a need to explore some of the older beer-making processes, ones involving a little more creativity, some funkier organisms, and a little less control. The Finger Lakes region was already fermenting, a place swirling with flora and fauna and imagination, and some of that is now making its way into beer.
For beer drinkers, it’s a damn good time to be alive.
Don’t let the word “sour” fool you. The flavors run the gamut from funky and tart to sweet, from fruity to barnyard. Some taste like chewing on a hay field. Some taste like they are chewing on your face (in a good way). And the Finger Lakes brewers are, like sours themselves, everywhere when it comes to the beer they are producing. The beers are at once historical and local, old and new, Old World and American.
Jammin’ with the Wild World of Sours
Sours come in many versions, the edges of which are constantly blurred, but they can be divided very roughly into four categories. (Part of the fun of drinking beer is getting into the weeds about differences.) One style is lambic, which are tart, fruity beers spontaneously fermented. A winelike beer, lambics taste like Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers sound: a little edgy, a little funky, a little dry, though sometimes bright and fruity. Another winelike style, Belgian-style reds and browns, taste fruity and sour and complex, a sign partly of the blending of old and young beers. Think Allman Brothers here: layers of flavors mingling in a long, soulful jam. Though the taste doesn’t hang on as long as Duane’s solos, it’s just as rich. Other styles are German-style gose (say “goes-uh”) and Berliner weisse (say “bear-lean-er vice-uh”). These are tart, bright beers generally with a low alcohol content. Eminently drinkable, especially on a hot day, they call to mind the B-52s or R.E.M. Poppy and fun and refreshing. Some brewers say that gose and Berliner weisse are the precursors to fruited or smoothie sours, which are like punk versions of the originals with some sweetness mixed in.
Can’t forget the farmhouse ales (sometimes known as saisons, though defining these is complicated). Another complex, earthy beer, farmhouse ales are all over the place in terms of flavor, more like Lollapalooza or Bonnaroo than just one band. Bonus category: American wild ales (see Wilds). Another style all over the place. Think Jason Isbell or Lucinda Williams. Though we’re talking music, be sure to get your nose involved. That’s a big part of the experience, too.
The organisms—some brewers say “bugs,” some say “microflora”—that kick out the jams are the yeast strain Brettanomyces or “Brett” and the bacteria strains Lactobacillus or “Lacto” and Pediococcus or “Pedio.” Brett creates funky flavors in beer that adds complexity. As Derek Edinger of Brewery Ardennes says, “the funky flavor makes the beer safe” by creating a beer inhospitable for bad cultures. (Remember, these styles of beer were made before pasteurization. Back then, beer was often safer than water. How we’ve devolved.) Lacto and Pedio lower acidity, which gives beer tart, tangy flavors. Some sours are created using mixed fermentation, which means a beer was made with both brewer’s yeast and some combination of the organisms mentioned above. Some sours involve mixing old and young beers to balance out flavors. Others are created solely from wild organisms, or whatever floats into the wort and eats the sugars.
Sours have been growing in popularity over the last ten or fifteen years, partly because beer makers are creative people with a sense of history and partly because beer drinkers desire something besides clean beer. Think of FLX as a giant beer list when you’ve got a hankering for something different. Many breweries have a sour or two on tap, so you’ve got options. One good place to start is Keuka Brewing outsideHammondsport.
There Gose the Neighborhood in Keuka
Rich Musso started Keuka Brewing in 2008, the first brewery on Keuka Lake and one of the first in the Finger Lakes. The brewery sits high above Keuka’s southwest corner, and manages to feel like a day at the beach in an outdoor living room. Hop vines crawl up wires lining the parking lot, tables and umbrellas dot the outdoor seating area, and the wall that abuts the outdoor area can be raised in nice weather, bringing inside and outside together. There’s a long L-shaped bar and long tables inside, which encourage people to mingle. Chill dogs are welcome. If Rich or Mark (his son) is around, ask one of them to show you the building’s original footprint. It’s tiny, compared to the current version, and reminds you that big things come from small ones, like beer from yeast.
Rich looks like the artist he was prior to opening a brewery, sporting wire rim glasses, a neatly trimmed mustache and goatee, and joy wrinkles radiating from the corners of his eyes. Quick to smile, he beams the happy vibe of a person who has spent a life creating art and beer. To Rich, making beer carries an artistic dimension. He uses phrases like “requires a palette” and “sparking emotion” when talking about beer.
Mark, head brewer, projects a more serious demeanor, which reflects, perhaps, his days studying political science and criminal justice at York College. He graduated with a double major and worked in DC until he left to become the assistant brewer at Keuka in 2010. He added an environmental science degree from Finger Lakes Community College, taking all the biology courses he could that might be relevant to brewing. One time, he even travelled to White Labs in Asheville, North Carolina, for a three-day course on yeast.
Keuka’s sour beers reflect Mark’s and his dad’s personalities, in that they hew to tradition while exploring new territory. The work and artistic vision have paid off. In 2014, Keuka won the F.X. Matt Memorial Cup, which goes to the “best craft brewery in New York State.” In 2017, they won a bronze medal for their Ghost of Rita Gose. The refreshing Ghost of Rita is a tart beer that hints at margarita without laying you out. Think bright and crisp with lime and a hint of salt. A beer that would be welcome in Margaritaville. Good for a day on the lake or after a hot bike ride. Or during, if you happen to be cycling past Keuka Brewing.
Other sour beers to sample at Keuka come from the Sticky Drips line, which Mark calls “fruited pastry sours.” These are kettle sours, as are many in the Finger Lakes. Kettle sours are a quick way of making sour beers that involves primarily Lacto and whatever fruit (or, in Mark’s case, more experimental flavors) the brewer throws in. The fun, loud, brash, tongue-tapping tart tastes leave you wanting more. You can get the original Orange Creamsicle (killer!), this year’s Bomb Pop (while it lasts!), and local favorite Grape Pie, made with Jeni’s Pies Grape Pie. (How can you make beer in the Finger Lakes without getting grapes involved somehow?)
While kettle sours are yummy, sours that taste complex take time. In Keuka’s case, this is the Oubliette, a mixed fermentation saison created from a traditional saison which is then aged in red oak wine barrels, called puncheons, with a dose of Brett. A delicious beer that offers funk and fruit and interesting layers. Think Blues Traveler or Wilco jamming in an old barn next to a big old hay field. Mark creates the beer using a solera process, meaning he mixes old and new beer in a series of steps and ratios over time. The old and new flavors complement each other, and the process calls to mind the practice of Belgian breweries like Rodenbach.
Mark states that making sours has gotten easier over time as the demand for them has increased. Back in the day, he would isolate Lacto from a particular yogurt brand, then use it to inoculate his beer. Now, he can buy blocks of it. That frees up time to experiment in other ways. Mark also explains that the father and son brewery “owes a lot to the wineries.” They were supportive, and Mark ages Oubliette in their puncheons.
You don’t have to go to Keuka Brewing to enjoy their beer—it’s sold throughout the region and beyond—but you should.
No Waffling on Belgian Beer
Brewery Ardennes sits on the outskirts of Geneva on Seneca Lake. Just two years old as of Memorial Day, the brewery was founded by Derek and Stacey Edinger, two Cornell grads with backgrounds in engineering and hospitality respectively, a potent combination when planning and running a brewery. Derek and Stacey are strongly influenced by Belgian beer traditions, and the place looks like it would fit into the Belgian countryside. Derek had been brewing beer for over twenty years at home, for which he won some awards. He started making Belgian-style beers after Stacey told him he “could brew it himself.” Thanks, Stacey!
The brewery is built in an old barn on the early 1900s farm once owned by Katharine Bell Lewis, noted suffragist and sheep breeder, and her son. Derek speaks of gutting the French Norman style barn completely and rebuilding it to its current pristine state, replete with a short history lesson about Lewis and the farm. The brewery offers an intimate, classy feel with low lighting and beams, tables tucked in corners, and outdoor seating on a patio surrounded by greens and beiges highlighted by lupine and snowball hydrangeas. It gives off a pastoral vibe—reflected in the painting behind the bar—and you almost expect to see a couple of sheep mosey by. The place reflects the owners’ attention to the little things. Ardennes is immaculate and detail-oriented, right down to the beer signs hung throughout the brewery: Orval, Tripel Karmeliet, Rochefort, Chimay, Duval, and others. They know their Belgian beers.
Not surprisingly, Ardennes’ offerings model pretty closely to traditional sours. As Derek says, they came to the microbrewery game a bit late, so they needed to be sure to add something new. Ardennes is a place that looks forward by looking back, and you can taste it in the beer. They have a lovely kettle sour line, tart and refreshing for those hot FLX days, and the beers rotate each summer depending on what local ingredients are available and what the brewers feel like making. The sours often use local fruit from their neighbor Red Jacket Orchards. Derek has made—and in some cases, still makes—standard sours like Cherry Sour, Raspberry Sour, Blackberry Sour, and more experimental sours like Dragonfruit and Hibiscus Passionfruit.
Derek also works on traditional sour beers, like lambic and a version of a Flanders Red. The Cranberry Orange lambic tastes bright, crisp, and fruity, a lively beer that gets part of its vibe from aging in orange bitters barrels from Fee Brothers. “Love Shack,” baby. The Flanders Red riffs on the tongue like a soulful Allman Brothers jam—“Statesboro Blues” comes to mind. The beer unwinds in stages that each blend together, starting with fruit and ending tart. Though you could be sitting at the bar in Geneva, the beer takes you to Belgium where beers like Rodenbach and Duchesse de Bourgogne have been brewed for centuries. The Flanders Red is a beer that, like a great red wine, offers a lot to the drinker’s palate. You’ll want to ponder it as it unfolds.
Derek shared samples of an apricot saison that was around two months old and aging in an Ancient Age bourbon barrel along with Brett, Lacto, and Pedio. The beer will stay in the barrel another four months, letting the microflora and the wood interact and create some magic. Derek looks for “neutral” barrels, meaning barrels that do not get in the way of the organisms doing their thing. (Ardennes also uses barrels from Black Button Distillery in Rochester and Finger Lakes Distilling in Watkins Glen.) He wants the wood to “behave” while the “wild cultures do their thing.” Though, he admits, any time someone experiments with wild cultures, what turns out is a bit of a wild card.
Two more things to note about Ardennes: their food pairings are designed to complement their beers, and their chef, Jayden White, who trained at the Culinary Institute of America and in kitchens in Europe, consults with Derek and Stacey to create beer-pairing dinners. It’s an example of European and FLX wine culture inoculating beer culture, and, apparently, it’s working. They won the 2022 and 2023 awards for New York State Belgian-Style Brewery of the Year.
Like Keuka, Ardennes is a family affair. Derek’s brother, Cory, helps brew, and Derek’s parents help out on the weekends. Then there are the dogs, Barley and Hops. Two Frenchies whose “don’t take life too seriously” attitudes inspire the atmosphere, and their images adorn the canned beer. Well-behaved dogs are welcome at Brewery Ardennes.
Derek stresses that the Edingers prefer “quality over quantity,” which suggest they want to keep things regional and communal. One way to do this involves Derek’s vision for adding what the Dutch call a koelschip (“coolship” in the States) on the second floor of the barn. A coolship is a shallow container open to the air that allows wild organisms to float in and inoculate the wort while it’s cooling.
“This is the Finger Lakes,” he says. “There’s got to be good stuff in the air.”
The Finger Lakes Is a Giant Coolship
Keuka Brewing and Brewery Ardennes are not the only breweries creating sour beers. Others spread out across the region like the bugs that float through the air, fermenting the imagination of brewers as much as brews. Geneva’s Lake Drum Brewing offers lovely traditional sours in a small, groovy place that gives drinkers a chance to spin vinyl from a huge collection of albums. The Other Half in Bloomfield feels like a modern beer hall with an outdoor space, hop vines, food truck, and an indoor drinking area overlooking the brewing facility. It’s a welcoming space for everyone from kids to old guys tapping away on computers while sampling a flight. Check out their fruited sours, especially The Cannibals, P.O.G. Cannibal, and the MMM...Fruit Series. Be prepared though—the former two are known as smoothie sours, a take on sours that’s a long way from gose and Berliner weisse, like the difference between Metallica’s “Enter Sandman” and the bluegrass version by Iron Horse. Grist Iron Brewing projects a national park vibe and offers a solid take on a kettle sour called That’s My Jam! Other breweries to put on the sour (in a good way!) list: Lucky Hare Brewing, Frequentum Brewing Company, and Big aLICe Brewing.
Life is complex and unpredictable, there are no guarantees. It’s a lot like making sour beers. Microbrews everywhere are making it possible for beer drinkers to explore what beer was like before mass production. The brewers work with wineries, distilleries, local farmers, and whoever else can help them make good beers. It’s one big happy fermentation process. FLX sours reflect the attitudes and imaginations of the people making beer and injects new wildness into a place already bubbling with creative vivacity. Sours represent the past but are made in—and sometimes stretch—the present.
So much beer. You gotta get out there and try some. Put down the light stuff. Take a break from wine. Grab a flight of sours at a brewery or take some home. Set up the tasting glasses and call your friends. Expand your horizons with FLX flavors.