Charleston Beer Week celebrates sourness

Heather Pruitt shares some of her Ned Flanders, a dark sour beer, with Sam Bowen. Wade Spees/Staff February 12, 2015

Every pickle plate and Greek yogurt cup consumed over the last few years has nudged the American palate toward a deeper appreciation of sour, and brewers are taking full advantage of it.

As Brandon Plyler of The Charleston Beer Exchange explains, sour isn’t an autonomous beer category: It’s a characteristic that beers made in any style can manifest, so long as lactobacillus is present. Jolly Pumpkin, for example, makes a soured stout, while Evil Twin produces a soured IPA. “With hops, you can make a hoppy brown ale or a hoppy stout, but hoppy beer isn’t really a style,” Plyler adds. “So I say these are beers that feature acidity. They’re becoming very popular.”

For good reason, he continues: “As hot and humid as it is here, bright fresh acidity just seems to suit the weather.” Additionally, beers with a sour edge are more food-friendly than heavy, malty brews; Plyler says the right Flemish red ale can change a dedicated wine drinker’s notions of beer’s pairing potential.

High-acidity beers are set to play a starring role in Charleston Beer Week, which began this weekend. On Wednesday, Revelry Brewing Co. is turning over every tap to sour ales, and Oak Road Brewery on Saturday is hosting Flowertown’s Funky Firkin Fest, featuring more than two dozen cask beers, most of which are classified as sour.

Before the mid-1800s, when the French liquor industry paid Louis Pasteur to figure out why wine in certain barrels turned sour, it was common for beer to develop sour notes after a few weeks of aging. Once Pasteur established that bacteria were to blame, breweries switched from wooden to stainless steel barrels, so the microorganisms wouldn’t have an opportunity to flourish. But the emphasis on sterilization removed sourness from the gamut of flavors available to beer makers. “We’re kind of rediscovering it,” Plyler says.

Brewers have seized on sourness with a convert’s gusto, much as bartenders a decade ago fixated on bitterness in response to a generation of syrupy sweet cocktails. In this case, though, experimentation can be ruinously risky: “With the sour stuff, you really have to be careful, because once you get those organisms alive, they can get out of control and get into other beers,” Plyler says.

But the controlled combination of sour beers and beers brewed without a wild element may represent the flavor trend’s future. According to Plyler, both Revelry and Westbrook Brewing have purchased foeders, or massive wooden aging barrels. Breweries such as New Belgium Brewing Company, which pioneered the practice in domestic craft brewing, can use the sour beer stashed in their foeders to brighten up other beers.

“We’re starting to see sour beers being blended into non-sour, so instead of having overwhelmed acidity, we’re starting to see tartness,” Plyler says.

Charleston Beer Week runs through Saturday. For a full schedule of events, visit charlestonbeerweek.com.