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Tuesday, April 12, 2016

That Time I Tried To Make A Sour

Tried is the key word in that title. What I actually made was  . . . something weird. Settle in, because this story is gonna take a little while.
Let me start by saying that I LOVE sour beers! I've been a fan since I had my first one at Ale Industries’ place, The Pig & The Pickle (which is now closed, unfortunately). I wish I could remember what it was called, but this was 3 years ago, when I was still a young grasshopper in the world of craft beer. For those of you who are not familiar with the style, a sour beer  is created by using wild yeast strains during fermentation or by introducing bacteria to the brew liquid. It sounds bad, but the results can be very tasty if it goes right. The majority of them are very tart, which is why they appeal to me. I grew up in the age of Warhead candies, and ate those suckers til I had cuts in my tongue. That being said, it was definitely a style I wanted to take a stab at, but I felt very intimidated by the whole thing. Brewing in itself can be a gamble, but sours are in high stakes territory. They can take months, or even years, to develop the correct flavors and you really have to be on top of your sanitation game to prevent infections in future non-sour batches.  I did what I do best and started my research to decide how to approach the project. Luckily, Craft Beer & Brewing Magazine had just released an issue dedicated to sours. One of the articles mentioned a method called kettle souring, which can produce results in weeks rather months. It involved using plain yogurt to sour the beer, since it contains lactobacillus, a common bacteria used in sours (link here if you're curious). It sounded simple enough, so I got more details from this post on the Not So Profesional Beer Blog. I knew I wanted to do a small batch, just in case I ended up having to dump it. My regular homebrew store had some 1 gallon kits on super clearance, so I picked out a brown ale, got some extra supplies to replace the ones I was about to infect (plastic really likes bacteria), and picked out a yeast blend that contained even more lactobacillus.
One of the first steps in this yogurt method was to grow a culture. As per the instructions, I mixed a little dry malt extract with water and poured in the clear liquid from the top of the yogurt container. I had to find a way to keep this mixture warm and cozy for several hours so the culture could grow. After ruling out a few different methods, I settled on using my wax warmer as a hot plate (they're not just for keeping your house smelling good anymore, folks!). This mixture went into the wort, which had to sit for a few days at around 100 degrees. I have a gas stove, and didn't feel comfortable leaving it on the burner or in the oven, so in the slow cooker it went. After about 3 days, it started smelling a little sour (in a good way, not the "how old is this milk?" way). The taste wasn't quite there, but I figured that would come with time. I finished off the brewing process, set it in the garage and tried to forget about it. After an agonizing 3 months of waiting and peeking and taking gravity readings, I bottled it and let it condition for about another month.
Finally, tasting day had arrived. It was pretty bad, guys! The carbonation level was like pouring a beer over an Alka-Seltzer tablet, and the taste was odd, to say the least. In my husband's words, it tasted like "a sour Miller Lite." To me, it tasted like a cheap beer with a ton of salt in it. I'm not exactly sure where I went wrong, though I can think of a few things that could've contributed.
  • Not being patient enough
  • Using ingredients from a kit on clearance, probably not the best quality.
  • Not being patient enough
  • I had to move the carboy at one point and may have disturbed the pellicle (a layer that forms over the top, protects the wort from oxygen)
  • Not being patient enough
  • I dropped a straw in the carboy while trying to get a sample for measurements and couldn't get it back out (don't ask)
  • Not being patient enough
  • Could've used more yogurt or let the culture grow a little longer

This was a huge learning experience for me, and when the sting of making my first crappy beer wears off, I will definitely attempt a sour again. For now, I have a few bottles left of this . . .thing in the garage. I crack one open every once in a while to see if it improves or changes over time. So far, it doesn't look very promising.
If there are any other brewers reading this, I'd love to hear your suggestions, tips, dos and don'ts, stories regarding sours. Until next time, friends.

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