If you go back far enough, all brewers produced sour beers. That’s just how things worked. Before brewers of the modern age figured out how to properly sterilise their equipment and cultivate pure yeast cultures, wild yeasts and bacteria would make their way into the beers during the brewing process and sour them. Imagine being a brewer during that time – putting all of these ingredients together and through the magic of a science they couldn’t possibly comprehend – beer!
Fast forward a couple of thousand years and the Belgians were continuing the tradition of allowing wild yeast to enter their brews through both the barrels they used as well as coolships. “Coolships?” you might ask. Picture a large, flat, open air fermentation like tank that allows wild yeast easy access to wort. The process of making sours today is similar in many aspects, and we owe a lot of our rich brewing history to the Belgian Monks who pioneered many of the sour styles we now enjoy.
So, what role do sour beers have to play in current craft beer culture? Is it a niche practice carried on to the enjoyment of a select few beer aficionados? Hardly. All over the world, top breweries are churning out Berliner Weisse, Lambics, American Wild Ales, Flanders Red Ales, Gose and Oud Bruin to the delight of the masses.
Devil’s Peak is very proud to count ourselves among these breweries, and who better to explain our role in the introduction of sour beers to South Africa than our own head brewer, JC Steyn? Let’s have a quick chat, shall we?
Why is Devil’s Peak brewing sour beers?
“At Devils Peak, we have an all-encompassing love for beer styles – we don’t discriminate or polarize our love for beer. Sour beers are a fantastic beer category as well as being one of the oldest. The notion of aging a beer and allowing various yeasts and bacteria to transform it into something truly amazing is what inspires us to produce sours. Beer is made up of malt, hops, and yeast – we all know this. But there’s a bit of magic, a transformation, that occurs with barrel aged beers that you just don’t get with any other style.”
Let’s get down to brass tax. What’s going down inside that barrel?
“As with any beer, there are so many permutations that one is able to delve in to – be it hops, malt or yeast. When one takes the plunge to explore the realm of barrel and sour beers, you instantly open your brewing privilege to a whole host of additional options. For the most part, we have always taken the route of initially creating a “clean” traditionally fermented base beer and only introduced the bacteria and yeast into the beer once transferred to barrel. With the creation of our dedicated barrel aging space at our new brewery, the Afrofunk sour facility, we are able to significantly expand our pre-barrel aging and primary fermentation options. We will also now be looking at fully mixed fermentations with Lactobacillus, Pediococcus and Brettanomyces yeasts incorporated into the primary ferment, or even 100% primary fermentation from Brettanomyces! Typically, these beers would age anywhere from 5 months up to 18 months – perhaps even longer. We have dabbled with various fruits in beer but this is where fruit additions really begin to shine. Cherry, Raspberry, grape . . . the list goes on.”
What makes a good sour beer and what are some of your favourite?
“For me it’s all about balance and finesse coupled with drinkability. While these beers aren’t necessarily always for everyone, there is a certain level of an acquired taste that comes with appreciating a great sour or barrel aged beer. Some notable examples include Hill Farmstead Anna, Cantillon 100% Lambic Kriek, Mikkeller Spontan Sour Cherry, Trillium Red Broken Angel and Goose Island Gillian. There are so many great breweries producing amazing examples.”
Why do you think the style is taking off internationally?
“I think the appeal of these styles of beers has to be the complexity and nuances along with an appreciation for the skill and time required to produce a beautiful beer.”
So here we are on the edge of yet another beer frontier that begs exploration. We hope you’ll join us in once again expanding the horizons of craft beer in South Africa by experiencing one of the most interesting, complex and historied styles being brewed today. Watch this space for more information on our dedicated sour beer space pictured above, the Afrofunk sour facility, which is being built at our new brewery in Cape Town.