The flourishing craft beer industry maintains its edge by introducing new flavors that keep a dedicated clientele coming back and entices new members to join the community. The latest variety of beer to take over the local scene has a unique flavor profile that can be summed up by its name: the sour.
Though they’ve only recently begun to drop into Montana taprooms, sour beers have been around for hundreds of years, said Roger Fingar, an assistant brewer at Great Northern Brewing Company in Whitefish.
“People have been brewing sours since the mid 19th century in Germany, and they just got kind of reintroduced here in the last five to six years,” Fingar said. “In Montana, we’ve been seeing them in the last two or three years.”
Fingar, who cut his teeth brewing in Colorado, said the rise in popularity could be attributed to the fact that the industry is built around a customer base that has one thing in common.
“With the craft beer movement, I think consumers are just always looking for something new to drink,” Fingar said. “I think sours were that new thing, and continue to be.”
That puts brewers on an endless journey to bring today’s drinkers something they haven’t tried before. Brewing is a centuries-old trade and a return to tradition, often with a twist, is usually the best way to accomplish the task.
THERE ARE basically two methods to sour a beer, Fingar explained. The first is a long-term aging process, which is more common historically but not well-suited for the American commercial craft beer industry, where brewers make money by flipping beers for prices that are close to everything else on the menu. If one beer sits in the fermenter for twice as long as another, it’s taking space that could be used to produce other beers with shorter production times.
The second technique is called a kettle sour, and is the one Great Northern has used in all three of the sours they’ve brewed recently. Fingar said it’s also the most popular method amongst breweries in the state.
The kettle sour technique involves introducing bacteria from the genus Lactobacillus early in the brewing process. It can be introduced in the form of yeast that can be obtained from manufacturers, but is also commonly found lots of places.
“We introduce bacteria into the kettle before we even put yeast on the beer, we get that pH down, we make it sour like the second day of brewing,” Fingar said. “We boil it off, all that bacteria is gone, then we move onto fermenting.”
Modern brewers have been hesitant to get into the bacteria game, Fingar said, though it has been prevalent in brewing for a long time. Bacteria use gone awry can obviously cause some major issues, Fingar said, but as long as exercise is cautioned, it can have a palette-popping impact on many beers and do so safely.
These talented Lacto bacillus bacteria have potential to impact the beer in a matter of days, and helps small taprooms keep producing similar quantities of beer while adding the new variety to their arsenal. The brewing process for kettle sours is otherwise largely similar to that of other beers.
Some brewers that published how-to guides online have claimed to use common yogurt to make sour beer. Other species of Lactobacillus bacteria can be found in the human body as well — in saliva, for example.
DESPITE THE industry innovation of kettle souring that has allowed sours to be more widely brewed, not every local brewery has the capacity to produce them.
Darin Fisher is the brewer and co-owner of Backslope Brewing in Columbia Falls, and said that while he would love to make a sour, he simply doesn’t have the space.
Larger breweries like Great Northern simply have more brewing equipment and staff to brew with, and Fisher said he loves to drink sours but spends all his time brewing the beer his brewery already offers.
He said he might produce a sour in the future, but isn’t coming out with one anytime soon. Fisher said that regardless, he is in full support of the sour revolution taking place elsewhere in the valley and the country, and hopes they are around to stay.
FINGAR THINKS that the momentum that has been building behind the trend these past couple years will continue, and customers will likely continue to see even more variations on the sour hit shelves and taps soon.
“In our state, I think as more breweries start to do these sours and release different styles of sours within that, then people will be more open to that,” Fingar said. “It’s just like [India Pale Ales] when they got popular here. Sometimes it just takes a little bit of the right exposure to the different styles.”
Fingar said the public has been taking to their sours with an increased thirst. Before Great Northern Brewing Company produced any, they would get the occasional customer who wished they had one on tap. Ever since the brewery has started filling that need, sours have been catching on more and more. The brewery recently held an event to hype the release of their winter seasonal
“I think it will grow on people. I don’t think it’s a fad,” Fingar said. “It’s not something that someone came up with five years ago — it’s been going on for a long time and for a reason.”
In the Flathead Valley, sour beers are on the menu right now at Great Northern Brewing Company, Tamarack Brewing Company in Lakeside, and Flathead Lake Brewing Co. in Bigfork. Flathead Lake Brewing Co.’s sour is also in bottles stocked in local grocery stores.
Reporter Peregrine Frissell can be reached at (406) 758-4438 or firstname.lastname@example.org.