Greg Engert can tell you a lot about what sour and wild beers shouldn’t smell like.
“If it smells like blue cheese or Parmesan, that’s not right,” says the beer director and managing partner for Neighborhood Restaurant Group, which owns the Yards Park-area brewery Bluejacket. “If a beer smells too much like goat or horse, that’s not right.”
As to what sour and wild beers should taste like? That’s a little harder to pin down.
“Sour beers are kind of a tricky beast,” agrees Mike McGarvey, CEO and head brewer at 3 Stars Brewing Company. Which is why McGarvey created a “sour room” for his staff to experiment specifically with the style and develop a pleasant balance.
With the right amount of healthy bacteria, special yeast or both, sour and wild beers can please the senses with their complex tastes and aromas. In the District, they’re finding their way onto more menus as customers get turned on to these tart, acidic or funky “off” flavors.
In celebration of all things sour and wild, Denizens Brewing Co. is holding its first-ever Make It Funky Fest on Saturday, with more than 60 sour and funky beers from about 20 breweries in the District and beyond. Lest something you try there has you wondering if it’s gone bad, here’s a primer on what you need to know about these once-niche styles.
Beers can sour in several ways, but most often the acidic flavor is the result of a bacteria called lactobacillus.
While early brewers tried hard to keep this out of their beer, eventually others embraced it. Lactobacillus is what gives yogurt its tanginess, and it creates the distinct flavor of German sour beers like gose (pronounced GO-zuh) and Berliner Weiss.
“It’s a beautiful bacteria,” Engert says. “It’ll give you a really clean, delectable tartness.”
Some bacteria, such as pediococcus, are used in lambics, which can taste like a sour cider.
Other wild beers contain a yeast called brettanomyces, commonly referred to as “brett,” which produces a touch of acid and other funky flavors during brewing. Though beer was once considered spoiled if brett got into it, brewers are now introducing the wild yeast intentionally.
“These sort of fruity, peppery … fresh citric zest, spicy, earthy flavors … those are flavors we’re actually looking for in our beers,” says Nathan Zeender, head brewer at Right Proper Brewing Company, which regularly offers a couple of wild or sour beers on tap.
Jeff Ramirez, co-founder and director of brewing operations at Denizens, hopes Saturday’s Make It Funky Fest will highlight the spectrum of flavors that can be achieved with wild yeast and bacteria. And he wouldn’t mind converting a few drinkers who have had a bad experience with funky beers in the past.
“The goal is to see that a lot of people are doing it, a lot of people have different approaches to it, and just to have fun with it,” he says. “I mean, beer is fun.”
Local sour beers to try
Wild beers will abound at Saturday’s Make it Funky Fest. You’ll also find them around town at bars and breweries. For those intimidated by the complex flavors, we recommend these local sour brews for a range of drinkers.
Try Denizens’ Bocho, a gose brewed with lime, or Bluejacket’s Kelsey and Greg’s Wedding Ale, a blond sour brewed with peaches and nectarines. The brewery made it for Bluejacket beer director Greg Engert’s recent wedding.
Try Bluejacket’s Rheinhard De Vos 2015, a sour brett red ale with strong wine notes, Denizens’ Backyard Boogie, a farmhouse-inspired ale aged in wine barrels, or 3 Stars Brewing’s Dissonance, a tart, citrusy sour.
On Tuesdays, Right Proper Brewing Co. taps into kegs of wild beers that have been aged at least three months. Brewer Nathan Zeender likes the aged Kodachrome Dream(ing) farmhouse, tart from grapefruit and lime peel.
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