Over the past couple of years, West Virginians have developed a growing love affair with a beer category we call fruited kettle sours. These are beers you didn’t see at our breweries five years ago.
Now, they’re all the rage. The response to these new beers has been a tremendous boost for local brewery business.
By my count, of the 315 brand new beers introduced by WV brewers last year (as listed and rated on untappd.com), a little over 100 of them were fruited kettle sours. That’s one-third of all new beers introduced.
By comparison, WV brewers only released around 85 new IPAs, which are today’s most popular craft beer style.
You’ve all seen them. Some with descriptive names like Watermelon Habenero Gose by Big Draft Brewing, and some with creative names like Space Camp Tramp Stamp, a Tang-flavored sour from The Peddler.
Whether the beer is called Gose, Berliner Weisse, or more commonly, just a Sour, their commonality is found in the method used to add acidity (sourness) to the beer. Kettle sours get their category name from the process used to make them.
Typically, a lighter-styled grain mix, with crushed malted barley and lots of crushed wheat, is steeped in warm water for an hour or so. The liquid is then drained off and pumped to the brewing kettle.
Following a brief boil to sterilize the liquid, it is inoculated with a special lactobacillus culture similar to that used in making yogurt. This bacteria feeds on the sugar in the liquid that came out of the grains. As a byproduct, the bacteria produces lactic acid. It is soured in the kettle.
Once the bacteria takes the liquid to a desired level of acidity (sourness), normally within a period of hours to a day or two, the liquid is boiled again in the kettle to kill the bacteria and prepare it for yeast fermentation.
Following the boil, the liquid is pumped into a fermentation tank. Here, brewer’s yeast is added to ferment the remaining sugars and produce alcohol, which turns it into beer.
Big fruit additions grow popularOver the past decade, brewers caught on to the fact that the American palate has a huge appetite for tart, heavily fruited flavors. They found that the base kettle sour beer is the perfect blank slate to turn into a delicious sweet-sour elixir.
So after fermentation, a big dose of fruit purees, and sometimes other flavoring, are added to the beer. If they are making a Gose style, then the beer will also have a dash of salt added.
From there it goes to kegging or canning and then to you. You may have noticed that the brewing process for kettle sours did not mention the addition of hops. Some brewers add a few hops, others add none at all.
Kettle sours should not have a perceivable bitterness, like that you would expect in a lager or pale ale. The best fruited kettle sours give you a big Jolly Rancher burst that balances a Sweet Tart pucker. I’d call them tart, most not really that sour but very fruity. That’s what the American consumer wants, and that’s what our brewers make.
Quicker than traditional soursOther sour beers made by traditional methods have been around for centuries. Instead of being soured quickly in the kettle, they are beers typically aged for months or even years in barrels or large vats.
Traditional sours pick up their souring bacteria from the ambient air or from the barrels or wooden tanks they age in. Due to the mix of bacteria, they typically pick up funky characteristics, more complex flavors, and stronger sourness that what you get in a kettle sour.
Compared to the traditional sour beer process, kettle souring is a very quick method. They shortcut the time and are, therefore, much less expensive to make.
The strain of lactobacillus used in kettle sours produces a clean tartness that is preferred by the typical beer consumer. It doesn’t have any of the funkiness associated with sour beer styles made in the traditional method.
Look for local examples
While it’s worth checking out any fruited sour that sounds interesting to you, here are a few West Virginia brewers who have developed their own series of sours:
- Bearer of Fruit by Weathered Ground Brewery
- Fun with Prisms by Short Story Brewing
- Between Us Girls by High Ground Brewing
- Fresh Squeezed by Morgantown Brewing
- Smooth-eez by Stumptown Ales
- Snallygaster by Berkeley Springs Brewing
- Sour Holler by Bad Shepherd Beer Company
- Sex on the Cheat by Chestnut Brew Works
And while they don’t use series names like those above, three more excellent sour WV brewers are Big Timber, The Peddler, and Abolitionist Ale Works. I’d try anything they brew.