Pucker Up

Sour beers are a growing presence on the brewing landscape

Lore has it that thousands of years ago, when humans first discovered that hops, grain and water combined to create beer, all the resulting beverages featured a taste profile that we would describe as sour.

Blame the microorganisms that linger around us—then and now. Bacteria and naturally occurring yeasts were in the air, water and dust, and especially in the open vessels often used to craft the early brews. They settled freely in the wort (the grain and water mixture that forms the beginnings of beer) and thrived.

Once Louis Pasteur demonstrated how to rid food and prep equipment of unwanted microorganisms using his namesake process and simple sterilization, brewers learned the importance of making sure the final product was free of unwanted microbial visitors. Open wooden vessels gave way to closed, easily cleaned copper kettles and eventually, stainless steel vats. Paired with high-temperature cleaning, the simple changes all but eliminated the potential of unwanted critters infesting a batch of beer.

The disappearance of sour beers from the American landscape also had a good bit to do with changes in approaches to food storage, as well as a healthy dose of big-business marketing, says Craig Wensell, CEO and co-owner of Bellefonte Brewing Co. in Wilmington.

“Brewing in America has been in an awakening almost since Prohibition. Everything changed after that period of self-isolation. Sour beers almost immediately made a comeback right after that,” he says. “But along with the whole concept of canned foods and long-term shelf-stable products, there was an attempt to run the old-style beers off. Either that or they just faded away.”

Bellefonte Brewing Co.'s sour Belgian quadruple, Sour Claymonster, fermenting. It’s available at the brewery this month. Photo Anthony Santoro
Bellefonte Brewing Co.’s sour Belgian quadruple, Sour Claymonster, fermenting. It’s available at the brewery this month. Photo Anthony Santoro

Because nothing is as alluring as the forbidden or unattainable, modern brewers began to plumb history for those funky flavors lost through modern cleanliness. However skeevy it might sound, in pursuit of this primordial flavor born from higher acidity, modern beer makers began intentionally infecting their brews with several types of bacteria and wild yeasts, all designed to add a little something to bring about that new/old sour flavor only the wonkiest beer enthusiasts and culinary anthropologist even knew we were missing.

The master brewers of Belgium were the first in recent history to bring these flavors back to commercially produced brews, going back to the old open koelschip—the Germanic name for what Americans refer to as the coolship, or an open vessel used to cool wort. This allowed “wild” yeasts and bacteria to settle into the mix before it moved to the brewing process.

They began offering up their intentionally inoculated and fermented sour ales known as lambics, as well as lambic blends (known as gueuzes) and Flanders ales. Others not of Belgian provenance included Berliner weisse and gose, both from Germany. Goosed with naturally occurring flora in the wort stage, the finished brews were often aged in used wine barrels, where other lingering bacteria and the remnants of each vintage would boost the flavor profile further.

Properly prepared, these beers can range from light and fruity to verging on the complexity of a fine, dry red wine and lend themselves to a variety of food pairings. In fact, Wensell says that among traditional craft brew drinkers who lean toward a hoppy flavor, sours can often fall flat. But with wine drinkers who often claim to not like beer, sours are frequently a hit.

“The mouth feel of the product is going to be the same as wine, so I use that as my reference point for people who say, “I don’t really like beer,’” he says. “Ten to 15 times over the course of every weekend we see the beer person turn up their nose and someone who doesn’t like beer will go to the sours. It can really take people 180 degrees out of where they thought they were.”

Bellefonte Brewing Co.'s Funk n' Pineapple. Photo Anthony Santoro
Bellefonte Brewing Co.’s Funk n’ Pineapple. Photo Anthony Santoro

Done wrong, the taste of a sour beer can skew toward the unpleasantly earthy or even, um … poopy. Because of their brewing process, even when done well, consistency isn’t the hallmark of sour beers. If you find a brand you like and stick with it, you can still expect flavor variations from batch to batch, Wensell says.

“Sours are kind of hit and miss, but they’re becoming more ‘hit.’ In my drinking experience, I’ve been punished by a number of sours,” he notes. “It’s been kind of an adventure in discovery. It doesn’t always go your way, but it’s always entertaining.”

Sours available at Bellefonte this month will be the Sour Claymonster, a sour Belgian quadruple (or “quad” – essentially an extra-strong Trappist-style ale) with flavors of tart cherry and caramel; a mixed fermentation with Brettanomyces bruxellensis (“Brett brux”) and Saccharomyces Trois (“Sacc. Trois”) yeasts that Wensell describes as “a big, bright. pineapple bomb”; Bellefonte’s second batch of Solera #1, a complex sour with a wine-like flavor that, with carbonation, comes off like a prosecco; and a bright and complex full Brett fermentation that features strong flavors of sour peach and mango. Wensell says he also likes to keep at least two sours on tap throughout the year, usually a blueberry and raspberry.

Searching your favorite beer shop for something to take home? Here are a few top-rated bottles to try:

Dogfish Head's SeaQuench Ale. Photo courtesy of Dogfish Head Brewery
Dogfish Head’s SeaQuench Ale. Photo courtesy of Dogfish Head Brewery

Dogfish Head SeaQuench Ale – The only blend on the list happens to also be one from the locals at Dogfish Head Brewery in Rehoboth Beach. This session hazy golden sour combines three separate brews—a traditional German-style Kolsch wheat beer; a gose with hints of sea salt, coriander and black lime; and a Berliner weisse flavored with lime and lime peel. All three are aged together to produce a thirst-quenching drink that’s tart and citrusy up front with a hint of salt and a malty sweet finish. It pairs well with steamed mussels, grilled chicken and raw oysters for the main dish, or a bit of chevre during your cheese course. As a seasonal release, SeaQuench won’t be back around until the summer.

otravez-bottle-pint2016Sierra Nevada Otra Vez Gose-Style Ale – Flavored with prickly pear cactus fruit, coriander and grapefruit, this brew from the Chico, Calif.-based brewery offers a tangy bitterness reminiscent of watermelon that goes well with spicy main dishes, goat cheeses and citrusy desserts. Its 4.5 percent ABV makes it a refreshing, smooth-drinking selection.

Russian River Consecration – A dark reddish-brown brew, Consecration gets much of its color from being aged in Cabernet Sauvignon barrels acquired from wineries local to the Santa Rosa, Calif., brewery, and from being spiked with black currant prior to the four- to eight-month aging process. What emerges is ale with a sour punch. Undertones of the wine remain, complementing top notes of currant, chocolate truffle, tobacco and spice. Its 10 percent ABV is as foreboding as its dark color, so take your time enjoying this one.

Weyerbacher Brewing Tarte Nouveau Session Sour – This light, refreshing and mildly sour offering originally began as an experiment by the Easton, Pa., brewery to see if it was possible to create a sour beer that wouldn’t contaminate the rest of its drafting and packing equipment. What first emerged as their limited-edition Zulu label has now morphed into this tart, pale-yellow ale that offers an easily drinkable 3.9 percent ABV and a dry, smooth finish. The subtle presence of cherries helps this beer pair well with light seafood dishes like ceviche and the earthier tastes of a beet and goat cheese salad. Be patient, though. This sought-after seasonal won’t be back again until spring.

A Taste of Honey

Two new establishments are bringing an Old World beverage—mead—to today’s market

“I rose up in the morning and I felt a dire need
To dream away the dreary day
And drink a cup of mead.
Ignoring the sting of honey bees
I drank and drank some more.
Awoke the very next day and
My [expletive] head was sore.”

— 12th century English drinking song

Yes, they used expletives in the 12th century, and probably a lot of them after a long night drinking mead, the exquisite and potent honey wine that is making a comeback in the 21st century.

Throughout history, people have found a way to turn just about anything into a cocktail, including grain, grape, potato, rice and even something sweet like molasses or honey. And mead, made from honey, is one of the oldest recorded alcoholic beverages, dating back to 7000 BC in Northern China and 2000 BC in Europe.

To most people, the word “mead” conjures images of fur-clad Vikings sitting around a fire while they throw down the sweet drink from cups made of ox horn, or England in the Middle Ages, with bawdy inns and Robin Hood and his merry men draining pewter mugs of the stuff as they sing “I rose up in the morning…” and plotting against the Sheriff of Nottingham.

Like most great discoveries, mead probably was created by accident; some fermenting agent got into some honey, time passed and—voila!—it was cocktail hour. But because honey was hard to acquire (those darn bees), the drink, although still made and enjoyed, was soon passed in popularity by beverages that were made from fruits and grains and other non-stinging sources.

But now, two establishments in Delaware are trying to bring the ancient concoction to modern drinkers.
“It’s one of the oldest and most popular alcoholic beverages on earth, but not many people have ever tried it and a lot of people have never even heard of it. We hope to change that,” says Terri Sorantino, who, along with partner Dr. Jeffrey Cheskin, has opened Liquid Alchemy Beverages on Brookside Avenue in Elsmere.

Sorantino and Cheskin discovered mead by accident. Four years ago, the couple was on vacation in Maine and stopped at a café that served mead, which neither had ever tasted. Intrigued, they sampled some and immediately fell in love with it. And on the long drive back to their home in Old New Castle, they decided to bring mead to Delaware, and maybe make a little money, too. Even though they both have thriving careers—Cheskin is a chiropractor and Sorantino is a nutrition counselor—they wanted to invest in a food or beverage business where they could be creative and be their own bosses, but they knew the craft beer market was flooded. So, their trip to Maine proved to be serendipitous.

Dr. Jeffrey Cheskin and Terri Sorantino of Liquid Alchemy Beverages fell in love with mead the first time they tasted it. (Photo by Jim Coarse)
Dr. Jeffrey Cheskin and Terri Sorantino of Liquid Alchemy Beverages fell in love with mead the first time they tasted it. (Photo by Jim Coarse)

Growing Up with Mead

“You’re always looking for something new and different, something that sets you apart from everybody else,” says Sorantino. “As soon as we tried mead, we knew that we had found what we were looking for.”
Whereas Sorantino and Cheskin were amateurs who stumbled onto mead and its possibilities, Jon Talkington is a brewing professional who grew up with it—even as a kid he used to home-distill mead in his kitchen, as well as beer and wine.

“I’ve been making mead for over 20 years,” Talkington says. “Both of my grandfathers made different kinds of stuff over the years and I just picked up on it. They both lived on farms and made apple jack and cider and brewing has just been a part of my life ever since I can remember.”

That early exposure to the benefits of fermentation led Talkington, a native of Ohio, to become a brewer at Dogfish Head Brewery in Milton, the undefeated and undisputed king of local craft breweries.

Talkington has worked at Dogfish Head for the last 12 years and he’s also a professional wine maker, so it was a relatively easy and natural move for him to make mead. And, like Sorantino and Cheskin, he saw that there was a market niche he could fill with the ancient drink.

Talkington has teamed with business partner Robert Walker Jr., who has worked at Dogfish Head for the last six years and currently has the title of Inventory Fulfillment Specialist. In the next month or two they will open Brimming Horn Meadery in Milton, with Talkington as the beverage specialist and Walker as the business specialist.

As the name indicates, they will emphasize mead’s Viking tradition in their marketing and décor at Brimming Horn. That’s why their meads are called things like Freya’s Kiss, Bjornbar and Viking Berry, as well as one with the gotta-try-it name of Goat’s Blood (made from grapes and cherries).

“I first learned about mead like a lot of other people did, from reading history books and mythology,” Talkington says. “Mead is mentioned in Beowulf, so you know it’s been popular for a long time when it becomes part of a mythology like that. And that mythology is a big part of mead’s appeal today. At the same time, we’re not just marketing this as some kind of trip back through history. It’s also like a sweet wine, and there are enough different kinds to appeal to all kinds of tastes.”

Kitchen-Inspired

Sorantino-Cheskin and Talkington-Walker have something in common when it comes to making different kinds of mead —both teams get most of their inspiration not from the brewery, but the kitchen.

“I love to cook and Jeff loves to experiment and that combination is a key,” Sorantino says. “We also get a lot of our inspiration from cooking shows on The Food Network. We’ll see somebody do something with a recipe, with different fruits and spices and flavors—like when we saw someone making a popsicle out of blackberries and lime—and then we’re like, ‘Hmmm…I wonder if that would work with mead.’ And then we’ll experiment and make a small batch. Sometimes it just doesn’t work, but some of our best meads have come from that approach.”

Says Talkington: “I’ve always cooked and I’ve always enjoyed trying different recipes and making my own recipes, and that’s a big part of my approach to making mead—don’t be afraid to experiment. That’s one of the real pleasures of doing this, when you can come up with a recipe of your own that really works. It’s a very creative process that just also happens to taste great.”

Variety is a key to making not only good mead, but also marketable mead. Basic mead is made from just fermented honey, but despite what one might think, it’s not thick and syrupy. Regular mead—at Liquid Alchemy Beverages it’s called “Sweet-Nothing” —definitely has sweetness about it, but there’s no mistaking the alcoholic bite. And that’s just one of many varieties available, and most batches of mead are some combination of fruits and spices and grains and, of course, honey.

“It’s like wine,” Cheskin said. “Some people like red and some like white. Some like a dry wine and some like a fruity wine and some like a spicy wine. It’s the same thing with mead. The key is to find out what works and what doesn’t and that’s all part of the process and part of the fun of doing this. It’s a great feeling when you have an idea and it ends up tasting delicious.”

Both Liquid Alchemy and Brimming Horn use local fruits as much as possible, but they also go exotic at times, which is why one of Liquid Alchemy’s meads will contain cinnamon from Sri Lanka and blackberries from Hockessin.

“You want the best of both worlds, so to speak,” Talkington says. “You want the freshness of local produce and you want to support local businesses. That’s very important because we want to be part of the community. But we also want to bring other worlds to Delaware. If you do it right, it makes for a great combination.”

Getting the Word Out

For Sorantino and Cheskin, one of their biggest challenges is to get people to sample their wares at their renovated warehouse. Their meadery is in the middle of a street lined with industrial garages and warehouses, and even though they completely redid their place and it has a warm, cozy feel to it, the location isn’t ideal for starting a new business. To compensate, they’ve gotten involved with local food fairs and festivals and other events where they’ve been able to introduce mead to a different and mostly younger crowd.

“That’s the most important thing of all—getting the word out,” Sorantino says. “Every time we go to some festival or event we get more and more fans of mead. People are intrigued by the idea and they love the taste and they love the idea that it’s different. And then they want to know where they can get it.”

“There’s a reason this drink has been around for centuries,” she adds. “And that, of course, is part of the allure of mead—its history and place in literature, that feeling of connecting with the Old World. What we’ve tried to do is bring the past into the present, and we’re having a lot of fun while doing it.”

For more information, including hours or operation and different varieties of mead, log onto brimminghornmeadery.com and liquidalchemybeverages.com.