Sour Beer Genies

The Education of the SCCBB

Atrial Rubicite from Jester King Brewery in Austin, Texas

I suppose it was inevitable that I would fall for sour beer. From a very early age, my palate craved sweet and sour things, whether they were Fanning’s Bread and Butter pickles, or honest-to-god kosher dills from Carnegie Deli in New York (or from Sonoma Brinery, which I found recently at Trader Joe’s). This post, then, traces the evolution of my craft beer palate from lager to sour. It’s been a strange trip, I tell you.

A word about sour beer: it comes out of a Belgian brewing tradition honed over a thousand years by Trappist monks. Some of the more popular (and perhaps palatable) variations include styles referred to as Saison, farmhouse, golden, dubbel, and tripel. Lambic, Flanders, kriek, gueuze, and gose (the latter technically a German variation) are styles in the decidedly tart, tangy, piquant, sharp, acidic, vinegary realms. Mike Reis of Serious Eats has an excellent Beginner’s Guide to Belgian beer styles.

In the Beginning: Lost Abbey ( May 2010)

We first encountered The Lost Abbey in a San Marcos space formerly occupied by a much more humble Stone Brewery. The sign over the door said, “in illa brettanomyces fides,” which translates either as “In Wild Yeast We Trust,” or, literally, “in this place we believe in British fungus.” Brettanomyces is the theme of this post, so attendat as a Belgian Trappist Monk might say in Latin. By the way, the Lost Abbey website has a nice tutorial on Brettanomyces.

The Lost Abbey warehouse is piled high with recycled wine and whiskey casks holding some of Arthur’s most treasured elixirs.

We sidle up to the bar with the SCCBB’s own BeachRock Bill, an old friend of Tomme Arthur, Lost Abbey’s brewer extraordinaire. Way back in 1997, garage-brewer Arthur was hired by Vince Marsaglia of Pizza Port in Solana Beach, CA,  to brew Belgian-style ales, such as the Dubbel Overhead Abbey Ale. Multiple Great American Beer Festival (GABF) Gold Medals later, Arthur has arguably become one of the most renowned “craft brew meisters” in America. Two pints of Arthur’s Lost and Found Abbey “Double” Style Beer (with raisins and a sweet malt finish) appear. It’s clear that this beer is Arthur’s nod to the Trappist Abbey of Westmalle’s (Belgium) “dubbel,” a strong version of a brown beer.

Without too much prompting, Arthur disappears — his daughter Sydney entertains guests with dayglo Playdough sharks and stamps — and reappears again with taster glasses of Devotion. This dry-hopped blonde ale with a dry hop-driven finish is Arthur’s hommage to the great Belgian Trappist St. Sixtus Abbey’s Westvleteren Blonde ale. It is sublime.

The former Ventura Craft Beer Examiner (left) with Lost Abbey’s Tomme Arthur and daughter Sydney back in May 2010

Russian River (August 2010)

There is general agreement among craft beer aficionados and hop-heads alike that, as far as India Pale Ales go, you’d be hard-pressed to find a more perfect beer than Russian River Brewing Company’s Pliny the Elder. As the brewery’s website documents, Pliny has taken gold in the Double IPA category at both the World Beer Cup and the Great American Brew Festival (GABF). In addition, over 1,500 reviewers on BeerAdvocate.com give Pliny a combined grade of A+. 

After tasting Pliny on tap for the first time, the Ventura Craft Beer Examiner (VCBE) recalls saying to a beer-drinking companion, “Oh, yeah. That’s an amazing beer.”

So it might surprise readers to discover that, when the VCBE got the chance in August 2010 to visit Russian River’s Brewpub in Santa Rosa with Sir Ted of Sonoma, he did a taster flight of seven Belgian-style ales. One reason is that several of the selections were available only on tap and only at the brewpub.

Before discussing the beer, a few words about RRBC’s brewer/owner, Vinnie Cilurzo, one of the most eclectic and accomplished beer artisans around. Russian River Brewing was actually founded by the Korbel Champagne people in 1997. They brought Vinnie aboard as their brewer in 1999 (he’d previously brewed at Blind Pig Brewing Company in Temecula). In 2002, Korbel decided to get out of the beer business and sold RRBC to Vinnie and his wife, Natalie. 

In late August 2010, the VCBE tasted the following Belgian-style ales at the RRBC brewpub:

  • Little White Lie – a Belgian Wit, available during the summer: yeast-forward, slightly spicy “session” beer, 4.8% Alcohol by volume (ABV)
  • Redemption – A Belgian Blonde, 5.0% ABV
  • Damnation – Strong Golden Ale, 7.0% ABV; a regular medalist at the GABF – similar to Hoegaarden, only better — one of the VCBE’s favorites
  • Sanctification – Batch 5, 6.25% ABV, one of the ales only available at the brewpub; featured a 100% strain of the wild yeast Brettanomyces. Too sour for the VCBE’s taste – but he’ll work on that.
  • Supplication – Brown Ale, 7.0% ABV aged in French oak Pinot Noir barrels with three strains of Brettanomyces, Lactobacillus, Pediococcus and wild cherries
  • Consecration – Darkest of the bunch, 10.0% ABV, brewed with black currents and aged in Cabernet barrels – the other VCBE favorite
  • Temptation – Blonde Ale, 7.25% ABV, aged in French oak chardonnay barrels with Brettanomyces. Very similar to Sanctification – in fact, the VCBE couldn’t tell the difference…

Detour: Brooklyn, by Way of Eagle Rock (2017)

For a few years, there was a Craft Beer Cellar tasting room in Eagle Rock, California, not far from where the So Cal Craft Beer Blogger lives. It closed sometime during the pandemic (maybe 2020?).

However, back in 2017, it was new, so the SCCBB, partner-in-crime Eleanor, and BeachRock Bill dropped in for a memorable session (you can see the eight beers on tap in the photo that accompanies this section). We tasted all eight beers on the draft menu.

Noble and Bottle Logic were the most worthy of the eight (Eleanor and I met BRB at those breweries later that summer — but that’s a tale for a different post). I kinda liked Right Kinda Love from State Brewing in Gardena. But the Galacto Sour Saison from Brooklyn’s Sixpoint Brewery was enlightening, in my opinion — sauvignon blanc refreshment in beer form.

Casa Agria (2017)

During a time when new breweries were opening in Ventura County, including MadeWest, Poseidon, and TopaTopa (they hadn’t yet existed when your SCCBB was the Ventura Craft Beer Examiner), Eleanor and I discovered Casa Agria in Oxnard/Ventura, “a boutique brewery focusing on mixed fermentation farmhouse style ales, barrel aged wild ales, and yeast driven India pale ales.” For those whose Spanish isn’t up to snuff, Casa Agria translates as “House of Sour.”

One of the things that intrigued your SCCBB was that the brewery’s fruited sours used fruit purchased directly from farmers who grow them, as kind of seasonal, artisanal offerings. Don’t know if you’ve ever driven through Ventura County, but from the Ventura Highway (U.S. 101), the entire county appears to be farmland, specializing in strawberries and citrus.

Two sours in the foreground: Pinot de la Casa (left) and Champagne Room.
In the background are two NE-style IPAs: Jets Overhead and Subsolar.

The SCCBB tried two sours, “Pinot de la Casa” and “​Champagne Room​”. Eleanor has roots in New England, so she sampled two NE-style hazy ​IPAs: Jets Overhead (the brewery is really close to ​Naval ​Base Ventura County) and Subsolar. Rated “92-Outstanding” on Beer Advocate, the Pinot de la Casa “ages our Saison de la Casa in freshly dumped Pinot Noir wine barrels from Casa Barranca Organic Winery in Ojai, CA. Following more than 6 months of barrel aging, Pinot de la Casa was blended to the preferred balance with young and old saison.” Champagne Room is rated “93-Outstanding” on Beer Advocate, and is a “Spelt saison refermented with grape skins and pressed juice from Casa Barranca Organic Winery in Ojai, California and blended with a one year old golden sour.”

Fun Fact: Casa Barranca means “Cliff House” in Spanish.

Monkish in Torrance (January 2019)

All the Beer Cogniscienti rave about Monkish in Torrance. At the beginning of 2019, Partner-in-Crime Eleanor, the elusive Isabella and your SCCBB had the opportunity to pay the brewery’s tasting room a visit.

Unfortunately, it was the last stop on a night that included Beachwood Brewing in Long Beach. I’ll come clean and confess that we overindulged at Beachwood, and forced ourselves to drop by Monkish. Because of the mutual esteem in which the three of us hold Sir Ted of Sonoma, we felt duty-bound to sample the wares of a place that he’d been wanting us to take him for at least a half-decade.

A receipt from that evening tells me that we ordered a pale ale, a stout, and an IPA — not one of them what you might expect to find in a Trappist brewery in Belgium, which presumably was the inspiration for the brewery’s name. I take full responsibility: epic fail on my part. We’re going to have to go back there. In fact, I think we’re going to have to have an SCCBB Beer Summit there and let the other contributing editors give their reviews and recommendations.

Interestingly, the top five rated Monkish ales on Beer Advocate are all New England IPAs:

  • Foggy Window (99)
  • Foggier Window (99)
  • Bomb Atomically (98)
  • Beats Is Infinite (98)
  • Spock It (97)

Two Imperial IPAs scored in the high 90s, as well: Water Balloon Fight Club (97) and La Schmoove (95). The two highest-rated Belgian (i.e. “monkish”) style brews are Anomaly (89), a Belgian Dark Strong Ale, and Feminist (86), a Tripel.

I did take a photo of a wall at Monkish that featured a collage of labels, which I’ll include below, just so you get a sense of what we missed. Like many, many breweries, the names of the ales are creative and entertaining.

Jester King in Austin (December 2021)

Jester King Brewing, Austin, Texas. Photo by Isabella

This past Christmas, we found ourselves in Dripping Springs, Texas, celebrating the holidays with our daughter, Francesca, who had moved there the previous summer with her family. On Boxing Day, we went to Jester King Brewing, “a brewery, kitchen, farm & event hall on a beautiful 165-acre ranch in the Texas Hill Country” outside of Austin. While on its sprawling grounds (everything in Texas is bigger, including her beer tasting facilities), I had one of the more interesting beers of 2021. It was a super-delicious “Atrial Rubicite,” which was a barrel-aged, wild-fermented sour refermented with raspberries. It was just one of several wild-fermented ales featured as part of Jester King’s “Spon Day,” celebrating spontaneous fermentation.

According to the Beer Advocate, “Atrial Rubicite is made from well water, barley, wheat, hops, farmhouse yeast, native yeast from the Texas hill country, souring bacteria and raspberries. It’s 5.8% alcohol by volume, has a finishing gravity of 1.005 and is 3.36 pH. It is unfiltered, unpasteurized and 100% bottle conditioned.” Beer Advocate ranks Rubicite #3 in the Wild Ale category. Number 2 is Cable Car Kriek from The Lost Abbey, and Number 1 is “Fuzzy” from Side Project Brewing, founded by Cory and Karen King in St. Louis, Missouri.

Put a pin in the map: this may just have to be our next out-of-state brewery visit. 

I asked my Nor Cal brewer friend, Sir Ted (who is also a master of yeast, in both the sourdough and sour beer categories), what was the skinny on Jester King? This is what he replied.

Jester King is a long long story. You landed at a place in the pantheon of the few great sour/saison breweries — up there with Hill Farmstead, Russian River, Jolly Pumpkin and Lost Abbey . . . and they are truly following the “wild” path, opening up their fermenters to the open air, riding the unpredictable and artful rodeo of “where will these bugs take us.” I am jealous that I couldn’t hang with you there!

Sir Ted of Sonoma

Postscript

This post is the direct result of the amazing POG Smoothie Sour, “No Place I’d Rather Be,” that I sampled at Radiant Brewing in Orange County surrounded by dear friends and SCCBB collaborators.

Lagunitas Brewing used to have a tagline, “Beer Speaks, People Mumble.” I’d amend that slightly for the purposes of this column: “Beer Evolves, People Need to Keep Up.”

Cheers,

— C. C. Hansen, the So Cal Craft Beer Blogger-in-chief

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