Life / Food

How do you sell beer to wine drinkers? Make it sour

Sour beers are a “bright spot” of growth in the craft beer market, according to the 2017 Beer Market Report from Beverage Industry magazine.

Luke Pestl, co-owner of Toronto's Bellwoods Brewery, with a glass of Jelly King.

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Eduardo Lima / Toronto Staff

Luke Pestl, co-owner of Toronto's Bellwoods Brewery, with a glass of Jelly King.

Most of Luke Pestl’s customers at Bellwoods Brewery, a trendy West Toronto brewpub, are beer lovers. But not all.

“We have a lot of people coming through because we’re a cool spot to hang out. Sometimes we have wine drinkers come through,” the brewery’s co-owner said.  

And that presents a bit of a problem, because the pub doesn’t serve wine, or spirits or cocktails.

But they do offer a drink that appeals to those wayward wine drinkers, in the form of sour beer — a very old beverage that is getting a new life in the craft-brewing era.    

Sour beer is not bitter but very fruity, with a tart, acidic kick rather like dry champagne, said Crystal Luxmore, a Toronto beer sommelier, beer judge and co-founder of the Beer Sisters website and beer-tasting business.

Sour beers are a “bright spot” of growth in the larger craft beer market, which is levelling off after years of boom, according to the 2017 Beer Market Report from Beverage Industry magazine.

Bellwoods Brewery co-owner Luke Pestl.

Eduardo Lima

Bellwoods Brewery co-owner Luke Pestl.

Two broad categories of beer are sour, Luxmore explained. True soured beers are spiked with lactobacilli, the same bacteria used to ferment milk into yogurt. They’re very tart, “racy” and “lemony.”  

Then there are wild ales, some of which are quite sour (though others aren’t sour at all). They’re a “whole third family of beer” alongside ales and lagers, Luxmore said. They’re made with a huge variety of unusual strains of yeast and bacteria, sometimes using the oldest fermentation technique there is: letting the wort, or liquid product of the mashing process, cool in the open air, trapping wild microorganisms. A huge variety of different beers can be made this way — cloudy or clear, funky or fruity. Belgian lambic is the archetypal beer made by this method.

“It’s a trend that’s been on the rise for a little while. It’s always existed, but it’s very, very new in North America,” Luxmore said.

“Drinkers today are not just drinking beer or wine, they’re drinking both. When they find out beer can have acidity too, especially those who like it in wine, it’s like an a-ha moment.” 

Although Bellwoods has had sour beers on tap since it opened in 2012, there was a “learning curve” for drinkers and brewers alike, Pestl said. It’s challenging at first, given that “sour” is synonymous with “yuck” in many people’s minds.

“It’s quite different than what people are used to. Servers have to explain what the beers are — that they’re not bad, they’re supposed to be sour,” he said. “Sours are easier to pitch to wine drinkers.”

Now Jelly King, a hoppy sour ale, is one of the pub’s top sellers, outselling their IPA. People line up for limited-run, barrel-aged sour beers and they sell out in hours, Pestl said. The flavours range from notes of “cherry pie,” to “leather,” to “horse blankets,” he said, adding, “Our customer base is seeking exactly those types of things.”

What’s the appeal? “It’s sort of a cheap way to experiment,” Pestl said. “Fifteen dollars is our most expensive beer, and that’s as high-end as it gets. Whereas with wine, you can spend hundreds of dollars.”  

Luxmore believes the craze for all things sour is behind the trend.  

“We’re in a time where everyone wants wild fermentation. We’re making kombucha and pickling our own vegetables,” Luxmore said. “Our threshold for acidity and our desire for sour flavours is increasing, more even than five years ago, when kombucha wasn’t in every convenience store.”

What should you drink sour beer with? Just about anything, Pestl said. Luxmore had an unconventional suggestion for the upcoming holiday season.

“It may sound crazy,” she said, “But some sour beers are great with turkey dinner. They’re highly carbonated and dry, and they can cut through gravy, dressing and vegetables. It can be a fun twist on Christmas.”

SOUR BEERS FOR BEGINNERS

Many local breweries are giving sour beers a go, but they’re mostly limited quantities available for a short time. Here are three of beer sommelier Crystal Luxmore’s recent favourites:

Jelly King, Bellwoods Brewery, Toronto —Very hoppy and very tart thanks to the addition of lactobacilli bacteria.

Nectarous, Four Winds Brewing Co., Vancouver — This dry-hopped sour beer won Beer of the Year at the 2016 Canadian Brewery Award.

Duchesse de Bourgogne — A Belgian sour beer with a “sweet and sour” caramel flavour.

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