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The Art and Science of Brewing Sour Beer

If you’re unfamiliar with what sour beer is, the name might sound a bit unappetizing. But the tart, acidic beer is growing in popularity, and Northeast Ohio breweries are making more to meet demand. Platform Beer Company is actually expanding its sour beer production to a new facility. The brewery’s owner, Paul Benner, says the term sour can be somewhat misleading.

“You say the word sour out loud, and it can mean a lot of different things. One of the things it can mean is spoilage,” Benner said. “In beer it’s the complete opposite. If it turns sour, it can be a wonderful thing.”

Sour beer is a lot like yogurt, because it has good bacteria that gives it flavor. The lactic acid in yogurt is the same thing that causes tartness in sour beer.

Sour beers can be made using a kettle or a barrel. Right now, Platform makes a lot of its sour beers in kettles. Justin Hemminger of the Ohio Craft Brewers Association says that’s a fairly common way of producing sour beers in Ohio, especially as demand for sour beer grows.

“I think that Ohio beer drinkers have really taken to sours,” Hemminger said. “We’ve seen some evidence that the sour beer portion of the market has increased.”

But even though kettle sours are taking off, barrel-aged sours are more difficult to make, and Hemminger says not all Ohio breweries have the resources to make them.

“Not very many brewers have the capacity to be able to do barrel-aged sours. A lot of that has to do with, honestly, space,” Hemminger said. “If you don’t have enough space in your building to do a barrel-aged program of any kind, you’re probably not going to do barrel-aged sours.”

You need space to make them because the bacteria can become airborne and affect the other beers in production, so you have to separate sour beer. It wouldn’t cause any harm to the consumer, but it could add sour notes to some beers that aren’t supposed to have that flavor.

There are some Ohio breweries that specialize in sour beer, like BottleHouse Brewing Company in Cleveland Heights. But Platform offers a diverse range of styles, and Benner says it’s unique for a brewery like that to commit to making more sour beers. His company bought a separate building a few blocks from their current production facility on the west side of Cleveland to start an expanded sour program.

“Our goal as a company is to become as diversified as possible in our offerings. Our success with the kettle sour series that we’ve been producing for over a year now has basically told us that there is a thirst for this in our local market and beyond,” Benner said. “It also is kind of like the holy grail for a brewer, to make amazing barrel-aged sour beers that are drinkable but have really intense character is something that is very exciting for us as brewers. That’s really why we have committed so many resources to making this a reality.”

Benner says brewing the sours in barrels rather than kettles adds flavor from the wood and from the wild yeast and bacteria in the room. It’s a time consuming process though. Making sour beer in kettles can take about three weeks, but making it in barrels can take six months to over a year.

“It could be a risk, but the reward for us is that we have a type of product that a consumer can see is an artisan product,” Benner said. “It has a little higher price point because of the care and time that’s gone into it.”

The time and space constraints can make sour beer production difficult for smaller, newer breweries like Terrestrial Brewing Company in Battery Park. Owner and head brewer Ralph Sgro says although they’ve made some kettle sours, they have yet to release a barrel aged sour because they’re still so new. But he is brewing some small batch, barrel-aged sours in an isolated part of the brewery’s basement.

“We’ve only been open for a little over seven months, so they’re in the works now,” Sgro said.

Platform Beer Company’s Paul Benner says they’ll continue releasing small batches until their new building is up and running. That’s where they can make larger batches in barrels.

He hopes that will happen before the summer, which should be perfect, because sours typically have a lower alcohol content, between 3-5 percent, which makes it a refreshing drink for a hot summer day.

lisa.ryan@ideastream.org | 216-916-6158