Believe it or not, most beers used to be sour. It wasn't until modern refrigeration and pasteurization that tastes shifted toward the clean, consistent flavors that we associate with beers today.
Today, the notion of sour beer deliberately infected with bacteria seems crazy to most people, but to those who have developed a taste for the rustic flavors of yesteryear, nothing could possibly make more sense. My own insatiable thirst for tart, musty brews has brought me to a number of local taprooms in search of increasingly exotic, tart and all-around wild beers.
At Pinellas Park's Rapp Brewing Company, owner Greg Rapp has a thing for obscure European styles. While most breweries consider a pale ale or lager their flagship beer, at Rapp it's indisputably the Gose — a Leipzig-style tart beer brewed with salt and coriander — that gets the most attention. This beer's a permanent fixture in the tasting room, and it's sometimes even on tap at other bay-area bars.
Rapp's other big sellers are a classic Berliner weisse, tart wheat beer popular in Berlin during the 19th century, as well as its cousin, Lichtenhainer, a beer that's both tart and smoky — a throwback to the days when malted barley was dried in wood-fired kilns. A recent addition at Rapp, Grätzer, is a near-extinct Polish style also made with smoked malt. It's spicy, smoky and yes, a bit sour.
"Brettanomyces& Lactobacillus& Pediococcus& Saccharomyces" reads a shirt at Dunedin's 7venth Sun Brewery. While this may seem like gibberish to the layman, to owners Devon Kreps and Justin Stange it reads like a shopping list. The last entry is standard brewing yeast, while the others are wild yeast and bacteria commonly found in the spontaneously fermented wild ales of Belgium.
Lately, the focus at 7venth Sun is on brettanomyces, a wild yeast that contributes fruity, funky and "barnyard" aromas and flavors to beer. Kreps and Stange are in the process of creating a pipeline of sour blond ales, fermented with brettanomyces in 59-gallon oak barrels formerly used to age wine. On a smaller level, the brewery has started tapping 15-gallon barrels on a weekly basis, containing a variety of beers that will more sour and funky as the barrels become more thoroughly inoculated with brettanomyces, pediococcus, and lactobacillus over time.
Across the street from 7venth Sun is Dunedin House of Beer, a bar that has long offered a variety of Belgian lambic and gueuze — spontaneously-fermented beer from the Pajottenland region southeast of Brussels — as well as Flanders ales that become sour while aging in "infected" oak barrels.
You would do well to try these Flemish beers, such as Petrus Aged Pale or Duchesse de Bourgogne, a Flanders red with notes of sweet, aged balsamic vinegar that's a mainstay on the draft list. If you'd prefer to venture into lambic and gueuze territory, you'll find some of fantastic examples for sale by the bottle, such as Lindemans Cuvée Rene, Girardin 1882 Black Label, or a very uncommon treat: Hanssens Scarenbecca Kriek, an ultra-sour, uncarbonated lambic flavored with the traditional (but extremely rare) Belgian Schaarbeek cherries.
Of course, once you've developed a taste for sour beers, there's no turning back. Continuing along this path will eventually lead you to Mr. Dunderbak's, a traditional German restaurant and biergarten in Tampa that just happens to also be a local mecca for sour beer.
At Dunderbak's, you'll find a wealth of sour ales on draft, including commercial versions of Berliner and Lichtenhainer weisse, gose, oud bruin (Flanders brown), and even Grätzer; but true diehards ask for the rare bottle list. Here you can find Rodenbach's fantastic 2009 Vintage Flanders red; Avery's Brabant, a wild ale from Colorado aged with two strains of brettanomyces in Zinfandel barrels; and — on occasion — a beer so elusive that many pay top dollar to order it directly from Belgium: Cantillon's Rosé de Gambrinus, a traditional lambic flavored with raspberries.
If all this talk of wild yeast, bacteria, and lip-puckering brews hasn't completely turned you off to the idea of sour beer, then grab a roll of antacids and hit the road — some of the most exotic and rare flavors the world of beer has to offer are available right here in our backyard.
— Do you like sour beer? Tell us where to get a good one at firstname.lastname@example.org, or tweet us at @tbtnewspaper with the hashtag #tampabaydrinks.