When someone tells me that they "just don't like beer," I'll often recommend a fruit-flavored lambic, like Lindeman's Framboise. It's a fine ale that most can agree is worth a sip or several, and a taste is often followed by a surprised, "This is beer?" The point is to demonstrate that beer can follow many forms; the irony is that lambics are perhaps one of the most extreme, niche styles out there.
Lambic, Berliner Weisse, Oud Bruin, Flanders Red, Gose and other sours have long been hits in the craft beer community, but their popularity has increased sharply in recent years with casual beer drinkers, making it easier than ever to find a huge seleciton of strange, sour brews on your local beer store shelf. Although styles within the "sour beer" label can vary wildly, they all share a common trait - the introduction of bacteria such as lactobacillus during the brewing or conditioning phase that gives the beer a tart flavor and often a certain "funkiness" that can only be described as an acquired taste.
Paul Unwin of Pinellas Park's Cajun Cafe on the Bayou is a bit of a sour beer fanatic. On June 16 he debuted the Cafe's first annual Sour, Lambic, and Berliner Weisse Festival, which featured more than 70 sour beers from around the world. Surprisingly, given the strong roster of acclaimed sour beers from Mikeller, Tilquin, Boon, and other respected international breweries, the majority were brewed by local brewers and homebrew clubs, proving that Europe doesn't have the monopoly on extreme sour beers, at least not in Tampa Bay.
I started out with Dunedin Brewery's Y2K, a beer that I knew would run out quickly. Brewed in 1999, this 13-year old, raspberry-flavored beer held up remarkably well over the long aging. It was crystal clear from over a decade in storage; it was tart, crisp, and impressively fresh. Dunedin's Seventh Sun was also in attendance, pouring their lip-puckering Midnight Moonlight Berliner Weisse with a lineup of accompanying syrups, a traditional addition to Berliners. I tried all of the flavors - peach, pomegranate, and the traditional raspberry - but my favorite was the amaretto, which added a nice, marshmallow-esque sweetness to balance the tart Berliner.
A name that I'll be watching closely is Gravity Brewbar, which will be opening in Miami in August. Their Sour Rye aged in rye whiskey barrels was fantastic, with a subtle rye spice undertone that didn't roll over the other flavors, as rye whiskey tends to do. They also did a great Oud Bruin, but perhaps the most intriguing offering was Grodzilla, a smoked beer boasting over-the-top sourness up front, followed by a rich smoke in the back. The two highly contrasting flavors were balanced surprisingly well, although a friend described it as mixing milk and grapefruit juice. He loved it.
Largo's Rapp Brewing had a few stunners, from the cherrywood oak-aged Lichtenhainer to the Passionate and Bloody Berliners, the latter two being variations on Rapp's standard Berliner with passionfruit and blood orange flavorings, respectively. Esteemed Florida homebrewer Jonathan Wakefield also threw an impressive fruit-tinged beer into the ring with his Miami Madness, an infinitely-drinkable sour summer beer flavored with passionfruit, mango and guava.
Peg's Cantina and Cigar City Brewing are never far when sours are being poured. The latter brought one of my favorite beers of the fest - One Percenter, a flavorful Berliner clocking in at a tiny 1 percent alcohol by volume. Peg's Drink Them Both Up, a funky sour brewed with lime and coconut, was also great.
Tarpon Springs' Saint Somewhere Brewing had a few interesting beers to pour, notably the custom-brewed Cuvee de Unwin, a blend of the brewery's Saison Athene aged 3 years in Cabernet Sauvignon barrels and fresh Pays de Soleil, another of the brewery's saisons. It was one of the bigger beers at the fest, with a creamy head and a rich, robust body.
The spirit of the extreme sour beer scene was perhaps summed up best by the gentleman manning the table for Special Operations, a South Tampa homebrew club. As he poured a glass of the bafflingly-named Where's the Lita's?, he described it as a "Berliner Weisse that smells like feet and cheese, but it tastes great." He was right on all counts.