Cocktail Hour: Pucker up, sour beers worth a taste or two
Craft beer is about experimentation and the wonder of new experiences. That's why sour beers are starting to captivate local palates, even if they've existed in Belgium and Germany for hundreds of years.
Totally unlike the typical bitter and foamy profiles that Midwesterners are accustomed to, sours are a new experience. Schell's, the 155 year-old German-themed brewery in New Ulm, is leading the pack with their Noble Star series, and they're building a unique facility just to make the tart beers.
"I think if someone has never had a sour beer before, you need to put them in the right frame of mind before they try it," said Jace Marti, the sixth generation brew master at Schell's who is leading the program. "Let them know what they are about to taste, and that they will need to at least try it twice."
Sour beers are just that. There is a lemon, mouth-puckering reaction that first hits the tongue, with varied layers of funky, "barnyard" flavors often found within. Sometimes they are infused with fruits, giving additional depth that can also ease the acidity of first impact. That depth of flavor makes them pair well with food and the sourness gives a more refreshing feeling.
"Sours have a lot of crossover appeal with wine drinkers," Marti said, and he places them between beer, cider, and champagne on the flavor spectrum.
The sourness comes from a wild yeast that reacts with bacteria to create the flavors. Sours are touchy, due to the living yeast strains, and can take months or even years to make. The new site allows the brewers room to make the special beers without risk of contaminating the yeast in their regular beers.
While the existing Schell's brewery is a picturesque facility on the outskirts of New Ulm, the brewery is building a new second site to host the sour program. The new space will house 10 cypress wood tanks from 1936 that were discovered on the grounds. Two have been completed so far, and they are already at work aging more Noble Star beers, with Cypress Blanc and Starkeller Peach next in line for release.
The shape, size, and unique cypress wood of the tanks, which were used to make Schell's Deer Brand beer for 50 years, make their resulting sour beers distinct, Marti explains, compared with other breweries that often use wine barrels for their sours.
Schell's hopes to have the new brewery functioning and open to the public this summer. The tasting room at the old brewery, where tours are based, will remain open and another will be introduced at the new space, serving only sour beers.
"I think the more reason we give people to come to New Ulm, the better," Marti said. "The brewery is still going to be the main attraction."