Sour beer is back at Fossil Cove

Courtesy photo

Fans of tart ale, rejoice!  Fossil Cove has something just for you.

A Flanders Red-style sour was brewed in mid-December using a unique process to create its signature tartness, and it officially hit the taproom a couple of weeks ago.

Fossil Cove’s last sour – a Berliner Weisse – was rolled out in 2013 to rave reviews.  It was light and refreshing, and made for a nice introduction to the style.  I’m sure more than a few local folks had a chance encounter with it and realized sour ain’t necessarily a bad thing in a beer.  

The style has caught fire across the United States, some even calling sour the new IPA in terms of having the ‘it’ factor.  There are plenty of new examples available as breweries coast-to-coast (and even locally) have started playing around with the funk.

Of course not everyone likes sour beer. Some consider it revolting and swear to never let it pass their lips. The acidic puckering is just too out of bounds for them to enjoy.

It is certainly a polarizing style. You either love it or you hate it, and there’s not much room to roam in the middle.

But for the people who find the appeal in sour beer, the relationship can be described as head-over-heels and highly committed. They’re the type who fog the windows of the brewery waiting for the doors to open on release day.

Fossil Cove’s Sour Red is the brewery’s latest take on tart and is available in the taproom for the next several weeks. Expect a medium-bodied beer with mild acidity. It compares very nicely to one of the world’s most revered sours – Rodenbach Grand Cru.

Owner and brewmaster Ben Mills was kind enough to discuss Sour Red with us here.

You brewed a sour last year. Why brew another, and how is this one different?

Sours are a favorite of all of us who work here at the brewery and have quickly become a very popular option across the country – the main reason being that they are very unique in the beer world and also pose a myriad of challenges to make.

One of our goals over the past year has been to dedicate more time to a sour program. We have been experimenting and researching different methods of producing them on our current system. One of our test batches with a new production method failed, and the Sour Red is our second, successful attempt at that method.

With the Berliner Weisse method we used grain to inoculate the mash with the bacteria necessary to sour the wort. This method is not very reproducible due to the lack of control of inoculation of the microorganisms and the inability to heat the mash tun to maintain optimum temperature.

With the current method we produce our total volume of wort and run it into the kettle like normal. We then sterilize the wort by boiling, effectively creating a blank canvas for introduction of a specific culture of bacteria. We essentially sour the wort in the kettle. Once the desired pH has been reached we simply turn on the kettle, boil, add hops, and finish the wort like a normal beer. We then pitch the yeast and cellar the beer according to what flavors we are trying to create in the final product. In this case we aged the finished beer on oak spirals for 6 weeks.

What difficulties do you experience when brewing a sour?

The number one issue with producing a sour beer is the introduction of bacteria into your brewery. This is normally a very bad thing. Many breweries spend loads of time and money preventing this exact thing from happening to maintain the quality of their product. We actually do the same thing here at Fossil Cove.

So the question becomes, how to brew a sour beer without infecting everything down the line? The answer for us, and many other brewers with limited resources, is to sour the wort rather than the traditional method of souring the finished beer. By souring the wort in the kettle, we have the ability to introduce an isolated culture of bacteria. And once its job is finished we can turn the kettle on, boil, and kill the bacteria, providing us with a nice sterile but sour wort that we ferment and finish like any other beer we produce – with a much reduced risk of infection.

Do you see a demand for sours in NWA? What has the response been on this one so far?

I believe the demand for sours is still somewhat small, kind of like the industry itself. As the industry grows and we as brewers have the chance to educate beer drinkers on the myriad of styles of craft beer, the demand for these specialty beers will definitely increase.

We have seen an overwhelmingly positive response to our Sour Red. Quite a few people were familiar with the style and knew what to expect, but there have also been a large number of drinkers who had no idea what to expect and were either pleasantly surprised, or decided maybe sours just aren’t for them. It is definitely a unique and acquired taste.

I hear there are more sours on the horizon. What can we expect from Fossil Cove down the road?

Now that we have developed a reproducible, controllable method of producing a good sour beer we can start experimenting with different ingredients and sour styles in order to create more unique offerings.

The plan as of now is to begin releasing a series of sours called “Ozark Sours.” The premise behind the series is to produce limited release batches of sours brewed with local ingredients and aged predominately on native Ozark wood species. The Ozarks offer a wide variety of options for native fruits and woods that will allow us to create beers that are truly unique to our area. We hope to release the first in the series sometime early this summer. Releases will be limited to 150-200 750ml bottles and will be available only in the tasting room.

Brian Sorensen (@EBSorensen) is an admitted beer geek, occasional home brewer, and member of the Fayetteville Lovers of Pure Suds.