It was only about a decade ago when sour beer wasn’t much of a thing. Neither was canned craft beer. But over the past decade, both sour beer and canned craft beer have grown mainstream. Heck, even sour beer in a can has become relatively easy to find. But here’s the thing: Almost all of those sour beers are kettle sours.
Before I go any further, let me be clear: There’s nothing wrong with kettle sours.
The broad swath of beers that are lumped together because of the kettle souring technique (a brewer introduces Lactobacillus bacteria to a brew kettle to add acidity to the beer) can be crisp, refreshing beers. In fact, there are few beers I’d rather have on a warm summer day than a gose, a lemony German wheat beer typically produced using the kettle sour technique. And kettle sours that come in cans can be ideal for a range of warm weather activities such as boating and camping.
But kettle sours are not particularly complex, especially when compared to mixed culture sours, the other broad group of sour beers, which consists of beers that can continuously ferment over months, imbuing them with depth of flavor. And sometimes you want a canned beer that’s a little more interesting. At least you do if you’re Damian Fagan, founder and CEO of Alameda, Calif.-based Almanac Beer Co., which is known for its so-called “farm-barrel” approach to beermaking in which it blends locally sourced fruit into its mixed culture sour beers.
However, until recently, it was difficult to find a mixed culture sour beer in a can. That’s because mixed culture sour beers are alive even after a brewery packages them. Most of the time, that’s not an issue. But a live beer can become volatile and over-carbonated. (That’s not a problem for kettle sours because the Lactobacillus is killed off during brewing.) Glass can typically handle that state, cans cannot. And because most breweries aren’t eager to sell canned sours that might explode, mixed culture sours have almost always been bottled.
Almanac is seeking to change that. The brewery spent about two years working on the idea of a series of mixed culture sour beers that it would package in cans. Fagan aims for the series, which Almanac calls Sournova, to appeal to a broader array of beer drinkers than the brewery’s other beers. That’s why the Sournova beers are less sour, less alcoholic and “less scary” than Almanac’s other beers.
“Frankly, the truth is that for most of our existence the beers we were making were for each other,” he says. “They were all on the extreme side. They could be very sour and very alcoholic.”
To be clear, the brewery is continuing to make plenty of those extreme beers. But it’s also begun producing Sournova beers with the same house bacteria culture _ a blend of Saccharomyces, Brettanomyces, Lactobacillus and other microflora _ that the brewery has been using since 2015. The mixed-culture ferments for months with fruit in oak barrels before being canned.
The resulting beers _ to date Almanac has released variations featuring apricots, blackberries, blueberries, cherries, peaches and raspberries _ offer an approachable middle ground between the more extreme sour beers the brewery is known for and less complex kettle sours. They’re dry with a burst of fruit flavor. They’re sour without having a sharp bite. And they’re incredibly refreshing and easy-drinking. So easy-drinking, in fact, that they’re ideal for a warm summer day.
Oh, and don’t worry, they’re also not going to explode on you. Because Almanac’s production team has a strong depth of knowledge about its house culture that hopefully ensures that it doesn’t accidentally produce a beer that’s over-carbonated and explodes. To ensure that’s the case, it stores the cans for two weeks after they’re packaged. (It also tests some cans in warmer temperature to ensure they don’t substantially change.)