There's a story that Chad Yakobson likes to tell. According to myth, when the indigenous people of New Zealand first spotted their home, they were guided by a “long white cloud” that caught their attention and pointed the way. Whether snow-capped mountains reaching into the sky or actual clouds, their canoes were directed by some combination of geography or fate, and the interpretation of what they saw guided them toward a pivotal moment.
It has nothing to do with beer, but like so many other aspects of culture and storytelling, it also kind of does.
“We all grow up in a system of thinking about things in our own way,” says Yakobson, owner of Denver, Colorado’s Crooked Stave Artisan Beer Project. “We talk about beer and certain ways to see stuff, but beer is its own thing to each person. It’s our mission to educate and grow the category and not take that for granted.”
It’s kind of a romantic way of getting to the basic biological truth that everyone’s taste buds are unique, including when it comes to beer. That reality is compounded when considering the specific kind of beer that Yakobson deals in: sour. Or “wild.” Or “mixed-fermentation.” Or any other synonym that does more help than harm in trying to describe a flavor experience most beer drinkers might never imagine—one that many might, at first, associate with “bad.”
“Sometimes we take for granted how young sour beer is in the U.S. even though you can go to pretty much any brewery and find a version of it,” Yakobson continues.
Anecdotally, it makes perfect sense. Given the growing number of breweries and understanding of techniques from the basic and quick (kettle sour) to timely and traditional (barrel aging), there’s never been a moment like this in American brewing culture where so many businesses are purposefully making non clean-culture recipes. Brewers, and a niche number of consumers, have been bitten by the bug for bugs.
Taken as a whole, however, the situation highlights an awkward inflection point. If drinkers truly have a record number of options to choose from, presumably increasing every day, it’s more sour/wild/mixed-ferm beer for a somewhat static audience. When brewers think of drinkers flocking to these kinds of beers, they often first imagine Untappd Heroes, the kind of try-it-all beer aficionado who has plied their taste buds to appreciate the intricacies and unexpected nuances of such a beer.
“From the brewing perspective, we kind of deconstruct what we’re doing with hope we can make better beer, but we over-analyze things, probably to death,” says Jeffers Richardson, director of Firestone Walker's Barrelworks wild beer facility. “But that’s not how people drink. At least, I hope they don’t. That would be horrible.”
It’s a half joke, but its truth resonates to the point at hand: To grow the category, businesses are going to have to grow the base, too.
“I’ve been around craft beer for a long time, and remember in the ‘80s when there weren’t that many of us, we thought if we could get to 1% of beer consumption we’d be stylin’,” Richardson says. “Well, we blew past that, and over 20, 30 years, found out it was about educating people. It’s going to take some time to get a specialized category there, but there’s interest and a generation of curious people that can get it to more critical mass.”
For as many different ways that brewers can use ingredients to coax aromas and tastes from a beer, the first hurdle many brewers agree on is a need to get over a problem of vernacular. “Sour beer,” for its ease of understanding, is a double-edged sword.
“That term, much to my chagrin, is not really instructive,” Richardson says. “It assumes a beer should be very tart and very sour, and yet, we encompass everything. It doesn’t do the category justice.”
But “sour” has also gotten these kinds of beers this far. It’s just that to expand acceptance beyond enthusiasts, something may need to change. Surveying brewers around the country, there seems to be independent and collective agreement that propositioning a “sour” beer to a casual beer drinker isn’t the best course of action.
“At first, I was hung up on why you would call an entire spectrum of mixed-culture beer one term,” says Walt Dickinson, co-founder of Asheville, North Carolina’s Wicked Weed Brewing. “We had a select audience of folks that were less educated on what ‘sour’ beers were, and that is not a positive flavor attribute. It’s demeaning of the product.”
Not long after opening in late 2012, Wicked Weed began separating brands into descriptions of “farmhouse” and “barrel-aged” to better attract customers who may be easily turned off by vernacular labeling such beers with a broad expectation of “sour.”
Today, Wicked Weed's website includes styles of "Blonde Sour" and "Sour," but further breaks out into "Farmhouse" and "Experimental" to more accurately present the kinds of beers they sell. Each of those are then broken down even more with "Black Sour," "Smoked Sour," and "Sour Red" under the main “Sour” category, and “Experimental,” which contains "Cocktail-Inspired," "Gose," and "Spiced/Fruited Ale."
Clearly, there’s an understanding of what will help.
“There’s no easy fix,” Dickinson says. “The consumer base is growing faster than the education of the category, and because this isn’t wine and there isn’t specific nomenclature or appellation, you have to kind of call a spade a spade.”
And it’s not just word choice. Problems can occur because phrasing connects to biological preferences. In the same way that New England IPAs have found success because they satiate a craving for sweetness and pleasant mouthfeel, descriptions of mixed-culture beers can have a psychological and physical impact.
“Our gustatory reaction is ‘sour is bad,’” says Jonathan Buford, founder of Arizona Wilderness Brewing Co. “That’s centuries and millennia of our brains adapting to bitterness and sour as not good things.”
So what is the trick, exactly, to making this work?
“If I’m at an account, I’m not a fan of leaving a can or bottle because [then] everyone becomes our storyteller,” Yakobson says. “If our mission and our vision is to grow wild and sour beer, we must do it together. It’s your baby and you can become very protective of it, even the way you want to describe and share it with people.”
Converting customers face-to-face is nothing new in sales, let alone beer, but when it comes to accruing interest in a style that can be divisive through one or two words of description, every connection counts. Yakobson has seen it first hand, traveling the country to promote Crooked Stave—and then returning to a progressive beer state where wild, sour, or mixed-ferm beers are more a norm than anomaly.
In Portland, Oregon, Yakobson has found greater penetration of kettle sours, calling out Breakside Brewery and 10 Barrel Brewing helping to lead the charge. But that’s different than his trips to Southern California, where long-rested barrel-aged sours have caught his eye. On a recent trip to New York City—where hazy IPAs are the rage among line-waiting beer lovers—he found some drinkers combining their New England-style hoppy beers with sours. And that’s all before considering Florida, where the Sunshine State has put its own fruit-tinged twist on tart with the Florida Weisse.
“Everywhere you go, sour beer is changing and developing,” he says. “You have to gauge the consumer on what they’re used to and compare and contrast to how you can talk to them in individual, different ways.”
Geographically, it’s something that Veronica Danko can relate to. At her Tampa-based business, Independent Bar and Cafe, sour and wild beers keep two to seven of 24 taplines. There’s particular consideration this time of year toward the Florida Weisse style, Berliner made with locally-available fruit. It was popularized by beer makers like J. Wakefield Brewing and 7venth Sun Brewery.
“I feel like if you’re a true craft beer bar, these beers are something that you can’t ignore,” says Danko, who also co-owns Jug & Bottle Department bottle shop in Tampa. “In Florida where our climate is warm most of the year, the lower ABV and tartness is great for here.”
In Austin, Texas, Jester King Brewery co-founder Jeffrey Stuffings likes to remain on regular rotation to host tours of his facility because it allows him to become a better advocate—not just for his company, but the style of beer to which he feels so connected. Every few weeks he’ll lead groups through the production space to a small upstairs room full of barrels and a coolship, where he can make the ideas and words tangible as visitors see the process of creating wild ales with their own eyes.
Stuffing’s time with drinkers also gives him a chance to workshop his vocabulary to see what resonates most with beer lovers.
“In a world of a lot of uniformity and repetition, I think that things that are truly authentic are becoming increasingly hard to find,” Stuffings recently told the GBH podcast. “So I’m also explaining what goes into making our beer, whether it be raw well water, local grains, aged hops from our barn, mixed-culture fermentation, fruit from down the road, and refermentation and bottle-aging. A lot of love goes into making this.”
It’s slightly less than making an actual pitch directly to customers, but Stuffings admits that he is asking them to “accept or reject” the beer for what it is. And it’s something that he feels is done most effectively when he’s standing in front of potential drinkers.
For Stuffings and others, the way to find success is rooted in story.
“It was a little bit different coming out with something that’s tart or dry or sour and kind of talking our local community through it,” says Christian Weber, co-founder and head brewer at Common Roots Brewing Co. in Glens Falls, New York.
When the business opened in December 2014, it had three house beers: a barrel-aged Belgian Strong Ale, a Porter, and In Bloom, a “rustic” farmhouse ale fermented in foeders and highlighted with a “tart and slight herbal aroma.”
“I don’t know if there’s a regionally-specific way I have to talk to people, but there is an audience that maybe doesn’t have the same kind of industry experience than other places,” Weber says. “Making these beers seem more approachable to them—that can be a hard thing.”
Glens Falls doesn’t quite face the same kind of challenges a new brewery in the Finger Lakes might experience, where drinkers may not actually know what an IPA is. But situated in the general “Upstate” swath of New York, about 50 miles north of Albany, a brewery in this city of about 14,000 must leap over certain hurdles when it comes to educating its audience. The existence of local wine is near-ubiquitous in the region, but talking terroir of beer requires a little more show than tell.
Common Roots has been preparing barrel-aged beers since its first day, including the use of a coolship, and in June will break ground on a new space dedicated to its wild and sour program. Along with various one-offs, the brewery features a year-round "Haus Sour" series to highlight wild and mixed-fermentation beers, often made with a variety of fruit.
“To be able to give a tour at our facility where you can show what you’re doing and how the beer is made is so much about building a connection,” Weber says. “It can make a beer seem more approachable.”
Jonathan Buford says he benefits from the same situation at his taproom in Gilbert, Arizona, where Arizona Wilderness staff can work one-on-one with customers. “A 6-foot-8, 300-pound man could come in and say, ‘I could care less about sour,’ but we can change their mind,” he says. More importantly, he’s got a couple ways he likes to make his point that extend beyond a taproom conversation.
First is the brewery’s mobile coolship, a shallow bed that can be attached to a truck and driven through the surrounding area to inoculate with wild yeast. Thanks to its novelty, the story about the process and results is a fun one to tell and can draw people in, Buford says. That includes a 20-brewery collaboration in 2016 that was documented on GBH by one of the adventure’s participating members.
Buford also points at his brewery’s social media accounts as a way to share details of ingredients, process, and the place where their beer is made, hopefully offering additional points of connection that interest drinkers. When recently tapping a new farmhouse beer, Belgian Expression, Buford used social platforms to succinctly highlight why Arizona Wilderness wanted to make such a beer—including the ingredients used to create a sense of locality and uniqueness.
“Since the beginning, it was a lot of showing our inspiration and something like, ‘We’re going to Flagstaff to collect native yeast, here’s a little story to tell,’” Buford says.
Danko takes it a step further—and back in time—in order to lead uninitiated drinkers into tasting sour or wild beer by sharing history of the category, going back to Belgium and talking about Lambic and Gueuze.
“People are intimidated when they think sour and don’t understand how many different kinds of beers there are and nuances between them,” she says. “Making it approachable through stories and history simplifies it.”
But there are few who are combining the act of storytelling with the science of sour like Firestone’s Jeffers Richardson. For almost three years, he’s been leading something of a wild ale roadshow, making stops across the U.S. (and occasionally abroad) to present “Jeffers Drops Acid…Knowledge,” a seminar series exploring how acidity shapes sensory perception of wild beers.
One way his Paso Robles, California employer has separated itself from others in this specialty category is labeling their Barrelworks beers with acidity levels alongside the ABV, "flora" found in barrels, types of barrels used, and time spent resting in wood. It’s the makings of a nerdy story told on a label that then gets transferred to real life with Richardson. And it’s a way of bridging an enthusiasm gap between the geekiest of beer nerds and the more basic, curious, casual drinkers.
“I’m not sure I’m seeing a huge difference in that California people are more savvy than Illinois or Massachusetts,” says Richardson. “I did a class in Philadelphia where I’m not even sure some people knew what they were signing up for, but they were thrilled to have the experience and have this new idea presented to them.”
Through a 90-minute conversation and tastings, Richardson works with classes of 20 to 30 people to talk pH, titratable acidity, and the sensory relationship between smell and taste. It’s not Beer 101 stuff, but between a fun name and a light attitude, it’s also a powerful way to break down barriers of perception and expectation of what a “sour” beer may be.
“The class is geeky, but it’s also based on your sensory experience to better understand this style of beer,” he says. “All you need is a tongue.”
Richardson and others agree that these direct interactions are invaluable in expanding knowledge about sour, wild, and mixed-fermentation beers, but across anecdotes shared by brewers all over the country, there was one other unavoidable, undeniable, connective tissue: wine.
“Wine enthusiasts are used to acidity, and the moment you start talking about acidity in beer, there’s a parallel they can grasp onto,” says Richardson, considering a helpful link he tries to use to enhance understanding of barrel-aged beers during his “Drop Acid” classes. “You give a wine drinker a highly-hopped IPA, you could lose them for life. But introduce an acidified beer and they can wrap their heads around it.”
But it doesn’t even have to be that technical. Whether it’s someone who is into wine enough to know what acidity is and what it provides the beverage, or they’re a complete novice who has a basic grasp of how it’s produced, drawing connections between wine and wild ale puts the two on a level playing field for the psychological game of teaching our taste buds what they’re about to experience.
In his improvised-and-constantly-evolving monologue to visitors at Jester King, Stuffings has found himself referencing natural wines more often, as the popularity of that style has grown, and more drinkers have become familiar with wines that include no additives or processing aids and are left to ferment in essentially the same ways as Jester King’s beers.
“Instead of using yeast that’s on the skin of the grapes, maybe using yeast that’s ambient in our environment or ambient in our barrel room,” he says. “Or on the skin of other ingredients we add to our beer, whether fruit or other herbs or spices. Just kind of explaining what a farmhouse ale is.”
To be fair, Stuffings isn’t sure if this framing choice is the end-all way to talk about mixed-culture or spontaneously-fermented beer, but the “kinship” the terminology shares between beer and wine is unavoidable.
“The simplicity of winemaking is a good kind of analogy of the simplicity of wild ale making,” he says. “On a microbial level, it’s extremely complex, but on a procedural level, it’s so simple what we do.”
Common Roots’ Christian Weber doesn’t typically get that deep when pouring his wild and mixed-fermentation beers, but when approached by someone not familiar with the style, asking about that person’s wine preferences is a great start. It’s an easy reference point for locals who live a short drive from one of the world’s best wine regions in Upstate New York.
In Bloom is one of the original three beers Common Roots has served since day one, and has been an easy go-to thanks to some oak-forward qualities and lower acidity. Served in a stem glass, it can also meet a wine drinker halfway in aesthetic. Locals may also be intrigued by a brewery describing a wild beer through the language of terroir, a term typically reserved for wine until recent years.
“How people perceive beer has been a little singular for a while,” Weber says. “Opening up the perception of what beer is can be different, but important.”
The intended effect of connecting wild/sour/mixed-fermentation beers to wine is to open up a new set of expectations for a drink long associated with the crispness of a Lager or the bitterness of an IPA. It’s also, naturally, to sell more mixed-culture beer.
“Sour beer is the link between how you approach flavor in cocktails or wine or cider,” says Wicked Weed’s Walt Dickinson. “It is so different than anything else in the beer world. There’s a pretty stark line from what sour beer is and what it can taste like.”
Almost a year ago, when Dickinson’s business joined Anheuser-Busch’s High End collection of craft beer brands, prognosticators assumed the Asheville brewery would have the opportunity to set the tone for wild and sour beers on a national stage. At the time, Felipe Szpigel, president of the High End, noted that Wicked Weed’s barrel and sour programs would provide an important addition to ABI’s craft portfolio.
Stores from coast-to-coast haven’t been flooded with Oblivion Sour Red Ale and Medora American Wild Ale—you can’t just scale up those beers with the push of a button. But the growing company has found additional ways to branch out.
In November 2017, Wicked Weed began the “Funkatorium Family” program, which provided bars, restaurants, and bottle shops with the option of partnering with the brewery to act as “ambassadors and educators” on mixed culture and wild/sour ales. Quarterly staff trainings are provided from a brewery sales rep along with events about sour beer education and access to vintage and specialty offerings from Wicked Weed. There’s also an annual event for staff from the program’s accounts, offering visits to the brewery’s Asheville facilities to learn about brands first-hand.
While not talking about the Funkatorium Family program specifically, Dickinson says that growth of the overall category of wild and sour beers is benefited by creating familiarity among consumers.
“My hope is that we can be a part of educating people on quality and accessibility of the style to bring more people into the space,” he says.
That’s exactly what has sent Crooked Stave’s Yakobson around the country, meeting with wholesalers, retailers, and drinkers to not only talk about his brands, but what sour, wild, and mixed-fermentation beer is about.
At a recent dinner, he met a woman who identified as a wine drinker. She loves rosé, he recalls. “So I gave her some of our Petite Sour Rosé and she was like, ‘I don’t really drink beer, but this is better than the rosé wine I drink,’” Yakobson says. “How can we crack into that? How do we grow that? There are so many people that can grow this into a larger category.”
Yakobson is conscious of all the potential pitfalls he and others face. He’s particular about language (“I stay away from ‘funky,’” he says, as an example.) and sees what in-person interaction can provide (“Quality and education are the best ways we can approach it.”). He’s moved away from bottle-only packaging to make his beers feel more accessible, too. Since starting with cans almost a year ago, Crooked Stave now sells 75% of its beer in aluminum.
These are all ways he sees himself doing right by his own company as well as an entire category. It still requires effort, though. Tastes have to be changed right alongside minds. This is a kind of beer relatively new to American audiences, and like the story he tells of New Zealand, everyone interprets experiences differently.
“Are you an optimist or a pessimist?” he asks. “I do feel like there’s a bigger place for sour beer. Where does that come from? How does that happen? We have to work for acceptance.”