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Craft Crazy Colorado Looks To A New Obsession: Sour Beers

One of the country’s fastest growing beer types is defying traditional ideas of taste. Ranging from tart and sweet to strongly acidic, lovers of sours—called “sour heads”—are driving up demand for the brews.

That demand is clear at Small Batch Liquors in Denver. Owner Joe Tumbarello says since he opened his store last fall, his offering of sour beers has grown to more than 60 types. The bottles are typically sold individually, prices ranging from $3 to $30.

Credit Grace Hood / KUNC
Joe Tumbarello of Small Batch Liquors

“What’s nice about sours, there’s something for everyone’s palate in it,” said Tumbarello. “I just have weird eclectic taste, and I wanted to share it with my customers to see if it was something, that maybe it would catch on.”

Nationwide, Belgian sour ale saw the second largest growth in bar and restaurant sales in 2012, according to GuestMetrics. Sours are only a tiny fraction of the craft beer market, which in 2012 was only 6.5 percent by volume.

Steve Kurowski, spokesman for the Colorado Brewers Guild says sour beer has a novel appeal that can attract a new group: wine drinkers who’ve crossed beer off their list.

“Sours just seem to be a different enough sort of style of beer that it captures people’s interest and when they love it, they are fanatical about it,” said Kurowski.

"Once you deconstruct your definition or the accepted definition of beer, once you get over, around that and through it, I think then there are so many more things that are available to you."

Inside Fort Collins-based New Belgium Brewery’s sour beer brewing operation you’ll find other similarities to the wine industry. The industrial space, known as Cache la Foudre, has 35 antique looking wooden barrels that tower in the room. Inside are sour beers made with wild yeast strains and healthy bacteria similar to something you’ll find in yogurt.

Wood Cellar manager Lauren Salazar oversees the process. She says brewing sour beer is a labor of love—since it can take up to two years to bring a batch to market.

“Really what I do is I go through and taste barrels all the time. And just check in on them to make sure they’re happy,” said Salazar. “They’ll tell you ‘I’m hot, cold, hungry, everything’s ok.’”

Credit Grace Hood / KUNC
Lauren Salazar pours some tasters in the Cache la Foudre room at New Belgium. You can see the barrels in the background

New Belgium won awards four years in a row for their sour beers at the Great American Beer Festival. Demand for their sours has been steep in recent years. The company released its mouth-puckering sour brown ale La Folie in February, which runs about $14 for a 750 ml bottle. Salazar says many stores have already run out of it.

“Once you deconstruct your definition or the accepted definition of beer,” said Salazar. “Once you get over, around that and through it, I think then there are so many more things that are available to you.”

Salazar often watches sour novices on New Belgium Brewery tours taste the beer for the first time. To get past preconceptions, she encourages novices to think of the product like lemonade, or biting into an apple.

“I’ll give them a sample and say, ‘think about biting into a huge Granny Smith Apple. It just makes your salivary glands go crazy,’” said Salazar. “When you do that, and they drink that, they like it. And then it’s OK. And it’s beer, and beer can be so many other things.”

Credit Jim Hill / KUNC
A few of the offerings at Crooked Stave sit on the bar in the taproom.

Inside Denver-based Crooked Stave Artisan Beer Project there’s another overlap with the wine industry.

Founder Chad Yakobson started his business back in 2010. In 2012 he was recognized with a silver medal in the wood- and barrel-aged sour beer category. As a start up, he says one key to financing the growth of his business has been selling $300-dollar Cellar Reserve memberships, commonly offered in the wine industry.

“They help us out at the beginning of the year, which helps us to buy equipment, buy barrels, be able to continue to grow,” said Yakobson.

For a smaller outfit like Yakobson’s, up-front financing has been one key to success. In just three years, he has built a pipeline of highly coveted beers which will be distributed outside Colorado in the coming months. 12-ounce Crooked Stave bottles like the Bretta and the Surette sell for about $7.

Credit Jim Hill / KUNC
Chad Yakobson of Crooked Stave

In July, Crooked Stave will move its taproom from Northwest Denver toThe Source, an upscale artisan marketplace.

With more sour beer breweries ramping up their production, what the about quality?

“That question is the question everyone is asking,” said Yakobson. “For us it’s about time and quality. Instead of, OK we have 40 barrels ready, we’re just going to blend all 40 together… you have to grow it appreciably.”

Growth will also come gradually at New Belgium Brewery. Wood Cellar Manager Lauren Salazar says plans are underway to double the company’s storage capacity for sour beer by the end of the year. Wild yeasts and cultures will be added bit by bit to the sour beer to ensure the quality.

That’s something all craft beer drinkers can get behind.


Craft Beer Week we've already tried out Colorado ciders, sought out local malts and ingredients, and looked at the economy and growth of craft beer. Tomorrow? We take a look at the art of beer.

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