Brewers experiment with sour & smoky flavors

WANT TO know what beer tasted like in the olden days, when men were men and brewers were wizards?

Pete Slosberg, the guy who founded Pete’s Wicked Ales, says that when he conducts beer tastings, he tries “to get people away from the notion that when Robin Hood and his merry men were drinking in Sherwood Forest, they were drinking Bud or Bud Light. “

So he has his audience take a sample of Aecht Schlenkerla Rauchbier, the famously smoky beer from Bamberg, Germany, and pour it into a glass of Hanssens Oude Gueuze, the funky lambic blend from Belgium.

“I don’t know for sure what Robin Hood was drinking,” said Slosberg, “[but] it most likely was similar to a mix of smoke and sour beers. “

It’s not hard to understand why.

Without a modern kiln, the ancient brewer would’ve had to dry his malted barley over an open fire, darkening the grain and adding smoke to its cereal-like flavor. And, since the brewer had no clue about the science of fermentation, the alcohol would have been produced spontaneously, almost magically, with airborne yeast and bacteria from old wooden barrels.

There wasn’t much a brewer could do about it – it’s just the way beer tasted.

What’s harder to understand is why – after generations of painstaking advances in knowledge and technology to improve quality, ease production and finally achieve consistency of flavor – so many American brewers are trying to reproduce those unpredictable flavors . . . on purpose.

Just take a look at the shelves at your local beer store.

You’ll find smoked ales and smoked lagers, sour fruit beers and mouth-puckering red ales. There are so many smoked porters, the Great American Beer Festival created a judging category for them. Now there are even sour porters.

These beers are not the product of some fluky mistake.

Brewers can order premeasured, foil-lined packages of malt with specific flavors and aromas of smoke: cherry, beechwood, peat. And they can intentionally sour their beer with laboratory-propagated strains of exactly the types of yeast and bacteria that Louis Pasteur worked so hard to eliminate from the brewhouse 150 years ago.

It’s not that the breed of brewers who experiment with smoked and sour beers are neo-Luddites eschewing evil technology in favor of the purity of tradition. (Although, to be honest, I can’t help but imagine some of them waving magic wands and tinkering with alchemy. )

Mainly, it seems, they’re striving for flavor – a unique, possibly quirky flavor that will entice, confuse, tickle or challenge the palate. The new flavor may even expand how we define beer. It’s not necessarily the perfect flavor, but it’s one that will excite those who are searching for the Next Big Thing.

“Today’s craft beer drinker is an intensity junkie,” said Scott Vaccaro, the founder of Captain Lawrence Brewing, in Pleasantville, N.Y. “He’s after the next flavor fix.

“Superhopped, supersour, supersmoke – I don’t know if they want to be shocked, but they want to get that rush. “

Lately, Vaccaro has been experimenting with both smoke and sour, in his Smoke From The Oak series. The idea is to make a smoked beer and age it in oak barrels that were previously used to make wine, port, brandy, rum and bourbon. The barrels often contain microorganisms, including Brettanomyces, that sour the beer.

“It’s completely unpredictable,” Vaccaro said of the finished product.

Smoky or sour beers are not for everybody, and even fewer will enjoy a beer that’s both. But I’m with Slosberg, who said of his rauchbier and gueuze experiment “I tell the audience not to throw them away . . . save them for me. “

After you’re finished digging out this weekend, join me in the northern ‘burbs on Wednesday, when I’ll be guest host of a dinner featuring a wide range of Brooklyn Brewing’s brands at the Iron Abbey (680 N. Easton Road, Horsham).

We’ll plow our way through five courses paired with Brooklyn Lager, Local 1, Backbreaker, Brooklyn Blast, Black Chocolate Stout and the limited release, Black Ops. Tix are $40. Info: or 215-956-9600.


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