In the awkward seasonal transition between summer and fall, when September is almost over but it’s still hot as hell, nothing quenches the thirst quite like sour beer. We’re far past the days of rosé cocktails and zingy whites, yet not quite prepared for nights of heavy stouts and pumpkin everything (okay, maybe the latter.) Sour beers provide that slightly heavier, carbonated palate that we crave for the fall yet maintain a rip roaring acidity for when the temps are still hot. Problem is, sour beers can pack a hefty punch — to the wallet, that is. As with many other things in life, what are we to do when said product is what we want, yet without the demanding price tag? Find a cheaper alternative, of course. Welcome to the scene, kettle sours.
Sour beers, as the name suggests, are brewed with the intention of having a tart and acidic palate. Common styles of sour beers are lambics, Berliner Weisse, and Flanders red ales. Sour beers are produced by purposefully letting wild yeasts and bacterias enter the mix, be it via barrel or during the cool-down of the wort. An alternative way to produce these sour flavor profiles is to add fruit during the aging process, which will start a secondary fermentation. Sour beers take multiple months to ferment and even longer, sometimes years, to mature fully. Another factor to take into consideration is that these wild yeasts and bacteria are not welcome in a brewery’s non-sour beers, forcing it to invest in an entirely separate set of equipment (vessels, tubes, clamps) for sour-beer production. This unpredictable and lengthy production process and the need for separate equipment dictates the generally hefty price of sour beer.
What’s the alternative? Some brewers are turning to kettle souring, a quicker and significantly less costly method.than making traditional sour beers. Kettle souring requires the same type of bacteria (Lactobacillus) as traditional souring methods, which is actually the same strain of bacteria found in Greek yogurt (yes, some brewers simply add a dollop of the stuff to their mix when kettle souring.) However, the money-saving aspect of kettle souring comes from the order in which the souring takes place. During kettle souring, bacteria is added before fermentation, whereas in traditional souring, bacteria is introduced after fermentation. When introduced post-fermentation, hops and alcohol already exist in the mix, which slows down yeast, making the process lengthy and drawn out. When added prior to fermentation, the souring can be done in as little as one to three nights. The brew is then boiled to kill the bacteria, also eliminating the need for separate equipment in the facility, as the bacteria is no longer present. These methods that save time and depend less on equipment are the reason that kettle sours present a much more economical price tag.
So why’s everyone hatin’ on kettle sours? Many sour beer aficionados argue that kettle sours present a distinctly inferior taste. Their flavors are generally less complex and, at worst, can present off-putting aromas of vomit or garbage. The lack of complexity in comparison to traditional sours comes from the fact that traditional sour beers use an array of bacterias, not just Lactobacillus, which create many layers of tart, acidic flavors. The long aging process also adds to the developed taste profile of sour beers.
Moral of the story? Like anything, quality demands price, yet decent alternatives exist. Rather than look at kettle sours as “inferior” sour beers, view ‘em as a reasonable, money-saving alternative. Hey, you can’t order filet mignon every night, right? But that Angus burger is equally delicious in its own right, satisfying that beef craving — and leaving your wallet sufficiently happier than the former option would have.