Introducing: Outer Reaches Sour Ales

Amidst the depths of science, the silent vortex of time probes outer reaches of wood and ether. What is true is the question at hand, a squirming coil hot to the touch — complexities intriguingly born by molecular galaxies.

As with every beer produced here at Rhinegeist — and any good beer being produced anywhere, really — the Outer Reaches Sour Ales series coalesced through experimentation. Back in 2013, Barrel Master Luke Cole filled up a carboy (the rough-and-ready sketchbook of brewing) with five gallons of our Belgian Pale Ale Fiction and hit it with a smack pack of Roeselare blend (a mix of lambic cultures including lactic bacteria), just to see where it went. Once the cultures had worked their secondary fermentation magic on the brew, Luke and co. gave the resulting contents a taste. Although the intensity and funk level were nascent and tame by our standards — merely breaching the notion of what it could be — the immanent potential of a sour program was evident. The seeds of excitement were sewn, and the challenge of getting our sours to their outer reaches was presented. This is the story of how that challenge was met.

Since Rhinegeist’s inception, we knew we wanted to brew sours. Time, however, is a luxury for newly-founded breweries, and executing a world-class sour ale the right way takes a lot of time. In some cases it can take up to three years for a sour to optimally mature, slowly breathing in and out of the pores of oak staves while the yeasts and microbes do their wonderful and slightly mysterious thing. In the early days, we were busy trying to nail a consistently impressive and prolific clean beer program (which, we are happy to report, we have done).

In the meantime, to quench our thirst for feral funk-bombs and low-pH palate-smackers, we experimented with less time-consuming “kettle sours” and Brettanomyces fermentations, producing beers like Peach Dodo, Margarita Monday, Maracujá, and Quadrafunk; fan favorites that have their own merits and warrant their own following among acolytes of the tart and funky. These test flights were encouraging, but just the beginning — the real journey lay ahead.

A really good sour ale has the bright acidity, intensity and depth of a young Gamay, but a layered patina of earthy funk that you can experience only when you enter the universe of sours uninhibited. The real trick lies in jiu-jitsuing the element of unpredictability that secondary fermentation and the introduction of microbes add to the brewing process — harnessing that unpredictability can be the means to transcendentally tasty ends.

Ask any serious brewer or sourhead about the heavy hitters in the style and you start getting a pretty familiar list of names: Cantillon, Oud Beersel and Rodenbach are all legends on the continent. Stateside, Russian River, The Bruery, Rare Barrel and Cascade have been topping lists and garnering a cult following in the craft beer community for years. Since we started experimenting with mixed fermentation at Rhinegeist, our goal has been to be mentioned alongside these breweries and contribute to the growing awareness and popularity of the category. Like the surge in interest in hoppy brews, or craft beer in general, a heightened awareness and expanded connoisseurship leads to more skilled brewers upping the ante and, correspondingly, more good beer to go around for all of us. A brewery can dream.

Many people, of course, know little about sour ales as a category. At times, sours can seem strange, truly uncharted territory for those indigenous exclusively to the world of clean beer. When tasting sours with veterans seasoned in the style, you’ll hear accessible adjectives like “fruit forward,” “tropical,” and “vanilla” alongside verboten descriptors like “farmyard,” “horse-blanket” and even “Band-Aid.” For this reason, the world of sours can be divisive; but, like any other gastronomic voyage that requires a dimension of time, skill, and exploration, sour ales have no shortage of trans-universal devotees. Count us among them.

Shortly after our initial foray, we invested a large amount of resources, area and equipment to the brewing of sours, dedicating a sizable portion of our basement to experimentation, fermentation, and maturation. A visit to the depths of our home at 1910 Elm St. — the one-time home of the historic Christian Moerlein Brewery — reveals rows of seasoned barrels, stainless steel brite tanks, and giant, traditional oaken aging vessels called foeders (FOO-ders) — material testaments of our dedication to sour brewing tradition.

We have also managed to pay a quantum of reverence to the historical geist of the brewery’s past life by collecting our own particularly clean and fruity strain of Brettanomyces from the cellar air and banking it for proprietary use — a practice established by some of the most renowned sour and wild ale producers worldwide. This house Brett strain is currently enjoying a healthy and satiated life in one of the foeders, transforming base beers into complex and alluring sour phenomena.

That original carboy full of Roeselare-inoculated Fiction was used to seed two more barrels as the experiment that was later to take the name Outer Reaches came to fruition. Everyone at the brewery has grown more and more stoked about the project, which in the interim has matured from experimentation to refinement. We gathered more barrels, and that Roeselare-spiked Fiction, with its humble carboy beginnings, has touched at least two generations of them and is currently living in one of the foeders in the cellar.

If you can’t already tell, we have a tendency to get a little metaphysical when talking about our sour ales. For us, the endeavor encapsulates the struggle of science versus faith, or mystery versus reason. The process through which a good sour comes to be has an element of almost transcendent otherworldliness to it — each recipe, each brew, each sip coalesces into a transformative trip to an unforeseen place. Jim Matt, our Chief Science Officer, likens this process to the humble magic of your mom’s slow-simmering spaghetti sauce; but, in this case, your mom is an unsleeping, ceaselessly-stirring sorceress, and the sauce sometimes simmers for several years. If all goes well, the resultant sum is greater than its parts.

The parts, we are happy to report, are quite elegant and exciting. There will be three tiers of Outer Reaches Sour Ales, corresponding to the style, quantity of time and ingredients invested in the liquid. Brettanomyces fermentation highlights fruity and slightly funky qualities; Mixed Culture sours highlight the more complex and often unpredictable layers that longer aging and the introduction of acid-producing bacteria such as Lactobacillus and Pediococcus adds to the fermentation and maturation process; Fruited and Cuvée sours celebrate the lush depths that extended aging and the addition of traditional and non-traditional fruit sugars and esters lend to our already complex and nuanced mixed culture beers. Some brews are already in existence, some are in a state of becoming, and some currently exist only as ideas. Born from chaos, mastered by science, out of the vortex and into the light — into the Outer Reaches we go.