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Friday, January 30, 2015 |  Madison, WI: 24.0° F  Partly Cloudy
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Savor the sour: Enjoying the wild and funky beers of Wisconsin
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Credit:Sue Moen

If I'm out in the world, expounding on the merits of a particularly mouth-puckering sour beer, there is likely to be more than one person nearby whose first question would be, "So, did you dump it out?"

Sure, beer can go bad, but sour beers -- intentionally sour beers -- can be drinks of complicated beauty and simple refreshment. It doesn't take a brewing guild membership to appreciate sour beers, just a little preparation and knowledge of what's being poured. With a marked increase in the sour output from Wisconsin brewers in the coming year, now's a good time to learn more about the style.

First, a little local history. When New Glarus Brewing was founded in 1993, its recipe for Wisconsin Belgian Red, a tart cherry ale, already had years of R&D behind it. By 1994, it was in production, and in 1995, it was winning major awards.

Belgian Red still garners nearly perfect scores on sites like BeerAdvocate and RateBeer, and is the paterfamilias to a line of big-bottle Belgian-style beers from New Glarus: Raspberry Tart, Serendipity and Strawberry Rhubarb.

Meanwhile in the late 1990s, Russian River Brewing of California was experimenting with sour and funky beers, but it was a decade before today's heavy hitters in sour brewing began to appear on the scene: Destihl Brewery, the Lost Abbey, Almanac Brewing Co., the Bruery and the sour program at Goose Island. In late 2011, Wisconsin made its next move, as Central Waters of Amherst released a bourbon-barrel-aged cherry beer named Exodus.

Exodus and Belgian Red are both wild-fermented beers. This means noncommercial yeast strains are allowed to proliferate in the developing beer; some dedicated sour brewers employ a large, flat, pan-like device called a "coolship" to harvest wild yeast. ("Coolship" is the English tweaking of the Dutch original, "koelschip." No deep space travel implied.) Both New Glarus and O'so of Plover have brand-new coolships, and both brewers are, unsurprisingly, planning on expanding their sour programs.

O'so brewmaster Marc Buttera has plans to open a new brewing facility, and the path to that goal is lined with 750mL bottles of wild and sour beer. "I would love nothing more than doing all funky beers," he says. "That's actually the direction our brewery is going to take."

Buttera has teamed up with Levi "Funk Factory" Funk, an aspiring gueuze purveyor, to release four new beers on Jan. 24 at the O'so brewery. Three are sours of limited quantity, hewing to the traditional lambic process "as close as you're going to get here, in this state."

Lambics are a bit different from lambic-style beers like New Glarus Belgian Red. The best way to describe a true-to-style lambic is exquisitely punishing. They are very tart, sometimes a little medicinal, and can take some getting used to. New Glarus brewmaster Dan Carey has been explicit in insisting that New Glarus doesn't brew lambics. This has the effect of freeing New Glarus from the strictures of the style, and with that freedom, New Glarus has made American wild sours that succeed on their own merits.

Wild sours like New Glarus Wild Sour Ale, for example. It was released in the summer of 2013 as one of the brewery's Thumbprint Series offerings. A little oaky, very sour, and altogether delicious, this beer sold out quickly once the Great Taste of the Midwest crowds hit town. But the sour brown ale that went into casks to become Wild Sour Ale also provides the base beer for Strawberry Rhubarb, which was more widely available and might be more likely to return in 2014.

Gueuze (pronounced more or less like "goose" but with a z) is one particularly Old World style of sour beer, a blend of young and old lambic beers. They should be balanced between sweet, tart and sour. Gueuze Tilquin from Belgium and the Bruery's Rueuze are locally available examples. And Funk Factory aims to turn the profits of its O'So collaboration into releasing house-blended gueuze.

2014 stands to be a strong year for sour beer production in Wisconsin. Beyond the O'so releases, there should be a collaboration on a wild ale from Grumpy Troll and Sweet Mullets, and both lambic-style beers and beers fermented with the wild yeast Brettanomyces from Madison's own Vintage Brewing.

That science-class term I just dropped -- you can shorten it to Brett if you want, everyone does -- is more than academic. As with cheese, yogurt and bread, living organisms are an essential part of what makes beer beer, and the critters that go into sour beers are particularly forward about announcing their presence, Brett perhaps most of all.

Even more than the term "sour," flavor descriptors like "barnyard" and "horse blanket" are likely to send a rookie running. But that's just what Brett brings, a deep, earthy funk that isn't the least bit shy. Indeed, Brettanomyces is so potent an organism that it's still a dirty word in some brewing circles. Get Brett where you don't want it in your brewing setup, and it'll run wild.

Some Brett beers are challenging, but some of the best are those that incorporate the funk into a greater harmony. O'so combines its Dank Imperial Red Ale with Brett to great effect, and its Brett-fermented Wee on the Lam Flanders Oud Bruin/wee-heavy mashup from 2012 was a delicious stylistic mess. The fourth of its upcoming releases is a Bretted American pale ale.

Other bugs develop other flavors and styles. Lactobacillus bacteria are often employed in the production of Berliner weisse, a sour wheat ale. New Glarus made a stellar example in 2013, and some bottles may still linger on shelves. Hinterland of Green Bay also released a Berliner weisse last year, and Leinenkugel's experimental Tenth and Blake brand makes a Berliner weisse called Bubblelicious Weisse that's combined with fruit juice bubbles for a multi-sensory experience worth seeking out.

Beer festivals are a natural setting for sour sampling. The small but growing sour-beer crowd soaks up these beers at events like Great Taste of the Midwest and Isthmus' own Beer & Cheese Fest. You can find many of these beers on store shelves, but a short pour is the perfect amount if you're still not sure sour beer is a good thing. But trust me, it is.

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