Sour beers can be isolating. Their lofty price points and their tart, corrosive flavor make them the antithesis of an easy-drinking six-pack beer.
But, in the hands of Fair State Brewing Cooperative head brewer Niko Tonks, the sour beer is as inclusive as ever. Tonks has cooked up a couple of approachable sours in Roelle and Cromulence, but by far his most utilitarian contribution to the trending category is Bricoleur — the sour with the soul of a lager.
"As a brewer, I like doing two things — making sour beers and making lagers," Tonks explains. "They're on complete opposite ends of the spectrum, but I see a lot of commonality between the two."
Like a good lager or pilsner, Bricoleur — which hits shelves in the brewery today at 4 p.m. — finishes extremely clean and dry. The paleness is emphasized above all, which is a trademark of Fair State's young portfolio. But the really remarkable taste is the pineapple and passion fruit flavor. It leads the way.
"Traditional" sour beers are aged in barrels and left to the whims of wild yeast, the workings of which give the beer its signature hyper-tartness. There are typically many dark fruits involved, such as cherries, raspberries, wine grapes, and a distinct barnyard haziness — all strong flavors that make for a difficult, unsessionable mouthfeel. It can keep a casual, lager-lovin' beer drinker away.
But sours aren't a style of beer. They're more of a category, meaning that they actually have an incredible range that Fair State feels isn't showcased often enough.
"I think the craft beer community kind of pigeonholed sours and what they have to be," says Fair State co-founder Evan Sallee. "For a long time people didn't even know Berliner Weisse existed, and that's a very different style than a typical Belgian Gueuze."
If you're one of the many who've pigeonholed sour beers, then you might see Bricoleur as iconoclastic. Really it's just the Nordeast co-op's way of universalizing a misunderstood brewing process. It was also a way to get rid of some excess ingredients as creatively as possible.
"The term 'bricoleur' refers to a person who engages in bricolage, which is effectively the art of improvising from available materials to create a new thing," Tonks says. Bricoleur is only the first in a series of bootstrapped sours from Fair State. "This is batch one. The idea with this beer is that each batch will be a little bit different. They'll all use different ingredients and draw different inspiration from what's around us. So, we had a bunch of different kinds of high-dollar, fancy American hops left over from other batches that we threw into this beer."
Tonks refers to the flavor of Bricoleur as "pan-tropical," saying that their intention was to capitalize on the pineapple flavor and make something that truly balances the paleness. There's no actual fruit in the beer. The flavor was created by fermenting the beer in three separate sessions with different kinds of yeast to product ethyl lactate, a compound that forms when Brettanomyces yeast interacts with lactic acid. The flavor was kept light by performing this fermentation in the kettle instead of a barrel, which is customary for "wild" fermentation.
Though the fruitiness may endear Bricoleur to beer nerds looking for some lightness from their lactic beers, what makes the beer such a populist drink is its style-averse sessionability. Sours tend to parch the palate, giving a pucker after one tulip goes down. Not Bricoleur. Perfectly round at 5.3 percent ABV and 18 IBU and with a finish that dissipates kindly, you could easily order up 10-ounce pour after 10-ounce pour ($6 on tap).
"A lot of times, when you run into sour beers that are difficult to drink, it's because you run into acids that you don't like, acetic acid, or something maybe way too tannic," Tonks says. "We just want ours to be clean and simple. Just lactic acid and some other ingredients on top of that."
Fair State is cooking up only 15 barrels of the first Bricoleur batch, 70 percent of which will be bottled. Of the 1,600 bottles released, about half will go in the brewery's brand new cooler, and the rest will be released to liquor stores starting next week. A few bars will have it on tap, but Tonks and Sallee don't expect many kegs to find their way out of the brewery. The good news is they've already begun formulating their second entry in the Bricoleur series, which will bring sours even closer to the national drinking median.
"It'll be a Brett lacto pilsner," Tonks says, adding that it's based on their popular Pils, "just a very simple beer with a lot of European hops."
And for those who are intrigued by lager-inspired sour, Fair State basically has a three-step conversion process in place. Cromulence, LACTOBAC, and Roelle are stage one. Bricoleur is stage two. They're currently at work on stage three — a series of oak-aged, mixed-culture, wild-fermented sours that fall more into the Flemish ideal of a sour beer. But you'll have to wait until the spring before you can graduate to that level. In the meantime, Bricoleur is here for the masses.
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