When Atalanta, the popular tart plum saison created by Orpheus Brewing on the eastern edge of Midtown, first went into cans in early 2014, it earned itself a footnote in Georgian brewing history as the state’s first packaged, commercially available sour beer. Though it seems like a lifetime in the hyper-evolving landscape of local craft brewing, that milestone was just over a year ago. At the time, the only other Atlanta-area brewery producing tart beer of any kind was the Wrecking Bar Brewpub, and those releases were draft-only (not including sours from Creature Comforts Brewery in Athens). In a city where many of the small breweries were still taking shaky first steps, “tart” was a notably absent dimension of flavor. But in 2015, much has changed.
A new wave of Atlanta-produced sours have arrived. Produced by breweries with vastly differing aesthetics and brewing philosophies, the timing of the releases, coupled with the new Georgia beer laws that went into effect on July 1, have essentially made this “the summer of Atlanta sours.” The names speak for themselves: Orpheus, Wrecking Bar, Wild Heaven Craft Beers, Monday Night Brewing, Three Taverns, and Blue Tarp have all released new tart beers in the last month. Even the venerable SweetWater, which has never produced a true sour, is apparently planning an as-yet-unrevealed tart beer for the fall, according to “minister of propaganda” Steve Farace.
It’s a one-year transformation that reflects prevailing trends in both the beer industry and consumer tastes. Atlanta drinkers may have gotten a slower start in sour beer appreciation than say, those in Portland, but in the opinion of brewers like The Wrecking Bar’s Gavin McKenna, one can’t reasonably get by in 2015 without at least the roots of a sour program. “I think you have to be somewhat sour-focused now to be successful and stand out,” says McKenna, who led Wrecking Bar through its initial forays into sours and barrel-aging. “You have to have a strong saccharomyces [traditional beer yeast] program, hoppy to dark, and also incorporate sours. That’s what a full beer menu looks like these days.”
It’s important to note that the term “sour” itself is ultimately just a blanket description for many styles of tart beer. The sours produced in the last month are a testament to how varied a descriptor this can be, incorporating a full range of completely different techniques, ingredients and final products. Some are light, zesty, refreshing summer quenchers. Others are rich, heady fruit beers filled with juicy fruit flavors and residual sugar. Still others are dry, complex and boast intense tartness.
Some of those beers are so-called “kettle sours,” a nontraditional method where souring bacteria is allowed to infect and sour the beer before it’s ever boiled and introduced to more common brewer’s yeast. Such a method can be very helpful to breweries with limited means hoping to produce certain sour styles, given that it can greatly reduce the time needed to make a tart beer. Other breweries have done things the long, slow way, as Three Taverns has done in the build-up to the limited release of their first-ever sour, Inceptus, a saison base aged in Georgian wine barrels for more than a year and inoculated with wild yeast culture from good o’le Decatur air.
“Inceptus was actually begun all the way back during the Snowpocalypse of 2013,” says Three Taverns CEO and founder Brian Purcell. “During the snowpocalypse, our Belgian brewmaster showed up at the brewery and was deeply breathing in the cold air outside. He said ‘this cold air is the best for doing open fermentation.’ And so that’s how our wild yeast culture got started.”
Atlanta’s menagerie of brewers have each followed with their own twist on this formula. At Blue Tarp, a collection of ultra-limited sours were released to celebrate the July 1 beer law reform, including an apricot sour, a “cucumber honeydew sour,” several sour stouts, and a beer enticingly called “Cherries Jubilee.” At Wild Heaven, on the other hand, three sours have likewise been released in the past few months—first the wild yeast-infused Swan Swan Hummingbird and then both a sour rauchbier (smoked beer) and Dionysus, a cuvee featuring a blend of six different sours, primarily a sour version of their Belgian quad, Eschaton.
“Dionysus was always conceived as a cuvee, basically modeled in the way that some of the better Belgian sours and Flanders cuvees that I love are built,” says Wild Heaven brewmaster Eric Johnson. “To get the right balance of the dark roasty and the Flanders lush fruits and the barrel notes and lighter tropical fruits, I don’t know if you can really accomplish it without blending beers of different ages and different strains.”
Monday Night Brewing, meanwhile, employed a truly unusual method in creating their first sour released last month, Spirit Animal. The beer was kettle soured not with an already-cultivated strain of bacteria intended for brewing but by literally dumping Indian yogurt into the kettle. According to Jonathan Baker, the brewery’s head of marketing, the dozen different strains of lactobacillus simply took over from there.
“Spirit Animal is a very light summer sour that we did in three batches and then blended before aging it on toasted oak and rose hips,” Baker says. “The rose hips are just a bit of a floral afterthought and the oak does more for the mouthfeel than the flavor. We wanted this to be a very refreshing offering that reflects the way the Atlanta market has warmed up on the broad concept of sours. We believe there’s a way to do them that pushes the boundaries of Atlanta palates but is also something people want to come back to regularly and pair with meals.”
Baker may be more right than he knows, according to Orpheus brewmaster Jason Pellett. Ultimately, the proof of sour beer’s ascendency is where those beers are being consumed, and in the case of Orpheus products, suburban restaurants, not beer geek-focused bars, are taking down a majority of the draft kegs.
“My number one priority, no matter what, is that it’s pleasant to drink,” he says. “That may sound simple, but you shouldn’t have to work to drink a beer. I hate the idea that a beer is ‘challenging.’ That’s some beer geek talk that I don’t want anything to do with.”