Sour Beer Studies: Why Did Sour Arise In The First Place?

Writing about what is on other people’s beer blogs is a quick way to fill a day’s obligation to fill up one’s own sheet. But seeing as I have been trying to lead Ron Pattinson and his excellent library of brewing records into figuring out stuff that has piqued my idle sort of curiosity, I think it is well worth noting.

My questioning in these sour beer studies is triggered by one question – who the hell would drink sour beer over fresh? That question is packed with implications like “what is fresh?” and “what is sour?” and even “what is beer?” but it also is packed with the blindness of modernity, a fault that should be admitted from the outset as it is my question after all. It is reasonable to note that only recently that “fresh” was available to most people in the western world most of the time. For the most part food and drink were things that had intermediary storage periods by necessity of the annual cycles of nature. People were used to grain stores, bacon smoked above the fire, cheese with extra-tangy bits which would now see us deem the whole piece fit only for the garbage. So, too, people would have liked beer held for a time with a tang in addition to or instead of the fresh-made stuff.

But tang costs money. To hold beer long enough to gain a degree of souring, you need resources: enough space to store casks, enough money to buy the casks and even enough money not to sell the beer right away deferring the income to later. This is the thing that has niggled at the back of my mind in all this thinking about sourness and it brought me to thinking about cycles of beer storage. Beers like marzen or biere de garde are stored though a season once a year for an annual purpose whether it is to celebrate an event or fuel the harvest. And, like most of the present versions of the Trappist beers, these styles are recently framed, say, only since 1800.

So what gets a beer past its first anniversary? Ron points out one reason: “[i]f you have a good harvest one year, make beer with the surplus grain to be used in poor years. That seems to be the origin of Kriek: a way to preserve a glut of cherries.” And Martyn Cornell added a very useful comment to a recent thread at Ron’s about a very important record, Obadiah Poundage’s letter of 1760. Martyn kindly noted:

Alan, as Ron said, private brewers were storing their beers for a long time pretty soon after hops took off in England. William Harrison, a parson from Essex, writing in 1577, said the March beer served at noblemen’s tables “in their fixed and standing houses is commonly of a year old” and sometimes “of two years’ tunning or more.”

Luxury. Pure luxury. Only those who had the means to store could store. While it is as strange to us as a Victorian forcing house, those who could buy casks did as buying in bulk and cellaring was the only way really, as can be read in Julian Jeffs excellent book Sherry, that pre-mass marketed wines were acquired for the fitting out of the cellar of great house or (centuries fly by) an newly wealthy merchant – with the proper care and handling of the stored drink being part of the deal and expense and status. Martyn’s quote shows this applies to beer. With the industrial revolution, the earliest example of which industry is more than arguable brewing, references to the production and storage of beer by brokers for mass consumption seems to pop up in the records like Obadiah’s letter. Technology and more dispersed wealth make more general consumption of sour and tang possible, replacing the more modestly produced ales and brown beers that neighbourhood brewsters had been making for local consumption since Adam.

Keep in mind this is all sketchy, far too general and likely mostly wrong in that these are merely my own studies. But for now that is what I have come up with. And I would like to learn more about the available industrial archeology of, say, pre-1800 brewing. How much of production was stored for this quality if this quality cost more? And what part of the storage was stored for more that one annual cycle? Demand for sour had to be present such that the increased costs were overcome.

Any ideas where such stuff can be found? I should revisit Haydon, Unger, Hornsey and, of course, Cornell on the point. And pester Ron more. That’s likely the easiest thing to do

One thought on “Sour Beer Studies: Why Did Sour Arise In The First Place?”

  1. [Original comments…]

    Stan Hieronymus – September 9, 2007 9:13 PM
    There is much to be said for letting Ron do the heavy lifting.

    Meanwhile you might look at Martyn’s post today, which provide more detail about three-threads and porter (circa early 18th century).

    Alan – September 9, 2007 10:28 PM
    Good call. I should have mentioned that post of Martyn’s as well.

    Interestingly, I have checked out Hornsey at at page 352 to 355 there is a very detailed account of the brewing in the estate of Henry VIII’s Secretary of State from 1540 to 1545. The brewing was done on site, as might have been regularly the case – we can think of Traquair House as relates to scale. Every two weeks in 1548 between 280 and 360 gallons was brewed. The property had a hop garden. But in October 1552 there was a crisis because “the brewer went sick or because the supply of malt ran out.” For present purposes, this is telling as there were no or little reserves in store…even though he made the same “March ale” – which by its name logically would be an annual product and either produced i October to be consumed in March or available in storage in October. In neither case was it a back-up for the regular demand of beer.

    On the pages 353-54, Hornsey cites Harrison’s same 1577 book and quote that Martyn references but seems to describe him as a brewer, though no doubt being a parson and a brewer are not exclusive. The quote is produced in more length:

    Beer drunk at noblemen’s tables was usually a year old, or even to years old, less wealthy households made do with drink which was not less than a month in age.

    Indeed, a 1588 text by someone with the admirable name of Tabernaemontanus mentioned by Hornsey at page 358 contains this interesting passage:

    This art of making beer taste better which our beer brewers seem to have learned from the Flemings and the Netherlanders seems still to be carried on, as also the strengthening of beer with laurel, ivy or Dutch myrtle so that it stays well preserved and does not rapidly deteriorate or go sour.

    This would seem to indicate that beer going sour is not a quality that 16th century drinkers would universally embrace.

    Alan – September 9, 2007 10:56 PM
    Note also in the 1736 edition of London and Country Brewer at page 117, the warning not to age beers overly long lest they go sour with roughly a nine month storage of strong beer recommended.

    Bill Weye – September 10, 2007 3:21 AM
    Sour ales, right now are my favorite beers. I don’t have much to contribute (I can’t help you trace the history of sour beer back to the cave men) other than to say, as I’m on the 160 beer program at the Moan and Dove in Amherst, MA, I have tasted a lot of good beer. Sour ale, and in particular Duchess de Bourgogne, is some of the most interesting beer I’ve had. The grip on your mouth is truly something to experience. Today I had another sour ale, Rodenbach, that was mellower than the Duchess, but satisfying nonetheless. You can follow my amateurish tasting notes on my blog.

    Thanks for this great resource.

    Ron Pattinson – September 10, 2007 7:58 AM
    It’s difficult to know the precise difference between “stale” (=good) and “sour” (=bad) in old texts.

    While it’s evident that aged Porter had some sourness, there’s disagreemnt as to whether this came principally from lactic acid or acetic acid. About the only hard evidence I’ve seen on acidity in beer is to be found in “American Handy Book of Brewing, Malting and Auxiliary Trades”, by Wahl & Henius, Chicago 1902:

    On page 825 there are chemical analyses of various Stouts. Barclay Perkins Double Brown Stout is top with a lactic acid content of 0.46. The Dublin Stouts listed have about half that. Page 830 has details of two Lambics and one Faro. Their lactic acid content is 1.06 and 1.11 for the lambic, 0.90 for the Faro.

    Alan – September 10, 2007 8:58 AM
    Ron: while I have a sense of it, do you know what would be current comparators, beery or otherwise? Is there anything with lactic acid that is commonly consumed now? What are the characteristics?

    Bill: I have learned much through this process and sometimes, when drinking a new beer, think “not enough tang.” If I end up brewing at any level myself, these styles are going to be on the slate.

    Ron Pattinson – September 10, 2007 10:02 AM
    I don’t have any modern analyses to compare these with. All I can say is that the lagers in the Wahl & Henius tables have around 0.10 lactic acid content.

    Alan – September 10, 2007 11:14 AM
    I was thinking more generally, Ron, like this information on the relative perception of tartness caused by lactic acid.

    Alan – September 10, 2007 11:19 AM
    Here is an interesting, if wikiality based, description of various taste issues caused by lactic acid bacteria but no description of perception based on % content.

    And note this reference to gueuze having a PH of 3.5 (as opposed to a measurement in terms of percentage) as well as the factor of the gobbiness of the drinker which needs considering.

    Matthew Holderfield – September 10, 2007 1:02 PM
    Lactic acid is the sour tang plain in yogurt. It’s a fairly straight forward sour tartness.

    Acetic acid is vinegar.

    They’re produced by different bacteria growing in the beer. So, by mixing the amount and type of organisms in the beer will make the flavor more or less sour or vinegar tasting. That’s why beers like Duchesse taste more like vinegar than something like Petrus oud brun.

    It’s not necessarily the age of a beer that makes it sour, but a lot of these sour beers will taste a lot better the older they get, and in some cases the older they are the more sour they get. But, if they don’t have the bacteria or some sour producing organism, then they won’t turn sour.

    Alan – September 10, 2007 1:23 PM
    Excellent work, Matthew. Now, can I get my hands on a comparative yoghurt acidity chart?

    Matthew Holderfield – September 10, 2007 1:57 PM
    oops… that’s “Lactic acid is the sour tang in plain yogurt.”

    sorry for the mistype.

    Why exactly do you want some way to quantify the acidity? Are you looking for some standard like ISUs? … International Sourness Units 😛

    I don’t think there’s such a thing. Though, as you stated, acidity is measured in pH, but if you want to distinguish between acids then you’ll have to talk in parts per million or % like Ron was saying.

    Alan – September 10, 2007 2:30 PM
    There must be such a thing! Between Ron’s records, taste perception studies and a decent cross-edibles ISU chart, we should be able to determine what people really were comfortable with consuming.

    Ron Pattinson – September 10, 2007 6:12 PM
    Alan, fun isn’t it looking at old records. Working out what the hell they isn’t easy.

    All perceived flavours in beer are difficult to quantify. Even things like IBUa are not absolute. Analyses of the Trappists demonstrated that to me. The one with the most IBUs wasn’t the one that tasted the bitterest. (Bitterest tasting – Orval; most IBUs – Westvleteren 12). For most beers only lactic acid and not acetic acid is given.

    What you can see is that some beers – the lambics – have double the lactic acid content of anything else. I think that tells us something.

    Good discussion.

    The perceived sourness to the drinker could be worked out (I suppose) if you knew the OG, FG, lactic acid and acetic acid content. A brewing chemist must be able to work it out. But not me.

    Kevin Donohue – May 17, 2010 8:03 AM
    Who was the first brewer to come out with the sour beers?

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