Dick Cantwell of Elysian Brewing Discusses Sour Beer

March 12th, 2010 · 2 Comments · General Beer News, Washington Breweries

While there are a few American breweries that focus on brewing sour beers as a significant part of their business, there are many more that focus on other styles and occasionally experiment with sour beers as time and space allow them to. Dick Cantwell, head brewer and co-founder of Elysian Brewing Company, has arguably been experimenting more than most. From brewing sour beers with Peter Bouckaert, of New Belgium Brewery and formerly of Belgium’s Rodenbach Brewery, to attempting things like sour pumpkin beers, Cantwell continues to surprise us with more frequent sour beer releases at the Elysian brewpubs and at festivals. Below is a quick Q&A with Cantwell.

1) Your typical lineup is made up of non-sour beers, but you have experimented with sours quite a bit. What is driving you to do this? Is it a style you enjoy drinking and just wanted to try making, is it something you’ve always wanted to do, etc…
All of the above. There is also the challenge of making a delicious beer by means which are neither obvious nor automatic. The sour beers of Belgium have long been an inspiration to American brewers, both pro and amateur. In the old days this seemed unattainable, but now there are some excellent ones. If there’s excellent beer being made of a style I haven’t tried, I want in. Of course I have done some, too.

2) Is it difficult to experiment with sours when most of your beers are not sour? Is there any risk of contamination if you are using Brett? Have you had any issues?
I have not had any issues, actually. We always clean well, and especially so when something unusual is introduced to one of our systems–especially on Capitol Hill, where we produce nearly all of our volume beers. Mostly we experiment with sours at one of the smaller places, as the risk is less and flexibility greater.

As an aside, I have a tank at TTown (The Elysian Tangletown brewpub) entirely devoted to sour beers. It is disconnected from the glycol system and so allowed to rise and fall as the temperature in the room changes with the season, etc. I first brewed a sour beer in it the first summer we were open there, with the idea that I would learn as I went–it would take as long as it took (I’ve got enough other fermenters up there to ride with this) and I would make decisions as I went along. It spent four and half years in the tank, developing a great aroma but not enough sour flavor for the first few years. Finally I fed it, with a gummy, wheaty wort I produced in a homebrew system–15 gallons, tops, and cooled it and added it to give the bugs something new to chew on. That was Pandemonum, which we served last year around Seattle Beer Week. I then brewed Mr. Yuck, a sour pumpkin ale into the same tank, without cleaning it and adding fresh ale yeast to get it going, but mainly I wanted to give the bacteria every chance to take over again. Then after about a year and a couple of months I moved that and brewed Pumpkin 8472, a darker sour pumpkin ale, once again into that tank, and once again without cleaning it. Then, after four months (you’ll note the times are diminishing), I brewed Krokus, a sour saffron wheat ale, and–guess what, still didn’t clean the tank, just left the magical muck in there. Then I brewed another sour pumpkin, which I’ll add cherry to. This tank has not been cleaned in over seven years. For about a year I had a devoted Brett tank, too, but had to let it go. It got too sour after a few turns and I needed the tank.

3) Any thoughts/revelations/words of wisdom that have come out of trying to brew sours? Have you learned a lot from working with Peter B. at New Belgium?
I have long tried to brew without fear, making the most of experience (cleaning, sanitation, etc.), but not letting it hold back the development of new fun ideas. It’s beer, for Christ’s sake. I think Peter has this attitude. I’ve heard him say “what the hell” on more than one occasion. He’s also shown me how easy a lot of it is. It’s just another way to ferment.

4) Are there certain breweries, in the US or overseas, whose sour beers are an inspiration to you?
The usual suspects, I guess, in this country and abroad. I miss some of the sour beers that Waterloo in Austin did years ago before they went out of business. I should mention, though, that over the years (and this was partly the Pandemonium project) my tastes have also changed. I used to like acetic flavors, and thought Belgian judges I sat with were too hard on them. Now I agree. When I set out to make a sour beer (P) I waited in vain for that flavor to develop. After a few years I was really glad it hadn’t. Cambridge brewing, and Allagash and Southampton on the East coast should get mention, since the West coasters don’t need my vote to testify to their accomplishments (though of course they get it).

5) Do you think you’ll continue releasing occasional sours? Any chance it would ever become a larger part of your lineup?
I would love to get to the point where we could make more big batches of sour. Until I see a market demand, though (and this is weaker in the NW than elsewhere, I think), I’ll just turn out the occasional 3 or 8-bbl batch.

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