03 Apr The Midwest Sour, Wild, and Funk Fest – It Doesn’t Get Any Sweeter
I am a proud fan of sour/tart beer. Many people regard sour beers as a passing fancy, but I can tell you that sour is an old, revered beer style, and it’s here to stay. I like the tart, I like the tangy, and I like the squeeze your head sour beers too (think 3 Floyds Icelandic Pants of the Dead). I’m interested in how brewers get beers sour, whether it be by traditional methods of open fermentation, by kettle souring with lactobacillus, by phosphoric aid additions in fermentation, or by using characterized or wild yeast or bacterial strains.
Sometimes sour beer gets a bad rap – either it is considered and adulteration of good brewing techniques, or it is believed to be a haven for beer snobs and hipsters. It’s really neither, sour beer part of the proud history of beer in general. Belgian and German breweries have been producing sour beers for hundreds of years. Goses, lambics, blended lambics in the style of gueuze, and Flanders red/browns have been quaffed across the pond for many years, but really didn’t start to be distributed in the United States until the late 1970s. Even at that, it took many more years for them to be commonly known – gose still makes it onto some lists of obscure beer styles that people ought to try.
It wasn’t until the early 2000s that sour beers started to be made in more American craft breweries (unless you count the open fermentation of Anchor Steam early in their production – although now it is open fermented with very characterized air). Jolly Pumpkin introduced solid all-wood fermented beer, and other breweries have become very well known for their Belgian, wild, and barrel aged beers (Jester King, Russian, River, Crooked Stave, just to name a few). Even in Indiana, we have an all Brett brewery in Central State that puts out beer as tasty as anything from Europe or the rest of the US, and we have Taxman and Brugge that make some wonderful Belgian funky beers – and, of course Upland Brewing is a king amongst sour beer producers. The people who make good sours are now just as numerous as the ways to make a beer more acidic.
The techniques for making beer tart, sour, or funky range from quick sour methods of adding lactobacillus to the mash or the kettle just prior to the boil, to the standard timing methods of using wild yeast strains (maybe through open fermentation) or characterized Brettanomyces strains in place of traditional brewers yeasts. Then there are the very slow methods of barrel aging beers in wood that has had time to pick up (or has been inoculated with) a microflora that will produce acids. Add to this the possibility of secondary fermentation with wild yeasts when fruits are added either late in fermentation or afterward, and you have a bunch of ways to produce tart to down right sour beers.
The reasons that sour/wild/funky beers are a bit rarer and often cost more are several, and include the idea that every time you endeavor to produce one, it’s a crap shoot. The chances that something bad will happen can be just as high as that a nice beer will result. True, this is less of an issue with the quick, kettle soured beers, but in general, more beer will be lost to the drain when making soured beers than when using traditional yeasts and trying to avoid the tartness. Likewise, even if the beer is drinkable, many times a beer brewed with wild strains or even kettle soured will have a chance for being just a bit off, maybe requiring a fix of some sort or a blending with another beer. All this costs time, money and therefore makes the beer more riskier and more expensive.
With this explanation of sour beer in our pocket – you’re now either thanking your lucky stars you bought a ticket for the Midwest Sour, Wild, and Funk Fest last Saturday, or you’re wishing you had. The major powers in American sour beers were there – and what a beautiful venue Victoria from Upland found for this event. The Mavris Arts and Event Center is a 1910s era brick building with original wood floors, beams and brick interiors. The building has served many purposes through the years, from produce warehouse to Regal Motor Car Company sales office to the office of the John Kauffman Brewing Company from the Over-the-Rhine district of Cincinnati. It was even a branch of the Vonnegut Hardware store (yes, the great uncles and great grandfather of Kurt Vonnegut, Jr.).
The wooden columns and brick facades highlight the age and history of the building, including the scorched beams from two fires in the 1910s. A complete preservation and restoration started in 1999 and carried out lovingly through the 2000s resulted in an events center of the first order that opened for business in 2007. Elise DeJean, Ellie Lowe, and chef Dwight Simmons now organize over one hundred wedding and corporate events each year at Mavris, with reviews that stagger the mind. Given last year’s rain, moving to an indoor venue was probably a good idea, but even at that, Mavris has a lovely second floor garden used for outdoor weddings that provided a good spot to soak up some of the sun on Saturday while you tasted a beer.
The breweries were spread out on the main and second floors, with the third floor used for the seminars and extra perks that went with the VIP ticket. On the second floor, Upland understandably had a large set up, with a bar top and room to talk and drink with the folks. As a host, Upland killed it – Jim and Jason from Troeg’s Independent Brewing gushed about how well they were treated while in town, including the trip down to the Wood Shop in Bloomington and a great dinner for the brewers. To a person, everyone behind the taps was extremely happy with the festival and wish to be asked back next year.
But enough about the peripherals, as important as they were for producing a perfect day. How about the breweries and the beer? The Funk Fest was a who’s who of beer with attitude. The flavors ran the gamut, from vinegary Flanders to slightly tart and amazingly refreshing brews. There were fruit sours and acid sours, and many wild versions that had more esters and funks than acrid sour characteristics – basically, there was something for everyone.
Walter and I had our favorites going into the day – Penrose from St Charles, IL is a brewery that we have visited and followed over the years. Likewise, we are big fans of Scratch Brewing in Ava, IL. We visited scratch last October, and regardless of what anyone else thinks, I am going to state unequivocally that it was our suggestion to owner/brewer Aaron Kleidon that resulted in Scratch’s coming to Funk Fest this year. Scratch is famous for making beers with foraged ingredients, so their offerings are always inventive. We had tried their Sour Hyssop before, but the Sumac was a fantastic new taste.
Perennial Artisan Ales from St. Louis brought three different styles of beer, and each was very tasty. I was partial to the Funky Wit, a sour beer that I didn’t think I would like. Being a huge Belgian wit fan, I was afraid that the sour might detract from the style, but it was a big plus. The Savant Beersel, a pale ale on tons of grapes and French oak was one of the favorites of the entire festival. The wood and the grapes lent a tannic finish, while not hiding the pale ale beneath them.
Another festival participant, Brewery Vivant, is one of our favorite places on Earth. I’m not ashamed to say that Walter and I have, on occasion, made day trips to Grand Rapids expressly for the purpose of drinking in this funeral chapel turned brewery. If we happen to have a bit of extra time, we might stop in at Perrin or Founders, but only if it won’t interfere with our Vivant experience. They brought their stone fruit sour and the Space Queen in Peril, a dry hopped, barrel aged, sour farmhouse IPA. Walter’s favorite beer of the day was Vivant’s Tower of Sour, a tart, coffee tasting beer with a huge malt backbone that stands up to the six month it spent in the foeder. Vivant does these kinds of beers so well. They have their own wood-aged beer festival in September to feature their wares – we highly recommend that you make the trip.
Though we were already familiar with many of the breweries that attended this year’s Funk Fest, it is always nice to run in to someone new at a festival. Mantra Artisan Ales from Franklin, TN has been getting a lot of positive talk in the beer community in the last year or so, and it is well deserved. Their Tacenda Sauvined is an American sour with muscadine grapes that impart a nice tannic edge, but the dry hop is the addition to the beer that makes it great. Walter tasted it, smiled, and told me that we are definitely making a trip this summer to drink in their taproom. Likewise, we may need to make a trip to Commonwealth Brewing in Virginia Beach as well. The Hippolyta oud bruin with figs had great body and mouth feel, a tart fig newton with some tannin from the barrel – just great. I think we will see them again at Funk Fest, the owner of Commonwealth, Jeramy Biggie, was effusive in his praise of the festival.
With all this great beer that came from afar, it is still necessary to state how good the Indiana beers were. Central State, Brugge Brasserie, 18th Street, Black Acre, Three Floyds, Taxman, Sun King, Triton – they may not all have the sour program of an Upland, but they all do a few tart and funky beers very well. In a festival that had leaders in sours from Florida (Green Bench), Oregon (Cascade), Colorado (Crooked Stave), California (Mikkeller), and even Germany (Freigeist), the local breweries might get overlooked. But they all held their own and impressed many of the people who traveled to Indy for the festival.
We saw friends from Dayton (Hi Patti!) and people to whom we had talked in breweries in Illinois, Michigan, and even Colorado. The drawing of attendees to this festival from many states proves that the Midwest Sour, Wild, and Funk Fest has emerged as one of the premier craft beer festivals in this part of the country. Walter and I can’t wait to see who will come next year – we suggest Crane, Alpha, Side Project, and Fonta Flora (it would be a return for Fonta). It’s a tribute to Upland, Indianapolis, and the organizers that breweries of this caliber are now looking to be invited to the Funk Fest.
Walter’s Words of Wisdom – You can have too many attendees and you can definitely have too many beers at craft beer festivals, but you can never have too many dump buckets or water stations.