We Already Had The Festival… So Just What Are the Differences Between Sour, Wild, and Funk?

We Already Had The Festival… So Just What Are the Differences Between Sour, Wild, and Funk?

by Mark E. Lasbury for Indiana On Tap

Upland Brewing’s Sour Wild Funk Fest (SWFF) was held on March 23rd this year. Once again, this was a festival worth remembering, and if you drank as may sours as we did, you’re probably still reliving it every once in a while. There were a couple of tweaks this year that worked out well, especially with the VIP session. Upland was responsive to what previous attendees had stated and solicited lots of ideas. The changes made for a very interesting first part of the festival, from breaking into Upland’s sour cellar for some older beers, voting on the choices for next year’s festival beer, and a small food/beer pairing with some very nice bites.

It’s things like this that have helped build SWFF into a national festival. The 2019 edition had attendees from 17 different states and a full 12.5% of ticket buyers were from states that border Indiana. The breweries this year hailed from 18 states and four countries, with the southeast US making a strong showing. No brewery disappointed, and some of the new finds are now places that Walter and I already have plans to visit.

image credit: Idle Hands Craft Ales

Idle Hands Craft Ales from Malden, MA was something unexpected and most pleasing, like the Kill Your Idles: Tropical, the Reimagining Rosemary, and the Watchful Sun. Paradox Brewery from Divide, CO brought good beers, but also had a great beer that was off the board – Whiskey Reaper Take My Mind. My advice for attending great festivals like this one – if you develop any sort of a rapport with the brewery personnel, ask if they have anything they aren’t advertising. It can’t hurt.

Urban Artifact from Cincinnati had three bottled beers that were so full of body and fruit that I’m pretty sure they would never flow through a draft line. Snake Oil from UA was considered one of the top beers of the day, as was the Guavacot from The Collective Brewing Project. Fruits were some of the stars of the day, from using berries and citrus I had never heard before to making beers with the center of the pit from peaches or cherries. Beers of different styles were everywhere, lagers and ales, even barrel aged beers that were lagered after barrel aging. Solera style saisons and wilds were also gaining traction with that crowd, and this is something that I’ll talk about next time.

Now For Some Explanations: Even with the many styles we drink regularly along with some tweaked processes that we at least recognized, there are still questions to be answered about the beers at this festival. This is the Sour Wild Funk Fest, but what does that mean – how is sour different from wild and different from funk? Today we’ll talk about the two parts of the name that are flavor characteristics, sour and funk. Next time we’ll focus on the process – wild fermentation.

Sour: Sour is a general term for a beer with an acid bite. All beers are acidic, yeasts work to lower pH as they ferment so most beers have a pH of 4.2-4.5 (neutral is pH7). Obviously, sour beers use other means to go beyond this point and get some real acidity (down into the low 3s). There are styles of beer that traditionally are sour, and then there are beer styles that are soured through brewer innovation.

Upland’s sour program is second none, but can sour also include funk? Can it include Wild? image credit: Upland Brewing

The ways to get to sour a beer are many, and can be accomplished in the kettle, in the fermenter, or afterward. The key is that you have to go beyond normal ale or lager yeast to get there. Other microbiological tools have to be brought to the party. These can be single or multiple, and used quickly or over a very long period of time.

Kettle Sour: The point of this method is that you can use microbes to produce acid by fermenting the wort before boiling. Then the boil kills the microbes so that you don’t run the chance of contaminating your brew house and have every beer be sour from then on. Believe me, it happens. It can even happen with kettle sours if a brewer isn’t meticulous.

Most often, kettle sours are produced with strains of lactobacillus, a bacteria. Lactobacillus produces lactic acid, and this is the source of the sour for kettle sours. However, some strains make only lactic acid (homofermentative), while other make lactic acid along with other acids (heterofermentative, tannic, malic, acetic). I thought that was it; that was the story of the kettle sour. I was wrong.

Just on a lark, I talked to Josh Miller, head brewer at Backstep Brewing in Crawfordsville. I asked if people ever kettle sour with something other than lactobacillus…. and of course they do, why should anything ever be simple. He told me that other bacteria like pediococcus can produce sours in the kettle, as can yeasts other than typical ale or lager yeasts. However, they aren’t as quick, easy, or predictable, so fewer people use them in this capacity.

Fermentation souring can get very complex, very fast. This is why you can make some many different sour beers given a single grain bill. image credit: 42 North Brewing

Fermentation Souring: In this case, the souring agent(s) are used in a more traditional vessel in the beer making process, the fermenter, or perhaps a barrel or foeder. Beers can be soured with lactobacillus in addition to yeast, but a brewery has to be sure not to contaminate everything. Beers made this way might be fermented in a separate facility.

We’ll get into more of this next time when we talk about mixed fermentation, because a lot of beers soured this way use multiple organisms. And those microbes are various and sundry: some traditional Saccharomyces yeasts, brettanomyces yeasts, lactobacilli, pediococci, acetobacter strains, as well as microbes that are uncharacterized. You can even use fruits or fruit purees to add tartness to finished or finishing beers. The final product is matter of what you use and when you use it/them (primary fermentation or secondary fermentation or in conditioning/finishing).

Likewise, where the souring takes place during fermentation can vary. Barrel sours are sort of self-explanatory, but there can be souring in the fermenter, in koelschips, in foeders, and even to some degree in bottles during bottle-conditioning. This entire section is pretty much an introduction to talking about different types of sour and wild fermentation. We’ll get to this after we talk about another flavor aspect to beers. Sour is not the same as funk.

Funk: Funk is also a term that has to do with flavor profiles, although it’s harder to define. Everyone knows what is meant when someone says something is sour, or bitter, or sweet… but funky? The term is probably used most with cheeses, the ones that have barnyard type flavors of dirt or hay, especially the musty ones that use fermentation with bacteria – you know, the stinky cheeses.

It’s interesting how many descriptive terms for funk have to do with horses: horse blanket, horse sweat, straw, saddle leather. It does pain a picture. image credit: historic greenpoint

Funk can run the gamut, from smells to flavors. Musty or leathery or straw aromas aren’t uncommon, and things like grass, vinegar (several versions), horse blanket, or sweat are valid interpretations, either on the nose or the tongue or both. Funk can cover a lot of territory, so some people think it is wise to be more specific when describing flavors; try to use what you perceive, instead of always employing a catch all term like funky.

On the other hand funk can be a lot like art; you can’t describe it, but you know it when you see it. There have been many times that I have know a beer is funky, but couldn’t tell anyone why it was funky; I, like many other people, just don’t have that good a palate. Funk is not the same as tart or sour, although they are often used together in styles like Berliner Weiss and Gose. Also, funk doesn’t imply wild fermentation, although almost all wild beers have some elements that could fall under the heading of funk.

It seems odd to use so many examples of what funk isn’t to help define it, and this may be the best reason for people to start using more descriptive terms for the flavor and aroma elements of funk. For instance, funk doesn’t have to mean earthy or grassy organic either. Many beer styles designated as “funky” have a lot of fruit flavors to them, things like Flanders Reds and Flanders Oud Bruins.

Conclusion: You can see that being sour or being funky are attributes of beer that relate to taste and aroma. Yet Upland’s festival has wild in the name. There isn’t a wild flavor, it’s a way of fermenting that tends to increase either sourness, funkiness, or both. There are many organisms used to ferment beer, and each has a way to leave its imprint on the final product. Next time we’ll talk about all the different types of organisms and methods used to make sour and funky beers, including interesting techniques like solera style fermentation and uncharacterized open fermentation.

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