Dry Spell: Brewers Are Dry-Hopping Sour Beer to Create Tart Refreshers with IPA Aromatics

Feature by | Oct 2015 | Issue #105
Illustration by Greg Puglese

During the run-up to the first Copenhagen Beer Celebration in 2012, Terry Hawbaker was chatting with his friend, Evil Twin’s Jeppe Jarnit-Bjergsø, about tossing a curveball to drinkers’ taste buds. “Let’s try something really weird,” recalls Hawbaker, then head brewer at Cabinet Artisanal Ales, the house brewery for Philadelphia’s now closed Farmers’ Cabinet. “It might be really cool. It might really suck.”

Hawbaker suggested a sour take on Evil Twin’s Bikini Beer, a highly aromatic, low-alcohol session IPA. Sour and hops? Wasn’t that sacrilege? Four months before the festival, Hawbaker soured a small batch of Bikini, which was dry-hopped. But when the deadline arrived to ship the beer to Denmark, he was dismayed.

“It came out pretty horribly,” says Hawbaker, who attended the festival minus his hoped-for beer. Upon returning from Denmark, he resolved to dump his experiment. “When I got home and tried the beer again, it was perfect,” says Hawbaker of what became the first iteration of Sour Bikini, Evil Twin’s citrusy, pleasantly acidic refresher. So instead of the sewer, Hawbaker put the sour on tap at Farmers’ Cabinet. “Everyone loved it,” he says. “It was at the very, very beginning of the rebirth of Berliner Weisse and Gose, which were all styles that we brewed. Adding a dry-hopped sour to the mix was like shooting ducks in a barrel.”

Five or six years ago, when Greg Hall was still Goose Island’s brewmaster, he was fond of proclaiming that “sour is the new hoppy.” IPAs were passé, and the path to beer’s future was paved with a pucker. Hall was right. Hall was wrong. Today, lemony Berliner Weisses and salty-sour Goses are the rage, and all the cool kids have coolships for their funky spontaneous ferments. But IPAs have grown into Godzilla. Buoyed by new hop varieties and brewing techniques, bitter, aromatic IPAs dominate tap lists and beer fridges countrywide.

Given the speeding popularity of both categories, it was merely a matter of time before sour met hoppy in a head-on collision, creating the aromatically charged, tart hybrid dubbed the dry-hopped sour. “The sourness and hops make it so thirst-quenching and refreshing,” says Hawbaker, now head brewer at Pennsylvania’s Pizza Boy (where he makes the Eternal Sunshine dry-hopped sour), as well as the brewer and co-owner of wild-focused Intangible Ales. “A dry-hopped sour ale captures the zeitgeist of 2015 US craft brewing more than any other style,” says Ben Edmunds, brewmaster at Portland, Ore.’s Breakside. “It brings together two incredibly popular and salient trends.”

Pay attention, and you’ll notice that the mash-up is making serious inroads into brewers’ portfolios. In Oklahoma, Prairie Artisanal Ales makes Funky Gold, a sour dosed with a rotating variety of hops like Mosaic, and England’s Chorlton Brewing crafts several dry-hopped sour Pale Ales. For its fall seasonal, Breakside makes the tart, citrusy and fruity La Tormenta, while Stillwater remixes South Carolina’s Westbrook Gose with Brettanomyces and heaps of Citra and Amarillo hops to create Gose Gone Wild. In Colorado, New Belgium does the oak-aged Le Terroir and draft-only Hop Tart, and Brooklyn-based gypsy brewers Grimm Artisanal Ales make a range of sours dry-hopped with of-the-moment varieties including orange-y Mandarina Bavaria and watermelon-like El Dorado.

Contradicting Common Sense
Like peppermint toothpaste and orange juice, sour beer and hops seem like two great tastes that should taste terrible together. However, hops are not the discordant culprit—it’s bitterness. “People usually hear sour and bitter don’t go together, but dry-hopping doesn’t add that much bitterness,” American Sour Beer author Michael Tonsmeire says of the process of adding hops post-fermentation, mainly to impart aroma and flavor. “So many of those great American hops are tropical and citrusy. Those flavors are so easy to pair with sourness.”

An early proponent of the practice was Belgium’s legendary Lambic producer Cantillon, which dry-hops both Cuvée Des Champions and Iris, finishing the latter with the spicy Hallertau cultivar. In America, the Johnny Appleseed of dry-hopped sours is Lauren Salazar, New Belgium’s specialty brand manager and blender. Back in 2003, when the brewery added a pale beer to its wood-cellaring program, Salazar found herself flummoxed by Felix, a new base beer used to blend New Belgium’s sours.

She contemplated how to best use the beer, finding the solution at that year’s hop selection where she met a newer variety known as Amarillo. Floral and citrusy, with echoes of peach and mangoes, the hop was foreign yet, in so many ways, incredibly familiar. “When I was writing the description for Felix and writing the description for Amarillo, they were the same words,” she says. “I love the aroma of hops. I love hop selection, I love everything about hops—except for bitterness. I thought, Why do hops have to be bitter? They don’t.”

Perhaps the key to completing Felix was a good hit of hops. But could you dry-hop a sour? She asked her husband, Eric, a New Belgium brewer, but he was baffled. Seeking answers, she rang Firestone Walker brewmaster Matt Brynildson. “He was literally like, ‘Well, I can’t think of a reason why you shouldn’t,’” Salazar says on New Belgium’s website. To test her hunch, she filled a carboy with Felix and steeped a sack stuffed with Amarillo pellets. “A little bit of lactic acid is a really beautiful way to push out fun, fruity aromatics, essential oils and esters,” Salazar says. Her pairing sung in two-part harmony, an unlikely hit that became the precursor for Le Terroir, New Belgium’s annual (vintage) dry-hopped sour ale. “Pairing the right base sour and the right hop is the key to the whole thing,” notes Salazar, who dry-hops Le Terroir with Amarillo and a secondary supporting hop. (Tropical Citra was the longtime sidekick, while Australia’s melon-y Galaxy got the nod in 2015.) “Hops are meant to be blended,” she adds.

In certain respects, New Belgium was an unlikely brewery to lead the charge on dosing sours with dry-hops. After all, it built its business on brewing Belgian ales like the Dubbel-style Abbey, later coming to IPAs, both single and double. For Brooklyn’s Grimm, it was the love of brewing Double IPAs that led husband-wife duo Joe and Lauren Carter Grimm down the rabbit hole of dry-hopped sours. Over the last year, the twosome increasingly focused on brewing big, smooth IPAs tingling with fruity, tropical hops such as Citra and Jarrylo, Mosaic and El Dorado. “Experimenting with hops and sour beer seemed like a natural progression of our interest in flavors,” Lauren says, noting that the lactic acidity of many sours leans lemony and citric. “The dry-hopped sour is naturally tuned into accentuating those flavors,” she says.

The couple started tinkering with low-alcohol, super-fruity sours like the tropical, peach-scented Telekinesis; Psychokinesis, which is redolent of watermelon and guava; and Super Going, their summertime Gose hit with orange zest and Germany’s Mandarina Bavaria and Huell Melon hops. “Fruits are naturally acidic, so the chemistry of a sour beer with its lower pH will highlight the juicy, fruity qualities of the hops,” she explains. “It’s kind of this perfect marriage.”

Acid Trip
When it comes to Pale Ales, IPAs and any hop-heavy ferment, brewers preach that freshness is paramount, the beers best consumed as fast as you read this sentence. That’s because those prized aromas and flavors of lemons, oranges, grapefruit and mangoes quickly flee, the beer steadily deviating from a brewer’s intent. “When we make an IPA, the flavor of the finishing hops changes every day,” says Lauren Carter Grimm. “The flavors in our Double IPAs are always on the move.”

Dry-hopped sours refuse to follow that degrading script. An acidic environment bestows hops with a sort of antioxidative shield, both preserving and extending the flowers’ prized scents and singular tastes. Taste a dry-hopped sour at two or three months, and you might believe it recently left the bottling line. “I’ve found bottles in the marketplace that are a few months old, and the hop character holds on a lot better than in ‘normal’ hoppy beers with the same age to them,” Edmunds says of La Tormenta, noting the brewery’s rigorous sensory testing detected little change from 15 to 60 days. “A dry-hopped sour bypasses the normal concern with hoppy beer.” (That said, Edmunds doesn’t suggest sitting on one for a year.)

At the Hill Farmstead Festival of Farmhouse Ales, which took place in Vermont in August, Hawbaker poured Juxtapose, his, for lack of better terms, funky Brett-fermented Double IPA released under the Intangible Ales mantle. “People were commenting and saying, ‘When did you dry-hop this? It smells so fresh,’” he recalls. “I was like, ‘Probably seven months ago.’”

New Belgium’s Salazar loves the initial rush of Le Terroir. “Just like an IPA, you can’t stop smelling it,” she says. “You have to tell yourself to stop smelling it and take a drink.” And when the hops bid adieu, they don’t rudely depart, but slowly exit stage left. “They tend to politely leave instead of doing something terrible,” she says. “They just kind of mute. The beer just becomes a really nice sour.”

For Green Flash in California, it took a bit of aging for its 12th Anniversary Dry-Hopped American Sour Pale to reach its peak. Initially, says brewmaster Chuck Silva, the sour was good and clean, the floral and fruity hops really popping, but “with the bright lemon tartness and fresh hop character popping it seemed a little juxtaposed at first.” As with Hawbaker’s first attempt at Sour Bikini, the Green Flash beer grew more integrated with each passing month. “The beer got tastier the longer we sat on it,” Silva says, noting the growing pains of experimenting with new techniques. “We didn’t know that it was going to get better with a little time to integrate. It’s definitely a learning curve dry hopping sour beers.”

(Not-So) Sour Power
Though acidity may seem like brewing’s answer to cryogenics, a low-pH environment provides some unexpected quirks. Introducing hops into an acidic environment is transformational, turning a constant into an unknown variable. “Acidity changes the character of the hops pretty dramatically from how we’re used to them,” Edmunds says. “They’re almost totally different beings.” He notes that Equinox hops drop their dank edge and come off as juicier, and other hops’ tropical characteristics morph into stone fruit notes. More intense hops, like piney, woody Simcoe, see their less savory elements spring to the forefront. (“Cat piss” is a notorious Simcoe descriptor.) As a brewer, Edmunds says, “the challenge is you have to re-learn how to use certain hops.”

Another key to dry-hopped sours is finding the ideal acidic base. Sour beers inhabit a broad band of styles and strength, from a lemon-socked, bantamweight Berliner Weisse to a dark, brooding Flanders Oud Bruin. Not every beer inoculated with Lactobacillus bacteria is a great candidate for dry-hopping. “In the same way that black IPAs are trickier to hop, it’s a narrower window for dark sour ales,” says Tonsmeire, who suggests sticking to the paler end of spectrum. “The acidity we’re looking for is a bit more than your average Gose, but not as much as a Berliner Weisse,” says Edmunds, who underlines the importance of balance. “If you go too hoppy and too sour on a beer, it becomes a mess.”

Another potential misstep is brewers using subpar hops, or angling to bury a sour’s defects beneath an avalanche of hops. “There’s no saving a beer that’s really vinegary or nail polish-y,” Tonsmeire says. Furthermore, just because you can dry-hop a beer doesn’t mean you should. “If you’ve aged this beer for 19 months and it has depth and complexity and all this minerality and add an ounce of Equinox, it’s going to be delicious,” he says. “But is it worth the time and effort?”

Point taken. Piling flavor on top of flavor can be an exercise in overindulgence. However, American brewers earned their rep on excess and experimentation, by using brewing history as a launch pad to new dimensions of flavor. A decade ago, an aggressively bittered Double IPA was a novelty; today, it’s part of the canon. The dry-hopped sour follows the American brewing tradition of innovating by adulterating, turning fevered inspiration and curiosity into something thrillingly, refreshingly original.

“Brewers can’t help but continuously innovate,” says Salazar. “As craft brewers, I think we wake up every morning with the thought of an aroma or flavor in our heads and think, I wonder what that would be like in a beer?”