Sour beers, for lack of a better term, have become increasingly popular over the last few years, and with their rise to prominence we’ve seen more “interesting” beers being made. Sour beers can be very nice indeed, but many of them are made with shortcuts, which take only a fraction of the time and effort. This, in my humble opinion, of course, results in a fraction of the taste and complexity. All too often these so-called “sour beers” are not even sour at all, instead tasting like a fruit pie or some other thing that a beer shouldn’t be. While it is quite common for a Berliner weisse to have a syrup added, I often find that a very well made version is best left alone, and a gose doesn’t need cucumber (or whatever ungodly thing humans will think to add next) if it’s done right. One type of “sour beer” is the spontaneously fermented kind, and you can expect that these beers aren’t made with any shortcuts.
To be clear, I’m not talking about mixed fermented, or even wild fermented beers (both of which I often really like!); no, I’m only talking here about proper spontaneously fermented beers, to which no human added any yeast, no matter the source of the yeast.
Whereas the quick-soured beers can be very controlled and monitored, and can finish in under two weeks, spontaneously fermented beers pose more risk, but the unpredictable nature and difficulty of production can lead to much more reward. The length of time to spontaneously ferment a beer requires months or even years before being declared ready for bottles or blending. Such a stark contrast obviously has resulting effect on the flavour, a complexity that is unmatched by any of the “conventional” methods of brewing. And while the Pajottenland of Belgium is home to the last vestiges of lambic beer, a handful of breweries have popped up all around the globe producing beers that are immediately influenced and reminiscent of these from the old region – including a couple in the Czech Republic!
This is a Prague-based brewery with a patchy history dating back to 993, the earliest mentioned established brewery in the Czech lands. They normally have on offer some pretty fine ales and lagers, however they’ve somewhat recently released a couple spontaneously fermented ales under the name “Furiosus”.
More akin to flemish red or brown than your standard idea of a spontaneously fermented beer, this burgundy-coloured liquid had a slightly lower than average amount of carbonation. The aroma was full of red currants, fig and caramel. The flavour was similar, lots of dried red fruits: currants, raisins, figs, prunes; a nice sweetness of caramel and vanilla, which was somewhat balanced by the light lactic acidity, brettanomyces characters and a very light amount of acetic acid. There was a slight bitterness to it that didn’t quite belong and the the beer was balanced a little bit more towards the sweet end of the spectrum and under carbonated. All of these things could possibly be remedied by a little more aging in the bottle. This bottle was opened approximately six months after bottling, and stored in the fridge the entire time.
Břevnov Furiosus with Cherry
I tasted two bottles of this: the first bottle was only slightly carbonated. The colour was a very nice reddish-brown with only a small, quickly dissipating white head. The flavour was fresh and full, sour cherry and Brettanomyces were very forward, as were the notes of dark honey and caramel, while the more subtle tastes of vanilla, almond and a light acidity found their way to the tongue in the end. The second bottle I tasted, nearly two months later, was full of carbonation (actually, it was a bit of a gusher), with a thick foam that also fell quickly. This beer was more dry, as a spontaneous beer will be as it continues to ferment, which accounts for the added carbonation. The sour cherry flavour diversified into various red fruits: cherry, black currant, cranberry, and prune in the front, while the almond, vanilla, and acidity were still present, slightly red wine-like. The Brettanomyces flavour wasn’t as nice in this bottle, though. The first bottle was more well-rounded and drinkable, the second bottle was more interesting but the flavour was just slightly off.
All in all, not bad for a small Prague brewery experimenting with spontaneous fermentation. I prefer the Naturalis, but both are worthy of a bottle or two. I’ve recently seen a few bottles still on the shelves of Pivní Rozmanitost (refrigerated) and Pivkupectví (room temperature).
Emerging from Mikulov, one of Czech’s wine epicentres, Wild Creatures began experimenting with spontaneously fermented beers in 2011. Jitka and Libor are the masterminds behind this excellent little project, utilising tools from their background with wine, they have managed to create some delicious beers, which are aged in an old wine cellar.
Cuvée de Kienberg
Beginning with spontaneous fermentation and allowed to mature for some time before being inoculated with wine yeast for a secondary fermentation, during this time the wild yeasts and bacteria are still active. The taste is like a mix of natural white wine, French cidre and a good balance of lambic-like acidity. Very complex and intriguing. Notes of white grape, gooseberry tartness, sour green apple and cider. The barrel contributed some slight flavours, oak and vanilla, which helped with the overall balance. Towards the end there are slight notes of leaves and a musty flavor, which I found to fit very nicely. I would be very happy to drink this as often as I can on warm summer days. It’s bright and tart, lively and refreshing.
Fly With Me - Apricot Edition
Apricots from their own old growth orchard are introduced to a spontaneously fermenting beer that’s been aging for many months already. The whole fruit is added at at 20% ratio, the beer will ferment on these apricots for many months further. The smell is powerful: fresh, dried, and candied apricots dominate the aroma. The flavour follows, lots of delicious, ripe apricots, a sharp, but pleasant acidity, and the same qualities you can expect from some other spontaneously fermented beers.
Fly With Me - Sour Cherry Edition
Inspired by the kriek beers of Belgium, this Czech sour cherry beer is similar, yet very different. Similar to the apricot edition, this beer is aged for a number of months before the whole, fresh (not frozen) sour cherries from a local farmer are added into the barrel, at a ratio of 20%, to age for some more time. The 2016 bottling was beautiful, dry and funky, the sour cherries worked very well with the tartness of the fermentation and the qualities of the beer were not lost behind the flavour of the cherries. The 2018 bottling was slightly more acidic, but less funky (I hate the descriptor, but what else?), the beer was dry and tart, and I think that the cherries were more prevalent
Tears of Saint Laurent
Using Manually harvested St. Laurent grapes from their own vineyard, this beer is aged for months before the grape addition, after which it ages again for many months. The beer is different each year, the 2016 bottling was more lambic-like with a very nice red-grape accent. Dry, acidic, complex and just the right balance of grape flavour and tannins. The more recent bottling was more full and round, it feels less complex than before and not as drinkable, light acetic acid. Perhaps a different balance of bugs fermented this last batch, but I’m excited see how the bottles evolve over time.
This isn’t Belgium, and you shouldn’t expect it to be. These are different, but good nonetheless. All in all, Brevnov has done a nice job on these two beers and I hope they produce more of them. Wild Creatures has put out some very intriguing beers, as well. Not all of them are perfect, and you can’t expect that from spontaneous fermentation, but a number of their beers are very remarkable. The older bottles seemed more fine tuned and quite capable to fit in with the Belgian producers’ lineup, while the newer ones lacked a little finesse. In the barrel room of the famous lambic brewery Cantillon hangs a barrel head with the words “Time does not respect what is made without it.” written in chalk, I’m excited to see how these bottles will develop with time in my cellar, and I’m even more excited to see what else Wild Creatures will release.