beer reviews France

Diverse ideas of sour beer in wine country

One thing that struck us in France and Italy is that sour beer is as popular as in the UK but with more range in what constitutes ‘a sour’.

In particular, we got the impression, based on limited data points, admittedly, that there’s more overlap with the flavours and character of wine.

When Jess ordered Odissea by Birrificio Menaresta in a craft beer bar in Milan (pictured above) she was warned about the sourness by the staff. Presumably they’ve had one too many customers complain. But it really wasn’t what we in the UK would think of as a sour beer at all. It was more like beer (golden) with a shot of red wine in it. It had fruit tannins rather than fruit acidity. Looking it up later we learned that it is brewed with “top quality Mantua Lambrusco must”.

On the opposite end of the wine spectrum was Viti Vini Vici by Brasserie Dunham. Dunham is a Canadian brewery but we drank it in Les Cuves de Fauve, Paris. We understand this to be a series of beers matured in grape barrels but didn’t get a note of the particular batch we had – 12, maybe, or 14? But it certainly used a white grape and, boy, did that come through in the flavour. It was also intensely sour, with a character very like beer from Cantillon.

At Birrificio Italiano Polock en rouge was described as a 4% sour fruit Grodziskie. This presented a challenging, almost vinegar sourness, reminiscent of Duchesse de Bourgogne. It’s interesting that DdB is such an iconic beer and yet there are so few clones. But perhaps there’s an obvious reason for this.

We did also find some sours that were like the ones we get at home, and resembled fruit juice or fizzy pop. For example Peace Connection Unitaire by Sainte Cru tasted like a fresh tropical juice drink from a can, as purchased at the local corner shop. Nothing like beer but a nice thing to drink after seven hours on the train from Milan to Paris.

In contrast, Yoyo by Effet Papillon, at La Binouze in Paris, was described as a mango and redcurrant sour, but really wasn’t especially sour, or even sweet. There was a very subtle fruitiness but this suggested papaya or guava, and was barely there. It also had a hefty body, a proper head, and a good bitter aftertaste, all of which are quite unusual in our experience of sours.

Then there was also some playing around with sour notes in beer styles not badged as sour. For example, Blue Edith by La Debauche was a salted raspberry stout, where the raspberry aroma was noticeable but the flavour was extremely subtle. Raspberry often gets lost in beers; here, it added a pleasing layer of complexity.

And finally, we’ve been talking about wine influences in beer, but what about beer influences in wine? We took the opportunity in Italy to visit a few wine bars. We absolutely do not want to “get into” wine, because we already overthink beer and want to keep wine just for fun.

But we did find ourselves intrigued by Mare d’Inverno, a natural wine refermented in the bottle which therefore came with a little fizz and a small head. Fizzy reds are not unusual in that part of the world but it was interesting how funky this tasted. Our tasting notes make it sound more like an imperial stout: tobacco, leather, cocoa…

When we wrote Brew Britannia in 2012-14 the idea of hybrid beer-wine-cider struck us especially interesting. It’s never quite become A Thing – beer drinkers want beer, wine drinkers want wine – but we still wonder if there’s potential here.

Beer styles

What’s Italian pilsner all about?

In Italy for the better part of a fortnight, we ordered Italian Pils whenever the opportunity arose, trying to understand it.

It’s not a sub-style we’ve particularly engaged with back home in the UK because:

  • the UK is not Italy
  • we think of pils as being about freshness

Having said that, we have tried the odd example, such as one that showed up at the Bristol branch of brewpub chain Zero Degrees. “Ever-so-slightly floral” we wrote of that at the time.

In Milan and Parma, the term seems to mean something quite specific.

As in, lots of beer menus have both ‘Pils’ and ‘Italian Pils’ as separate items.

The former tends to be something that might be badged as ‘lager’ in the UK – plain, not especially bitter; think Tennent’s or Carling.

The Italian Pilsners, by contrast, are:

  • dry
  • bitter
  • flowery

Our quick tasting notes, which we don’t overthink, show a theme emerging: we often can’t quite decide if they taste like pale-n-hoppy cask ale, or authentically Franconian.

St.Georgenbräu of Buttenheim has come up a couple of times.

An excellent blog post by Jeff ‘Beervana’ Alworth suggests that perhaps this is the point:

[Augustino] Arioli first brewed Tipopils in 1996 when he founded the brewery, but the inspiration emerged earlier, after a peripatetic journey through the different traditions of brewing. As he learned to brew, Germany was his first influence. Later he spent time and brewed in the UK, Canada, and US. All of this informed the way he thought about beer. “I [had] visited some English brewers and studied some more about English cask beer. I knew that they were using dry-hop in the cask. I thought, why don’t I do this with my Tipopils?”

We found a spectrum with Tipopils being very much the cleanest, most balanced beer we tried.

It’s a grown-up, commercial beer that has plenty of character, without being likely to upset someone who just wants a glass of cold, refreshing beer.

Others seemed to be hazier, and either tilted towards more floweriness (heavy dry hopping) or towards extreme bitterness. 

Almost as if they’ve been brewed based on a description of Tipopils, having never actually tasted it.

For example, on the flowery front, Birrificio del Ducato’s Via Emilia (bottled, 5%) is a remarkable beer which smells like hops straight out of the packet, before they’ve been anywhere near wort or beer.

Bringing it up to take a sip was joyful. A sort of magic trick.

We enjoyed drinking the beer a lot but it didn’t quite live up to the initial aromatic fanfare.

All the Italian pils we tried had a distinct European noble hop character, reminding us of a type of cask ale we used to see quite a lot in the UK: novelty single-hopped golden ales using, say, Tettnang, or Saaz.

Cask ale brewed with lager ingredients; lager brewed with cask ale techniques…

That’s an interesting middle ground, and a place we like to hang out.

A first take on this post first appeared on Patreon, while we were in the middle of our holiday and still thinking it through.

beer reviews bottled beer

Magical Mystery Pour #13: Loverbeer Beerbera

The last of five beers chosen for us by The Beer Nut (@thebeernut) is a wood-aged brown ale made with 20 per cent grape juice and an 8% ABV.

It’s another expensive one, this: we paid £13.50 for a single 375ml bottle from Beer Gonzo. It’s a very pretty bit of packaging — a rather Belgian-looking naive pencil sketch on the label and blue foil around the cap, all of which maybe explains 15p of the total cost. The rest, we assume, is made up of the unofficial artisan tax (a levy to cover the pursuit of hopes and dreams), import duty, and cuts for middle men at various points on the long road from Marentino.

Popping the cap triggered a low-key, consipiratorial ‘Psst!’ and released a waft of strawberry scent. There was some noisy fizzing as it went into the glass and a head of pink foam flowered but only for a second leaving us with something absolutely still and mirror-like.

When you have a flat brown-purple liquid in a stem glass it’s hard not to think of red wine. It was at this point we (bright sparks) noticed the lad on the label with his bunch of grapes and picked our way through the Italian text on the label. In Chapter 16 of Brew Britannia, ‘The Outer Limits’, we wrote about The Wild Beer Co’s Ninkasi, a ‘celebratory drink’ that defies categorisation as beer or cider; Beerbera would seem to be an overseas relative. We admit to being intrigued by this kind of thing which makes us wish we knew more about wine. (On which, purely for educational reasons, we can confirm baby steps are being taken.)

Detail from the label: a farmer holding a bunch of grapes.

We instinctively liked it from the first sip. All that mucking about could have resulted in something silly and gimmicky but, no, it is interesting and surprisingly balanced. (And that’s not code for bland.) There is some sourness from spontaneous fermentation but it’s quite tame compared to, say, Cantillon Kriek. The latter is a more interesting beer altogether but it’s no bad thing that Beerbera is similar but more accessible. (Price aside.)

We identified a big hit of vanilla, especially in the aftertaste, and something like cherry-flavoured cough drops (grape + acid?). We eventually settled on one headline social realist tasting note: those rhubarb and custard boiled sweets from a jar on the newsagent’s shelf. All good fun stuff. There’s a bit of funk there, too — just enough to make clear that this is a grown-up beer. And, despite the list of tuck shop flavours, it’s actually on the dry side.

Overall, it’s a hit, and one we’d probably drink again if we saw it going for a fiver or less. As it is, there are affordable Belgian beers, and indeed British ones, that do many of the same tricks without undertaking a cross-Continental road trip.

So, that’s our opinion, but let’s check in on the Beer Nut’s. He only has a brief note, from 2011:

BeerBera is brewed with classic Piedmontese Barbera grapes and tastes to me quite like a kriek, having a pronounced sour cherry flavour but also some lovely earthy brett notes.

That sounds like the same beer, doesn’t it?

That third round of Magical Mystery Pour has been great fun, if both budget-busting and challenging at times. It’s good to have finally taken some tentative steps into Italian beer and to have expanded our experience of the sour and/or funky. Thanks, John!

Next up, a batch of beers chosen for us by David Bishop (@broadfordbrewer and @beerdoodles).

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Magical Mystery Pour #9: LoverBeer Madamin

The latest batch of Magical Mystery Pour beers was chosen for us by The Beer Nut (@thebeernut) and what connects them is that they are all, in his words, ‘geek bait’.

Magical Mystery Pour logo.We suggested several online retailers to The Beer Nut and he selected from the range on offer at Beer Gonzo:

  • LoverBeer BeerBera
  • LoverBeer Madamin
  • Troubadour Westkust
  • Troubadour Magma Triple Spiked Brett
  • Bell’s Two-Hearted

We decided to start with the lowest ABV beer, Madamin, from Italian brewery Loverbeer, at 6.2%. It is described as an oak-aged amber ale in the Belgian tradition. It came in a 330ml bottle which cost — are you sitting down? — £13.50.

We’re going to talk about value at the end but first we tried to react to the beer itself, putting all that other stuff out of our minds. Did we like how it tasted; and why, or why not?


News, Nuggets & Longreads 09 April 2016: Sheep Dung, Italy, Scotland

Here’s all the reading about beer and pubs that’s made us sit up and take notice in the last week, from sheep dung beer to brewery takeovers.

→ It’s easy to scoff at the silly things silly craft beer sillies but in their silly beer but what if the novelty ingredients have a connection to regional traditional, like salted cod or malt smoked with sheep droppings? Knut Albert reports from Iceland and (spoiler alert) says, ‘the shit does not give any pronounced flavor’.

Food 52 has an interview with Rome-based food and drinks writer Katie Parla in which she reflects on why Italian craft beer is so expensive, and so exciting: ‘It’s one of the few facets of food or drinks culture here that is, by definition, creative.’ (And there’s a brief companion piece by Parla herself here.)