To mark their 10th anniversary, the Shapiro Brewery in Beit Shemesh has produced four different barrel-aged sour beers.
Before this goes any further, you’re probably asking, “What’s sour beer?” Very briefly, it’s a whole multi-faceted category of beer styles whose main taste is sour, rather than the bitter which most of us expect in a beer.
The “bitterness” in our beer comes from the hops. Sour beer, on the other hand, gets its “sourness” from the wild or uncultured yeast that ferments this beer, from the wooden barrels in which it may be aged, or from a souring agent, such as lactobacillus bacteria, which is added during the brewing process.
That’s enough for the technical details. The point is that sour beers have been popular for centuries in parts of Belgium and northern France, but largely unknown elsewhere. When the craft beer phenomenon grew around the world, many micro-breweries began producing and introducing sour beers to their customers.
The Shapiro Brewery already ushered in a commercial sour beer to Israel over two years ago with its Strong Sour. The beer was soured by wild yeast that was collected from almond flowers from the hills of Jerusalem. Additional Saison yeast was used in a second fermentation.
I wanted to find out more about these four new beers, so I took the opportunity to attend Shapiro’s 10th anniversary party at the brewery, where I interviewed chief brewer Ory Sofer.
“Sour beers have always been my passion, ever since I’ve worked as a brewer,” Sofer admitted. “The local market is developing in that direction as well. When we came out with our Strong Sour beer two years ago, it was surprisingly popular.
“We took Strong Sour as our base and wanted to develop it, give it more complexity.”
To achieve this, Sofer, brewmaster Yochai Kudler and the Shapiro brewing team decided to age the beer in oak barrels for an entire year. Four different processes were used. Only 600 bottles of each beer were produced.
“The first batch was aged in oak barrels which previously held white wine,” Sofer continued. “The wood contained active yeast and bacteria, and some leftover wine, of course. I think the finished beer tastes like a Chardonnay wine.”
The second batch was aged in barrels that first contained sherry and afterwards whisky from the Milk & Honey Distillery in Tel Aviv.
“The third beer,” said Sofer, “was matured in barrels that previously held red wine – and we added Shami mulberries from the Golan Heights. This is a variety which is a very dark red color, almost black. After the bacteria get finished with them, there’s not much flavor of the fruit left, but I believe it imparts a nutty taste from the seeds.”
The fourth beer was also aged in ex-red wine barrels, with the addition of 110 kg. (240 lb.) of local pears, cut and pressed by hand by the Shapiro team. “Pears provide a large ecosystem of bacteria,” Sofer explained, “and this leads to a wide and complex range of aromas and tastes.”
After Sofer’s explanation and description of the four new sour beers, it behooved me to taste them myself. But for such a historic venture, I chose to involve two other members of the Israel Brews and Views Tasting Team who are beer lovers and true representatives of the common man: Manny and Mike.
We first poured out the beer aged in white wine barrels. It was a very pale cloudy color, with a big impressive foamy head. We all wrinkled our noses at the sour aroma, with citrus in the background. The taste did indeed remind us of a dry white wine, light oak and apples. The sourness was subdued. “The effervescence of a sparkling wine,” said Manny, “although I was looking for a bigger kick.” (Alcohol by volume is 5.5%.) Mike added: “Very delicate. Tantalizes the palate.” We agreed that this had the taste of a sour pale ale with a wine finish.
The beer that was aged in ex-sherry, ex-whisky barrels was a shade darker, although with the same beautiful head. Same sour aroma, but less “bright.” Manny and Mike, who apparently both drink sherry before dining, noted whiffs of the same. On the palate, we thought the beer was drier than the first, with more complex flavors and some oak. Manny even tasted the sherry and the whisky “very clearly,” and pronounced that he preferred this beer. Mike, dropping names though not his glass, announced that the beer reminded him “of a bodega where sherry is served in Jerez de la Frontera, on the Spanish border.” The mild sourness was attractive to everybody. ABV is 5.3%.
Things changed with beer number three, aged in red wine barrels with Shami mulberries. It was headless, amber colored with a pink-orange hue. Same sour aroma. The Tasters tasted sweet spice (“cloves,” according to Mike), some soap, oak and berries. It was the most alcoholic with 5.8%. As Sofer predicted, there was no mulberry taste. All in all, it was the beer we enjoyed the least.
The last beer was aged in red wine barrels with pears. It was the palest color, only semi-hazy with no head. The same sour smell was there. Although Mike and I could not detect pears, Manny said that their aroma was “obvious.” It had the sourest taste of the four. It was also the fruitiest, with yours truly even garnering a sweet sensation. Not distinct pear fruit, but distinct fruit sugar. I personally like the interplay of sweet and sour fruit. ABV is 5.5%.
This gets me back to the main problem that we, who come from a bitter beer culture, have with sour beers. Our ability to perceive further is blocked when we taste “sour.” No further discernment can take place if we can’t get past “sour.” We have to work on it, and we will. We should be able to expand our perception to include the world of sour beers. Perhaps someday we will be able to join Ory Sofer in enjoying sour beers as much (well, almost as much) as we do bitter ones.
In the meantime, three cheers for the Shapiro team for this outstanding and impressive 10th anniversary project!
The four new beers are available for sale only on the Shapiro online store website. Bottles can be purchased separately, or all four in a special handmade cloth saddlebag.
The writer is the owner of MediawiSe, an agency for advertising and direct marketing in Jerusalem.
He writes a web log on Israeli craft beers at www.IsraelBrewsAndViews.blogspot.co.il