Along with their recent release announcement for their first 100% spontaneously fermented beer, Spon (which is blended in the Belgian Gueuze tradition), Jester King highlighted a serious tension among American sour beer producers. Claiming in explicit terms that they do not consider their beer to be Belgian or Gueuze in the literal sense, they did, however, express a desire to tie themselves to that tradition through an alternative phrasing, “Méthode Gueuze,” and revealed a stamp they plan to include on their labels going forward that “certifies” the brewing methods on those beers, presumably asking other brewers to do the same.
WHY IT MATTERS
Almost no style or category of beers in the U.S. is more controversial than the broad designation of “sours.” Many brewers, in fact, object to that basic term, claiming it obscures the variety of methods behind a simple flavor designator. They further argue that it robs some breweries of their distinctiveness while propping up other quick and cheap methods of souring a beer that sometimes demand a premium for a less-costly product, thus confusing the consumer for financial gain.
In an open forum I helped lead at the Craft Brewer’s Conference in Philadelphia this year, along with Alex Wallash of The Rare Barrel, Andrew Emerton and Lauren Salazar of New Belgium, and Brandon Jones of Yazoo/Embrace the Funk, we attempted to broach this topic and gain some clarity on how we can collectively talk about sour beer going forward. There was little consensus on the proposed solutions, of which there were many, but one thing was clear: it’s a problem worth addressing.
For their part, New Belgium had started experimenting with two different icons, one designating the lower-cost, fruit-kettle sour beer they had started producing, and another icon that identified their high-end, foeder-fermented, wood-aged, blended beers like La Folie. New Belgium, even for the sake of their own portfolio, feels that distinguishing these methods is critical for consumer understanding, helping them appreciate the time, effort, and costs of certain beers over others.
Jester King is aiming at a much more specific target with their certification, and hoping for wide adoption of their logo. They’ve even gone so far as to seek out the blessing of Belgian Lambic and Gueuze producer Jean van Roy of Cantillon, which helps them avoid stepping on Belgian toes, but also beefs up their claim for the certification in the States.
It’s hard to say whether the effort will gain much traction in the U.S. where, depending on the brewer, egos, innovation, and flipping a finger to history is just as important as honoring legacy. Regardless of the wider success, Jester King has made a clear statement about their own priorities, which roughly equate to 1) don’t fuck with Belgium, 2) focus on the methodology, not the country of inspiration, and 3) elevate and defend your own terroir.
The approach and intent of these efforts to define and classify sour beers are working from different ends of the spectrum, and will contribute very differently to the end result. At CBC, we were attempting to crack open the topic with a diverse set of brewers, not to obtain consensus, exactly, but alignment. We argued that it would benefit brewers and consumers if we all generally agreed that we could do better in the way we presented and discussed sour beers. And we mostly got there, and plan to continue pushing the conversation along.
But in any complex discussion, a lot of questions can get answered quickly when someone takes the ball and runs with it, and that’s what we have here. Does the Jester King certification make sense? Are there other "Méthodes" that should be named and defined? Does it clarify or complicate things for the consumer? Do we care what the Belgians think? Looking at it as a prototype, we might soon start getting tangible results from the market’s response, as well as more specific opinions on the state of “sour” from brewers in the U.S. who like the idea, or don’t. And that's when real progress will start happening.
First 100% Spontaneous Coolship Brew [Jester King]