Unlock the SWAG — America’s Top Sour and Wild Producers Form a Guild

Austin Ray

This past Tuesday in Denver, at TRVE Brewing Co.’s Acid Temple, a group of sour and wild ale producers gathered to discuss the future of the category, and the formation of a new organization called the Sour and Wild Ales Guild (SWAG). The list of attendees was noteworthy—Lauren and Eric Salazar from New Belgium, Jason Perkins of Allagash, Sarah and James Howat of Black Project, Jay Goodwin of The Rare Barrel, Jeffrey Stuffings of Jester King, Cory King of Side Project, and many more.

photo courtesy of the Brewtography Project

photo courtesy of the Brewtography Project

The purpose, according to a small group I met with at Goed Zuur in the city’s Five Points neighborhood last night, is to push the education, quality, and nomenclature of sour beer in America.

“The ‘Sour on Sour’ discussion at CBC in Philly two years ago was the impetus to form a guild,” Stuffings said, referring to the panel discussion led by Lauren Salazar and Good Beer Hunting alongside Goodwin, Andrew Emerton (New Belgium), and Brandon Jones (Yazoo + Milk the Funk), which was attended by a couple hundred brewers. “This will try to address, at least partially, some of those issues.”

“This will pick up where that Slack left off,” Goodwin added, referring to the collaboration app community GBH started after the CBC panel.

The guild concept got a second bump during the Wicked Weed invitational from 2016 when a room full of sour producers discussed similar topics. Says Stuffings: “We started talking about establishing a guild. Not a whole lot happened after that. We were all too busy. But we met with Erin Jones [of Burial Beer Co.] at Fonta Flora this past summer, and Erin volunteered to help create some momentum.”

This week, that momentum came to a head.

“While the original panel was about nomenclature, how you name things and talk about them,” Goodwin recalled, “the guild will be about advocacy. More of a democratic community of sour brewers who can help each other out.”

When asked how labeling sour beers and advocacy differ, Stuffings explained: “One is more enforcement, one is more helpful. The difference between a law and a guideline. A place for conversation to live.”

This perspective may have fresh learnings built into it from the recent debate regarding Jester King’s own foray into nomenclature with the Mèthode Gueuze certification the brewery sought to institute for American producers of Lambic- and Gueuze-inspired beers. After a great deal of consternation and pushback from Belgium’s High Council for Artisanal Lambic Beers (HORAL), who vigorously claimed the term denigrated their traditional and rights to own the term “Gueuze,” Jester King relented and introduced Mèthode Traditionnelle instead. As no good deed goes unpunished in craft beer, that compromise found its own critics, some brewers going so far as to call the entire venture a capitalistic marketing ploy to up prices of sour beer in America.

For his part, Stuffings wishes he could reverse the sequence.

“At this point, I view Mèthode Traditionnelle and the guild as separate,” he explained. “I see SWAG as a committee creating some recommendations when it comes to sour beer nomenclature, taxonomy, and working with the BA to restructure the style guidelines for competitions like GABF. Given the nature of how Méthode Traditionnelle came about, there was a bit of time pressure from HORAL saying, ‘We want this resolved.’ They weren’t going to sue us, but they wanted it resolved. We felt it needed to happen in a shorter timeframe.”

In the end, Stuffings feels like Mèthode Traditionnelle is not what it was meant to be, and thinks focusing on the Guild’s goals is more in line with the original intent.

“I’m not wanting to be the cop on the block for spontaneous fermentation inspired by Lambic and Gueuze in the U.S.,” he says. “I was a reluctant warrior on this topic, getting sucked into wanting to resolve the issue of what to call Lambic- or Gueuze-inspired beer in the U.S. Seeking Jean [van Roy’s] counsel, and not talking to HORAL created a mess, frankly.”

Looking ahead, there are challenges on both the professional and consumer side SWAG is looking to meet—needs not being met by other organizations.

“Education is a big one,” Erin Jones said. “Being a resource for all the sour brewers in the country, making videos, hosting panels, events. Topics like Méthode Traditionnelle are a rabbit hole, and will take a very long time to resolve”

“Quality is a major goal,” Stuffings added. “Sour beer is in perhaps a better state than it’s ever been. But there’s an effort to be made collectively.”

“I don’t think there’s a brewery I’ve seen open without a sour program lately,” Jones said.

“The expansion of the craft brewing industry and interest in sour beer,” Goodwin said, stretching his arms apart, “the continuum is stretching in both directions. The best is getting better, and frankly, there’s so many new brewers and the style is hard to do—a lot of bad examples are being made. That’s one of the biggest contributions this guild can make.”

The changes they want to see are apparently not coming from the Brewers Association, the largest organization for craft beer in the world.

“It never occurred to me to work with the BA on this,” Goodwin explained. “I don’t know all the internal workings of the BA, but this gives us the ultimate freedom.

“It’ll be more focused,” Jones agreed. “They’ll be a great resources as we build the guild, and hopefully they’ll be supportive. The BA represents all of craft beer, and they’re a great resource for that. This is focused and important to all of us. The guild would be made up of [only] brewers, but the BA is made up of financial advisers and people like that. This would be people who are working, breathing, making sour beer.”

“I don’t feel a huge connection to the BA,” King said. “It’s easier to connect to this smaller guild. I don’t have a connection with the BA at all. This is such a small niche, and they’re trying to appease everybody. If someone from the BA came to me to discuss how we should label our beers, I really wouldn’t consider that input. Nothing against the BA—I would be more interested in the point of views of my peers.”

They are hoping the BA will listen, though.

“Revision of competition guidelines,” Stuffing said, when asked about priorities. “They’re fairly dated at this point, and don’t really encompass all that sour beer has become in the last 5-10 years. We’ll have to go through them if we want to see any change.”

Pricing is an ongoing concern for sour beer producers, too. Faster, cheaper techniques for souring create lower prices points that compete with slower, more traditional methods. But that’s explicitly off the table for this group as a discussion topic, as it would constitute potential collusion.

“This all goes back to the ‘Sour on Sour’ discussion you started,” Stuffings said. “I’d like to see more alignment and agreements, over tables in bars like these, to bring us more focus and bring us together.”

“I’m excited about the consumer marketing piece of it,” Jones added. She’s leaving Burial in January to start her own brewery marketing consultancy in Denver. “We’re lucky to have the most diehard beers fans as sour beer producers, but it’s important for them to see how close we all are, how much we dialog and talk. We’re not satellite breweries doing their own things. We can give consumers a way to speak about sour beer. These conversations, these sit-downs, these human beings, it would go along way towards healing to a lot of that.”

—Michael Kiser