To be a sour beer fan isn’t exactly an outlier position to take in the world of craft beer as it exists today; more and more breweries are adding sour beers — or full souring programs — to their brew calendars, and more on top of that are being pestered by beer geeks about when they’ll do so. The popularity of wild and sour beers, be they lambic, gose, oud bruin, geueze, or any other spontaneously fermented creation, is no more evident in Madison than during Madison Craft Beer Week. On Saturday, May 2, this popularity reached something of an apotheosis; at both the Blue Moon and the Malt House, it was Sour Saturday.
But for as popular as sours are in the world of craft beer — and understand that when I say “sours,” I’m using the colloquial; not all wild or funky beers are sour, exactly — they’re still a small percentage of the overall beer drinking landscape. Even during this special event, an unknowing patron at the Malt House asked for “Whatever’s on tap and light,” leaving the bartender to figure out what might suit.
To be fair, returning patrons at the Malt House know more or less what they’re getting into, I think. For those who didn’t want sours, a number of big Central Waters beers remained on tap from the night before. The tent-shaded biergarten was nearly at capacity, and the crowd at the indoor bar surged and receded as people came and went from the picnic tables.
There were a number of slightly costly but well-renowned European sours (Duchesse de Bourgogne, Boon Framboise, Petrus Aged Pale, at eight or nine dollars per pour), and some less expensive but still limited and desirable domestics like New Glarus Enigma, Bell’s Wild One, and a version of MobCraft’s Dubbel Czech ale rendered almost unrecognizable by lactobacillus souring. Moylan’s Lonely Tarts Club sour red ale poured mostly flat, but had a sweet cranberry/cherry profile that would certainly please fans of New Glarus’ Belgian Red or Raspberry Tart.
At the the Blue Moon, too, there were unknowing patrons at the event.
“D’ya like sour beer?”
The patron chuckles. “Is that what’s happening?”
Of course, it didn’t help at the Blue Moon that a minor fire in the kitchen on Friday night had taken the grills and fryers out of commission until the gas line could be inspected and cleared for use. The typically curd- and burger-laden menu was replaced with generously proportioned ham or turkey cold-cut sandwiches as well as an improvised (and actually quite inspired) sour avocado salad with vinaigrette, cilantro, feta, tomato, and tortilla chips. It goes to show, though: If there’s no cushion for the regulars during a sour tap event, they can be a tough sell.
Blue Moon’s tap menu catered more to the experimental drinker, as well as the indecisive and unsure, with all beers available in full or half pours. I think that this is the way to go when a venue is featuring a style rather than a single brewer. Why not enable the drinker to try a greater variety of beers without excessive cost or inebriation?
The Malt House had 11 sours on tap with two more waiting in the wings; the Blue Moon had 14 all at once, including the belle of the ball: O’so Brewing’s Count to Blue. It’s a variant of O’so’s Project LO, a sour blonde ale, aged on apricots and kumquats and made in partnership with the Blue Moon. Brewery partnerships with bars, bottle shops, and restaurants are all the rage in Madison lately, and Count to Blue does right by both sides of the arrangement. It has a brisk, refreshing citrus flavor, with a nose that’s both funky and fresh, if that’s possible. It has very distinct flavors, and is worth seeking out while it’s still available.
Other brews at Blue Moon included a blueberry Berliner weisse and a low alcohol sour blonde from Evil Twin (splitting its headquarters between Denmark and New York, it’s the only one at Blue Moon that could be considered a non-domestic brewer), two more from DESTIHL out of Central Illinois, and a funky golden strong ale from Door County Brewing called, appropriately, Funky Golden Strong. For 8% ABV, it drank awfully easily.
The Blue Moon’s full tap list is updated on the restaurant’s website, while the Malt House updates on its Facebook page. You can reasonably expect a few beers to survive the night, should your Craft Beer Week dance card be too full, but don’t expect many to last long. Sour beers may still be niche, but with small production batches and rabid devotees, they move quickly. Even at two different bars, one Sour Saturday’s worth of beer might not be enough.