DENVER — If you’re a beer-drinking Coloradan, chances are you’ve tried a sour or wild beer.
The tart, acidic, sometimes fruit filled beers can pack a punch, and are often more divisive than other common beer styles.
And as one of the oldest styles in existence, sour beers have underwent a rebirth of sorts in recent years, with a number of Colorado breweries helping to lead the way.
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For Chad Yakobson, founder and brewer at Crooked Stave Artisan Beer Project, his passion for sour beers first took him down an academic path.
He studied the wild yeast Brettanomyces for his master’s project in Edinburgh, Scotland, using that knowledge in brewing and distilling as inspiration behind opening his own Denver brewery in 2012.
The idea was, through science and research, Yakobson and his team could expand upon the style while paying tribute to its history.
“Using these yeast strains really takes the industrial aspect out of brewing and takes it back to the agrarian aspect of what it used to be,” Yakobson said. “I think that resonates a lot with me, and so really that’s what worked for Crooked Stave.”
Yakobson, intrigued and inspired by the traditional Belgian brewing techniques, set out to learn everything he could about Brettanomyces and its fermentative behavior.
"We started with beers that other breweries were making as their one-off or as their experimental – at Crooked Stave that was our focus," Yakobson said.
Today, Crooked Stave Brewery and Barrel Cellar occupies over 16,000 square feet at their Sunnyside location brewhouse, with a separate tap room location at The Source in Five Points.
They offer rotating selection of barrel-aged sours and other Brettanomyces inspired brews, as well as an increasing selection of other styles such as stouts and IPAs.
The process of brewing sour beers
Oftentimes, the process for wild beers begins in the Coolship – an open-topped vessel used in traditional Belgian brewing. Wild yeast and bacteria from the air inoculate the beers and carry out the fermentation.
From there, the beers are sent off into oak barrels to ferment and age, sometimes spending as much as 2 to 12 years conditioning before they are ready to drink.
Due to the flavor or other qualities the oak barrels can sometimes contribute to the finished product, Yakobson and his team often look at the wood as another ingredient in the brewing process.
The process of brewing these styles of beers is incredibly intricate and creative. Brewers at Crooked Stave precisely measure everything from beer gravity and pH to hop bitterness and water minerality – essentially blending science and art.
“It’s wonderful to be as small as we are and still apply science behind what we are doing,” Yakobson said.
Still, depending on the ingredients used, each new batch brings a new combination of flavors for the palate to explore.
Yakobson describes the brewing process as using creative and sensory abilities, coupled with a bit of luck in bringing all the ingredients together at the right moment.
Once Crooked Stave started releasing beers to the public, it didn’t take long for fans of the style to take notice.
“All of the sudden we were seeing it spread, seeing it traded all throughout the US and the world,” Yakobson said. “It was crazy watching it happen.”
He says the reaction from Coloradans and visitors from out of town has been humbling.
“We were just blown away,” Yakobson said. “Here we were, this small little brewery, and we had these people out of state – wanting to meet us, wanting to try our beers. You can’t be more proud in a situation like that.”
As far as future plans go, Yakobson hopes to continue to experimenting and innovating while setting out to make a consistent product for consumers.
“For anybody out there doing something, whatever you make, to know that people are as passionate and interested as you are, that doesn’t happen all the time,” Yakobson said. “And it really keeps us going."