It was as easy to predict as the Seattle Mariners’ annual late-spring implosion: Decibel’s Top 100 Black Metal Albums of All Time caused some consternation amongst black metal fans. Shocking. This is, however, a crowd not hard to provoke. They seem edgy, a little overly serious and prone to interhole-induced fits of rage. Which makes some sense based on the music that speaks to them. After all, it’s a genre that requires a certain acceptance of what 99.9% of the population finds totally unlistenable.
So, what the hell does this have to do with craft beer? Nothing, actually, I just wanted to antagonize black metal fans. But, seriously, the real point is that there are beer equivalents to black metal. These are brews so far out on the fringes they test basic tolerance levels. Just like with black metal, if you find yourself immersed in these beers, it was a journey undertaken purposefully. Whether they’re sour, unusually bitter or boozy beyond belief, they require acceptance of characteristics that most people find, well, off-putting in a beer. Like this one from Jolly Pumpkin.
The first taste of a sour beer for someone who hasn’t had the style before requires a certain suspension of whatever notions one holds about what a beer should taste like. This is not a particularly sour beer, so it’s a good gateway beer for the sour curious. However, since this is made in the traditional Flanders (a region of Belgium noted for sour beers) way, it’s not just the tangy acidity of this complex brew that’s challenging. As a “wild” ale, La Roja was fermented with brettanomyces, the kind of wild-occurring yeast strain responsible for fermentation back in the days before people understood bacteria and mold and the way they could transform a sweet beverage into a fizzy alcoholic beverage. So, whereas today brewers pitch specific ale or lager yeast into their brews to ferment them, back in the day, the wort (sweet, unfermented liquid) would be left exposed to air and airborne yeast (brettanomyces) would work its magic.
The tricky thing about brett is it adds some unusual and, for some people, unsettling flavors. Though it alone doesn’t make a sour beer, it does add tartness, as well as aromas of leather, cherry and, uh, horse blanket or barnyard (some people refer to it as “funk”). It’s a love-it-or-hate it kind of thing. Adding to the challenging flavor experience is the barrel aging typical for this style. This is where the beer picks up its vinegary/sour cherry tartness from bacteria that live in the barrels. It also picks up some wine-like notes from the oak. When it comes time to bottle, La Roja ends up being a blend of beers aged for different lengths of times, so that the complex and austere nature of the older beer can be balanced by the fruitier, rounder notes of fresher beer. Once bottled, it is dosed with yeast to create a secondary fermentation in the bottle which further adds complexity and carbonation.
Poured from the bottle, it looks like any other amber, but your first sniff will disabuse you of that notion. It’s sharp and tart smelling with notes of oak, leather and funk along with bright, tart fruit aromas. The taste is a whole other adventure. If given this and told simply it’s a beer, the first sip would be unsettling and might lead to an immediate drain pour. It’s not that it tastes bad, per se, it just tastes nothing like what we North Americans recognize as beer. It’s kind of how most people reacted to their first listen to Hellhammer back in the day: “not music.”
That said, La Roja and other sour beers are worth exploring and getting acclimated to. Once you get past the fact that these aren’t typically hoppy, malty ales (or lagers), you’ll find a lot of really interesting flavors and subtleties beyond the sour. Then you can start discovering your own favorites. Which will come in handy when Decibel inevitably puts out Brewtal Truth’s Top 100 Sour Beers of All Time. Of course your favorite won’t be on there (at all!) and a bunch of hipster sours made in Brooklyn will be, so you’ll have to post on beeradvocate bitching about it.
Adem Tepedelen’s new craft beer book, Decibel Presents the Brewtal Truth Guide to Extreme Beers: An All-Excess Pass to Brewing’s Outer Limits, is now available in the Decibel online store.