While no beer style will soon supplant America's love for excessive hops, this year's big Philly Beer Week surprise has been the amount of casual enthusiasts actively seeking out the old-world flavors of puckering tartness and downright funked-up sour beer. Tom Peters, the beerwise man behind Monk's Cafe, introduced Philly—and, quite possibly, the entire U.S.—to the world of sour beer, and has been it's biggest champion since his days at Copa Too. The first sour beer Peters' poured in Philly was Rodenbach, way back in 1991, before many of today's beer geeks had even finished grade school.
"A lot of the sours that came into the U.S. after Rodenbach became scarce were a bit too sweet, and not really representative of the traditional style," Peters told Eater. "Cantillon arrived in Philly in 2000, and it really took hold of the beer crowd. It changed the game forever."
Peters talked about the small, dedicated group of sour fans that made up a tiny percentage of beer geekdom over the last decade, but that 2012 has been a sea change for the style as a whole.
"I'm already out of stock of Cantillon Lou Pepe Kriek 2007 after two days of Beer Week. That would normally last me for the whole 10 days," Peters said. "I'm already into the 2009. In fact, all of the Cantillon has been flying out the door, and I'm going to need a restock soon. It's never been like this before."
The name Russian River holds a special place for beer geeks everywhere, because of a little brew known as Pliny the Younger. Often referred to as the "best beer in the U.S.," a more apt title would be "most overpriced, tough-to-get, hop bomb in the U.S." It's a triple IPA (or an Imperial, depending on whom you ask), that's big on grapefruit aroma and bitterness, and a heavy-bodied wallop. Ask any brewer or bar owner which Russian River beer is the best, and you'll hear a much different answer.
"Vinnie Cirluzo (owner and head-brewer at Russian River) makes the best sours in the country," said Peters. "Supplication (aged in Pinot Noir barrels), Consecration (aged in Cabernet barrels), and Temptation (aged in Chardonnay barrels) are some of the best around, and in the world. Locally, you can't beat Nodding Head's Berliner Weisse."
When we asked Peters why sour beer was taking over, he pointed to two factors in newfound love for a very old beer: "Philly likes to explore beer more than other cities do, and be the first to know about new trends," said Peters. "And some of the local brewers are really trusting their drinkers, and making a style that never used to sell."
Gordon Grubb of Nodding Head certainly has a knack with the funky and sour style, and is always good for a medal or two during Great American Beer Fest in the sour category. Check out The Phunk, Phreddie, Ragnarok, Cherry O-Tay, and the Peters-approved Berliner Weiss when you're visiting the Sansom Street brewpub.
Casey Hughes, head brewer of Flying Fish, has also noticed a recent uptick in the public's interest in funky and sour brews, and namedrops Tom Peters as the driving force behind his very first sour beer recipe, Puckerfish.
"I think it was almost 7 years ago I made Puckerfish. Tom asked me to brew a sour beer for a big beer dinner," said Hughes. "It turned out well. I recently found one in the warehouse that had been aging for 6 years, too." Hughes is releasing another sour beer (Abbey Dubbel aged in Syrah barrels) during Beer Week, on Thursday night at Varga Bar.
Other breweries doing great work in the sour game are Iron Hill Maple Shade (Chris LaPierre), Earth Bread + Brewery (Tom Baker), 50/50 Brewing (Todd Ashman), Lost Abbey (Tomme Arthur), Captain Lawrence (Scott Vaccaro), and Ithaca Beer (Jeff O'Neil).
If you're looking for sour Philly Beer Week events, check out the events listing page, and add the word "sour" in the search field. You'll find almost 30 events this week that have some serious pucker action going on.
Tom Peters has always been a visionary when it comes to predicting beer trends, and when pressed about what the next popular style will be, he said, "Lightly smoked beers. Not the way over-the-top barrel aging with Bourbon has been going, but light smoke, which adds a lot of complexity to beers all along the spectrum. Even the crisp lagers do well with light smoking, like Schlenkerla. That's next."