Perhaps conjuring memories of skunked beers found at the back of a fridge or the bottom of a cooler, the term sour may not be the most appetizing name for a class of beers. Nonetheless, sour beers are indeed steadily gaining popularity in North America.
Intentionally souring beers is a process whereby different bacteria strains or wild fermentation in the brewing process creates complex and nuanced flavours. Done right, it can create some pretty sophisticated beer.
Canada’s only brewery exclusively crafting barrel-aged sour beers is Kanata’s Small Pony Barrel Works. Sean McVeigh is the owner, brewer, barrel master, and tour guide. I first spoke with Sean in early 2017, when the brewery announced its presence, and excitedly requested to sample his beer. About a year later, my request was granted. But it was no social slight (or so he tells me), since the processes of barrel-aging and souring takes time.
“Sour beers are not like anything you’ve drank before, unless you’ve been drinking sour beers,” says McVeigh. “They are almost an intersection of wine or champagne effervescence and beer flavours, with the tartness of a cider, and quite often, but not always, a good helping of fruit.”
Like yogurt, which varies in taste depending on the bacteria, sour beers take on complex flavours and aromas depending on which bacteria is used to sour the beer.
“Aromas alone can range from floral, earthy, hay, citrus, apple and pear to overripe tropical fruit — even horse blanket,” he says.
While there are different ways to sour beer, Small Pony mirrors the Belgian approach by using barrels and time as their tools.
As Sean leads me through the racks and racks of barrels, he explains the art and science. “Like winemakers, we are earmarking barrels which show complementary characteristics for blending, which is quite a departure from standard beer making.
“While a typical brewer starts the brew day knowing exactly what beer they will be releasing in three weeks, we do not necessarily know what our beers will evolve into until months down the road at blending time,” explains McVeigh. “That’s not to say we don’t have an approximate plan, but rather that we consider the beers we produce on brew day as ingredients for a grander future recipe. Once we have a blend we’re happy with, we may decide to age the beer for several additional months with fruit, before bottling and naturally conditioning and carbonating.”
Aside from the unique flavours, many of the beers are visually impressive — the varying colours and hues resulting from the addition of fruit. These beers are fantastic for table sharing or for pairing with rich foods, which is why cheese boards are available at the tasting bar.
It was necessary to collaborate initially because Small Pony’s facilities weren’t up and running yet. By brewing at these two facilities, Small Pony was able to get their name out earlier, and begin the beer-souring process quicker.
The brewery plans on releasing 15 different beers through 2018 and has already seen lots of success: At the time of writing, they are ranked the third most popular brewery in Canada based on Untappd scores (a beer rating app); and in May, they were awarded a silver and a bronze at the 2018 Canadian Brewing Awards in the category of Wood and Barrel-Aged Sour Beer. Not bad for a brewery that’s younger than its barrels.
Fans of sour beer can get involved with Small Pony’s Culture Club, which gives them access to special releases. For non-club members, the brewery/barrel house and tasting room on 101 Schneider Road is open noon to 7 p.m. Thursdays and Fridays, and noon to 6 p.m. on Saturdays.