Tuesday, November 19, 2013

A Little Lacto, Please!

By the power of Greyskull!
Ferment, lacto minions!
Brewers tend to speak in shorthand, giving everything a nickname and using obscure foreign words. We do this for two reasons: 1) to make it sound like we didn't fail our chemistry and biology classes in college, and 2) to perpetuate the myth that brewing is a magical process and we are wizards. So next time you talk to a brewer, imagine them wearing a wizard cap and robe, lautering and lagering down in the trunk of a giant tree in Middle Earth. It will really help you enjoy their beer more. Wait, what was I talking about? Oh yea--Lacto. Lacto is short for Lactobacillus, which is actually a genus of bacteria that contains dozens of individual species. They all share the common characteristic that they ferment sugars into lactic acid, and lend a clean, crisp acidity to a beer. And I'm calling it now: lacto is the next big thing.

With the short lived craft beer world star of Black IPA long forgotten (remember that?), extreme experimentation has since mainly focused on sour beers. These lambic style beers are mostly fermented with a mixture of brettanomyces and saccharomyces yeast strains, lactobacillus, and pediococcus. This blend gives the characteristic "sweaty horse blanket" character and extreme sourness. (How many of you out there have actually smelled a sweaty horse blanket?) The problem with lambics is that they're so damned extreme. I love lambics, but I really can't stand to drink more than a couple glasses in a single sitting. The acidity puckers up my mouth and makes my teeth hurt (weird, right?). So, in comes lacto beer to the rescue.

The acidity in a beer soured with lactobacillus alone is usually much less harsh than that found in lambics. It lends the beer a nice crispness, similar to a dry cider.  It also gives a very clean acidity--no sweaty horse blankets to be seen. This means you can really bring other flavors from hops, fruit, or spices into the mix. The other important thing with lacto is that you can sour a beer with in a matter of hours or days before you boil and ferment. This means that you can make hoppy lacto beers. The long bacterial fermentation required for lambics just won't work if the beer is hoppy. Hoppy lacto IPA, anyone?

I will gladly dress up as this man if that
is what it takes to get some damn gose
around here. 
Only a few beers traditionally feature a lactic acid only character. Most notably are berliner weisse and gose. Both of these styles nearly died out in their native northeast Germany, with only a handful of breweries still producing them over there. Luckily, like most historical styles that Europeans seem perfectly content at letting go extinct, America is picking up the slack again. While there aren't many of these beers available right now, they are coming. McCoy's made a gose over the summer that I sadly missed out on. Great Divide, Sierra Nevada, Deschutes, and even Boulevard have all experimented with gose in the last year in their tasting rooms. I can only hope that I've been a good little boy and Santa brings me some of Boulevard's Hibiscus Gose for Christmas...

I'm excited to see more experimentation with lactobacillus beyond berliner weisse and gose. American brewers have taken lambic experimentation far beyond the tradition, and I can't see that it would be any different with lacto beers. Anyone out there experimenting with lacto at home? Have a favorite berliner weisse, gose, or other lacto soured beer?


  1. Sam Adams makes a Gose. I'm not an expert on that style, but I enjoyed it.

  2. Jay and Kyle are causing this blog to gose to shit.

  3. There was some Crabtree Ich Bin Ein Berliner around a few months ago. It was pretty tasty.

  4. I made a variant of a gose for the 75th Street Homebrew contest, but they judged it as a geuze, apparently thinking I was not only a bad brewer, but semi-literate, as well. It didn't score well . . . (To be fair, it was obviously not spot on for a gose, either!)

  5. Thanks for the sour info, love the style but don't know much about the yeast stains. Just learned that saison-Brett wasn't a nod to George Brett.

  6. I like Berliner Weisses well enough, and lucky for you that style has kind of exploded in the craft market. Seems like a lot of smaller breweries have put out a limited release Berliner Weisse recently. Perennial, Widmer, Dogfish Head, and Evil Twin come to mind. Bells Oarsman Ale is now even in the regular year-round lineup. I LOVE Gose, but unfortunately the only one I've seen in stores is Leipziger Gose, and it's pretty expensive for that import.

    As much as I love those two styles, and unlike Jay, I'd take a good funky lambic all day. I actually think most American lambics go too light on the Brett funk and too heavy on the harsh sour lactic (Bruery Oude Tart for example). To each their own I suppose. But I'd gladly welcome more of all of them in the craft beer market.