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?

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