Sour beer is making a comeback – and there’s a sustainability spinoff
In Australia, an enterprising brewery has created a sour beer from waste bread and surplus fruit.
While the story of Local Brewing Co’s sustainability initiative has drawn attention for its community impact, the brew has also raised the profile of sour beer in the broader market. Little known since around 1900, sour beer is now considered one of the fastest-growing craft beer categories in the world, from the US and its European origin all the way down to Asia and Oceania.
For example, Australian liquor retailer Dan Murphy’s boasts 18 different sour beer products available in cans or bottles, many flavoured with fruits including passionfruit, raspberry and mangoes.
The watermelon-flavoured sour beer is the first of four planned in partnership with Coles supermarkets this year
Surplus Sour Watermelon
First, the story of Surplus Sour Watermelon, the first of a range of fruit-flavoured sour beers planned by Local Brewing Co, launched nationwide last November through its partner Coles supermarkets. The team at Local Brewing, led by co-founder Nick Campbell, secured 500 loaves of unsold bread from the supermarket chain – about 300kg – and three tonnes of excess watermelons from Coles produce supplier Rombola Family Farms. The bread was substituted for brewer’s malt in the beer’s fermentation process while the watermelons were diverted from becoming compost on Rombola’s farms.
The resulting brew is described by Local Brewing as “a light, gently fruity and refreshing beer with a delicate tang that typifies sour beers”.
Local Brewing has been experimenting with sour beers on a boutique scale for the last three years, however, the collaboration with Coles has significantly upscaled production.
“We know from the release of previous sour beers that customers embrace this genuinely unique product and it’s a great way to use food that might otherwise be wasted,” said Campbell.
“Every time we’ve released one of these sours in the past it has been a sell-out in just a few days, so we know customers love the story of transforming rescued food into an entirely new product.”
The head of Rombola Farms, Fernando Rombola, has been supplying watermelons to Coles for the past seven years. Finding a positive use for the excess fruit helped the company address what it sees as growing customer interest in sustainable agriculture and reducing food waste.
“This is super important for us – sustainability is not just about the environment, it’s financial sustainability, it’s sustainability for our people and sustainability for the land, if we are not looking after our land, how are we going to be able to reap the rewards from it?
“If this product is successful, we’d definitely like to see this as a different stream; the more sustainable we are, the more we can grow more with fewer hectares, which is what we are always trying to do,” he said.
Surplus Sour – a joint venture between an Australian supermarket chain, Local Brewing Company and a watermelon grower
But what on earth is sour beer?
Sour beers are synonymous with Belgium, where traditional sour styles such as Lambic have been brewed since early in the 18th century. However, their history can be traced back as far as 4000BC, when brewing involved little more than mixing grain and water together and allowing naturally-occurring microbes to do the rest.
In more modern times they are considered an alternative to more bitter pale ales, drawing a new generation of consumers to beer with their unique flavour profiles, often – but not always – flavoured by fruits.
The modern-day renaissance of sour beers seems to have occurred almost by mistake. Most beers brewed around the world were sour prior to the advent of refrigeration and scientific advancements in the process of fermentation in the mid 19th century, according to Christian DeBenedetti, of The New Yorker. The sourness came from naturally occurring bacteria including Lactobacillus and Pediococcus, as well as Brettanomyces yeasts, “which can contribute a hint of tartness and characteristic “funky” flavours and aromas, sometimes compared to leather, smoke, and “horse blanket” said DeBenedetti.
The team at Local Brewing who created the sustainable Surplus Sour beer. (Image Herald-Sun via Local Brewing Co)
Now brewers around the world – like Australia’s Local Brewing – are ‘infecting’ beers with the same bacteria that modern brewing eliminated through pasteurisation, in order to create a sour flavour. The process is similar to that used to give sourdough bread its unique taste.
Meanwhile, in Australia, Coles liquor merchandise GM Brad Gorman, says the partnership with Local Brewing will lead to at least three more exclusive fruit sour beers this calendar year to meet the growing demand for this type of brew – along with the growing consumer appetite for genuinely sustainable products.
“Sour beers are a very strong and rapidly growing segment in craft beer and we know our customers love locally made products; it’s a key element of delivering on our ambition to be the local drinks specialist,” said Gorman.