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The Mad Fermentationist’s American Sour Beers Is Out, Here’s Our Interview

The dream of Michael Tonsmeire, "The Mad Fermentationist" and very well-regarded local homebrewer has come to fruition in the form of the newest publication from the Brewers Association, American Sour Beers.

The book is done. The author is back home. Yet it doesn’t feel like an ending as much as it feels like a homecoming. Tonsmeire is here, in DC, whereas last summer he was in California, formulating recipes for the recently opened Modern Times Beer.

When he’s not designing and scaling up recipes, consulting with commercial breweries, or helping with the writing of the new BJCP style guide (American Wilds is a forthcoming new entry), he’s celebrating the release of his book, and in true #dcbrews fashion we will be celebrating with him.

You can meet the author today, Wednesday, July 2 between 5-7PM, at Right Proper. He will be signing books and talking shop. The restaurant will pour Kodachrome Dream(ing) and Kodachrome Dream(ing) 2, a little tarter than the first collaborative Right Proper beer between the two fermentationists.

DCBeer recently spoke to Tonsmeire about his book and the lightly edited interview follows.

DCBeer: How long did it take you to write the book?

Mike Tonsmeire: I started in early 2011. Nathan [Zeender, of Right Proper] and I had homebrewed, blogged, and written a couple articles for Brew Your Own magazine together. He pitched the idea of writing a book, but our visions were too different. What I ended up writing is much more technical and practical than the richly photographed tome he envisioned. My goal was to write something homebrewers and craft brewers can really use, not just to inspire homebrewers and commercial brewers to brew better beers but also the nuts and bolts of making sour beer. How commercial brewers make their beer and how you would go about making sour beer as a homebrewer.

I spent six months writing what I knew. Malts. Mash schedule. Hopping regimen. When writing the BYO article on American sours, I talked to Captain Lawrence, Cascade up in Oregon, and Ron Jeffries from Jolly Pumpkin. I figured as long as I’ve got these people on the phone for a 2,000 word article, why don’t I ask them some more questions? They all were really happy and excited to talk to me. People were so good. Lauren Salazar from New Belgium was amazingly cool and knowledgeable. She was well-spoken and so happy to share what tasting and blending are about—the more challenging things to talk and write about. When you’re making wort, the process is basically the same [as making non-sour beer]. Sure, you might mash higher, you might want to make less or more fermentables, or change the mash pH. but for something like blending to taste–how and when will those flavors change and what your options are, these things are very tricky. Ultimately there’s no way to learn that skill entirely from a book. I can give you strategies, tips, lessons learned. But at a certain point you have to sit down with commercial beers or homebrews—or if you want to blend beer and mead, beer and cider, beer and liquor, or whatever else—and do it for yourself. You’ll see how those dilutions affect the flavor, how adding a more intense flavor doesn’t just make it more intense but changes the overall perceived flavor. So it’s very difficult to get blending across in the written form.

Many brewers were happy to talk about their process, what they do, and how they make their beers so delicious. I thought to myself, ‘Well that was fun, why don’t I talk to more brewers?’ So over the next year I talked to 25-30 brewers and went really in-depth and profiled them. I even talked to places that did just a couple of sour beers. Places that had a specialty like dry-hopped sour beers or smoked sour beers, something like that where the brewery had a focus. For 10 breweries I went really in-depth on their profile and wrote 4-5 pages on their processes and methods and how that affected the beer’s flavor. In fact, I went too in-depth into their beers and the publisher didn’t want to make my writing too much of a review so that eventually got cut. But I was thinking of someone who has never had Russian River Supplication. And part of that is tracking it down, getting your hands on it, trying it, thinking about if this is something that you’d be interested in brewing yourself.

After those interviews and that research, it was about 2 years of much less fun stuff. The science reading, peer-reviewed articles and studies. Determining whether this writing had appeared in semi-related food journals or if they were experiments that were helpful in home brewing. I found an interview with Ron Jeffries in The Chestnut Grower because he’d used chestnuts in a bunch of his beers.

Part of the time went into the editing process. I had a process editor and a copy editor, amongst a team of other editors. It brought a level of refinement to both the information and writing that isn’t usually a luxury I get on my blog where I’m trying to get it up within a week and I rely on the comments to say ‘hey have you seen this study?’ Or ‘hey you misspelled somebody’s name.’

DCBeer: What is one thing that you want the DCBeer readership to know about the book that is not evident in the videos, ads, or reviews of the book?

MT: This is a book that isn’t just for brewers. It’s not just about sour beers. There are large chunks of the book on adding fruits and vegetables. Sure, it’s in reference to sour beers—cherries in a Flanders Red—but that information will also work for and help you brew a better clean cherry wheat beer. Tips on easy ways to add acidity to make fruit beers pop, big chunks of text are on barrel aging, selecting barrels, how to care for barrels, especially if you’re not brewing sour beers. It’s really a manifesto for brewing interesting beers. Certainly not as weird and interesting as Randy Mosher’s Radical Brewing, but there are large chunks of texts on practical things like carbonating.

DCBeer: Do you identify yourself as a DC Homebrewers club member?

MT: That is how I identified myself for the National Homebrewers Conference and BURP too even if I only make it to one meeting a year.

DCBeer: You’ve called Farmhouse Ales: Culture and Craftsmanship in the Belgian Tradition "the book that launched a thousand saisons." If Farmhouse Ales launched a thousand saisons, what has American Sour Beers launched?

MT: I think a thousand sour beers have already been launched. Whether it be that these are weird, interesting, exciting, beers, which is why I hope most brewer are making them, or that these are beers you can charge $20-$25 a bottle and can get your brewery some buzz. What I hope this book does is improve the quality of sour beers. There are a lot of terrific sour beers, but there are also a lot of breweries just starting out whose beers are hit or miss. I hope this book inspires brewers to up the quality that these beers deserve.

There’s only so long that the beer-drinking consumer will play $28-a-bottle roulette. When you plunk down that money, it has to be consistent and good. It can’t just be interesting, and it can’t blow up in your trunk on the way home. You don’t want mucus or viscous. You don’t want it to taste like nail polish remover. You don’t want it to taste like rancid butter—and these are all things that have happened to me with America sour beers! In the end, there’s no way that I or anyone could put an end to [poor quality sour beers] that completely, but I hope I improve more beers that are sour intentionally.

I hope its stops people who say, “My barrel aged imperial stout has gone a little weird…I guess it’s a sour imperial stout now!” Every once in a while that works, but that’s not a legitimate way, and it takes away from the market. It hurts a lot of these breweries who have dumped barrels and have been striving to make fantastic beers. It’s essentially taking money away from consumers who expect they are buying the best product out there. And if you’re doing it just to make money, I don’t think it’s acceptable. So hopefully it will encourage home and professional brewers to make fantastic sour beers.

DCBeer: Is there a secret club of beer super heroes AKA the justice league that is formed with you, Vinnie Cilurzo, Peter Brouckaert, Nathan Zeender, and Tomme Arthur?

MT: No. Although Nathan and I were just drinking a Supplication the other day. Russian River sets the mark both for how good sours are supposed to taste and how consistent they are. You never get a bad bottle. You never get an overcarbonated bottle. You never get a weird bottle. He [Vinnie Cilurzo] is willing to dump beer when it’s not good. He’s willing to hold beer if its not carbonated yet. All of those things have built Russian River a reputation. You don’t earn if you don’t sell quality beer. Some other breweries have fed into that, but people call you out on the Internet. It doesn’t take much to get a flame thread going about some brewery that sold really off-flavored beer…not talking about anyone in particular.

No justice league. Although there are certain email threads I’ve been copied on where brewers will discuss something about sour beers—it’s a small community. Chad Yakobson (Owner/Brewer of Crooked Stave Artisan Beer Project) started one a while ago on what should we call these beers? Should we call them sour beers? He calls them wild. So ale, lager, and wild just to cover everything. I’m in favor of wild just as much as anything else, but the reality is that there’s no great term that covers all of these. At a certain point can you really call something, an isolated Brettanomyces strain from 60-75 years ago, from a lab that was cultured in a brewery, wild? They’re not all sour. They’re not all mixed fermentation. We can’t call them Lambic because—at least in the EU–that is a protected term. There’s no great overarching term, and I’m not sure there needs to be an overarching term. BJCP is releasing new style guidelines soon, and there’s going to be an American Wild category that includes Brett beers that aren't sour, mixed-fermentation sours that don't fit the established European styles, and tart/funky fruit beers. Honestly it's this weird thing where brewers from big name breweries are emailing me asking advice on their sour beers.

When I was in [San Diego] last summer we did opening week activities for Modern Times, so we did an event at a little six table bar on a fishing pier (Fathom Bistro Bait &Tackle), and I had gone there earlier in the week and the other brewers were going so I decided to stay home and take the night off. And of course who went to college with the guy who owned the bar? Vinnie Cilurzo. So there he was drinking our all-Brett IPA, and I was in my rented apartment eating cold pizza. So we’re certainly not in any superpower cohoots. It was a crazy honor to go from emailing info@russianriver a few years ago, to having him write an intro saying he learned things from the book that he was going to try.

Cheers to Mike on his new book release (seriously, go pick that up or talk to him tonight), and thanks for taking the time to speak with us!

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