From sauerkraut to blood sausage to near room-temperature cask ales, traditional food and beverages are making a comeback. So it is that sour and smoked beers, with origins in old German styles, are popular again. In craft beer circles, the summer of 2013 could easily be called the "Summer of the Berliner Weiss". That low gravity, refreshingly tart style went from obscure to everywhere this year and was brewed by everyone from Everett's Night Shift Brewing to Hooksett, New Hampshire's White Birch Brewing. White Birch brewer Bill Herlicka recently told me his Berliner Weisse was so popular people were driving into Massachusetts from New York to buy it by the case. Despite Herlicka brewing extra batches, stores couldn't keep it on the shelf.
That a sour beer brewed with the intentional spoiler Lactobacillus can gain that kind of popularity is a testament to changing palates and an increased willingness for consumers to step outside their comfort zones. Smoked beers have also crossed into the mainstream. Framingham's Jack's Abby introduced "Smoke & Dagger", a brew based on a traditional Rauchbier, in 2011. One of the company's flagships, you can find "Smoke & Dagger" on tap at bars and restaurants around the region. The beer won the bronze medal in the Smoke Beer category at the Great American Beer Festival last year.
In an effort to further my beer education, I picked up a beer recently that played on the traditions of both smoked and sour beer. "Freigeist Abraxxxas", brewed in Germany by Gasthaus-Brauerei Braustelle, has origins in a specific style of Berliner Weisse called a Lichtenhainer. Details are murky. The style is not listed in my trusty "Oxford Companion to Beer". RateBeer.com lumps it in with the Grodziskie and Gose styles. At its base, a Lichtenhainer can best be described as a sour, smoked ale.
This particular beer is named after Abraxas, a deity from gnostic texts. There are two versions of the brew: "Abraxas", which weighs in at 3.2 percent ABV, and "Abraxxxas", which checks in at 6 percent. I reviewed the latter. From the ghastly label, I learn that "Fregeist" is the experimental offshoot of the Cologne brewery Braustelle, which "strives to break the chains of industrial brewing by reviving and updating Germany's unique, historical beer styles."
There was both excitement and trepidation in trying this one. First surprise: the brew pours a faint golden color into a tulip glass. It looks like a Berliner Weisse, but I expected a darker color from roasted malt. No roasted malt in here. Faint smoke and apple skin waft up from the nose.
I was worried the combination of smoke and sour would be too much, but my fears were quickly quelled. The first sip is refreshing, muted, and smooth. A burst of sour hits the roof of my mouth at the end, but it's not too much. My one complaint is that with the lingering smoke, as faint as it is, the beer gets very dry after a while. Other than that, it's got all the refreshing qualities I want from a Berliner. The smoke serves to make the beer interesting, not heavy.
Through complete fault of my own, this column has become hop-focused. "Freigeist Abraxxxas" is an example of the complexities you can bring to a beer through malts and yeast treatments alone. It's worth picking up if you're looking to expand your beer journey.
Two beer events to look ahead to:
-- On Oct. 21 The Biltmore Bar & Grille in Newton hosts a Stone Brewing Company beer dinner. The prix fixe menu features five courses of locally and regionally sourced ingredients paired with Stone's hop-forward offerings.
-- On November 7, “Beer Hunter; the movie” will be screened at the Regent Theatre in Arlington. The film is a documentary about beer writer Michael Jackson featuring rare clips of Jackson plus interviews with many leading brewers about Jackson’s influence in the development of craft beer ). Tom Acitelli, author of “The Audacity of Hops: The History of America’s Craft Beer Revolution", will give a talk at the screening. The theater will be exclusively serving beer from Massachusetts brewers. For more information click here.