The Sweet Side of Sour Beers
Patrick Rue, who gave up a career in litigation to pursue his brewing dreams, is changing the way Americans look at sour beers.
In this craft beer-soaked culture, asking a brewer why they got started usually results in one of these two responses: “I started at home” or “I hated my day job.”
Patrick Rue’s wife just wanted him to stop complaining.
During his first year of law school at Chapman University in Orange County, California, Rue could see the writing on the dry erase board. “My wife [Rachel] said, ‘I think you could really use a hobby.’ She wanted me to talk about something else, basically,” Rue says with a laugh.
In addition to making his wife happy, Rue didn’t suffer from career delusions. He wasn’t—no closing argument necessary—a very good lawyer. After failing the bar exam, Rue faced reality. “It was pretty easy to make that decision,” he says. “I was either going to become a pretty crummy lawyer or maybe a decently good brewer.”
There are only 11 Master Cicerones in the world. Rue is one of them. He is also the head of The Bruery, a craft operation revered around the country. This past July, after a year’s worth of delays, he opened Bruery Terreux in Anaheim, a facility dedicated solely to farmhouse-style ales fermented with wild yeasts, as well as oak-aged sour ales.
The company’s beers are distributed in 28 states. They sell around 13,000 barrels a year—or 400,000 gallons—and have enough medals to make Michael Phelps blush.
At this year’s Great American Beer Festival, their Wineification II picked up a silver in the Experimental Beer category, while The Mischief won gold in the 70-beer field for American-Belgo-Style Ales. They also have five selections, the Jardinier, Frucht, Sour in the Rye, Les Ronces, and Confession, which have scored above 90 points from Wine Enthusiast. Also, Rue himself was recently named one of the publication’s “Tastemakers 40 under 40.”
Plainly speaking, Rue turned out to be a pretty darn good brewer. His career trajectory, in line with an industry trend, is also pointing upward. As the American Homebrewers Association puts it in its article “6 Tips on How to Brew Sour Beers from the Mad Fermentationist,” sours have “risen to ‘holy grail’ status for many craft beer drinkers.” Given its unpredictably and the resources required, however, sour beer will likely never be the next IPA, but it is becoming a staple at festivals and on the shelves of specialty bottle shops everywhere. Rue is among the industry’s top minds in the field.
One of the reasons brewers like Rue fall in love with the style is its nuanced nature, comparable in many ways to wine making. Rue’s first experience with sours went poorly, but it opened his mind to the possibilities.
“Even though it was kind of a surprising experience it got me thinking: ‘Wow, beer can have acidity. Acidity can be part of the flavor profile with beer, kind of like it is with wine.’ And that drove me to find as many sour beers as I could and give them a shot,” he says.
Bruery Terreux was created out of necessity, really. While brewing batches of the tart beers he was famous for, some of the wild yeast and bacteria began to cross-contaminate other beers. He needed an additional barrel-aging and packaging facility to keep those two processes separate. “We had a few clean beers go sour,” he explains. “And also, we just weren’t able to grow anymore doing what we were doing.”
The prosperity of the company has enjoyed a rapid incline. In the inaugural year of 2008, Rue was running the business as a two-person operation. They would brew, fill up the tanks, and start waiting for orders to trickle in. “We lost a lot of money,” Rue says. But by the next year, they were producing nearly six times the amount of product and, if anything, had to hustle to keep pace.
When Rue first got involved with brewing, sour beers were esoteric at best. You could maybe find them at high-end liquor stores, likely carrying prices of $20 or more a bottle. And it was nearly impossible to hunt for American-brewed labels, with the majority of tart selections belonging to Belgium lambics. While working for his family’s real estate development business, Rue drew up a business plan for a brewery. He knew sours and wild, ambitious, and bold concoctions would play a role.
Bruery Terreux is only about 3 miles away from The Bruery, but it has opened a wide door for that dream. There is ample space for wine barrels and oak foeders, all with the goal of letting these sours invent themselves. “It’s the oldest style of brewing, but also kind of the newest style,” Rue says. “There are a lot of people who want to get into craft beer but don’t necessarily like bitter beers or hoppy beers. Sour beers are sometimes what bring them into craft beer. At the same time, the more advanced, connoisseur type drinkers are also gravitating toward it. It’s hard to be really serious about craft beer and not have an appreciation or at least a knowledge of sour beers.”
Many brewers avoid sours on a large scale due to a straightforward ROI equation. Rue says his sours, on average, take about a year to make. Some take two. In response, production is typically a year to two years ahead. Meanwhile, a solid ale can be made in three weeks.
To counteract some of these challenges, Rue built a two-dozen tap tasting room, which pours everything from 1-ounce tasters to full pints. It’s a perfect platform to introduce sours, which be pricey, to the everyday consumer.
“End of the day, whatever you charge for the beer needs to account for the extra cost that went into making the beer,” he says. “But sometimes getting the cost that you want doesn’t always happen because it wouldn’t sell at that point.”
Tasters can run $1 to $2, while the 16-ouncers typically go between $6 and $8. “You can try five different beers for under $10,” Rue notes. “The tasting room is fairly inexpensive because we want to bring people in and allow them to experience a lot of different things, and not worry about spending too much money.”
Rue is also a fanatic for barrel aging. They have an imperial stout, Black Tuesday, which is released just one day a year and has a cult-like following. This year, it is 20 percent ABV. “I love the process of aging a beer and seeing how it develops into something complex,” he says.
As for what’s next—not just at The Bruery but in the industry itself—Rue believes beer will continue to gain in wine-esque sophistication. Particularly, he says sour and wild ales have the potential to evolve into truly local products by reflecting their terroir.
“Hopefully it doesn’t reach any level of pretention,” he says. “This is an exciting time to be a brewer and a beer drinker.”