Tasting some of the UK’s most exciting sour beers in Abbeydale Brewery’s Funk Dungeon.
There’ve been some pockets of resistance along the way, but modern sour beers have made huge inroads in the UK over the past couple of years. Getting drinkers over the hurdle of expecting all beer to fit into more familiar flavour profiles is the hard part. Once someone understands that “off” flavours are there to be enjoyed – just as in a Stilton or a really good Balsamic vinegar – there’s a bloom of synapse-twanging tastes to be explored, sporing off into zingy little fractals of depth, funk and wrongness so wrong it’s right. Once they hit that sweet spot of tastebud comprehension, it’s all downhill from there; one long, soft roll into Lambic obsession.
That’s why people think sour beer drinkers sip with pretention. We’re not supping for nourishment – there’s another, beastlier level of gratification that comes from a well-bretted saison, or a gnawingly acetic Flanders red. We’re letting flavours swirl and marry in our heads, and we want to hyperbolise about them, like people tripping in a circle. “Did you get that spritz of carbonation at the back of your tongue? And then that lush coating mouthfeel – is that from the yeast? Woah, man. This shit is insane.” Yeah, we sound like dicks, but we’re having a good time, and we want you to, too. Leave us be.
When Jim (head brewer) and Laura (head of marketing and office manager) of Abbeydale Brewery first spoke about the Funk Dungeon sour beer festival “Funk Fest”, it sounded too good to be true. A line-up of some of the UK’s most highly-regarded and well-respected breweries coming together to bring sour mix-fermented and wild-fermented beers to a room full of drinkers ranging from the sour beer evangelists to absolute beginners. I’ve never had a better reason to visit Sheffield.
We arrived at Funk Fest for the afternoon session on Saturday 25 August. I’d already been informed by a spy/friend that a very special, extremely limited pour of Fyne Ales’ Odyssey (bottle and barrel) had been and gone. Served me right for not getting there earlier.
Getting to Abbeydale Brewery on time after a quick accidental detour through overgrown industrial estate ginnels, we were extremely happy to see we weren’t the first people to turn up. We weren’t even part of an early-comers gang. The factory floor was already reverberating with the pre-drunk voices of people who’d come all the way here to sample sour beers. Laura welcomed us in and we headed straight for the bar.
The first beer I tried was the Abbeydale Brewery and Yeastie Boys collab Creeping Brett. As the festival was its first outing, it seemed like the ideal way to start the day. Dry, zesty and a little bit funky, I hesitantly floated the idea that there may have been lemongrass or what I clumsily called “wet ginger – not the spicy stuff”. Looking at a can later on in the night, I can smugly reveal that there is indeed lemongrass in the list of ingredients.
Tom started at the top, with The Kernel’s Biere de Garde: Galaxy. As you’d expect, it was delicious. He rates it as his beer of the festival. Sour enough to please me, a bonafide tangfastics fiend, it had a sweetness along with the dry, saison character that reminded me of raspberry sorbet. Tom says I think everything tastes like raspberries though, so don’t trust me on that one.
Looking around Abbeydale Brewery was an eye-opener. I’ve drank plenty of their beers before, but whether it’s down to a lack of local knowledge or that I’m just ignorant, I had no idea it was as a big as it is. Jim, the head brewer and catalyst of the Funk Dungeon project, took us around his brewery, showing us where the funk lives. There’s a lot of it. I’m pretty excited about that place. A huge selection of Abbeydale’s own funk dungeon beers were on the bar throughout the festival, and quite a few were collaborations with well-known, much-hyped breweries from all over the place. Whether you like sour beers or not, as well as his brewing ability you’ve got to admire Jim’s hound-like enthusiasm for his project, and how many people he’s fetched back to work with him on what are, quite frankly, some of the most exciting experimentations in beer in the UK at the moment. I wrote that in my notes after a few beers, but a week later I’m stone-cold sober, and I still mean it.
Our time with Jim was cut short by the start of a tasting session by Fyne Ales. In Sheffield to brew mad concoctions with Jim, intimidatingly knowledgeable brewer Andrea Ladas was joined by Iain Smith, Fyne’s marketing manager to present a range of highly-experimental sour, mixed-fermentation and wild-fermented beers made on their site in the Highlands.
I was particularly taken with their beer Succession. Taking a sniff, dry, wooded saison was lifted by a sharp smell like fireworks – which was explained to me as phenols, rather than any smokiness imparted into the beer. The beer’s meadowsweet added a strangely familiar floral intensity to the dark, funky brett, with a bittersweetness I found really moreish. Forest Flore, the inspiration of which came literally from the forests around them in Loch Fyne, was brewed with blackberry buds, juniper and wood from blackberry bushes. Andrea explained that this was to replicate and acknowledge old celtic traditions of filtering beer using thorny blackberry branches. The result is a crisp, clean saison with the added interest of botanicals. His insistence that “brewing is like shepherding” added to the romantic feeling that at his brewery, the beer made up the rules, and he runs alongside, changing its direction incrementally where he can. Ultimately, nature is the boss.
(You can find out more about the Fyne Ales Summer 2018 collection here.)
During the tasting session, someone asked Andrea what brett is, and this is probably the moment I realised that Funk Fest was doing something special. Throughout the day and into the night, more and more people turned up to try halves and thirds of beers they’d never heard of before. The whole place was full of people drinking and enjoying sour beers. This wasn’t a trade day, or a specialist event for experts and know-it-alls (although they were welcome). This was an event with the sort of friendly, welcoming atmosphere missing from so many beer festivals, where total newbies could taste and discover, and openly dislike, and rapturously applaud, and ask questions and learn about the beer they were drinking. We stood at the sides for most of the night, grinning at the number of people who’d come and paid for tickets to drink weird, dissonant beer, all these kindred spirits in one room. When that person asked their question, they were heard and answered properly, with genuine warmnth, and offered more beer to taste to help them understand better. There are no judgements in the funk dungeon. Only really excellent beers and equally excellent people.
I rounded off my night with a banger. Thornbridge – Days of Creation, a beer so good I’ll be using it instead of champagne on my wedding day. Complex and incredible. But then I do love a good red. Tom finished up a third of the Chorton Blend limited edition cask as the lights came on and we were gently ushered towards the exit.
From afar, sour beers seem like the most inaccessible section of the beer periodic table. To someone who doesn’t know them, they can seem acerbic, stand-offish and offputtingly cool. I like to see them as self-conscious outsiders, hiding their complexity and charm behind a veneer of practiced aloofosity. I get them. Everyone at Funk Fest ended up getting them. Now my next job is to make sure everyone else does too. I told you sour beer fans were nothing more than a bunch of evangelicals. See you at Funk Fest 2.