Sour Beer Production at Home – PT 1

oak burgundy barrels

Whilst at the American Homebrew conference I attended an amazing seminar by Michael Tonsmiere on the influence of the mash on sour beer production. One of the standout comments he made was about playing the long game, allow any funk or sour forming microbes the time to develop. Anyone can make a sour beer in a fairly short time but he doesn’t advocate it and prefers long term souring projects.

That simple remark resonated with me, I like Belgian sours, the complexity is amazing but what I’m not enjoying are a lot of British sour beers that utilize the sour mash/wort method. A lot of them seem a little one dimensional, fruit additions help but the complexity is poor.

Homebrew beers menu

Bretted and sour beers available at the homebrew club night in America

I was further inspired when trying some of the homebrew examples on offer at the conference, the standout being a Flemish red that had been maturing for two years. These beers were outstanding with the quality being as fine as some of my favourite Belgian and American examples.

I bought his book ‘American Sour Beers, Innovative techniques for mixed fermentations’ and decided that I need to test techniques of maturing and souring in wooden barrel because the really high quality beers that I enjoy are aged in wood. So I hunted down and purchased two homebrew sized (20L) Burgundy barrels that I can store away and feed with beer and bugs.

My initial beer ideas

Oud Bruin

Flanders red

Belgian Dubbel

Rye saison

Black saison

Belgian dark ale

Old ale

Imperial Stout

Fruit ideas

Cherries, Plums, currants, raisins, prunes, raspberries

Bug ideas

Bottle dregs from some of my favourite beers, checked on this list.

WLP665 Flemish ale blend

Wyeast 3763 Roeselare

Wyeast 3763WLP665 Flemish Ale Blend









I’ve decided to brew two different beer styles for the two barrels with enough crossover potential that I can blend some off. For example I would brew an imperial stout and a Flemish red so that I can perhaps blend off a portion to create a Flemish stout. Alongside this I will ferment and age some non-barrel aged Imperial stout andFlemish red brewed with the same microbes. At the same time I’ll endeavour to ferment a ‘wild beer’ either using a purchased culture or with flora I’ve allowed to naturally inoculate the beer. This beer will be my sour reservoir allowing me to blend it into any beers that need increased sourness.

My main concern with this approach using French oak is that because of the highly porous nature of the type of wood it’s possible that acetic acid production could be quite high so I’ll need to keep an eye on that. Conversely the porous nature means that it will be a fantastic bug trap for future brews. The smaller size of the barrels means that it’s possible that the time needed for flavour uptake will be shorter so it’s something I’ll also keep an eye on.

Let us know about your experiences of creating sours at home, and any succeses/failures you’ve had in the comments below.

Formerly of Fullers, Thornbridge and Buxton. Now a freelance Black IPA advocate, homebrew geezer and creator of Baby Back Bacon Black IPA™


  • Reply October 20, 2014

    Mark C

    Good luck with your brewing. I’ve dabbled with wild yeast cultures and it looks as though you have the right approach. I have the ‘American Sour Beers’ book also and find it very inspirational. Some of the Yeast Bay cultures available from the Malt Miller also look like a good source of ‘bugs’. Those 20L barrels look great, dare I ask where you purchased them from?

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  • Reply May 6, 2015

    Paul Taylor

    Hi James

    One of our homebrew group put me onto your website. A great read so far. I wholeheartedly agree with the statement about sour mash beers and the sudden increase in UK brewers making them. They are very one dimensional and don’t have that lovely long lasting sour flavour that a lot o great Belgian beers have.
    I am currently in the process of running a Solera project myself in my garage. I bought an Old Peculiar cask from Theakstons and got a sour fermentation going using the Yeast Bay’s Melange culture. If you have a look over our website/blog you can follow its progress.
    Since becoming a convert and falling in love with Michael Tonsmeires book I have a number of projects on the go, one is the Bourbon Barrel Imperial Our Bruin recipe from his book, I have also recently taken 2nd place in the London & SE home brew competition with a dry hopped Berliner Weisse I made using all of MT’s great advice and information.
    This is the way forward! I love these beers, both making them and drinking them, they offer a whole new world of unpredictability and fun.

    Keep up the good work and I shall look forward to reading some more!

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