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Ska Brewing’s Kurt Randall: It ain’t a trend. Sour beers are here to stay

Ep 170829824
David Holub/DGO

Kurt Randall, Ska head brewer, stands on the catwalk outside Ska World Headquarters.
Ep 170829824
David Holub/DGO

Kurt Randall, Ska head brewer, stands on the catwalk outside Ska World Headquarters.

A few years back, sour and tart beers hit the mainstream and everyone said, “Well, isn’t that special,” took a sip and swallowed. Only it didn’t stop there. What started as a summer trend on an old-world brewing style has turned into a full-force beer category in America.

It ain’t a secret that one of Ska Brewing’s most beloved beers is the seasonal release of the Mexican Logger. Well, Ska put a new spin on the favorite suds by adding lime, lemon, and sea salt to create the Tart Mexican Logger via their small-batch, experimental arm, Mod Brewery.

DGO talked to Ska’s head brewer, Kurt Randall, about what the heck is up with all these sour beers and how the trend is here to stay.

Is there a big push on sour beers at Ska? We’ve got a few sours coming and going. Mostly stuff coming off the Mod. The two big ones we have out are the Pink Vapor Stew and the Tart Mexi, but we’ve got some barrels that are in the process of souring some wild yeast, as well.

Are we past calling sours a trend? Are they here to stay?I believe so. There are enough breweries out there that have dedicated to doing just sour beers that it’s not something that’s going to just go away. It’s now another category that is growing significantly and highly represented at GABF (the Great American Beer Festival).

Do sour and tart beers only work in the summer? Nah, they’re year-round now. I think a lot of breweries are going to focus on more drinkable sours in the summer, but there’s plenty of breweries that dedicate themselves to just sour beers. I think you’ll see more breweries coming out with more sours, no matter the time of year.

Is there an ingredient you’d love to see in a sour soon?I’d like to use more seasonal fruit in general, it’s just been hard with the Food Safety Modernization Act to focus on new ingredients. We are making sure the company we are buying fruit from is in accordance with the (FSMA).

Who’s giving you the most sour inspiration at the moment? Just about anything that Troy Casey is putting out at Casey Brewing and Blending in Glenwood Springs. I’ve had a raspberry there that was really good and a cherry one that was really tasty. He’s doing a bunch of strong fruit beers, heavy on the fruit and lots of souring, sitting in fermenters or barrels for a long time.

How can you pinpoint when a sour goes wrong and why? I’m not positive. I haven’t actually tasted a lot of sours gone wrong. I would imagine, if they’re doing traditional methods, different bacteria can get in there that you don’t want. It can give you off-flavors. And kettle sours, depending on what you’re using for a flavoring method, can give you some off-flavors.

We try and stick with a pure lactobacillus strain from a yeast supplier. I know some people are using yogurts. We haven’t used yogurts and I haven’t had any practice with it, so I’m not sure how it works and what it is that could go wrong with it.

What’s the most intimidating thing about a brewery getting into sour beers? I think a lot of it is that we are all trained that it is very easy for bacteria to run rampant in a brewery once it gets a foothold. We are all very cautious of purposefully bringing bacteria into our brewery. A lot of the times, it’s already coming in on our grain, but actually bringing it in and physically using it in your brew process is a little bit intimidating when you’re trying to make clean beers and get some sours out there.

I think that’s what’s appealing about kettle sours. You’re using bacteria on the hot side, and when you boil it, you’re essentially killing all the bacteria off except for what you harvest to use in subsequent batches. That’s the advantage of kettle sours. You’re not worried about infecting your filler, your fermenters, your hoses, clamps, gaskets, gauges, and valves. Anywhere there is a little nook, bacteria can get in, but you’re leaving it all in the brewhouse and heating it to destroy it all.

Any other Ska shout-outs?Joe (Hull)’s the one killing it for us with Mod. All of our brewers are doing a helluva job. We’re all trying to keep up with everything and get as much beer out the door as we can. People are packaging and working long days, making sure stuff’s making it into can and on trucks. It’s a bit of a challenge, but a good one.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity. Patty TempletonDGO Staff Writer

Ep 170829824

David Holub/DGO

Kurt Randall, Ska head brewer, stands on the catwalk outside Ska World Headquarters.