Ben Woodward remembers the childhood delight of Sour Patch Kids candies. As the sugar crystals melted and his tongue re-enacted the precise sweet-salty-sour-bitter chart that made little sense on the blackboard, he blinked briny tears of joy.
Today, the co-owner of Haw River Farmhouse Ales in Saxapahaw is finishing a brew for beer lovers who crave a similar pucker. His Pickled Pepper Sour Beer will be among the featured pours at Saturday's PickleFest in Durham.
"It's an acquired taste for some, but craft beer drinkers are more exploratory today than they were 10 years ago," Woodward says. "It's no different than offering someone a shrub. When they realize it's a vinegar soda, they think you're crazy."
Until they try it. In their tasting room, Woodward has observed a three-step reaction among those trying sour beers or shrubs, also called drinking vinegars. The first sip is shock and surprise; the second leads to curiosity and wonder. "By the third sip," he says, "they accept that it really is as delicious as they think it is."
Woodward explains that classic sour beer results from slow-acting bacteria luxuriating in the barrel as long as a year. His Pickled Pepper is a quicker hybrid called kettle souring. Wild yeast is added to the mixture to hasten fermentation of sugars, delivering a tangy brew in about three months.
"They're both delicious, but it's like refrigerator pickles versus fermented ones," he concedes. "It's not as complex, but not everyone likes those deep flavors."
If you're looking for a gateway beverage that's alcohol-free but refreshingly crisp, Woodward suggests his golden beet shrub made with white balsamic vinegar.
"We were going to do a traditional red beet and dark balsamic shrub, but when I saw those golden beets at the farmer's market I couldn't resist them," he says. "It will be flavored with black peppercorn and a couple of pickling spices."
While Haw River finishes its shrubs in casks and pours them from a tap, Woodward says many shrubs are easy to make at home. Books like Michael Dietsch's 2014 sensation, Shrubs: An Old-Fashioned Drink for Modern Times, offer basic instruction as well as tips on how to incorporate seasonal botanicals.
"You can make them at home in just a couple of days and finish them with a bit of soda water," Woodward says. "Unlike commercial sodas, you can make these as sweet or sour as you like, and with what whatever fruit or vegetable you like. Really, the possibilities are endless."
This post first appeared in Indy Week.