Brewer Alex Carlton plunges a spout through a membrane of lactobacillus and other good bacterias covering the top of one of his beers. The grayish, bubbly skin shifts slightly as he extracts a small amount of beer from the batches he has in food-grade blue barrels throughout his brewing operation.
He doesn't freak out; he doesn't dump out the beer. In fact, he pours it into a glass. And he takes a big sip.
"It does look gross, but it makes good freaking beer," he said.
Sours, a funky beer variety, are popping up on menus locally and nationally.
CIB Brewery — which Alex opened with his father, George, in 2011 — crafts sours and wild beers. Sour beers don't taste much like the pilsners and IPAs most consumers are used to. They're often pretty tart, as their name implies. The sour comes in a variety of different beer styles, including the gose and lambic.
The small space in Carson, Iowa, has been the sole production facility for CIB's American Wild Ales. The brewery's repertoire includes the Orange Scorpion, a beer made with Trinidad scorpion chilies, and a Zircon Strawberry Tart, among others.
Carlton's beers are made with the wild yeasts and bacteria found in the air in the brewery.
"I think you could say our beers taste like here," Carlton said.
Just don't tell Carlton that his beers taste familiar.
"We don't want to be like anyone else," he said.
Carlton's brewing operation is unlike most other breweries. Instead of the huge metal tanks of traditional brewing, which Carlton said isn't good for sours, CIB utilizes smaller food-grade barrels.
"It's basically a glorified homebrew system that we are proud of," he said.
Breweries that produce more than just sours will use a separate system entirely for their sours to avoid cross-contamination with other beer styles.
Tony Thomas, brewer and owner of Farnam House Brewing Company, said his brewery uses separate hoses and tanks for their sour. The cultures are small enough and durable enough that they can get into pores of gaskets and are much harder to kill.
The brewery uses a kettle-souring process. Brewers add lactobacillus, a bacteria that is also present in yogurt, to a kettle of unfinished beer called wort, where it rests for 48 to 60 hours. The longer the lactobacillus is with the wort, the more sour the beer, Thomas said. Once the brewers get the tartness they're looking for, they will turn on the kettle and add hops, finishing the brew as they normally would.
Thomas and his brewing partner, Phil Doerr, have been experimenting with sours since before they opened the brewery last year. Six months into Farnam House's opening, they brewed their first sour: Papio Kriek, a cherry lambic.
Now Thomas makes sure that at least two of the 14 beers on tap at the bar are Farnam House sours.
The first time Thomas had a sour, he didn't like it.
"I thought it was an infected beer, and I gave it back to the bartender and said, 'There's something wrong with it,' " he said.
Zac Triemert, brewer and owner at Brickway Brewery & Distillery, has been working with sours for years. Each different microorganism is going to make a different flavor; this is what makes sour beers interesting and diverse, he said.
Triemert uses finished beer and assorted bacterias to make his sours. His are aged in barrels over many months. None has been served in the brewery just yet. Triemert said his oldest barrels of beer are 10 months old and won't be fully aged until 2016. One features half of a mixture of a Belgian tripel and a hefeweizen, blended together with wild yeast and bacteria to ferment.
"What I'm looking for as a general rule is to come out with something that has unique and distinct flavor," Triemert said.
Carlton started brewing sours because it was something that not everybody else was doing. Now the beer seems to be catching on.
"I truly believe it is the next big thing in beer," he said.
'A CELEBRATORY BEER'
Alex Carlton says CIB sour beers are meant to be savored and shared. Hear more on Omaha.com/Go.