Freshly Tapped spotlights one recently released beer, whether it be a flagship, one-off, seasonal, or modified recipe.
Today, our beer is Old Ox Brewery’s Dry-Hopped Mango Sour, the second entry in the Ashburn brewery’s Funky Face series.
On Wednesday morning, Chris Burns gathered his colleagues around a large wooden table in Old Ox’s tasting room. This is where the company’s president, its head brewer Tom Troxell, and the other two members of the production team meet to conduct a sensory analysis of any batch of beer that might leave the Ashburn facility. There are two possible outcomes: It goes into package or it goes down the drain.
Before any such conclusions are reached, though, each member of the tasting panel judges a beer on five criteria: aroma, clarity, flavor, mouthfeel, and overall impression. Over the years, they’ve calibrated their palates for this.
“We’re all highly trained,” Burns assures me, tucked into a booth of the Hamilton alongside Old Ox’s COO – and his mother – Mary Ann. “But all that really means is that we drink an awful lot – for a purpose, of course.”
On that particular morning, the mood was light inside the brewery. Everyone was in a good spirits. The four chitchatted aimlessly until samples of a hazy, light yellow liquid showed up.
“Suddenly, it got really quiet,” Burns says.
Sitting before them was a sour ale infused with mango puree and dry-hopped with Australia’s prized Galaxy varietal. It was slated to be the second entry in the Funky Face series – Old Ox’s inaugural exploration into sour beers for commercial distribution.
The series had first sprung from staff happy hours at a nearby craft beer bar, where inevitably the Old Ox team would end up ordering whatever sours happened to be available. “We would pass one around the table, and we would talk about what we liked and what we didn’t like, and it became pretty clear that we all had an interest in brewing sour beer,” Burns remembers.
Old Ox had experimented with sours in the past, brewing single-keg batches of barrel-aged ales for the tasting room’s One-Off Wednesdays. The stakes for such productions were decidedly lower: Those beers usually kicked within a few hours, consumed by Old Ox’s diehard supporters. Brewing a sour for distribution would require the refinement of different brewing techniques and a new kind of recipe construction. There would be trial and error and pilot batches dumped.
The first entry in the Funky Face series, the Blood Orange Gose, had been well-received, though – so much so that Old Ox had prepared to release a follow-up less than five weeks later.
“It was pretty clear that it was a style of beer that our customers were interested in, and certainly one we thought was delicious,” Burns shares. “In fact, we didn’t get enough for ourselves, so we decided to brew another immediately.”
Still, there is always a certain level of anxiety in the final analysis of a new beer.
So, on that midweek morning, Burns and his team sampled the beer. They took their notes. And then they sat there in silence.
“I don’t think that anyone wanted to talk first,” Burns recounts. “Finally, I just said, ‘Man, that’s pretty tasty right there!’”
An avalanche of feedback followed behind him.
“Everyone started talking all at once, like, ‘Oh man, this is great!’” he shares with a laugh. “It got really jovial really quick.”
“It was just one of those moments where we had put so much work into a beer, and it came out better than we even expected,” Burns continues. “Everybody was thinking, ‘Wow, this may be the best beer we’ve ever made.’ But nobody wanted to say it.”
When Old Ox opened two summers ago, the family-owned brewery was steered by one guiding principal: accessibility.
At the time, the Burns clan had looked out across the craft brewing landscape and been struck by the paucity of beers that were, for lack of a better term, easy drinking.
“We were seeing a lot very adventurous and strong-flavored beers; things that would be imperial in nature or IPAs with 150 IBUs,” Burns recalls. “Those beers were really interesting but they probably weren’t something you would drink more than one of.”
Old Ox saw an opportunity here – a niche that could be filled. Even better, it aligned with their own interests as drinkers.
“What appealed to us was going to our favorite brewery or pub, sitting down with each other, and being able to have two or three beers,” shares Burns. “What we realized very quickly is that we wanted to brew beers that would support that notion; beers that wouldn’t tire out your palate or knock you on your butt if you had a couple.”
The flagships of Old Ox follow through on that vision. Its core IPA, Alpha Ox, is a sessionable ale that clocks in at a modest 4.5% and emphasizes hop flavor over bitterness. The brewery ferments its Belgian-style pale ale, Golden Ox, at cooler temperatures to highlight just enough orchard fruit notes from the yeast without producing an “ester bomb.” Black Ox, a 6% rye porter, draws more chocolate than roasted coffee from its malts, and who doesn’t love chocolate?
“We’ll brew a special, high alcohol beer every once and again, but our main thrust is most assuredly more approachable beers no matter what the style,” Burns tells me. “We’re trying to create things that will appeal to a large segment of the craft beer market.”
Unsurprisingly, Old Ox’s philosophy extends to the Funky Face series, too.
If the brewery was going to wade full bore into the world of sour production, it was going to do so a particular way: kettle souring.
Whether a brewery is producing a tart, sour, or wild ale, there are many ways for a beer to break bad. The possible combinations of bacteria and wild yeast strains are literally innumerable, and they produce the full spectrum of flavors. But, generally speaking, when it comes to souring a beer, there are three commonly used methods: spontaneous fermentation, barrel or foedre aging, and kettle souring.
The first method involves resting your wort in a large, open pan (called a coolship), and letting the night air inoculate it with the microbes floating around us daily. This is how it was often done in the olden days, before the advancements in technology that we take for granted. However, if you’re a modern brewery making more than sour beers, it’s usually a nightmare because it exposes your entire operation to bacteria (or “bugs,” as they’re lovingly called), among many other headaches.
Souring a beer in a barrel or foedre is more manageable. The liquid goes into either type of wooden container with wild yeast and/or bacteria, and there the bugs go to work. Over a number of months, the beer undergoes a drastic transformation, resulting in a wonderfully complex beer. The catch? A barrel-aged sour program is a significant investment of money and time for a brewery. For starters, it usually requires the construction of a separate room or facility to minimize the risk of infection. And then a brewery is ultimately at the mercy of the bugs in terms of a production timeline. Those microbes act at their own speed and can’t be rushed. You simply have to sample and wait.
Thus, the last method, kettle souring, is increasingly becoming a go-to for breweries looking to launch their sour programs. Otherwise known as “quick souring,” the technique limits exposure to the brewery while producing a sour on an expedited timeline.
Here’s the Cliff Notes version of the process. The grains and liquid are mashed like any beer, then run into the boil kettle. That’s where things change. A brewery brings the liquid to about 100 degrees, then pitches Lactobacillus bacteria (or “Lacto”). From there, a brewery lets the liquid sit for 24 to 48 hours, in as anaerobic of an environment as possible, as the Lacto sours the liquid. Once the pH has dropped down to a tart, acidic level, the temperature on the kettle is turned back up, and after ten to fifteen minutes of boiling, the bacteria is killed off. From there, it can go into any other fermentation tank for primary fermentation.
For Old Ox, going to route of kettle souring was a no-brainer from a production perceptive.
But mastering the process was easier said than done.Preparing to brew the first Funky Face, Old Ox experimented with a number of bacteria, yeast strains, and techniques before the brewery felt it something to be proud of. There were some bumps along the way: Four of six pilot batches didn’t even see the light of the tasting room.
“It took a while,” Burns shares. “There were a couple of batches that I really wish I hadn’t been involved in tasting. There are just some very undesirable byproducts that you can get from kettle souring. One is this baby diaper smell – like, number two baby diaper smell – which is really awful. Another is an obnoxious canned green bean aroma. You have to walk this taut tightrope to get a product that comes out right. But we were committed to it, and we knew we could do it. And now I think we have a really excellent process.”
As you might expect, kettle souring a beer doesn’t produce identical flavor profiles to barrel fermenting and aging. For years, many brewers turned their noses up at kettle souring, writing it off as a shortcut. Some still do. But the tide has begun to turn as brewers (or at least some of them) have embraced and perfected the technique.
“Kettle souring should result in a really clean tartness – not necessarily a sour,” says Will Golden, head brewer at Austin Beerworks, which collaborated with Union Craft on the dry-hopped session sour ale BOLO earlier this year. “I associate more of an acetic acid character, like vinegar, with a sour. You should never get acetic acid with a kettle sour; if you do, usually something has gone wrong in the process. They should be effervescent, light, tart, delicious beers. A lot of people that do barrel-aged sours call them one note. They say that they’re not as dynamic as the barrel-aged sour beers. But I’ve been playing around a lot with different [bacteria] cultures, and we’re starting to a get a lot of different character coming out of the kettle sours. We’ve been getting a lot of tropical fruit, dried apricot flavors. It’s really intriguing stuff.”
Burns echoes this sentiment.
“There are people that view kettle souring as a shortcut, but you can’t look at it like that,” the Old Ox president shares. “Should you charge 20 bucks for a 500 mL bottle like you would for a Cantillon? Well, of course not – kettle sours are a completely different product. But they have something to offer: they’re tart, they’re refreshing, they’re great beers.”
And in the world of sours, they’re perhaps the most accessible.
“We find that kettle sours are a really great entry into the sour beer class,” Burns continues. “They create kind of a clean tartness as opposed to a funky sourness that you’ll get in some of the more traditional Belgian sour styles”
When it came to boosting the appeal of the second Funky Face, Old Ox had another trick up it sleeve – another skyrocketing trend in its own right.
At first blush, hops and sour ales make for strange bedfellows.
Dry-hopped sour. It sounds like something that should curdle in your snifter.
But more and more, craft beer drinkers are learning to disconnect the association of hops with bitterness. Added late in the brewing process, post-fermentation, hops can impart tropical, citrusy, and herbal aromas and flavors to any beer – whether it be an IPA, lager, or sour. And as with IPAs, this practice of dry-hopping can accentuate flavors already present in a sour beer.
“With our rye Berliner, what the dry-hop does is help to boost the citrus profile,” shares Mike McGarvey, the head brewer at 3 Stars, which produces the dry-hopped sour Dissonance. “As you’re tasting it, you get that citrusy combination, but the aromatics compliment it.”
In some cases, McGarvey says, a dry-hop can alter the character of a sour or wild ale altogether.
“When you look at Brett beers, they have a tendency to have horsey aromatics – or ‘barnyard,’ as they call it – and sometimes just accompanying that with the right dry-hop completely changes the profile,” the brewer continues. “Where the beer may have been aromatically something that you’re less apt to try, it swings it in a different direction. Sometimes that can lend itself to mouthfeel, too. So, it can be another component of those sours beers, and when they all come together, it just sets them off.”
Birth of Ace, a Brett IPA from neighboring Lost Rhino, was the first beer to excite Burns about the potential of hop aroma on the wild side.
“I thought that beer did an excellent job of showing how wild yeast strains could add some cool funky characteristics while playing really well with hop varietals,” the Old Ox co-founder recalls. “It was an eye-opening experience.”
Burns sees bitterness and sourness as linked, in a way, even if you’d never want to combine the two full-on.
“Both hops and souring bacteria act as a balance to malt sweetness,” he observes. “It’s kind of natural to sub out bitterness for sourness, but if you’re still looking for something hoppy, you want add those hops as late in the process as possible, because bitterness and sourness clash. There would be just way too much going on with both. All you want to end up with is all of the nice aromatics with the hops.”
A look at recent output from other area breweries like Union Craft, Right Proper, and Stillwater shows this is a trend that’s gaining traction.
“It’s exploding, and it’s only going to continue to explode,” says Jace Gonnerman, beer director for Meridian Pint, Smoke & Barrel, and Brookland Pint. “These days, the direction IPAs are moving is that everybody wants big flavor and aroma but they don’t necessarily want to be slapped over the head with bitterness. When you dry-hop a sour, you’re adding those kind of flavor and aroma components, and those beers are generally on the absolute lowest end of the bitterness spectrum already. And if you’re using a hop that’s very fruit or citrus forward, like Citra or Galaxy, they tend to play super well with the lemon and citrus type tartness from the kettle-souring of those beers.”
That’s exactly what Old Ox was thinking when it came across some tropical Galaxy hops earlier this summer.
“Galaxy hops are tricky to get,” Burns says. “They’re not readily available on the market, and we’re constantly checking the spot market for them.”
On the day the hops showed up, the Old Ox team was already engaged in a lively conversation over what to do with them.
“We knew we wanted to do another sour, so we were kicking around the idea of using those Galaxy hops in one,” recalls Burns. “We were talking about their flavor and aroma, and one of the more prevalent aromas is mango. We thought. ‘Why not do a kettle sour with the combination of mango and Galaxy hops to really punch up that tropical fruit flavor and aroma?”
Old Ox has learned not to paint itself into a corner when describing its beers.
Since the brewery opened, it has called Golden Ox a “Belgian-style” ale. But Burns soon found out that descriptor, as innocuous as it may be, could be loaded.
“You’ve got a lot of people that are really into Belgian beers, but with Golden Ox, we’ve purposefully suppressed the Belgian esters, so they’re like, ‘Well, it’s not that Belgian,’” he shares. “And then you’ve got the other side of equation who are like, ‘Well, I don’t like Belgian beers, so I’m not going to try it.’ It’s a bit of a hurdle that we have to overcome.”
Old Ox has overcome that hurdle – Golden Ox is its bestselling beer – but it would prefer to stay grounded if possible.
“We’ve learned to be a little more generic with our styles that are a little more cross-pollinated,” says Burns.
Case in point: the second Funky Face.
The beer is billed as an “American sour blonde,” but its inspiration came from across the Atlantic.
“We absolutely took inspiration from the Berliner Weiss style,” Burns admits. “But a Berliner is a traditional German style, and we didn’t want that to hamper people’s enjoyment by creating certain expectations.”
Much like the Blood Orange Gose, the beer’s malt bill is composed mostly of Pilsner and wheat malts.
“We were really just looking for a neutral platform to highlight the tart flavors from the Lactobacillus and the fruity flavors from the mango and hops,” Burns explains. “We were trying to keep it pretty clean.”
The beer sits at about 4.1 ABV%, which makes it perfectly sessionable for a warm Friday afternoon in late July, when the beer is set to be released in Old Ox taproom.
The brewery produced a 20-barell batch of Dry-Hopped Mango Sour, roughly half of which will go out on draft and in 22-ouncle bottles across North Virginia. The other half will stay at Old Ox for sale. (Sorry, DC.)
“It’s a very small run but that’s the point,” Burns says of the Funky Face batches. “We want to get them in and out while they’re fresh, and get onto the next beer.”
Old Ox is already looking down the line for the next entries in the series. It’s honing in on the malt bill for a tart cherry sour, which it hopes to release in September. After that, the brewery may seek to produce a full-scale version of a Margarita Gose – made with lime juice, orange juice, and agave syrup – that it brewed a keg of for its two-year anniversary party in June.
But speaking with Burns on the day of the kegging, he’s happy to bask in the results of this particular beer for a moment.
“When you take your first sip, you definitely get a little bit of clean tartness, and then that’s quickly followed by a touch of mango sweetness, and then it kind of evaporates off your palate,” he tells me. “All you want to do is take the next sip. It’s a really quenching beer. You can find the bottom of your pint very quickly and be looking for a second one.”
“We’re calling it a victory, but what’s important is seeing what everyone thinks on Friday,” he continues. “We’re hoping that they’ll be as excited about it as we are.”