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The Science of Sour

Can a Long Beach brewery reinvent a legendary Belgian beer?

Julian Shrago is behind the bar at Beachwood BBQ & Brewing, a pub in Long Beach where he makes some of the most sought-after beers in the West. He’s pouring small glasses and explaining each beer: its history, its taste, its mouthfeel, and his relationship with it. If this sounds lyrical or high-minded, it isn’t. Shrago, who’s dressed all in black and has a shaved head, speaks in an exacting mono­tone, like an engineer, which he is, or was (a decade-long stint at Raytheon, plus a few years at Northrop Grumman). A maybe-drunk customer ambles up and asks about a beer on tap. Shrago launches into a long explanation that culminates with: “Because it’s a Long Beach IPA, we wanted it to be really thick and skunky, kind of like bong resin.”

Shrago is known for his IPAs (“I’m a heavy-metal guy; it’s like heavy metal in a glass”), but he’s also the restless, questing sort. He makes a preposterous amount of beer out of a single small room wedged next to Beachwood’s kitchen. In the four years since he started the brewery, he’s made more than 125 varieties. Many sell out the day they appear.

Lately, Shrago has been drawn to more adventurous tastes and fermentations. His newest project is his most quixotic yet. He leads me out back, down a side street, and into another alley, to a space that he and his business partner, Gabe Gordon, the chef at Beachwood, built for this new experiment: the Blendery, a 4,500-square-foot brick-and-wood-beamed warehouse devoted to the making and study of sour beer. Sours are weird, more advanced and uncontrolled than regular beer. Not for novices, their complexity arrives by way of their wildness. While most beers are made in sterile environments, sour beer is an open-air affair. Yeast and bacteria and whatever else is floating around at that particular moment land in the uncovered wort — the steeped and heated barley slurry from which nearly all beer begins — and ferment, giving sours their distinctive, palate-smacking taste. “Yeasts are as different as human beings,” Shrago says, adding that a typical bottle of beer contains about 6 billion yeast cells, almost as many tiny organisms as there are people on Earth.

At a certain unsanitary point long ago, just about all beers were sour, but today the most iconic sours come from a handful of illustrious, centuries-old breweries in Belgium, perhaps the most revered of which is Brussels’s Cantillon. Tours of Cantillon famously include a look up at the creaky old cobwebbed beams. If a spider were to fall into the beer when it’s out in the open? That’s simply a part of what makes it so special, visitors are told. Some Belgian sours, including Cantillon’s, are known as lambics. The same way a Champagne can only be a Champagne if it’s from Champagne, a lambic can only be a lambic if it’s from the Pajottenland region of Belgium. Shrago makes this point repeatedly: He is not setting out to make a lambic. That would be impossible. And yet.

“People say it’s the magic of the region that creates this beer,” Shrago says, “but there’s no reason that science can’t start quantifying, examining, and figure out in what proportions these things do exist.” Late last year, when Gordon and Shrago were starting to get serious about this quest, Gordon visited Cantillon and convinced Jean-Pierre Van Roy, its head brewer, to install sensors in the brewing room to measure a host of atmospheric qualities, like temperature and humidity. “It’s not my idea,” Van Roy tells me. “It could be something right, but” — he pauses — “it is also a bit strange … I did it because Gabe is a friend and a nice person.” Before returning to Beachwood, Gordon also purchased samples of wild yeast and bacteria from a commercial supplier in Belgium.

Inside the Blendery, it’s a chilly 55 degrees, approximating mid-March in Brussels. Along with air conditioning, Shrago and Gordon have installed humidifiers to inject some Belgian-like moisture into Long Beach’s drier summer air. In one corner of the still largely empty space, racks of 16 oak wine barrels reach near the rafters. A few months ago, in a process known as “inoculation,” the pair put their yeast and bacteria, including some from Belgium, into these wort-filled barrels and let the microflora go to work. Most other American sour makers inoculate outside the barrel, using yeasts and bacteria that they’ve cultivated in a lab. Beachwood’s approach is riskier, but more traditional. Shrago and Gordon intended this batch, their first sour, as a control of sorts, brewed via a process that more or less mirrors Cantillon’s.

Soon they will make another batch using a mixture of the Belgian microorganisms plus some they’ve collected from vineyards and citrus orchards in Paso Robles. They’ll fill a garden sprayer with these samples and coat the wooden rafters, then pour their wort into a large steel bath called a coolship and leave it there for several hours, maybe overnight, to inoculate in the open before fermenting it in untreated barrels.

Eventually they will begin to taste each batch, noting differences by ­barrel — “As long as it doesn’t turn into vinegar, it’s fine,” says Gordon — and then blend the batches into something that tastes as magically mysterious as a lambic but can, they hope, be understood and replicated.

Earlier, behind the bar, Shrago told me that the best engineering marries art and science. And that the same union exists in music and architecture and cooking and, yes, brewing. A lot of American sours, he says, “are too structured. They’re a little robotic.”

“They check the boxes,” Gordon adds.

“We want something that’s more analog,” Shrago says.

Do they know when, exactly, is the right time to start tasting the first phase of their experiment? Gordon smirks and shakes his head. “To be honest,” he says, “I’m hoping someone from Belgium will just tell us.”