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Sour beer, sweet victory for Council

"You can go to any brewery and get an IPA."

Curtis and Liz Chism accept the Best of Show trophy
  • Curtis and Liz Chism accept the Best of Show trophy

The San Diego International Beer Competition announced its 2017 medal results back in April, but it kept one major award under wraps until its Del Mar beer festival the weekend of June 17th. This year's Best of Show — the top-rated beer out of 1564 entries — went to Council Brewing Company and its barrel-aged sour, Lickable Staves.

Council Brewing Company

7705 Convoy Court, Kearny Mesa

This year, 291 breweries competed, representing 20 countries and 23 states. While mostly San Diego breweries have earned its Best of Show distinction in the past, it's by no means a lock. Last year, the honor went to Central California's Figueroa Mountain Brewing Co; the year before, 150-year-old Belgian brewery Huisbrouwerij De Halve Maan received the best-of show-trophy: a two-gallon, stainless steel fermenting tank passed from winner to winner each year.

Best of Show winner Lickable Staves, and its stainless steel fermenter trophy (sort of like the Stanley Cup)

Best of Show winner Lickable Staves, and its stainless steel fermenter trophy (sort of like the Stanley Cup)

Their names are etched into the trophy — kind of like the NHL's Stanley Cup — and by adding its name this year, Council cements its status as one of San Diego's best young breweries.

It's certainly one of the most prolific sour producers in the county. While many local breweries have put money into barrel-aging programs, only a handful have made significant investments in mixed-fermentation production — combining wild yeasts and bacteria to create funky and sour beers.

Council cofounder Liz Chism continues to brew in small batches on the same three-barrel system Council opened with three years ago. However, rather than grow into a bigger brew tank, when the company expanded capacity last year it did so with a trio of 15- and 30-barrel oak foudres, the preferred vessels for mixed fermentation.

"It took about a month to get them all filled," points out Curtis Chism, cofounder (and husband to Liz). That's because, in between the ten brew sessions needed to fill a 30-barrel foudre, Council also has to keep up its tasting-room clientele's demand for fresh beer. "Half our board is IPA, and half our sales are IPA," he explains. However, of the roughly one thousand barrels Council brews annually, "It's probably about 75 or 80 percent sour beer."

"We just like drinking them," says Liz, explaining why they've pursued sour production since before Council opened in 2014. "We love IPAs but we also love a good sour."

From a business standpoint, it's also helped the small brewery stand out. Liz notes a number of beer tourists visit Council specifically to sample the sour beers of its Magic Factory label. "Word-of-mouth gets out that Council always has sours on tap," she says. "You can go to any brewery and get an IPA. You can go to any brewery and get a stout. But you can't go to any brewery in San Diego and get barrel-aged, foudre-aged, mixed-fermentation sours."

Lickable Staves happens to predate the foudres. The sour red ale was a response to the arrival of freshly emptied red-wine barrels in early 2016. "It was kind of an experiment," Liz says. "I just went for it."

Using favorite cultures from a collection established with the help of Council barrel-program director Jeff Crane, the beer fermented entirely in barrel and aged over the course of a year, with the addition of balaton cherries. The result offers a balanced body, sour without any vinegary notes. Cinnamon and cherry flavors complement toasted biscuit malt characteristics, giving way to red wine and hints of woody vanilla as it warms.

Once she pulled it from the barrel in January, Liz went to work making a 2018 version of Lickable Staves, this time with Montmorency cherries.

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