If you close your eyes, and take a second, you can put the taste of sourdough bread side-by-side with a sour ale. The flavor is liquid sourdough, the notes are so similar, and there is a good reason for that: it’s the same process.
Sourdough bakers and sour ale makers are cultivating the same thing: a wild yeast strain, as well as a wild bacteria called lactobacilli. Sourdough bread tastes sour because of the same two things that make sour ale taste that way. When combined, those two microscopic beasts team up to leaven your bread, ferment your beer, while bringing you that beautiful tang (*Not all sour ales contain lactobacilli, but plenty do).
Because of this, making your sourdough starter with a liquid that a master brewer already spent weeks ensuring contained both a wild yeast strain AND lactobacilli puts you ahead of the game. Water is fine, but a sour ale is like water with superpowers.
Things to keep in mind:
- The warmer the room, the quicker the starter will start. If you have a cold house, plan on the starter and the dough, taking much longer.
- Avoid the temptation to clean the crock between feedings. Soap kills bacteria which is what you are trying to cultivate.
- If you want a more sour starter, feed less often (once you get to twice a day feedings, just feed once a day for a few days).
- Starting with a whole wheat or rye flour will give you a better likelihood of finding wild yeast as its less processed than all-purpose flour. Once you start, you can switch to all-purpose flour.
- If your mature starter is looking weak, try a few feedings with a sour ale instead of water.
- Adding a few tablespoons of starter to a regular bread recipe (along with all the rest of the ingredients including the commercial yeast), will help it rise higher and faster and give it a nice flavor.
Sour Ale Sourdough Starter Recipe
Combine 1 cup (120g) flour (whole wheat flour works best to start), and ½ cup (4oz) sour ale that has both lactobacilli and Brettanomyces (ask at your local bottle shop, a beer like this should be easy to find) in a glass, ceramic, or clay crock. Stir until all the flour has been moistened. Cover loosely with a lid or plastic wrap (not airtight, you want some air going into the crock) and allow to sit at room temperature for 24 hours. (Cover the remaining beer and allow to sit at room temperature for your next two steps).
After 24 hours stir the mixture, remove all but ½ cup (4 oz) discarding the rest. Add 1 scant cup (110g) all-purpose flour and ½ cup (4 oz) room temperature beer. Stir the 1/2 cup starter, flour, and beer, until well combined, cover, and let sit at room temperate.
Continue feeding once a day as directed in step two for three days. Once 12 ounces of beer has been used, switch to warm water (filtered water works best). On the fourth day begin feeding twice a day, as directed in step two. One feeding first thing in the morning, second feeding at night.
Once your starter doubles in size in less than 2 hours, it’s ready to use. This could take as little as one week and as many as three weeks. Colder environments will take longer, warmer temperatures will be quicker. Once you’re ready to use the starter measure out what you need for your recipe, feed your starter, and place it in the fridge.
Feed your starter once a week. It can live indefinitely, starters have been known to live for decades, and in some communities are passed down through generations. When you want to use your starter, take it out of the fridge, feed it, and allow to come to room temperature before using (about 6 hours, overnight if the room is cold). Feed it again and then put away.
Check out my recipe for:
- ¼ cup (2oz) sour ale starter (recipe listed above)
- ½ cup (60g) flour
- ½ cup (110mL) water
- 2 cup (240g) flour
- ½ cup (110mL) room temperature beer (sour ale or wheat beer),
- 1 teaspoon (6g) sugar
- 1 teaspoon (6g) kosher salt
- 1 teaspoon (6g) coarse salt
- Add ¼ cup room temperature starter, ½ cup flour, and ½ warm water to a small bowl. Stir to combine. Cover loosely and leave on the counter for 6 hours or up to overnight.
- Add the remaining flour, ½ cup room temperature beer, and 1 teaspoon sugar to the bowl. Stir until combined.
- Add the dough to a well floured surface, kneading until the dough is no longer sticky and very elastic, about 20 minutes (this can be done in phases). Towards the end of kneading, add in the kosher salt (salt is very important for flavor but can impede the yeast so it’s best to add it last).
- Oil the inside of a large bowl. Add the ball of dough to the bowl, loosely cover and allow to rise until doubled in size, about 4-6 hours.
- Preheat the oven to 425F.
- Once the dough has risen, it will probably also have spread. Gently tuck the sides under the dough to make a smaller, but higher, ball of dough, transfer to a lightly oiled Dutch oven. Using a sharp knife, slice the top of the bread in an X, sprinkle with coarse salt. Add the lid tightly onto the pot.
- Bake for 50 minutes or until the dough has a hard crust and is dark brown.
- Slice, serve warm.