The World of Sour Beer - Origins and the Best Ones
Move over, bitter IPAs and chocolaty stouts. There's a new kid on the craft brewing block, and it's going to knock your salivary glands into action.
Many foods and drinks are acquired tastes. Think back to the first time you tried coffee, gin, bleu cheese, single malt whisky, black licorice, etc.—what did you think? Chances are you didn't enjoy it very much. Maybe you still don't, but over time, many people come to enjoy, even crave, one or more of these challenging tastes. In the beer world, there are a number of styles that cause your face to pucker in a kind of "yuck" sort of way the first time you try them, but with some persistence, you can come to love these types of beer.
Sour beer has an intentionally acidic, tart, or sour taste. The taste of sour beer may be exotic to American palates, but the beer's flavor actually dates back to the early days of brewing, when beer came only in an unpasteurized form, teeming with bacteria. The drink gets its tart taste from bacteria like Lactobacillus and Pediococcus, which produce acids that cause the beer to sour.
A handful of breweries in Belgium have continuously produced sour beers for hundreds of years: known as lambics, Flanders ales, and guezes. But it's craft breweries in America that are making them fashionable again.
Sour Beers Gain in Popularity
According to brewmaster John Harris, "thirty years ago we would have thrown these brews away, saying they were bad […] now, we are purposely putting tanks in our breweries to produce sour beer. It's the evolution of craft brewing now."
Sour beer has become a go-to for craft breweries across the country, as sales have spiked. Just 45,000 cases of sour beer were sold in the U.S. in 2015, a figure that more than quintupled to over 245,000 cases in 2016 and is set to rise an additional 9% this year, according to Bart Watson, chief economist at Brewers Association, which supports the American craft beer industry.
While sour beer's flavor is old, American brewers have only learned how to safely produce it en masse over the past five years. Conventional beers are brewed with a single strain of yeast to yield the same taste in every batch. Sour beer, in contrast, uses a variety of bacteria and wild yeast, which can produce a different mix of flavors each time, ranging from spicy and leathery to fruity and floral. The process is tricky to perfect: one rogue microbe could potentially infect an already-sterilized beer, causing it to ferment further than intended.
After years of experimenting and sharing tactics, though, many brewers have now perfected the processes to produce enough of the brew to keep up with growing demand, Matt Miller says. Across breweries that produce it, sour beer is quickly outselling other forms of craft beer like pilsner, stout and lager, with sales second only to IPAs, according to Miller and other beer makers.
Types of Sour Beer
The combination of sour and bitter is too much of an assault even for the seasoned palate, so the hops used in sour beers are usually aged for a couple of years until they contribute very little in the way of bitterness or aroma. Likewise, the malts are meant to support the sour flavors not dominate the beer, so many, but not all, styles of sour beers are made with a reasonable portion of wheat added in the malt bill. Finally, as the beer becomes more acidic the fermentation process slows way down, which means it takes a long time, months or even years, to brew a sour beer.
Like champagne, a true lambic must be made in a specific place, namely the Senne valley near Brussels. It’s traditionally inoculated with wild yeast and bacteria using spontaneous fermentation, and then aged in oak barrels. Lambics can be among the sourest and funkiest of beers.
• One to try: Lindemans Framboise (Brouwerij Lindemans)
A blend of young and old lambics. They are typically drier, fruitier, and more intense than an unblended lambic.
• One to try: Duck Duck Gooze (The Lost Abbey)
3. Flanders Red Ale
A burgundy red sour ale from the north of Belgium that combines fruity and tart flavors, oak barrel aging, and often a touch of malted vinegar. Rodenbach Grand Cru is a classic example of this style.
• One to try: Duchesse De Bourgogne (Brouwerij Verhaeghe)
4. Berliner Weiss
A German wheat beer that uses lactobacillus to make a tart summertime thirst quencher. It's not uncommon in Berlin to add a dash of sweet syrup to balance out the tartness.
• One to try: The Sauer Peach (Sloop Brewing)
Another German wheat beer made with lactobacillus1 Gose originated near Leipzig in Eastern Germany. Gose differs from Berliner Weiss by the addition of coriander seed and salt.
• One to try: Blood Orange Gose (Anderson Valley)
6. American Wild Ale
Inspired by the sour beers of the old world, American Wild Ales are fermented by North American wild yeasts which produce their own styles of sourness.
• One to try: Consecration (Russian River)
According to Dan Jansen, brewmaster at Blue Point Brewing Company, sour beer has become a phenomenon because it gives beer fans something new to try, while also enticing people who don't think of themselves as beer drinkers. Sour beer is comparable to wine in its method of preparation—both are blended and can be aged in oak barrels—and in the way, it balances sweetness with acidity. Much like wine, the drink also pairs well with the cheeses, meats, and fruits you might find on a charcuterie board.
Drink in the past and toast the future of America's independent craft brewers. It's an exciting time for an exciting class of beer.