Written by Tom Becham for professorgoodales.net
Are Sour Beers the New Black?
As a beer geek friend of mine said to me recently, “You know what sour beers and World Cup Soccer have in common? Americans discovered they kinda liked both of them in 2010.”
It’s true. Sour beers have become a big trend in craft beer circles. If you’ve never had a sour beer (well, a GOOD sour beer), you may wonder why that is so.
A typical sour beer (they are always ales; lagers do NOT make for good sour beers) can be anywhere from pilsner-yellow to stout-black in color. The taste of sour beers has been described as acidic, acetic, vinegar-like and vinous. All of those descriptors can be true, but if you’ve never actually had a decent sour, then the words won’t mean a thing to you. Sour beers are also some of the most useful beers to convert wine lovers into craft beer lovers. Anyone who loves a brightly tannic red wine will also likely appreciate a sour beer.
What makes an ale sour? Well, there are a couple of things that can. First is a “wild” yeast, usually of the Brettanomyces strain. Of course, now these yeasts can be cultivated and used deliberately instead of just resulting from a “spontaneous fermentation”. Second is any range of bacteria, from lactobacillus (the stuff that sours milk) to pediococcus. Again, these bacteria are now frequently introduced into beers, though the randomness of barrel aging still seems to produce better results.
There are a couple distinct styles of sour ales. First is lambic, the most widely known in America. Most Americans who know about lambic likely associate it with the syrupy-sweet concoctions of Lindemans, a beer so common it can be found on supermarket shelves. (There are also several sub-styles of lambic.)
Lambic can be considered a wheat ale, as a considerable portion of its grain bill is devoted to wheat in place of barley. The wheat also contributes to a genreally fluffy, towering, long-lasting head on the beer. Second, it is generally fermented with a “wild” yeast of a Brettanomyces strain. Third, lambics are generally aged for a length of time that is longer than the window of potability for most mass-produced lagers.
Fruit lambics are the ones most non-beer geeks would think of when hearing “lambic”. Good ones use real fruit rather than syrups or extracts, and tend toward more tart fruits like cherries or raspberries. Genuine fruit lambics are NOT “girlfriend beers”, as they have a distinct tartness along with fruit flavors, and some traces of horse-blanket funkiness.
Gueuze (or geuze) lambics are blends of straight lambics, both aged and younger versions. These can be extremely dry, and tart to the point of being mouth-puckering. Many are very champagne-like.
Faro lambics are quite rare. They can either be straight or blended plain lambics. They will have sugar added to them so they are a bit less acidic and suitable for more than just one glass.
Another famed style of sour ale is sometimes called Belgian Red Ale. It has also been called Flemish Red, Flanders Red, Oud Bruin and any number of other names. While there may be some fine distinctions between all these different types, they all have enough in common to be considered a common type of beer. Belgian Red Ales tend to be reddish-brown ales that are aged in oak barrels. They are a much darker, more malty sour beer, and are frequently called by the aptly descriptive name of “sweet and sour”. Such beers used to be quite rare in the U.S., but are now rather easy to find.
Berliner Weisse is a scarce German style of sour beer that is now made by more American craft brewers than German Brauerei. It is a wheat sour, akin to lambic in some ways, but usually very low in alcohol, and with a more lemon-like taste.
An extremely rare style of sour beer is the German Gose style. It is also a wheat beer, and is spiced with coriander and salt. I have no other comments on its taste, as I have never actually encountered one of them.
Lastly are the catch-alls known as “American Wild Ale”, and “American Sour Ale”. These can be nearly anything from carbon-copies of the above listed styles, to completely unique offerings.
Despite all my descriptions here, sour beers must really be experienced in order to be understood. While they may be an acquired taste for many, to taste these beers which likely reflect on the greater part of brewing history, is a lesson on the possibilities of beer.
As to recommendations for sour beers, I do indeed have several ideas for those wanting to experience that world:
For lambics, any of the products of Cantillon, Boon or Drie Fonteinen would be excellent choices. All three make both excellent fruit lambics, and gueuzes as well. And Lindeman’s, for all that I loathe their fruit lambics, does redeem itself with its Cuvee Rene line of Oude Gueuze, which is actually rather representative of the style.
Rodenbach’s Grand Cru, and Verhaeghe’s Duchesse de Bourgogne are the quintesenntial Belgian Red Ales, and much more widely available now than they used to be. Domestically, New Belgium produces a fine version called La Folie, and California’s The Bruery just won a gold medal at the World Beer Cup with its Oude Tart.
As Berliner Weisse is a rarer beast, I can only say to keep an eye peeled for the German Bayrischer Bahnhof rendition of the style. Domestically, Telegraph Brewing of Santa Barbara makes a slightly altered version of the style called Reserve Wheat, while The Bruery chimes in with their Hottenroth, also a winner of a Beer Cup medal.
Good sour beers can be obtained from domestic brewers New Belgium, Russian River, The Bruery and Lost Abbey, and come in a variety of styles and tastes. The Sour awaits you and is calling your name…
(There are few good sites on the web dedicated strictly to this kind of beer. This is one.-PGA)