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Most people associate bitterness with beers, and not sour flavors. Even citrus flavored beers lack a strong sour component. But sour beers are very real and very sour. Despite their nontraditional flavors, they have exploded in popularity in recent years, garnering favor with beer snobs and casual craft beer drinkers alike. So, what’s up with these mouth puckering brews?
Let’s have a look at the sour beer brewing process to understand just how these beers get their distinctive flavor. We’ll see how these sour beers are not so new, despite their recent fame, by looking back on their origins. If you like what you hear, we’ll profile a few of the best sour beers out there right now to help you make an informed decision.
Why So Sour?
So, how do you classify a beer into the sour category? Well, first it has to be sour. Then…that’s it, actually. Sour beers are complex and almost mysterious in their makeup. The almost chaotic mix of flavors and ingredients almost defies classification. Since so many factors are at play, it’s hard to nail down criteria. But the sour taste is as good a place to start as any.
The other main thing that sours have in common is the yeast used in the brewing process. Although, this is kind of like the flavor similarity because the yeast is what gives sour beers their sour, acidic and even vinegar-like tastes. All beers are brewed with yeast, of course, but sour beers use a different breed entirely, literally.
Brewers make most modern beers with Saccharomyces, a kind of yeast that is easily controlled and predictable. This yeast eats up the sugars and produces alcohol the way we want them two consistently. This is great for delicate or crisp brews, but for the untamed and defiant sour beers, such civility is not necessary or desired.
Sour beers use Brettanomyces, also known as “wild yeast” in their brewing processes. These rough, uncultured cultures scarf down the sugars just like their more civilized cousins but leave in their wake acid as well as alcohol. It’s these acetic acids that lend sour beers their iconic flavor.
Beyond the “souring” process, brewers use a wild variety of techniques to give sour beers their rebellious bouquets. Oak barrel aging, tropical fruit additions, exposure to wild yeast and bacteria and tertiary bottle conditioning are all ways in which brewers play fast and loose with their flavors.
Brewing beer in this way is highly unpredictable. Instead of the sterile environments of most breweries, sour beer brewers let wild yeasts into their vats and even expose their brews to the elements in “cool ships” to give wild yeasts an opportunity to get in. It’s like the Wild West in some of these breweries; these madmen would have to be stopped if it wasn’t for the delicious beer they brew.
The Ancient Sour Ways
One could be forgiven for thinking that sour beers were a recent invention. All of these fantastical brewing techniques, “organic, wild yeasts” and contrarian flavors all smack of hipsterism personified. However, sour beers are arguably the oldest beers in existence. They predate ironic suspenders and even unironic vinyl.
Since more pure yeasts have only been available in relatively recent centuries, it would not be incorrect to say that all beers used to be sour beers. Wild yeasts were simply all we used to have, back in the day. It was difficult to control the fermentation process as well as we do today, and beers inevitably got a little bit of the acid in them, and thus a hint of sour at the very least.
In fact, technically speaking, the oldest style of beer being produced today is a sour beer. The Lambic is brewed in Belgium by exposing the wort to nature to let wild yeasts take hold. We’ll go into more detail when we look at the different kinds of sours.
The Modern Resurgence
So, why are sour beers making a comeback if they are, by definition, archaic and outdated? Well, craft beer drinkers are drawn to sour beer’s complex and often bewildering taste combinations. Sour beers offer a drinking experience unlike any other. They delight the senses and challenge preconceptions. Also, they are like, totally obscure.
Yes, in a world of beer hipsters and snobs, beer folks are always on the lookout for something wild and different to lord over their less enlightened friends. IPAs used to be the primary “indie” beer with its hoppy flavors and chest hair growing bitterness, but they are so over now. IPAs are so mainstream now. I’m actually into more obscure beers like sours; you probably haven’t heard of them…
In all seriousness though, sour beers offer something new by, ironically, looking to the past. Instead of trying something new by tossing in random ingredients, sour beers fundamentally alter the brewing process to offer something truly unique. As beer drinkers experience more and get more educated, naturally they will wish to explore the boundaries of what beer is capable, and there, on the fringes, they find the sours.
The Sours of the World
Here is a partial list of some of the most popular styles of sour beers:
- American Wild Ale: As the name suggests, these sours use wild yeasts or bacteria instead of or alongside “normal” brewing yeasts. They use all sorts of brewing vessels and vary so wildly as to eschew parameters and rules. Because: America.
- Flanders Ale: Named for the region and not the neighborino, these ales are brewed with more typical yeasts, but are left to mature in wooden vats or barrels. They are characterized by exotic flavors like fruits and vanilla. Flanders is divided into red ales and brown ales (sometimes called Oud Bruin or “old brown”)
- Gose: Pronounced gos-uh, a Gose style beer is made with coriander (also known as cilantro to nonposers) and sea salt. The distinct balance between salty and sour is what makes this German beer so unique and enjoyable. Other flavors are not often present.
- Berliner Weisse: Popularized in Berlin, this relatively weak sour clocks in around just 3% ABV. It is made sour with Lactobacillus bacteria and is often served with sweet syrups to offset the tart flavor.
- Lambic: This brew is made with the ancient and mysterious technique of just leaving it out in the open and hoping the right yeast gets in there. After being fermented in barrels, lambics are often put through a secondary fermentation with fruit.
There are other, smaller categories of sour beers but they are more numerous than can fit here. Since so few criteria unite them, sours are a truly diverse bunch.
The Best Sours to Try
Here is our list of some of the best sour beer brands around right now that you should try if you have the desire and constitution. Of course, this list is brief and incomplete. So, don’t work yourself or your beer snob friend into a frenzy because your favorite obscure, limited batch sour beer that’s brewed by Mennonites or something didn’t make the list.
Zure Van Tildonk
This sour beer is brewed in a Belgian farmhouse brewery and only uses ingredients that the brewers procure from the farm itself and whatever yeasts nature carries in on the wind. This spontaneous fermented sour beer is complex to the point of confusion, but it’s a good kind of confusion. Zure Van Tildonk will dazzle your sense of taste and smell, all while giving you serious indie cred.
This beer comes from Italy, but don’t turn up your nose just yet. Brewed in a small village in Northern Italy, Chrysopolis is a unique brew amongst unique brews. The brewers use a mixed bag of fermenting yeast and ages their beer for a minimum 12 months in Sicilian red wine barrels. They then add delectable fruits and Parmesan cheese rind to make a sour beer that explodes into your math with flavor like a deadly, delicious volcano.
Brewed by Russian River, one of the most widely recognized names in all beer geekdom, this sour is an American favorite. Aged in pinot noir wine barrels then infused with cherries, Supplication bubbles up to your pallet like champagne. The sweetness pushes the sour past bearable into the highly enjoyable territory.
Gose by Westbrook Brewing
Goses are rare, especially in the states, due to their peculiar ingredients. Westbrook Brewing hasn’t let that stop them, however, and have brought this ancient style of beer to the new world. The balanced blend of salty and sour as well as the low alcohol content make for nigh perfect summer refreshment. Tangy and tart even by Gose standards, it is nonetheless still highly drinkable and enjoyable.