Let me preface this by saying that I have had a lifelong phobia of sourness, especially when it comes to vinegar. I used to have to get up and walk to a different room if someone was using balsamic vinegar around me. While I’m slowly learning to appreciate sourness, it wasn’t until the recent New York Times article on brettanomyces that I knew it was time to face my fears (and beers). To kick off my expedition into drinking sour beers, I was fortunate to try Monk’s Café Flemish Sour at Monk’s Café in Philadelphia (one of the very best beer bars in the U.S.). It’s a great sour beer to start with, but there are many places to go from there. Here’s my experience so far, and seven different styles of sour beers to try below.
First, let’s start with some etymology. Sour is a word that may scare even the most outgoing beer lovers, but for wine aficionados it’s a curse. Of course, sour wine is wine exposed to oxidization that turns it to vinegar. The same is not true for beer, however. Although sour beer can have a similarly funky smell — often referred to as “barnyard funk” — it’s a subtle and generally non-offensive characteristic. Sours are a classic beer style with hundreds of years of history, and a style inspiring some of the most intriguing new beers in the world today.
In order to prove my point that while the name and scent can be off-putting but the flavor is well worth it, I’ve been playing an evil little game over the past few weeks. It’s called “Sour Surprise.” First I hype up my friends that they’re about to try a really exotic beer, giving them the least amount of information possible. Note: This particular experiment was done with a fantastic Gueuze from Gueuzerie Tilquin called Oude Gueuze Tilquin à L’Ancienne, which isn’t even that sour.
Me: “It’s a rare Belgian beer. You should really try it.”
Sour Surprise Victim: “Oh cool, I love Belgian beers.” (He has only ever tried Delirium Tremens).
Me: “I can’t wait for you to try this. It’s awesome.”
SSV: (Takes a smell, then a taste) “WHOAH! It smells like a wet blanket soaked in lemon…and it’s really sour…did this go bad?” (SSV is now contemplating pouring out the glass.)
Me: “Take another sip.”
SSV: “Where did this come from, a barn? (a few minutes pass)…actually this is really growing on me!”
Me: “See! Sour beers are GREAT!”
While I look for my next victim, more on sour beers:
There are several traditional styles of sour beer, mostly brewed in Belgium, such as Flemish Oud Bruin, Flemish Red ale, Lambic, Gueuze, Berliner Weisse (from Germany), sour Norwegian ale and the newest member of the pucker-up club, American Wild Ale. Each style is remarkably different in taste, ingredients and most importantly, drinkability. A small bottle of traditional sour Gueuze might be too much to finish, while a big bottle of the same base lambic turned into a sweet, fruity raspberry framboise lambic can be worthy of an entire session.
Sour beers are generally low in alcohol, ranging from about 4-6%. This makes them a perfect sessioner for hot summer months. At the core of the sour beer-making process is the wild yeast strains brewers used: brettanomyces, lactobacillus, pediococcus and saccharomyces are the most common. Although typical beer-aging theory suggests lower alcohol beers don’t age well, the wild yeast makes sour styles the best to age — they actually mature very well over time due to secondary fermentation within the bottle. So even if you’re as intimidated as I was, grab the sour of your choice plus an extra bottle to hold and open in a few years. If you take a chance and pucker up, you might just fall in love.
Here are 7 sour beers to try right now:
- Rodenbach, Grand Cru Vintage ’08
This oak-aged classic from Flanders is a gorgeous red in color and tart like raspberries and cherries. It’s not typical to find releases that are already aged a few years in the bottle like this one. So pick up a Rodenbach ’08 and share it with friends.
- Cigar City, Guava Grove
This Floridian saison made with pink guava purée took me by surprise and was incredibly complex: it starts sour and turns fruity and sweet. Some American sours made with fruit taste artificial; this one is simply art.
- The Bruery, Tart of Darkness
While some of their most popular offerings are gigantic 15%-plus–ABV monsters, this 5.6% doesn’t disappoint. It pours dark indeed but its cherry flavor with a hint of chocolate will please sour and stout fans alike.
- Professor Fritz Briem, 1809 Berliner Weisse
Not all Weissbier is sour, but true Berliner Weisse is definitely quite a specimen. An interesting twist is the Berliner tradition of serving the beer with a small amount of raspberry or bitter woodruff syrup for flavor. Try this excellent example of the style plain and then add some flavored syrup for a traditional touch.
- Brouwerij Drie Fonteinen, Oude Geuze
Gueuze (pronounced GOOZE) is a blend of young and old lambics. Fonteinen Gueuze blender, Armand De Belder, is a master. A bit of barnyard funk up front with notes of lemon, green apple and sour citrus. A classic!
- Russian River, Supplication
While Hophead favorite Pliny the Elder might be their bread-and-butter offering — it’s one of our 5 Craft Beers Worth Traveling For — Supplication is their secret sour weapon. It’s aged 12 months in Pinot Noir barrels along with fresh sour cherries and brettanomyces.
- Cantillon, Kriek
Every single offering from Cantillon is a classic but the kriek (cherry) lambic is my personal favorite. No sour yeast here, its tartness comes from mountains of cherries. Its rarer cousin, Lou Pepe Kriek, is even more sublime.
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