Berrong on Beer - Three cheers for sour beer!
October 4th, 2011
02:30 PM ET
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Nathan Berrong works at CNN's satellite desk and this is the third installment of his beer column. He Tweets at @nathanberrong and logs beers at Untappd. Drink up.

My beer obsession all began with a taste - a taste I didn’t even know existed or was even considered “beer.” One day several years ago, I was at my neighborhood bar, Brick Store Pub, and I tried something that would change everything. It was sour, tart, sweet, and funky all at the same time. And more importantly, it was still beer.

I don’t remember what exactly that first sour beer was, I hadn't yet become nerdy enough (as I am now) to write them down, but one thing was clear, I was hooked on sour ales.

Sour beers can be classified into their distinct styles such as Lambic, Gueuze, Flemish Red, or wild ales, each brewed differently, but with the same goal in mind – to attack the taste buds with a sour funkiness that is unlike any other beer imaginable.

The incredible thing about sour beer is how distinct its flavor profile is, dissimilar to any other beer style, while still containing the same basic ingredients found in every beer: water, malted barley, hops, and yeast. It’s the unique yeast strains used in these beers that produce the sour tartness that beer nerds (and even some wine drinkers) are raving about.

The Lambic style is considered by many to be the oldest type of beer still brewed today. The short version of how this brewing method takes place is that before beer was sealed in either wood barrels or metal tanks, and before the discovery and identity of yeast strains, the beer was left out in the open air where wild yeasts and bacteria inoculated the mash, causing the beer to “mysteriously” ferment.

This brewing process, known as spontaneous fermentation, became the standard in brewing beer until 1860 when master scientist, Louis Pasteur, was able to scientifically explain how fermentation occurs (i.e. yeast). It wasn’t until the late 1800s that certain yeast strains were identified and captured, mostly putting an end to spontaneous fermentation (no need to wait for the wind and air to ferment your beer when you can manually add the yeast to the beer yourself).

But enough nerd talk. Basically, a large number of Belgian brewers continued to brew beer the way it had always been done, and this even continues today in traditional breweries like Cantillon in Brussels.

Fast forward roughly 150 years from the Pasteur discovery American brewers started to jump on the sour beer train. But, we’re not as fortunate as certain parts of Belgium, where the wild yeasts naturally float through the air. So, American brewers were left to recreate the tastes of these sour beers in their own creative ways. This can happen from experimenting with different types of yeast, namely, Brettanomyces, bacteria, and/or aging beers in oak wine barrels.

One of those American breweries that does it better than most is The Bruery, out of Orange County, CA. They brew mostly Belgian-style ales which include an impressive portfolio of sour beers. Patrick Rue, founder and CEO of The Bruery, explained to me their approach to sours like this, “It takes a very long time to make a good sour beer – anywhere from 6 months to 3 years. It takes about the same amount of time to determine whether it is any good. However, there are some tools just in case the beer didn't turn out as intended.”

He continued, “Blending is a way to make a great beer out of less than great components, although, those components can't be severely flawed. I'd consider the production of sour beers to be a risky endeavor, especially due to the learning curve involved, the potential of cross-contamination, and because many of your customers might not enjoy them.”

The cross-contamination Patrick is referencing happens when the wild yeast culture quickly reproduces and literally takes control of its environment. For this reason, many breweries have one facility for their sour beer production and a completely separate facility for producing all of their other beers. All of this goes to say, brewing sour beers is a delicate and expensive venture, and one that has unpredictable results. Knowing this, it makes me appreciate all the more the breweries that do it well.

Sour beers aren’t for everyone. People either love or hate them and, luckily, my wife and I fall into that former category. If you’ve never tried one, please do. And even if you don’t enjoy it, at least you've tried a new style, which is one of the many joys of drinking beer.

The more I learn about and taste new beers the more I realize that the learning process isn’t something that has a beginning or end. It’s continual and as brewers become more innovative and creative, more styles will arise. Here’s to drinking good beer - and always learning!

Do you like sour beers? If so, (or even if you somehow don’t) tell me why and what some of your favorites are in the comments.

Sour Beer Recommendations:

Duchesse De Bourgogne – a Flanders Red Ale brewed in Vichte, Belgium

Lindemans Gueuze Cuvée René – a blend of young and old Lambics, brewed in Vlezenbeek, Belgium

New Belgium La Folie – red ale aged in French oak barrels between one and three years, brewed in Fort Collins, CO

The Bruery Oude Tart – red ale aged in wine barrels for 18 months, brewed in Placentia, CA

Allagash Interlude – brewed with the aforementioned Brettanomyces yeast strain and aged in French Merlot and Sirah oak barrels, brewed in Portland, ME

Cantillon Kriek 100% Lambic – a traditional Lambic with cherries added, brewed in Brussels, Belgium

Russian River Consecration – wild ale aged in Cabernet Sauvignon barrels with currants added, brewed in Santa Rosa, CA

Rodenbach Vintage – red ale aged in oak barrels (some of which are more than 150 years old!) for more than two years, brewed in Roeselare, Belgium

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soundoff (150 Responses)
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    October 12, 2014 at 9:30 pm |
  2. David

    Love sour beers now that I have just started getting in to them. Lindemanns Cuvee Rene is an excellent Gueuze, one of my personal favorites, and is widely available and for only a mere $10.99 in most places. Other great American sours are The Bruery Rueuze, Boulevard Love Child #3, The Goose Island Sisters (Gillian and Lolita), and Russian River Beatification to name a few. Cantillon and Drie Fonteinen are the Belgian "gold standard" for Lambic beers.

    June 4, 2014 at 2:23 pm |
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    July 8, 2013 at 6:22 am |
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    April 24, 2013 at 9:08 pm |
  5. Mark Haynie

    I love sour beers. I have traveled to Belgium twice to enjoy them at the source.Oddly enough I have friends who drink Coors Light but can tolerate lambics..incongruous! Great article and I hope that others will heed your advice and open up their palates to these wonders of the beer world! Gezondheit!

    October 6, 2011 at 9:25 pm |
  6. Jared Littman

    Excellent article, Nathan. Very impressive that you were able to take a somewhat complicated area of beer geekery and express it in layman's terms that everyone can understand, enjoy, and get excited about. My wife and I both love sour beers - they have changed our lives in terms of where to go out at night, where to go on vacation (heading to Belgium in March), and our savings (they are generally quite expensive, but worth every penny - most of the time).

    When I introduce someone to sour beers, I tell them don't think beer, think deliciousness. And if you don't like it at first, I guarantee that you will think about that taste the next day. I will never forget my first sour, Cantillon Kriek at Eulogy in Philly. The bartender told us it's like "a sour patch kid crashing into gatorade gum." Not the most sophisticated explanation, but accurate to an extent. As you stated, it was like nothing that I've ever tasted before and I seek our new sours and hunt down my favorites. Very enjoyable article. Thanks!

    October 6, 2011 at 2:56 pm |
    • Nathan Berrong

      Thanks so much, Jared, glad you enjoyed it.

      Awesome that your first sour was such an incredible one...Cantillon Kriek!

      October 6, 2011 at 4:25 pm |
  7. Immy

    Nice article detailing an overlooked style! One ding, though..Allagash is a great brewery, and Interlude an excellent beer (a personal favorite) that IS brewed with some brett, bit it's far from a sour ale.

    October 6, 2011 at 9:23 am |
    • Shamas

      I've had Interlude a number of times and I would definitely consider it a sour ale, specifically an American Wild Ale. I don't know what the pH of it is but the acid level is much higher than it is in a brett-only beer.

      October 6, 2011 at 11:07 am |
  8. Evan

    American Breweries with tasty sour beers: Russian River (Supplication, Beatification), New Belgium (La Folie, Eric's Ale), The Lost Abbey (Duck Duck Gooze, Cable Car), Jolly Pumpkin (Maracaibo Especial, Baudelaire IO), Cascade (Sang Royale, Bourbonic Plague), Ithaca (Brute, LeBleu)....plus many others

    European Breweries (Mostly Belgian) that make tasty lambics, Flanders Red/Oud Bruins, gueuzes: Cantillon, Drie Fonteinen, Girardin, Hanssens, De Struise, Rodenbach....plus a few others

    October 6, 2011 at 4:16 am |
  9. quycksilver

    I really like Dogfish's sour peach–want to say it's call Peche Festiva.
    Also thumbs up for the Monk's Sour Flemish that someone else mentioned above

    October 5, 2011 at 5:54 pm |
  10. Carlos

    When I was in Asheville, NC, awhile back I had Cuvee Des Jacobins Rouge on tap at the Thirsty Monk, and was blown away. Haven't seen it again since, but would love to!

    October 5, 2011 at 4:57 pm |
  11. Jordan

    Duchesse De Bourgogne is absolutely fantastic.

    October 5, 2011 at 3:48 pm |
  12. Chocolate Atom

    This may be a stretch, but would anyone know if any of these Sours are widely available? I have tried to locate Duchesse and cant find it locally in PA.

    October 5, 2011 at 3:23 pm |
    • jbirdPA

      Depends on where you are in PA (big state). It's all over the eastern end. Try a Wegman's if you have one near you.

      October 5, 2011 at 3:52 pm |
    • mudpuppy000

      I've seen several at BevMo. I don't know if they have them in PA but I believe you can have stuff shipped.

      October 5, 2011 at 3:54 pm |
    • Denver

      Eulogy Beer Tavern in Old City Philly has it.

      October 5, 2011 at 5:21 pm |
      • Kevin

        Monk's cafe most likely has any beer that you could be looking for, they usually have a few sour ales either on tap or in bottle. Eulogy is awesome btw.

        October 6, 2011 at 3:44 am |
  13. Josh

    NICELY DONE NATHAN!!! PROUD OF YA!!

    October 5, 2011 at 1:01 pm |
  14. Gargantua

    No mention of Girardin yet? Or Hannsens? Girardin makes some of the best geuze I know and I've had just about every Belgian sour imported over the last 20 years.

    Also try Liefman's Gluhkriek when possible – it's a warmed, spiced lambic – absolutely amazing.

    Hannsens blends – not brews to the best of my knowledge and their product is amazing. De Cam recently started making their way stateside and they produce some amazing beer.

    I'll second the Loerik suggestion from Cantillon – that was a treat – but probably nearly impossible to find now.

    People look down their nose at Lindeman's because of their overly sweet fruit beers – but their base geuze is stellar.

    de Proef's Flemish Primative and ZoetZuur are also amazing gateway sours that have a fairly balanced profile.

    Be careful about too many of these beers – they can do some really odd things to your flora – after a 20L keg of Cantillon's Kriek over a two week span – I was never far from a bathroom for a few days.

    Stuise Brothers struiselensis is another greate gateway sour – just enough pale ale characteristics to mediate the otherwise intense sour. Everything they do is gold IMO.

    October 5, 2011 at 12:44 pm |
  15. teethscrape

    CASCADE BEWING OUT OF PORTLAND OREGON IS BEST SOUR BEERS I EVER HAD !!!

    October 5, 2011 at 11:02 am |
  16. timmy

    beer barf!lol!

    October 5, 2011 at 10:30 am |
  17. Char

    Ommegang Zuur – it was my gateway sour ale, love this style of beer!

    October 5, 2011 at 10:16 am |
  18. 2xltall

    I recommend Bell's Oarsman!

    October 5, 2011 at 9:10 am |
  19. jimmy jam flam man

    You yahoos ain't got jack on Pabst Blue Ribbon!

    October 5, 2011 at 9:00 am |
    • person

      i cant imagine how stupid you must be to say that.

      October 5, 2011 at 9:21 am |
      • jimmy jam flam man

        Haha! About as stupid as you to read it and comment.

        October 5, 2011 at 9:25 am |
    • Bubba J

      Just watchin' NASCAR and drinkin' PBR!
      T'a!n't stupid, it's Redneck. Ther's uh diffrense.

      October 5, 2011 at 10:09 am |
  20. Plastiklov

    Jolly Pumpkin is an excellent brewery out of Dexter, Michigan, specializing in sour beer!!!! Can't believe they were overlooked in this article!

    October 4, 2011 at 10:34 pm |
  21. Ian MacDonald

    The dissident by deschutes is an amazing sour ale, everyone should try that has the opportunity

    October 4, 2011 at 10:04 pm |
    • riedeles

      I TOTALLY agree. I just had it when I was vacationing in Portland. I wish I could find it out east...

      October 6, 2011 at 7:23 am |
  22. Sour Tooth

    I absolutely love sour beers, and have since I was first introduced to craft beer. Duchesse, Petrus, and Rodenbach are my favorite mainstays, and Consecration is my all time favorite American sour (thus far). While I love La Folie, I have also really enjoyed New Belgium's Eric's Ale and Le Terroir. Cantillon obviously brews the best in the world, and I'm still searching for my holy grail, the Blabaer. Great article Nathan!

    October 4, 2011 at 10:04 pm |
  23. Chandar The Barbarian

    Really great suggestions here already. I have a few to add.

    A fantastic new discovery from GABF this year was DESTIHL from Normal, IL. They had several sours pouring and I was lucky enough to run into 2 of the brewers before the event sitting at the bar at Oskar Blues in Longmont. They told me their beers are all spontaneously fermented. I highly recommend their St. Dekkera Strawberry and their Oud Bruin. They are not bottling their sours, yet.

    TRiNiTY Brewing from Colorado Springs is another great sour producer. Their Old Growth is worth a taste if you can find it. Their Brain of the Turtle and The Flavor are also great.

    Finally, Avery out of Boulder makes some great sours as weel. They bottle some, and are begining to have at least one on tap at all times in the tasting room. Immitus is their latest bottle. Dihos Dactyllion was another bottled offering, they are pouring Eremita is their tap room sour at the moment.

    Last but certainly not least is Crooked Stave out of Ft. Collins. New brewery with great potential. They have done bottled Wild Ales and a Petit Guava sour to date. They are all Brett based beers. Hope to see more from them in the very near future.

    October 4, 2011 at 9:14 pm |
    • daveR

      I agree, I had some of DESTIHL's sours at the Great Taste of the Midwest and was really impressed.

      October 5, 2011 at 12:26 am |
    • Nathan Berrong

      Thanks for reading. I wanted to try some of DESTIHL's brews at GABF but didn't find out about their sours until Saturday and I had a dinner to attend that evening, so I missed the last session and never got to check them out. Speaking of GABF, I really wanted to make it to Boulder to check out Avery, mainly b/c of the incredible stuff they were pouring in their tap room, especially the sours, but alas, I didn't have transportation. I'm jealous that you've gotten to try all those great sours!

      October 5, 2011 at 10:28 am |
      • Chandar The Barbarian

        Nathan you need to get to the above mentioned breweries next time you are in Denver, come hell or high water. At Crooked Stave you get a 2fer as in Funkwerks and their amazing saison line up are in the same building. If you find yourself salivating at the mere thought of something impossible to get your hands on, there is always the option of friendly trades between regions where certain names are not distributed...

        October 5, 2011 at 12:18 pm |
  24. William Donnay

    As a home brewer of many belgian styles... I can't help be see flaws in the information you've stated. Brettanomyces for one is a bacteria, not a yeast. Also, the statement about Belgiam having the wild yeast/bacteria vs other areas... the proper statement would be that Belgiam has a lot of yeasts that are unique to that region because of the amount of fruit that grew/grows there. Hell, they have Yeasts that used to live on the skin of extinct cherries that only survives on the walls of the classic brewers that still use the old cooling ships to this day.

    Sorry for the rant, us beer nerds get a little crazy sometimes. That aside, good article.

    October 4, 2011 at 9:10 pm |
    • Joe

      William Donnay – As a homebrewer of many different styles, I just wanted to point out a few errors in your comment. First, although many uneducated homebrewers say otherwise, Brettanomyces is actually a yeast, not a bacteria. It will take 2 seconds to look up Brettanomyces on wikipedia to confirm this fact. Second, Belgiam is not a word. You're thinking of Belgium.

      October 5, 2011 at 1:31 am |
      • tj

        My new favorite place on the internet to look things up is the Google Books site. Here's a neat article on Brettanomyces from the person who named it: http://books.google.com/books?id=KsvyAAAAMAAJ&pg=PA314&dq=Brettanomyces&hl=en&ei=c02MTteoBIevsALo48jXBA&sa=X&oi=book_result&ct=result&resnum=1&ved=0CDAQ6AEwAA#v=onepage&q=Brettanomyces&f=false

        October 5, 2011 at 8:35 am |
      • This Bubba Prefers F! & Craft Beer over Nascar & PBR

        "Brett," a shorthand reference used by wine afficionados, is now considered to be a family of yeasts, all closely related yet biologically distinct. I believe there are nine altogether. As with beer, some wine lovers appreciate the complexity added to the wine by a bit of Brettanomyces in the yeast, while others do not. But unlike beer, utilizing Brett as a significant yeast component in wine, anything beyond just a flavor nuance, would be overpowering and unacceptable.

        October 5, 2011 at 12:34 pm |
  25. Dan

    I am a HUGE sour fan. My favorite sours (in no order):

    – Drie Fonteinen Geuze Cuvée J&J Blauw
    – Cantillon Lou Pepe Kriek
    – 1984 Eylenbosch Gueuze
    – In de Verzekering tegen de Grote Dorst Brabantse Trots Oude Geuze
    – Drie Fonteinen Armand 4' Oude Geuze Lente
    – Cantillon Blåbær Lambik
    – Ithaca LeBleu
    – Ithaca Brute
    – Bullfrog Brewing Beekeeper
    – Drie Fonteinen Framboos

    October 4, 2011 at 8:58 pm |
  26. Tao

    Cascade Brewing/Barrel House in Portland OR brews some of the best sour beers this side of the pond. Go House of Sour!

    October 4, 2011 at 8:57 pm |
  27. Megan

    Mine is Cantillon Brewery's Fou' Foune. Soooo good!!

    October 4, 2011 at 8:26 pm |
  28. joe brew

    rob- just to correct you so people are not misinformed...most beer prior to the turn of the 20th century WAS infected and was still palatable because of the quick turnover...bass and guinness are Nothing like they were in the 19th century...technology has changed beer for the better, it used to be muddy, flat, and tasted like crap...so the author is somewhat correct....i don't like to respond to these things, but being a former brewer for guinness, at smithwicks in kilkenny, i have to destroy your disinformation...please don't write things that are false...

    October 4, 2011 at 8:24 pm |
  29. jzaks

    Miller Light please.

    October 4, 2011 at 8:20 pm |
    • Chris

      So you want water ?

      October 4, 2011 at 8:28 pm |
      • trixen

        I know, right?! Horse p!ss is more like it.

        October 4, 2011 at 8:37 pm |
  30. us1776

    Make mine a little sensimilla please !!

    .

    October 4, 2011 at 8:03 pm |
  31. Philly Dan

    I'm lucky enough to live a block from Monk's Cafe, and get Monk's Flemish Sour Ale on tap anytime. Besides that, Rodenbach Grand Cru gets my mouth watering just fine.

    October 4, 2011 at 7:59 pm |
  32. Hutch

    Petrus Aged Pale is a dynamite sour!

    October 4, 2011 at 7:55 pm |
  33. michael

    Telegraph Reserve Wheat is another delicious example of a sour beer.

    October 4, 2011 at 7:23 pm |
  34. Rob Johnson

    I'm a big fan of lambic in general, especially Lindeman's, but this article is very wrong on some basic beer history.

    "This brewing process, known as spontaneous fermentation, became the standard in brewing beer until 1860"

    This statement is so laughably, obviously wrong, I'm surprised it made it past CNN. Many ales and lagers that are still popular today, such as Bass and Guinness, have been made pretty much the same way since well before 1860.

    "Ale, along with bread, was an important source of nutrition in the medieval world"

    "By 1784 advertisements were appearing in the Calcutta Gazette for "light and excellent" pale ale"

    Just a couple of quotes I found on Wikipedia with a minimum of effort. Non-sour beer has been around for centuries.

    Thumbs up for promoting the exotic and tasty sour beer tradition, thumbs down to the fact checkers at CNN.

    October 4, 2011 at 7:23 pm |
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