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.
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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