I have a rule when it comes to tasting sour beer for the first time and I like to call it the ‘three sip rule’. Your first taste of a sour beer might not be a pleasant experience, the intense acidity wrapping your tongue around itself into a fisherman’s knot. Fret not, that second sip won’t be quite as intense as the first and by the third your palate will hopefully have adjusted to the sourness.
There’s a depth and complexity to sour beers that’s like no other and this is part of what makes them so damn appealing. It’s no surprise that more and more breweries are experimenting with creating sour beers of their own. This can be risky, as the many wild yeasts such as Brettanomyces and bacteria such as Lactobacillus can be a threat to other beers in the brewery, infecting them and causing them to unintentionally sour. Some breweries such as Colorado’s Crooked Stave brew sours exclusively to completely eradicate this risk.
The trouble with a term such as sour beer is that it doesn’t do enough to cover the gamut of beers that span the genre. A Flanders Red is a million miles away from a Leipziger Gose for example. The personality and terroir of the beers origin often has a huge influence on this. Take Lambic for example, this speciality beer takes its name from the Lembeek region just south of Brussels. Half the fun with sours is exploring the parts of the world they come from.
There are few beers, except for perhaps the Flanders Red, that are a better introduction to sours than the Berliner Weisse. These are sometimes referred to as ‘kettle sours’ due to the pH of the base beer being lowered in the mash, before being boiled to kill off any other bacteria that might infect the rest of the brewery. This makes it a popular style with smaller breweries that like to experiment.
Typically low in alcohol, these beers contain a lot of wheat which helps give them body. The flavour is sharp and zingy and only sour for a brief moment before a gentle, grainy, cereal note comes through in a drying finish. Brewers love to experiment with Berliner Weisse as it provides an excellent blank canvas for throwing in other ingredients and adjuncts. London’s The Kernel makes a superb interpretation, simply called London Sour that’s good on it’s own but both the Raspberry and Damson versions take it to another level. The sweetness of the fruit balancing out the acidity in the beer.
Chorlton Brewing Co of Manchester are concentrating solely on producing sour beers and have recently been experimenting with dry hopping their beer like you would an IPA. The resulting beers such as Yakima Sour combine the usual tartness with floral, bitter notes. Ignore these at your peril.
This wonderful style of beer historically originates from the German town of Goslar. However Leipzig is generally considered to be its true home. Here you can visit Bayerischer Bahnhof, a brewery that sits in an abandoned train station, to try their Leipziger Gose. The style sits somewhere between a Berliner Weisse and a Belgian Wit in terms of flavour and feel but the unusual addition of salt to the beer adds an interesting and surprisingly delicious twist.
Gose (pronounced goze-uh) was all but dead until forward thinking Craft Breweries began to experiment and resurrected the style. Perhaps one of the best examples of this is Westbrook Gose from South Carolina. Without a doubt it has become one of my favourite beers, its perfect balance of juiciness and saltiness making it a beer for just about any occasion. In the UK Magic Rock have created a wonderful interpretation called Salty Kiss. While not being as sour as the Westbrook the addition of fruit such as lime or gooseberry adds a tart, fruity twist to this ridiculously drinkable beer. Look out for it in cans soon.
Flanders Red & Oud Bruin
One beer I can’t do without having in my stash is Rodenbach Grand Cru. This red ale hails from the Flanders region in the North of Belgium. It’s soured by aging in giant wooden tanks known as foudres. Here, all sorts of wee beasties get into the beer and add a deep, lactic sourness that’s somewhere between yoghurt and balsamic vinegar. To create the Grand Cru, Rodenbach blend beer that’s been aged for about three years with young beer that’s around a year old. This masterful technique creates a truly glorious beer.
Similar to Rodenbach is Duchesse De Bourgogne, which is created in a similar way but has a much darker brown colour and as such is referred to as an Oud Bruin. Duchesse tends to have a slightly more savoury, balsamic quality than Grand Cru. These styles are now being experimented with all over the world and one of the best is La Folie from Colorado’s New Belgium. It tastes like Grand Cru on steroids.
Lambic & Gueuze
The Lambic producers of Belgium are some of the most respected creators of beer in the world and perhaps the most well known of these is Jean Van Roy of Cantillon. The brewery itself is like a working museum. Witnessing the giant coolships, which Cantillon pumps their beer into so it can be soured by the natural fauna that lingers in the air, is a near religious experience.
Lambic is completely flat and is often very, very sour so can be quite challenging to drink. Usually young and old Lambic is blended to create Gueuze, the Champagne of the beer world. Sometimes the Lambic is aged on fruit, for example cherries are used to make Kriek and raspberries to make Framboise. There are very few boundaries for a Lambic brewer.
Other great Belgian producers of Lambic and Gueuze includes Boon and Drie Fonteinen, with each bringing its own unique character to its beer. There are plenty of modern interpretations becoming more prevalent too with Mikkeller’s Spontan range being among the more innovative. Beetroot flavour, anyone?
This merely scratches the surface of the wonderful world of sour beer. The best thing is to get out there and start trying some for yourself. Just remember to always take three sips before turning your nose up.