I remember my first sour beer. I was with a group of friends that were sharing beers, and a bottle of Duchesse de Bourgogne came around. I took my pour and smelled it, and while I’m not sure what exactly it was that I was expecting from it, the tart vinegar smell that came back was definitely not it. I soldiered on and tasted it, only to get a strong kick of malty vinegar and some tart fruitiness, but all I really tasted that first time was the sour.
Since then I’ve had more than my share of sour beers, and I love them for their complexity and unpredictability. Overall, sour beers are a very unusual style of beer, but before getting into what makes a beer sour and what styles of beer fit into this category, let’s take a minute and look at the history of sour beers so we can know where we’ve been.
The History Of Sour Beers
Sour beers are one of the few categories that have been around since the start of making beer. Hundreds of years ago, nearly every beer made was sour. Were they sour because beer drinkers throughout history were discerning beer experts who loved their beer sour? Not so much.
Beers throughout history tended to be sour due to lack of refrigeration and lack of understanding of bacteria. Until Louis Pasteur discovered yeast, and in turn the fermentation process in 1857, the existence of these single-celled organisms was not known. This means that along with brewer’s yeast, other bacteria like Pediococcus, Lactobacillus, and Brettanomyces were allowed to run wild in the beer, unabated. Since the existence of these bacteria wasn’t known, the need for proper sanitation to avoid them wasn’t known, either.
This existence of wild bacteria in beer made many beers taste odd and downright bad, while others, like those brewed in the Flanders region of Belgium and certain parts of Germany, were actually made better by their inclusion – the results of which are still mimicked today.
Sour Beer Today
Today sour beers are brewed purposefully, and while some still use the open- air spontaneous fermentation that the original sour beers started with, their fermentation is generally closely watched and is helped along in a variety of ways, the beer is brewed with very careful and deliberate focus. Many sour beers today are brewed the same as their non-sour counterparts but are then put through a secondary fermentation in which the funky bacteria are added, often while the beer sits in wooden barrels.
There are a few key sour styles today, although just about any style of beer can be turned funky: just ask East End Brewing about their Brett Hop sour IPA. The currently accepted styles of sour beers include:
- American Wild Ale – USA
- Berliner Weisse – Germany
- Flanders Red Ale – Belgium
- Gose (pronounced go-suh) – Germany • Lambics – Belgium and Brussels
- Oud Bruin – Belgium
While all sour, these styles vary pretty dramatically from each other in color, taste, and alcohol content.While it’s completely normal to have an American Wild Ale be 8% ABV or higher, a traditional Gose or Lambic can be as low as 2% ABV at times.
Making a good sour beer is neither easy nor cheap. There’s an enormous amount of risk involved when brewing sour beers, starting with the dif culty in getting them right. Along with this, sour beers can take years instead of weeks to finish.This investment in time, ingredients, and space at the brewery make sour beers not a very good investment idea on the surface.
Finally, sour beers, if not brewed correctly and carefully, can wreck an entire brewery.The bacteria involved with sour beers, which are:
…tend to be extremely persistent and can often not be fully cleaned out of a system.
Breweries like East End Brewing Co. that brew both sour and non- sour beers have dedicated equipment for the sour brewing process, from special fermentation vessels down to specially-marked flashlights. Crossing the streams on this process could ruin a brewery, making the brewing of sour beers even more difficult.
What to Expect From a Sour Beer
Just like my first experience with sour beers, the aroma and taste of a sour beer tend to be reminiscent of a very good malt vinegar. The intensity of this flavor can vary from one style of sour beer to another, but this tends to be pervasive throughout the styles. Along with this vinegar tartness, a clean and dry sourness should be present. Think of the lip-puckering sour candy you’ve had and subtract the sweet.
The brewers at Millvale’s Draai Laag Brewing make some of the most interesting sour beers in Pittsburgh, ranging from extra sour to funky and unique. They tend to experiment with different flavors and additions like fruit to give the sour beers a little more than just a sour kick.
Quite a few Lambic beers will include fruits with their sourness, giving unique flavors that pair nicely with the beer’s tartness, like cherries and raspberries. This doesn’t mean a Lambic has to include fruit, but it is common.
The finish of most sour beers is dry, with not a lot of sweetness hanging around. Along with the tartness of sour beers, there’s a funky aspect to them as well.This funk can be described as earthy, grassy, hay, and even the not-so-great at sounding “horse blanket.” Trust me, it tastes far better than it sounds.
Overall, sour beers are an amazing style with hundreds, if not thousands of years of history behind them. When you’re ready to start exploring new flavors in beer that aren’t necessarily malt or hop driven, sour beers are definitely the answer.