Sour beer offers a puckery taste that is not found in more conventional brews. Also called wild beer or Brett beer, these brews are acidic, tart, complex, and refreshing. The style is surprisingly diverse and brewed as both ales and lagers. There are several types of sour beer, from Flemish reds to Berliner Weisse and American wild ales, and not all are labeled "sour."
Sour beer is produced throughout the world (Belgium is seen as a leader), and it encompasses beers of every color and style. If you enjoy a summer shandy but want a little more beer and less juiciness, this is definitely a beer style worth exploring.
Bitterness: 3—30 IBU
Color: 2–30 SRM
What's the Difference Between Sour Beer and Saison?
Sour beers may be either a lager or ale, while Belgian saisons are ales. The two beer styles tend to be equally refreshing and highly carbonated. Depending on the brewer's approach, saisons might have a slightly tart taste, but they are generally not as puckery as sour beers.
A variety of methods are used to produce sour beer. The common factor is the introduction of an acid-producing organism, which is responsible for producing the tart taste during fermentation.
Saccharomyces is the standard brewer's yeast species used to make beer. To create a sour-tasting beer, a wild yeast species called Brettanomyces (often abbreviated "Brett") may be introduced to the wort. Some brewers introduce bacteria like Lactobacillus and Pediococcus, which produce lactic acid (as in yogurt). There are also times when acetic acid is used or fruit is added during the second fermentation to impart a sour taste.
When making a saison, the brewer may employ Brett, Lactobacillus, or a sour mash in the wort. It is typically in combination with Saccharomyces and at lower levels than sour beer, so the beer's acidity is more modest.
In sour beers, wild yeast and/or bacteria methods are most common. There are various ways to do this:
- Mixed fermentation uses a combination of Saccharomyces and Brett along with bacteria.
- Wild fermentation may use Brett alone or pair it with Saccharomyces and is fermented longer than normal beer.
- Spontaneous fermentation can take years and relies on the natural organisms present in the environment or a beer's ingredients.
Due to its untamed nature, brewing sour beer with wild yeast and bacteria is difficult to restrain. Many breweries choose not to dabble in wild yeast sours because it can contaminate beers that are highly controlled and throw off the entire production.
How do you know if you're picking up a sour beer? Typically, only U.S. craft breweries place the word "sour" on a label. Some use "wild ale" in the beer's name, and you may also see "Brett beer." For other beers, you'll need to commit a few names to memory. These sour beer styles are produced in their countries of origin and replicated in other locales throughout the world.
This German wheat beer was traditionally an ale, but now commonly a lager. It's known as a low ABV (2.8 percent to 3.4 percent) beer that's pale (2 to 4 SRM), cloudy, and highly carbonated. With nearly indetectable hoppiness (3 to 6 IBUs), Berliner Weisse is refreshingly tart.
Also called Flemish ale, this Belgian beer is fruity and sour with a signature red color (12 to 25 SRM). It's a blend of young and old beers fermented in open oak vats that add to its complex taste. Moderately alcoholic at 4.8 percent to 6.6 percent ABV, Flanders tends to be gently hoppy, at around 12 to 25 IBUs.
A cloudy, top-fermented German beer, gose (or gueuze) is known for its salty, herbaceous tones, often with hints of coriander and a lemony snap. The pale beer (3 to 9 SRM) is both sharp and thirst-quenching and must be made from at least 50 percent malted wheat. The alcohol content averages 4.4 percent to 5.4 percent ABV, while the bitterness falls in the mild 5 to 15 IBU range.
This Belgian ale is often spontaneously fermented and includes a high concentration of wheat for a crisp tartness. The color can vary, from pale to dark gold (6 to 13 SRM), depending on the age, and it's often a blend of young and old beer. Fruit lambics, including cassis, cherry (kriek), and raspberry (framboise) are popular, though a variety of fruits (e.g., blackberry, peach, strawberry) are used as well. Lambics can get be a bit strong, with an ABV between 5 percent and 8.9 percent, though the bitterness remains tame at around 9 to 23 IBUs.
Another beer traditionally from the Belgian province of Flanders, oud bruin is a dark copper or brown color (15 to 22 SRM). With its vinegar-like acidity, it concentrates on a fruity tartness with rich malt and can be slightly hoppy (15 to 30 IBUs). The ABV may be anywhere from a mild 4 percent to a rather strong 11 percent.
How to Serve Sour Beer
Sour beers are best served between 45 and 50 degrees Fahrenheit. The slight chill relaxes some of the more poignant acidic notes, making the brew more enjoyable to drink. For glassware, the stemmed tulip is a favorite when serving sours because the shape enhances the aromatic experience. Some drinkers prefer gose at refrigerator temperatures and opt for a tall fluted glass instead.
As with any beer, when pouring sours tilt the glass and slowly bring it upright as the glass fills.
If there is one style of beer that you absolutely should invite to the dinner table, it's the sour. The refreshing aspects of its tart taste make it a very versatile beer for nearly any meal.
Some of the best pairings are typical summer fare; think barbecue foods, brightly seasoned fish, and seafood entrées. These are also excellent beers for spicy foods, from Indian curry dishes to hot sauce-laden Tex-Mex, as they'll offer a cooling break from all the heat. Then again, they're also perfect brews for winter comfort foods like hearty stews and savory meat dishes that could use a thirst-quenching contrast in between bites.
Anyone who's new to sour beer can simply dive in and explore all that this style has to offer. Spend some time looking for those keywords on the labels at your favorite beer cooler or the local pub's menu and give something new a taste. If you find one you don't like, try the next; sours are so diverse that one should not deter you from exploring others.
Another good place to begin is with beers similar to those you know you already like. If you like wheat beer, for instance, seek out a Berliner Weisse or gose. Dark beer lovers may want to begin with oud bruin, while red ale fans may really enjoy the Flemish ales. And, if you can't get enough of those delicious fruit beers, lambics are a natural fit. You can even find sour IPAs, and some well-known breweries offer seasonal or experimental sours at times.
- Brouwerij 3 Fonteinen
- Fair Isle Brewing
- Firestone Walker
- Liefmans Brewery
- New Belgium Sour IPA
- Stone Brewing Berliner Weisse