Sour beer—as you might expect—offers a puckery taste that is not found in the more conventional brews you may be used to. It's acidic, tart, and complex, but as a style of beer, rather hard to define and surprisingly diverse. If you enjoy a summer shandy, but want a little more beer and less juiciness, this is definitely a beer style worth exploring.
There are a number of categories of sour beers available, from Flemish reds to Berliner Weisse and American wild ales. Not all are labeled "sour" and that can lead to some confusion, even catching you off guard if you weren't expecting a pucker-inducing beer. And yet, sour beers have one thing in common: they're refreshing!
Sour beer is produced throughout the world (though Belgium is seen as a leader) and it encompasses beers of every color and style. As sours grab the attention of more beer drinkers, it's good to have at least a basic understanding of how sours are produced and how to find one.
How Sour Beer Is Made
A variety of methods are used to produce sour beer, which is why this style is not as cut-and-dry as ales, lagers, stouts, and other popular types of beer. The common factor is the introduction of an acid-producing organism, which is responsible for producing the sour flavor during fermentation.
Saccharomyces is the standard brewer's yeast species used to make beer. In sour beers, that may be introduced to the wort along with a wild yeast species called Brettanomyces (often abbreviated "Brett"), or Brett may be the lone yeast. Sometimes brewers introduce acid-producing 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.
Most often, the wild yeast and/or bacteria methods are used. 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 for longer than normal beer.
- Spontaneous fermentation can take years and relies on the natural organisms present in the environment or a beer's ingredients.
The trick to brewing sour beer with wild yeast and bacteria is that it's wild and difficult to control. Many breweries choose not to dabble in sours because it can contaminate beers that are highly controlled and throw off their entire production. There's definitely a reason why many American sour craft brews choose the term "wild ale" and brewhouses that specialize in sour beer tend to be masters at it.
Categories of Sour Beer
The real question is: How do you know you're picking up a sour beer? Typically, only U.S. craft breweries will actually place the word "sour" on a label. Some use "wild ale" in the brew's name, and you may also see the term "Brett beer," which indicates it uses that wild strain of yeast.
For other beers, you'll need to commit a few names to memory. These categories are produced in their countries of origin and replicated in other locales throughout the world.
- Berliner Weisse: This German wheat beer is known as a low ABV (typically 3 percent) beer that's pale, cloudy, highly carbonated, and refreshingly tart.
- Flanders: Also called Flemish Ale, this Belgian beer is fruity and sour with a signature red color. It's a blend of young and old beers fermented in open oak vats that add to its complex taste.
- Gose: A cloudy, top-fermented German beer, this style is known for its salty, herbaceous tones, often with hints of coriander, along with a snap of lemon. It's both sharp and thirst-quenching and must be made from at least 50 percent malted wheat.
- Lambic: The Belgian ale is typically spontaneously fermented and includes a high concentration of wheat for a crisp tartness. The color can vary, from pale to dark gold, depending on the age (often a blend of young and old beer). It's also common to find fruit lambics. Cassis, cherry (kriek), and raspberry (framboise) are popular, though a variety of fruits (e.g., blackberry, peach, strawberry) are used as well.
- Oud Bruin: Another beer traditionally from the Belgian province of Flanders, this is darker than its sour counterpart, almost a dark copper or brown. With it vinegar-like acidity, it concentrates on a fruity tartness with rich malt and typically has no distinguishable hoppiness.
Where to Start
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 really are so diverse that one should not deter you from all the rest.
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 or those who like a down-play of hops 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. Yes, you can find sour IPAs and some well-known breweries do produce a seasonal or experimental sours at times.
If there is one style of beer you want to 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 entrees. 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.