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Sour ales can be sorely misunderstood. They’re often categorized as instruments of palate destruction, all intense pucker, no subtle pleasure. But done properly and with deep care, sour beers can deliver multifaceted charms, mingling lively acidity with Champagne-level effervescence, no two beers alike.
That’s because sour ales are not a uniform category. They encompass a wide range of styles, approaches, and souring microbes and wild yeast. Some sour ales are patiently aged in wood, while others are mobbed with fresh fruit or heaped with tropical hops. No matter if you favor wine or cocktails, there’s a sour ale that’ll deliver both pucker and pleasure.
“Quite similar to a red wine, Rodenbach Grand Cru is perfect any time,” says Suzanne Schalow, the CEO and a founder of Craft Beer Cellar, a national chain of craft beer stores. She loves the Belgian beer, a Flanders red ale, for its “perfect interplay of sweet, sour, and dryness, with a sprinkle of vanilla or oak.”
The majority of the beer is aged for several years in the large wooden vessels known as foeders. The result? “The notes of plump raisins, slightly tart cherries, and Tootsie Rolls are more prevalent because of the age and maturity of this blend,” Schalow says.
If you’re looking for less intensity, try the Rodenbach Classic. “To me, it’s a pleasant gateway into the mouth-puckerers that define the Flanders sour style,” says beer journalist Tara Nurin. “It’s sweeter and much less tart. This is one sour that I can drink a whole glass of and even ask for another.”
Color us impressed. “From its striking magenta hue to its deep and delicious fruit flavor, the Gadget is a winner all around,” says Alex Wilking, the marketing coordinator for Craft Beer Cellar. The Cincinnati, Ohio, brewery is based in an old church, the gymnasium repurposed to produce the brewery’s fruited sour ales, headlined by the Gadget.
Each batch contains more than 1,000 pounds apiece of blackberries and raspberries, plus a touch of vanilla beans, “resulting in a sweet and intense berry character and a surprisingly smooth finish,” Wilking says. Moreover, the moderately strong alcohol content (7.9 percent ABV) “provides a sturdy backbone for these heavy fruit additions and keeps this beer from tasting too much like a smoothie.”
“With an experimental spirit and a deep respect for the history and science of fermentation, Grimm Artisanal Ales, put out a dizzying array of sour and wild ales,” says John Avelluto, the owner of the Owl’s Head, a beer and wine bar in Brooklyn. His favorite is the Brooklyn brewery’s annual Color Field, a Berliner Weisse flavored with rose hips, chamomile, and hibiscus.
“The classic funk on the nose is tempered by the elegant floral and botanical aromatics provided by the blend,” he says, with “tart, herbaceous notes hinting toward pomegranate, cranberries, and underripe raspberries. To boot, this beer just flat out looks delicious as it pours out a bright, light magenta with a billow of foam.”
“You can always expect a great sour from Crooked Stave,” says Avelluto of the Owl’s Head. Armed with an “army of old wood vessels, these folks always have sour and wild ferment beers as part of their core lineup,” Avelluto says. One of his favorites is Sour Rosé, fermented with the brewery’s custom-mixed culture in oak foeders alongside raspberries and blueberries. The result is an elegantly funky sipper with fine fizz and fruity verve, versatile enough for the dinner table and “just sipping on a hot summer day.”
It might seem strange to suggest drinking a sour ale after sweating through a workout, but please stick with us for a second. Dogfish Head tabbed the founder of the Gatorade Sports Science Institute to fine-tune the mineral makeup of its tartly refreshing SeaQuench Ale and help create “objectively the most thirst-quenching beer we’ve ever brewed,” as the brewery touts.
Flavored with coriander, sea salt, and both lime peel and juice, SeaQuench is brightly citrusy and enliveningly acidic without going overboard, equally good for a hydrating reward after exercising and happy hour. Bonus: SeaQuench is a terrific training-wheels sour beer for people that swear they hate sour beers.
Perhaps the buzziest new IPA subcategory is the sour IPA, which merges sweetness and huge fruity aromatics with grounding acidity—high-grade orange juice by way of the beer aisle. A favorite of the widely available releases is New Belgium’s plainly named sour IPA. It begins life as a standard-issue hazy IPA, full of the tropical Citra and orangey Amarillo hops. New Belgium then blends in its wood-aged golden sour ale, a 20 percent addition that adds just the right twinge of balancing tartness. Better still, the beer is a screaming bargain: It’s sold nationwide in canned six-packs for around $12.
A decade ago, Germany’s centuries-old gose (goes-uh) was essentially extinct, relegated to brewing’s dusty history books. But in recent years, the tart, salt-laced style has become a darling of America’s restlessly innovative brewers, who use the gose as a platform for expressive flavor experimentation. Florida’s Cigar City makes one of our favorite riffs, the low-alcohol Margarita Gose.
The softly acidic day drinker builds on the namesake cocktail’s lime profile with the addition of a bit of orange peel, creating a beer that drinks like a beach vacation, sand and sunscreen not included. The beer lasts longer than summertime, too: Margarita Gose is sold year-round by the six-pack.
Why Trust The Spruce Eats?
Joshua M. Bernstein, the author of this piece, knows beer. He's penned five books on the subject, as well as articles for The New York Times, Wine Enthusiast, Men’s Journal, and Imbibe. He interviewed five beer experts for this article.