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Sour ales can be sorely misunderstood. They’re often categorized as instruments of palate destruction, all intense pucker, and no subtle pleasure, but done properly and with deep care, sour beers can deliver multifaceted charms, mingling lively acidity with Champagne-level effervescence with 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.
Best for Red Wine Fans: Rodenbach Grand Cru
One of brewing’s classic beers
Patiently aged in wood
Flavors may be too intense for some
Not as easy to find
“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.”
Location: Roeselare, Belgium | ABV: 6% | Tasting Notes: Cherries, raisins, sweet and sour
Best for Fruit Fans: Urban Artifact The Gadget
Huge fruity character
Cans are a plus
Higher alcohol content
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.”
Location: Cincinnati, Ohio | ABV: 7.9% | Tasting Notes: Berries, subtle vanilla, smooth
Best Botanical Sour: Grimm Artisanal Ales Color Field
Fun combination of botanicals
“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.”
Location: Brooklyn, New York | ABV: 3.5% | Tasting Notes: Delicate, effervescent, zesty
Best Sour for Rosé Drinkers: Crooked Stave Artisan Beer Project Sour Rosé
Style recognition for wine drinkers
Sold in cans
Slightly higher price point
“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.”
Location: Denver, Colorado | ABV: 4.5% | Tasting Notes: Fizzy, fruity, lightly funky
Best Post-Workout Beer: Dogfish Head Craft Brewery SeaQuench Ale
Electrolyte content is a bonus
Great post-workout beer
Benefits of electrolytes are unclear
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.
Location: Lewes, Delaware | ABV: 4.9% | Tasting Notes: Citrusy, quenching, gently tart
Best Sour IPA: New Belgium Sour IPA
Sold in cans
Novel use of blending sour beer
Style might be confusing
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.
Location: Fort Collins, Colorado | ABV: 7% | Tasting Notes: Orange juice, tropical, brightly acidic
Best Cocktail-Inspired Sour: Cigar City Brewing Margarita Gose
Tastes like a margarita
Flavors could be more assertive
A more bracing acidity might be nice
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.
Location: Tampa, Florida | ABV: 4.2% | Tasting Notes: Lime, cocktail-like, crushable
Best Wild Saison: Fair Isle Brewing Madame R. Galle
Uses local ingredients
Price might be a deal breaker
The Seattle newcomer is making waves for its wild ales fermented with yeasts captured in the fertile gardens and orchards of western Washington. A fine introduction to Fair Isle is Madame R. Galle, an ode to the traditional farmhouse ales of Belgium’s Wallonia region. “Their house culture produces a ton to dig into, but the yeast profile shines through as the dominant flavor,” says Corey Leitch, the manager at TeKu Tavern, a Seattle beer bar.
Washington-grown wheat and barley “provide a light, but firm base, and the restrained acidity and higher carbonation make everything pop on your palate like pastel fireworks. Honestly, this is what Champagne wants to be at its best.” Fun fact: Fair Isle is based in a former begonia shop, and Madame R. Galle is a begonia variety.
Location: Seattle, Washington | ABV: 6.2% | Tasting Notes: Lemons, stone fruit, finely carbonated
Crooked Stave’s Sour Rosé (view at Drizly) offers a great price point and flavor profile that’ll appeal to both wine fans and beer drinkers just dipping their toes into the tart waters of sour beer. Cigar City’s Margarita Gose (view at Drizly) should be a staple in your beach coolers this summer, offering the namesake cocktail’s flavor and fragrance, but without the knee-buckling alcohol.
What to Look for in Sour Beers
Carefully read the label before you buy a sour beer. Generally speaking, a gose, Berliner weisse, or fruited kettle sour will be more approachable than a beer fermented with the wild yeast Brettanomyces. It can create flavors that are more challenging for neophyte drinkers of sour and wild beer.
Not all sour beers are created equally. There's the Berliner weisse, a typically low-ABV German wheat beer that's pale, cloudy, very carbonated, and refreshingly tart; the Flanders, also called Flemish ale, a fruity red Belgian beer fermented in open oak vats; the gose, a cloudy, top-fermented German beer made from at least 50 percent malted wheat, known for being salty and herbaceous, often featuring coriander and lemon; the lambic, crisp with a high concentration of wheat in many flavors, such as cherry and raspberry; and the oud bruin, another Belgian beer, with vinegar-like acidity, fruity tartness, and rich malt.
What is sour beer?
“Sour” is a catch-all category for a wide variety of tart, acidic beers traditionally made with souring bacteria and/or wild yeast. Sour beers include Germany’s tangy, salty gose and bright and bracing Berliner weisse; Belgian lambics; and kettle sours, a quickly soured beer that is often made with massive amounts of fruit.
Are sour beers gluten-free?
The majority of sour beers are made with the same grains as standard beer, including barley and wheat, meaning they are not gluten-free. However, several gluten-free breweries do produce sour beer. Neff Brewing of Oklahoma offers the fruity Raspberry Pride, and Canada’s Glutenberg makes this great gose, which is available in America. Minnesota’s Burning Brothers uses cherry concentrate, sorghum, and rice syrup to create its Tart Cherry Sour, and Ghostfish Brewing adds hibiscus and cranberry to its Gosefish.
How are sour beers made?
Breweries intentionally introduce souring bacteria or wild yeast to beer, then let the microbes work their microscopic magic to create tartness and acidity. The most commonly used souring bacteria is Lactobacillus, which is responsible for converting milk into yogurt. Breweries also practice spontaneous fermentation by letting ambient yeast inoculate wort—the sugary grain broth that becomes beer.
What food pairs with sour beer?
A sour beer’s acidity can be your secret weapon for cutting the richness of a wide range of foods, including charcuterie, a well-marbled rib-eye steak, roasted root vegetables, or a lamb or duck dish. Also, a bright and lemony Berliner weisse or a tart and salty gose is a great companion to seafood, including raw oysters, mussels, or your favorite grilled fish. As for cheese, an earthy, funky wild ale goes well with washed-rind cheeses, and more intensely acidic beers, such as lambics, are a fine fit for pungent blue or tangy goat cheeses.
Are all gose beers sour?
Yes, tartness is a trademark of the style.
Do sour beers contain probiotics?
Many sour beers are made with Lactobacillus, which is generally considered to be a gut-friendly probiotic. However, government licensing agencies forbid breweries from making health claims about beer.
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.