Thinking back on all the years I have enjoyed drinking beer, I’m often reminded of many milestones. My beer journey has been one of many firsts – first stout, first IPA, first barrel-aged brew, etc. There was one thing that really stood out for me though – the first time I had a sour beer. “What is a sour?” – many will ask. Well, let’s give you a quick rundown. Sour beer is intentionally tart or sour (for lack of better words) and surprisingly, they have been making a comeback in the craft beer community. “Making a comeback?” – others will ask. Yes. See, back in the good old days of brewing, pretty much all beer was sour. Why? Because brewers kept introducing wild yeast to beer prior to fermentation because of open air cooling vessels. This would infect the beer and spoil it in a sense. Back in the olden days, they didn’t have all this new equipment or technology to prevent any outside elements from getting into the recently brewed beer and tainting it. I mean, what 16th century monk has ever heard of an airlock? (Useful tip – for those of you who brew at home, check your brewer’s notes or recipe sheets that tell you not to let your beer aerate when you are racking it. Wonder why? Those off flavors are likely a result of oxygenation and potential airborne wild yeast) Besides, the entire process was so new that every brew day was a new experiment, with varied results.
So yes, beer in effect was “ruined” because these outside elements messed with the original recipe and changed the whole thing. However, the new flavor spectrum that came from this not only meant sour beer that can make your face contort like you’re sucking on a lemon, but can also impart fruit flavors. Depending on the type of beer, some are aged in oak barrels, but not before being cooled in something called coolships. A coolship is an open air vessel that is normally very wide or broad in surface area and not very tall, which gives is a surface to mass ratio that allows for more efficient cooling. Also, having it open allows for wild yeasts to “infect” the beer, thus beginning the souring process. Sometimes the introduction of cultured yeasts is used so as to initiate this process. The aging in barrels will often mellow the sour effect on the beer. Most of these beers take much longer to ferment than your average ale or even lager before they are glass-ready. Some can take months or even years before they are ready to be bottled.
There are a few types of wild yeast with which brewers use to sour their beers – Saccharomyces, Brettanomyces, Lactobacillus and Pediococcus. I’m sure a few of you may have recognized the word Brettanomyces. As far as I know this is the most common of the sour beer yeast strains. You’ll often see it referred to simply as “Brett.” Lactobacillus is a primary component in lactic acid. You may be familiar with this term if you check your nutritional labels on items purchased at the supermarket. Lactic acid is what gives yogurt and cottage cheese their sour aspect.
There are six main types of Sours – American Wild Ale, Berliner Weisse, Flanders Red Ale, Gose, Oud Bruin and Lambic. Most of these you can see are Belgian, which is where perfection of the brewing process is believed to have originated. Those monks really know their stuff.
Types of Sour Beer
- American Wild Ale – American beer that incorporates yeast or bacteria strains in conjuction with (or in place of) standard brewer’s yeast.
Berliner Weisse – A german wheat beer that is top-fermented with yeasts and lactobacillus, giving it a tart sour and acidic taste with sharp hints of lemon and almost no hop presence.
- Flanders Red Ale – Also known as a Flemish Red. If the name Rodenbach sounds familiar, it because they are one of the more popular brewers of this beer. The name is given because of the reddish-brown color. These beers have a tart fruity or sour flavors and is one of the beers I mentioned before that are aged in oak barrels over a long period of time after the “infection stage” has already taken place. These are often blended with younger beers of the same varierty to balance the flavor.
- Gose – Actually the proper pronunciation for this is “go-zuh,” this beer is another German wheat beer that is refreshingly crisp and often dry in the finish. It is often salty, whether naturally occurring by the water used in the brewing process or by the introduction of salt. It has very little hop presence but has a dry and spicy quality by the use of coriander.
- Oud Bruin – Translated it means Old Brown. Similar to the Flanders Red, this brown ale is primarily from the Flemish region of Belgium. They are sour and acidic, but can provide a slight roasted aroma and flavor. Also often blended with younger beer of the same variety to balance the flavor.
- Lambic – There are several types of these and they are characterized by their fruit flavor, given after the specific fruit has been added to the beer during fermentation. See below for a list of various types of Lambics (you may be familiar with some of these) and their corresponding fruit.
Kriek – Cherry
Framboise – Raspberry
Pêche – Peach
Cassis – Black currant
Hopefully this will give you a better sense of Sour Ales and remove any stigma or prejudice you may have for them. All of us are looking for something better than cold pee flavored fizzy water. We love flavor and trying new things. It wasn’t that long ago that I was venturing into PA to try a Monk’s Cafe Flemish Red. It is clear that these sours are just the next step. Cheers…
Some sour beer you should try –