The Rise and Return of Sour Beers
In the land of beer and mountains, where breweries are our neighborhood gathering spots, most 5th graders can tell you the difference between a Pale Ale and an IPA (not by taste, just in theory), and a kegorator in the office is as expected as health benefits, we cherish our beer, we take immense pride in our breweries, and we love trying new styles.
One of the newest styles to hit the scene is the sour beer. And by new, I mean old. Really, really old. In fact, essentially all beer was sour until around the mid-19th century, when the understanding of microorganisms, fermentation and sterilization gave brewers control over the “wild” bugs in the suds. At that point outside of a few breweries in Brussels, sourness was taken out of beer, favoring instead an exploration of crisp, bitter, malty and other flavor notes.
Now breweries across America, taking a cue from those few time-honored breweries in Brussels, are embracing sour beers to the delight of beer geeks and mainstream drinkers alike.
Sour beers, as you might imagine, are characterized by a tart taste and a higher pH than most beers. They can range from earthy, to crisp, to smoky, and beyond, but all maintain at least some degree of puckering. These flavors are developed by purposefully infecting, or inoculating as the preferred beer term, the beer with the “wild” bugs and yeasts that other beers fear, and then letting them sit in oak barrels for at least 6 months, often 2-3 years, or even longer. There are three main “wild” players in this game, each bringing their own unique flavor notes. Lactobacillus and Pediococcus, called as Lacto and Pedio in the beer world, are strains of bacteria that consume sugars and produce acid. Brettanomyces, known as Brett, is a yeast that can consume most three-part sugars, and gives a beer slight acidity and plenty of earthy or funky flavors (sometimes getting the description of “horse blanket,” but in a good way, promise). With all this sugar consumption going on, sour beers for the most part end up very dry along with the tartness. To offset this dryness, fruit is often added, creating a wonderfully delicate and complex character. Fruit inclusion or not, these beers bring a new engaging quality that is food-friendly, interesting and fresh.
The most intriguing part about this entire process might be that it tends to be more nuture than nature. Let me explain. With most beers, the brewer can control the process, the elements, the ingredients…the “nature” of the beer, creating exactly what he or she intended. When it comes to sour beers, the inclusion of these “wild” bacteria and yeasts take some of that control away, relying on the “wild” yeasts and bacteria that happen to come in contact with the beer, in other words…the “nurture.” Sour beers are often created in containers left open to the elements (called a coolship/koelschip) before aging in oak barrels, meaning that any of the bacteria and yeasts in the air, on your clothes, in the brewery can simply fall in and leave their mark along with any of the “wild” bugs the brewer might mix in. This lack of control, this sense of happenstance, gives sour beers a touch of mystery and luck.
Mystery aside, these beers are popping up everywhere, engaging a unique side of our taste buds with every sip. From funky, to zingy, to simply slightly tart, sour beers are becoming a cherished style and are certainly worth a try if you’re not already in the fan club.