The Rise of Sours

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The Rise of Sours: Back to the Roots

Beer – it comes in a very wide range of styles, from conventional pilsners and pale ales to more exotic options like black ales and imperial varieties. However, there’s one that you might not know quite so well, and that’s gaining quite a bit of traction among American beer drinkers – sours. Not sure what a sour beer is or why you’d want to drink one in the first place? Think that sour beers only come from Belgium and are limited to just lambics? Let’s clear up some of that confusion.

Bring on the Funk!

Sour beers are all about the funk – they’re unique and offer a very different drinking experience to what most of us are used to enjoying. Sours are made with different yeasts than conventional beers, and they can range from lightly tart to down right pucker-inducing. However, they all share the same heritage of innovation and history. One good example of the style is Tart of Darkness, from The Bruery in Southern California. 

Once, Sours Were It

Before brewers were able to isolate single types of yeast and control fermentation through technology, sour beers were really all there were. Wild yeast and bacteria couldn’t be kept out of beer, so every single beer in the world had at least a little bit of sourness to it. That changed with the advent of modern brewing and the ability to isolate saccharomyces, the only type of yeast used in most big breweries and conventional craft brewing operations today.

While sour beer is the oldest style in the world, it hasn't been all that popular in the States. Outside of some Belgian imports, sour lovers were pretty much left out in the cold. However, things are changing, and in a big way. While Big Beer hasn’t jumped on the bandwagon just yet, plenty of well-known craft breweries have started sour programs, and many smaller craft breweries with very limited reach have developed their own brews.

New Belgium’s Lips of Faith series is probably one of the most iconic examples, and one that most people have likely seen at their local bottle shop, even if you've never tried one. Orpheus Brewing in Atlanta offers their Atalanta sour, which has gained a considerable following throughout Georgia and the Southeast. Upstart breweries like The Southern Brewing Company in Athens, Georgia are making headlines for their barrel aging program, as well. Interestingly, The Southern Brewing Company is the only brewery in Georgia with an operational foeder, and they plan on doing big things with sours, eventually producing a line of lambics.

Brewing a Sour

Sours can be brewed either entirely using wild yeasts and/or bacteria, or they can be brewed using saccharomyces and then injected with another type of yeast, or even a combination of different yeasts. There are three main yeasts used in making soured brews:

Lactobacillus: Dubbed “lacto”, this bacteria does not turn sugar into alcohol. Instead, it turns it into lactic acid, which imparts a tang to the brew. It’s also used in quite a wide range of other products, particularly yogurt, where it gives the finished product a cleaner, tarter taste than would otherwise be possible.

Brettanomyces: “Brett” does transform sugar into alcohol, but it does so at a slower rate than saccharomyces. And while it does its work, it imparts a lot of funkiness to the brew. There are quite a few different strains of brett out there popular with various brewers, but they are all difficult to control and results can be very mixed.

Pediococcus: These bacteria produce lactic acid rather than alcohol, but it’s a bit more amplified than what lactobacillus produces. You may find this one used in conjunction with brettanomyces due to the fact that the two pair so well and augment each other.

You’ll find several different styles available now, as well. These include:

American Wild Ale: This catch-all phrase is used for pretty much any American brewed sour that uses wild yeast or bacteria at any stage in the fermentation process (either primary or secondary). 

Berliner Weisse: This style is made with lactobacillus, and is increasingly popular in the US, with several craft breweries offering their own take on it.

Flanders Red Ale: Flanders Red Ale is fermented using saccharomyces, but then blended with other beers and aged in wooden barrels, where it’s inoculated with wild yeast.

Gose: Gose is a saltwater beer that most will find hard to handle at first, but once you get used to it, is very refreshing.

Lambic: Lambic beers can be found from a number of different breweries, and can take a year or more to produce.

More Than Just Sourness

Yes, they’re called sours, but that doesn’t mean they’re all tart and pucker. Actually, most of them are very complex, and depending on the brewery, the yeasts used and any other ingredients like fruit or spices, the results can be incredible. In fact, many wine drinkers are “coming to the dark side” just because of these brews.

One reason for the growing appeal here is the generally dry finish most soured beers offer. It’s akin to what you’ll find with a good white wine, or even some types of red wine. The crisp, refreshing character is another reason for their popularity. These aren’t the heavy, mouth-coating beverages many think of when they imagine a beer. Think of the lightest, most refreshing summer wheat beer and you have an idea of what a good sour can offer – perfect for drinking after a hot day mowing the lawn, an afternoon run, or to finish off dinner.

What are your thoughts on sours? Love them? Hate them? Which ones have you tried, and what would you recommend or avoid?