I've come to crave sour beers like one does the endorphin rush from a hot sauce bottle adorned with skulls and crossbones. So I gathered a group of beer pros together to try out nearly 50 different recently released sour beers. Here are the 20 best bottles we tried.
'sour beer' on Serious Eats
Lauren Salazar, New Belgium Brewing Company's wood cellar manager, just moved to Colorado to ski. Now she's a beer expert managing the barrels full of New Belgium's coveted sour beers. We asked her a bit about the beer-blending process and what she's learned along the way.
What's the state of sour beer in the US? What are the challenges and dangers of barrel aging and sour brewing? I talked to a few of the brewers at this past weekend's What the Funk?! Fest in Denver to find out what the funk is going on.
Lambic. Gueuze. Wild Ale. Oud Bruin. Flanders Red. Berliner Weisse. Lately, when I belly up to new and familiar bars alike and begin dissecting the beer offerings, I hunt for these terms like X's on a treasure map. Thankfully, there's a cohort of ambitious, beer-focused bars in Chicago that not only stock their cellars with obscure and intriguing large-format sours, but also reliably devote one or two tap lines to the tart stuff.
The famed San Marcos, CA brewery released a different small batch beer every month of 2012. They produced about 100 cases of each classic-rock inspired brew, and released 350 of the bottles in the brewery tasting room for on-site consumption only. The remaining bottles of each beer were saved for the Ultimate Box Set—no bottles were ever released individually for distribution or sale.
Alex has partnered with Jay Goodwin, former Head of Barrel-Aging at Orange County's sour-happy The Bruery, and Jay's father, Brad, to create the Rare Barrel. On the verge of licensing approval, they will produce exclusively barrel-aged sour beers. Their first stainless fermentation tank is arriving as I type this.
For the flavors to fully develop, this homebrew should age for about 1 year. It will produce a rustic farmhouse style ale that will have a mild sour flavor, but it won't be overwhelmingly tart. You will also get some mild barnyard aromas and flavors from the Brett that's in the mix.
Light, tart, and cloudy, Berliner Weisse is a style that has very few contemporaries in the beer world. It's a sessionable beer—most style guides put it at a maximum 3.8% ABV—with a dry finish and essentially no hop character. Don't be fooled, though, because these light ales pack a real punch in the flavor department. The modern Berliner Weisse is fermented with the souring bacteria Lactobacillus along with a regular ale yeast. Lactobacillus produces a sharp, clean sour flavor that pairs perfectly with the simple malt bill and low hop profile.
This Berliner Weisse recipe was used by Serious Eats contributor Jonathan Moxey to win first place in the sours category at the Homebrew Alley 6 competition.
Sour ales are one of the biggest things in craft beer right now. The style that started out as a niche Belgian import not too long ago has spread like wildfire across American bars and breweries. Producing sour beer at home can be difficult, but with some experimentation and education there's nothing stopping a homebrewer from creating a tart and funky ale just like the best of the commercial brewers.
Though wild yeasts are gaining a good deal of traction in the U.S., straight-ahead sour ales from American breweries are still few. Sure, there's Brettanomyces this and wild that, but often they're a lefthand tweak on a brewery's existing beer or style. Ithaca Beer Co.'s Brute is one of the few, and a fine one at that. It's definitely in the top tier of American sour ales.
Many brewers still bristle at the idea of intentionally allowing wild yeast into their breweries for fear of contamination, but Chad Yakobson, the brewer behind Crooked Stave Artisan Beer Project has rolled out the welcome mat. Yakobson launched Crooked Stave earlier this year, brewing Brettanomyces-focused beers in Fort Collins, Colorado, with the goal of expanding the expectations of what the wild yeast can bring to beer.
Brewers have been fermenting sour beers with stone fruits and berries for centuries but it's Jeni Britton Bauer, the ice cream mastermind behind Jeni's Splendid Ice Creams at Home who had the good sense to bring them together in ice cream form. Her Sour Beer Sorbet is a model for a whole world of sweet-tart and totally refreshing sour beer and fruit combos.
If you're a fan of lambic, gueze, or any other fruity wild fermented ales, this Sour Beer Sorbet is a dream come true. It's sweet meets sour with just a whiff of yeastiness.
Even among the craft beer cognoscenti, sour beers were something of a rarity just a few years ago; the New York Times noted that less than a decade ago, sour beers of all sorts could only muster up 15 entries at the Great American Beer Festival. Last year, there were 149, in four separate categories—certainly an indication of growth. While it's true that the majority of sour beers available today are of Belgian origin, (and there is much variety among those) there is plenty of historical precedent elsewhere for sour styles of beer.