Beer Pairings 101: Sour, Tart, and Funky Beers

Sour ale being poured into a glass

[Photographs: Vicky Wasik]

Editor’s Note: Welcome back to our series on beer pairings, in which Michael Harlan Turkell, coauthor of The Beer Pantry, walks us through six different beer flavor profiles and the foods that go best with them.

The category of sour, tart, and funky beer covers an enormous range of brews. With their bright and electric flavors, they pair well with the rich, fatty foods I fall back on during the coldest days of winter. And I’m not the only one who leans into these funky flavor combinations. I live in Brooklyn, where everyone seems to have a crock of something sour brewing, whether it’s sauerkraut fermenting in their cabinet or a jug of kombucha sitting on their kitchen counter. Both of these ferments derive their tartness from a factory of lively microbes—the same types of active cultures that imbue everything from lacto-fermented vegetables to barrel-aged cocktails with a profound depth of flavor.

With so much pairing potential, I’m excited to see people catching on to the world of sour, tart, and funky beer.

A variety of yeasts and unique fermentation techniques give these brews their punchiness. They run from very light to super-concentrated barrel-aged beers. On the lighter end of the funk spectrum is citrusy Gose, a beer traditionally made in Goslar, Germany, inoculated with lactobacillus bacteria, and flavored with coriander. For slightly more intensity, go with a tart, mouth-puckering Belgian lambic, brewed with a variety of fruits. Geuze, a subset of lambics, blend new Lambics with aged ones. These are fermented with a specialized brewer’s yeast native to Brussels.

Also from Brussels are Flanders Ales, which have a wine-like quality, thanks to the red malts and lactic acid they’re brewed with. Aged versions called Oud Bruin (also known as Flanders Brown), have an even deeper hue. Brewers in the States have been experimenting with their own sour concoctions, tinkering with yeasts and brewing processes to evoke new flavors. These fall in into the wide category of American Sours. An emerging style within these sours are American Bretts, so named for the Brettanomyces bacteria used to acidify them. They’re pretty funky—a little barnyardy and bitter—and extremely delicious.

In general, the longer a beer is fermented and the warmer its environment, the more opportunity it has to develop bold character. While some of these beers are inoculated with specific yeasts and bacteria, many brewers are exploring the yeasts that are indigenous to the regions where they’re brewing. These are often referred to as “wild” yeasts. Some brewers even allow certain bacteria to grow in their barrels in order to foster fermentative flavors that give beer flavors similar to those found in aged meats and cheeses.

Sour, tart, and funky beers have an acidity and earthiness that makes them an ideal pairing for all sorts of intense flavors, particularly dishes and ingredients that are salty, fatty, or acidic, leaving you hungry—and thirsty—for more.

Most of these beers are easy-drinking session ales (containing a relatively low alcohol by volume, or ABV), and have little to no bitterness from hops. Fruit-forward lambics can have as little as 2% ABV, but pack a dry, vinous sharpness. Gueuze-style lambics go through a second fermentation in bottle, just like Champagne. In this process, the beer picks up a light and tart effervescence. These blended lambics are a bit more complex than their single-source counterparts, and can be cellared for years, if not decades. Cherries, strawberries, and other sweet-tart fruits, like pomegranates and apricots, are often added to lambics to reinforce the beer’s natural flavor. In the warmer seasons, these beers are great with juicy melons and sour cherries and so many other fresh fruits and vegetables. In the winter, I’m a fan of pairing them with hearty, steaming cassoulets, whose rich, deep flavor get contrast from lambic’s bright notes of cherry.

Plate of duck saltimbocca in front of glass and bottle of sour beer

Meanwhile, high-acidity sours, like Flemish reds (think Rodenbach), get their tartness from lactic acid developed by lactobacillus yeast—the same type that a cheesemaker would use. It makes sense, then, that they go so well with a plate of fresh tangy goat cheese or salty, blue-veined Gorgonzola.

Across the board, these beers are assertive enough to stand up to bitter chicories like radicchio, and hold their own alongside fatty and rich aged meats like prosciutto. I even like to cook them down from time to time—they make an excellent base for a tangy-sweet sauce, and can be used much like a balsamic reduction.

But one of my all-time favorite ways to pair sour, tart, and funky beer is with duck saltimbocca, my take on the classic Roman appetizer traditionally made with veal. The comforting dish is balanced and comforting on its own, but with a refreshing glass of sour, tart, and funky beer to cut through its rich gaminess, it’s unbeatable.