Ask a beer fanatic what they're into these days, and chances are they'll wax poetic about sour beers.
Inspired by the puckery beers of Belgium, American brewers are playing with yeasts and bacteria and fruit like never before.
While we're not really all that interested in who can make the sourest beer imaginable, we're thrilled at all the great, creative options coming out of American breweries. Some of these delectable examples are juicy, zippy, and full of real fruit flavor; others are funky and horsey, quite challenging for the beginner—and sometimes thrilling to the nerdiest among us. These aren't beers for chugging in front of a game; they're complex sips that demand your full attention. We consider ourselves very lucky to have gotten a taste.
Serious Beer Ratings
***** Mindblowing; a new favorite
**** Awesome, stock up on this
*** Around average for the style
** There are probably better options
* No, thanks, I'll have water.
Captain Lawrence Rosso e Marrone New York, Unknown ABV
This sour brown ale fermented with grapes and aged in wine barrels may be hard to get your hands on. It's glorious, though, with a scent of licorice pastilles and mellow oak, spice cookies, and red wine. It's tart, rich and sour, with notes of brown butter and sage, cinnamon-nutmeg spiced cider, red wine vinegar and lime juice. It's silky and puckering, perfect to serve with gamey meat or stinky cheese.
Russian River Supplication California, 7% ABV
The scent of the Supplication is vinuous and cherried (which makes sense, since it's aged in Pinot Noir barrels.) But this is a super-sour beer, with puckering, mouthwatering acidity. It's silky, funky, and very dry, with notes of strawberries, dried cherries, maple syrup, leather saddle, and musty library stacks. It's beautifully made, with intense, concentrated flavor. Serve with lamb chops or a bloody steak.
Russian River Consecration California, 10% ABV
This earthy ale is a little less tightly wound than the Supplication. It ferments with Brettanomyces and 30 pounds of dried currants (per barrel!) in Cabernet Sauvignon barrels, then more brett and bacteria are added. The scent is sour and rich, with notes of currants and German stollen. This is a rich, dense, vanilla-tinged beer with puckering sourness and a clean finish. The oak-aging adds a smooth quality and there's a hint of spicy star anise. We were reminded of apple butter and cranberries, and heartily recommend this beer to fans of brown ale who are looking to go one step funkier.
Lost Abbey Cuvee de Tomme 2009 California, 11% ABV
This beer starts out as an intense dark Quadrupel (their Judgement Day, which is brewed with Candi sugar and raisins) and then is aged in bourbon barrels with sour cherries and Brett. It smells like figs and anise, currants and cream. It's seductive, voluptuous and wine-like, complex and full of mulling spices, with dark fruit and earthy oak. Our advice: Age this one a bit more to let it mellow and harmonize just a bit. It's awesome right now, but we think it'll get better. And if you buy the 2010 when it releases (tentatively August 28), hold on to it awhile. If you can resist.
Lost Abbey Framboise de Amorosa California, 7% ABV
This one has a rich jammy scent (seeds included), and explosive sour berry flavor. It's like a blend of raspberries and balsamic vinegar, with earthy oak at the finish and lingering fruit. The raspberries are beautifully framed in tartness and oak, with just enough horsey funk to keep things adult. Pair it with fresh mozzarella and prosciutto.
Nebraska Brewing Company Apricot au Poivre Saison Nebraska, 6.5% ABV
Though this one isn't a sour, it's an exciting fruit beer effort from one of my favorite up-and-coming breweries. The scent is yeasty, with tart apricot notes and hints of pepper. The buttered rye-toast flavor is nicely balanced with fruit and herbal flavors, it's not sweet, but not bone-dry either. The fruit purée adds richness without becoming too fruity—this is an elegant, refreshing beer, perfect for pairing with Thanksgiving turkey (or leftovers) or a grilled cheddar sandwich.
Lost Abbey Red Poppy Ale California, 5.5% ABV
This Flanders-style red is made with sour cherries, and it's a sour one, though the scent may be more challenging than the flavor. On the nose, there's sour Atomic Fireballs and a hint of cat pee. The flavor is rich and thick, full fruit flavor (though not much cherry pit), Sour Patch Kids, green apple, and leather. This isn't a crazy-wild, horsey beer, but it's definitely entering the lactic acid arms race.
Avery Dépuceleuse Colorado, 9.59% ABV
This beer, brewed with sour cherries and aged in Zinfandel barrels, with 100% brettanomyces fermentation, isn't shouting the way many of the other beers in this category are. Instead, a whisper of mulling spices, toffee, black tea, and yes, some velvety fruit. It's more peaty than sour—leathery—with more prominent oak flavor and tannin than most of the others. Cherry and orange peel flavors mellow into the earthy background. It may taste more like a Manhattan than a beer. Because of its vanilla notes, this beer is wildly delicious with a slice of cheesecake. Try it!
Cascade Kriek 2008 & 2009 Oregon, 8.1% ABV on the 2003, 7.3% ABV on the 2009
We had the chance to taste two vintages of this beer recently, and they were certainly different! The 2008 is pretty smooth and mellow now, with juicy notes of bing cherry and lemon peel. The 2009, which had some sour cherries in the mix, is tangier and more aggressive, like potent cherry lemonade, and a bit more sour. Both are luscious with a cheeseburger.
Cascade Apricot Ale 2009 Oregon, 9% ABV
This tangy and rich beer is a little different every year. It starts out in the Tripel style, then does a long malolactic fermentation before aging with apricots. As it ages, this beer loses a little of its aromatic and fruity punch, mellowing out a bit, but it still tastes like real fruit. There's a hint of musky barnyard flavor, orange marmalade tartness, and even a little smoke. It's approachable for a sour beer, and quite tasty.
New Glarus Raspberry Tart Wisconsin, 4% ABV
This cult favorite is fresh and juicy, with an earthy cedary note. Very drinkable, clean, simple and pure. Don't expect a funky sour; it's more like a cup of raspberry preserves (with the seeds) or a melted all-fruit raspberry Jolly Rancher. The purity of the fruit flavors is beautifully captured, and that's not an easy thing to do. Serve in a champagne flute with a slice of cheesecake.
Weyerbacher Riserva 2008 Pennsylvania, 11.4% ABV
This wild ale is aged with raspberry purée in oak barrels, and there's a ton of sediment in the bottom of the bottle. The scent reminded us of a funky biodynamic wine, and the flavor's funky, boisterous, and rich, too. We tasted Craisins and raspberry fruit leather, fig spread, and bitter orange peel, with a hint of preserved lemon sourness. The oaky tannins are definitely present, and we might age this a little longer to let the boozy heat mellow a little further.
New Glarus Wisconsin Belgian Red Wisconsin, 4% ABV
We got Dr. Brown's Black Cherry soda and a hint of marzipan and rosehip on the nose, and this beer is full of dark-berry flavor. Like their Raspberry Tart, this beer has just a bit of sourness; it's not puckery Belgian-style. Instead, it's jammy and flavorful, with tons of real fruit.
New Belgium Lips of Faith Transatlantique Kriek Colorado, 8% ABV
This buttery kriek one of the more guzzleable examples we tried. It's mellow, smooth, and not very puckery or horsey. There's just enough sourness to make it refreshing.
Founders Cerise Michigan, 6.5% ABV
This fruit beer, made with cherry purée, pours maraschino cherry red, and tastes like a malty, sweet Shirley Temple. It's balanced and pretty subtle, better than any Lindeman's you'll meet, and without much bitterness—perfect for those who aren't that into beer. It's not as intense and fruity as the New Glarus options, but it's well made.
Bridgeport Stumptown Tart Oregon, 7.7% ABV
Don't expect sweet Lindeman's framboise when you pour this beer; it's dry with some musty and dank flavors (though it's not as sour as many of the others.) There's a hint of wood chips, tannic raspberry tea, and pale ale, and it was a little thin for our taste. It's a tough category to compete in, and we weren't sure the flavors in this one really came together.
Few American brewers are making lambic the traditional way; they maintain some amount of control by adding yeast and inoculating their beer with microorganisms, rather than leave fermentation completely up to wild yeast and other critters. We had a chance, though, to try two special beers from Allagash that are a part of their experiment with 100% spontaneously fermented beers. After the boil (and the addition of mellow aged hops), the hot wort for these beer is cooled in a large open tray (12 feet long, 8 feet wide, and 1 foot deep) called a coolship (or koelschip). The windows in the room are left open, allowing natural bacteria and wild yeast to drift in with the outside air while the wort cools. Spontaneous fermentation occurs in French oak barrels, and then the beer is aged (sometimes with the addition of whole fruit.)
These beers are wild and new; there can be a ton of variation between batches. The art of blending is essential to lambic production, and Allagash may work on these for awhile before they're ready to release them commercially.
The Allagash Coolship Red is aged with raspberries, and the flavors are sour, fruity, bitter and dry. On the nose, we got funky cheese and wet dog. It's hard to judge this except as something potentially amazing, but they're definitely closer to the flavors in genuine Belgian lambic than most other American fruit beers we've tried. The Coolship Cerise pours very pale pink, and the scent is yogurty. We tasted subtle cherry and lemon peel, quinine and animal sweat. We're willing to bet that these beers will get more complex with time and blending, and we're very excited to see where they end up.
Disclosure: all beers were review samples.