When I had my first taste of sour beer, I was attending a rare beer event. As I scanned the room, watching adults excitedly scamper about like acne-ridden teenagers at their first school dance, I zeroed in on a bottle making its way towards me. Its mere presence caused a hush to pervade the room. All eyes were on it, and all glasses were worshipfully being thrust towards its bottleneck, eager to receive the liquid blessing.
I obtained my pour and stuck my nose into the glass. What the? Are you frickin' kidding me? It smelled of horse butt dabbed with vinegar and blue cheese. I took a sip, my mouth recoiled and my cheeks burned from the dry, skin-shredding acidity. I half expected Ashton Kutcher to jump out, tackle me like a rag doll, and shout, "You've been Punk'd, punk!" But beneath the tastebud confusion, a fire was lit somewhere deep inside. In that one sip, Cantillon, a much-revered Belgian lambic brewery, had baptized me and honestly, my life would never be the same.
Over time, I've come to crave sour beers like one does the endorphin rush from a hot sauce bottle adorned with skulls and crossbones. If you've never ventured far from pale lagers and wheat beers adorned with an orange slice, this category would be a daring leap. But should you wish to experience the wild west of the beer world, this is it. And the brave will be rewarded.
The category of "sour beer" is somewhat undefined, but certainly rooted in a long brewing history. Belgium in particular is home to many of these, including the funk-filled world of Lambic—the prized granddaddy of them all, and the oldest still-produced beer style in the world. Belgium is also home to Flanders Reds and Oud Bruins, both of which ripple with fruit aromas and drink like malty, rich, liquefied Sour Patch Kids.
Three words pop up continually when you discuss sour beers: Pediococcus, Lactobacillus, and Brettanomyces. What are these strange terms? A list of afflictions one receives after eating a two-pound microwavable dinner at 4 am? Nope, these are the lovable strains of bacteria and wild yeast (often referred to as "bugs") that make it all possible. Be it through barrel-aging, open air fermentation, tossing in of fruit, or by inoculating with these wild yeasts and bacteria, brewers are pushing into this untamed world as never before, and the results are zippy, vinegar-tart creations that will leave your mouth a-pucker.
Sours are challenging, expensive, and risky beers to make. Any brewer will tell you that these brews separate the men from the boys, the grain from the chaff, and the artists from the business-minded. While most ales take two to three weeks to produce, sours can take up to two to three years and because space in a brewery is prime real estate, having this stuff just sitting around, totally unsure if it's ever going to amount to anything delicious is a gamble. And much like in the movie Outbreak, if these wild bugs get lose in your brewery and spread over your equipment, you're in for one hell of a crime scene cleanup.... and Morgan Freeman ain't gonna save you. Wineries and breweries go to great lengths to keep Brett and Lacto far away, so just bringing them into your operation is a huge risk. But, the glory is legendary. Breweries that can successfully conquer this category sit at the top, revered by all who attempted and failed, or who didn't have the chutzpah to step onto the field.
The sour craze is now in full swing, and brewers from California to New York, Scandinavia to Japan are jumping in the game. Some are turning out murky failures that are best poured down the drain, while some are having stellar results. It's never been a more exciting time for beer geeks.
I gathered a group of beer pros together for several tastings to try out nearly 50 different domestic and international sours that were released in the last six to twelve months. Some of these are the first bottlings of new creations, while others are recently refined and re-released beers that have appeared before. Below are our top 20 favorites, in no particular order.
Framboise de Amorosa 2013, The Lost Abbey (San Marcos, CA)
Lost Abbey's dubbel, the 'Lost and Found' Abbey Ale, is poured into freshly-emptied red wine barrels, where it spends more than a year, during which it is spiked with three additions of raspberries. Smelling like cherry cola, IHOP boysenberry syrup, and wild raspberries, you'd expect sweetness, but the beer is lively and dry, with a taut balance between the fruit and acidity. Give me this with lamb or beef...no, wait, seared foie gras, and I'll stab someone in the neck just to get a morsel.
Pulling Nails (Blend #1), Side Project (Saint Louis, MO)
Side Project, based at Perennial Artisan Ales, is a 100% barrel-aged brewery making saisons, wild ales, and spirit-barrel aged ales. Pulling Nails is one of the most ambitious beers in the lot. This is one cool blend of four different beers: a Lambic-style brew aged 25 months in French oak white wine barrels, a Flanders Red-style aged in American oak Chambourcin barrels for 18 months, a Saison aged 9 months in American oak chardonnay barrels, and an 100% Brett-fermented Saison de Rouge aged 6 months in American oak Chambourcin barrels. It bursts with aromas of wild stone fruit and sour apricot marmalade, all backed up with a tasty malty core. One colleague described it as having "earthy notes on the finish, reminiscent of sexy and dirty human sweat, just before things get nasty." Yep.
Cerveza de Tempranillo, Jester King (Austin, TX)
Using wild yeast from the Texas Hill Country, along with Brett and souring bacteria, Cerveza de Tempranillo is made by adding Tempranillo wine grapes to mature barrel-aged sour, sending the beer through another fermentation resulting in a pour that sits flaunting its raspberry red hue like a temptress.
If I was to smell this beer blind, I'd think it was a fizzy Italian wine like a Braccheto or a Lambrusco. Wild raspberries aromas pull you in as you're hit with a malty core of cranberry, cola, and vanilla flavors. The finish grabs hold of you by the lapels, and takes you over a few rises of new flavors before letting you out of the roller coaster.
Vieille Artisanal Saison, Crooked Stave (Denver, CO)
The barrel-aged wonders coming out of the heart of Colorado are not to be missed. Vieille (meaning 'old"') is a barrel-aged Saison that was lightly dry hopped. Lemon skin, pear, and dusty apple aromas rise from the glass, with the beer delivering white tea and grapefruit flavors. You could really begin to understand what Brett does to a beer, as it slowly eats all the sugar, leaving a drying character on the finish that adds zip to the sourness. This is the beer you want to crack after summiting your first 14er in the Rocky Mountains.
Zure Van Tildonk 2013 No.1, Hof ten Dormaal (Tildonk, Belgium)
Hof ten Dormaal is a true Belgian farmhouse brewery. Located in the tiny hamlet of Tildonk, the brewery is fed with ingredients solely coming from the farm, itself, including the grain, the hops, and the ambient yeast. An original Belgian Sour that was spontaneously fermented, the Zure Van Tildonk is then aged at the Engelburcht Monastery for several months. The scent evokes herbs like rosemary and thyme mixed with blueberries and concord grapes. Full and rich on the palate, its complexity is like a Rubik's Cube, with flavors unfolding in waves of fruit and sourness, all of it pulling you forward in your chair.
Chrysopolis, Del Ducato (Roncole Verdi, Italy)
From a small Italian village in Emilia Romagna, Del Ducato goes deep into the dance with the sours. Fermented in old Sicilian red wine barrels and hit with a cocktail of Brett, Pediococcus, and Lactobacillus, the Chrysopolis then ferments and ages for 12 months. Then the different barrels are meticulously blended. The result? Green banana, parmesan rind, and a hint of barnyard on the nose give way to apricot jam and grapefruit flavors bursting in the mouth like laser bolts. This beer erupts with acidity and lively flavors, and practically gets down on its knees and begs for piles of sausage and stinky cheese.
Geuze Mariage Parfait, Boon (Lembeek, Belgium)
Since 1975, Frank Boon has been running the Boon Brewery, which actually dates back to 1680. Based in the village of Lembeek, Frank is one of the pioneers of the lambic and geuze revival in Belgium. The Boon geuze is a blend of 95% lambic that's been aged for over three years (yes, you read that correctly), and then blended with 5% young lambic, followed by 6 months of maturing—the time and commitment to authenticity is staggering. Cumin, grapefruit, sweat, lime, and smoke all intertwine in a tart pop of harmonious flavor, revealing new flavors with each return to the glass. For any new inductees into the seductive world of geuze, this is a great intro to get your beak wet with.
Vintage 2011 (Barrel No. 95) Rodenbach (Roeselare, Belgium)
Founded in 1821, the Rodenbach brewery, located in the West Flanders province of Belgium, is one of the benchmarks for the Flanders Red style. One of the only breweries in the world that actually just brews one beer (Orval is another), it's all about barrel aging and blending at Rodenbach. The Vintage is the only single-barrel release they make. Sour cherries, soy sauce, cinnamon, cranberry and cola hit you with a silky caramel texture. When it comes to Flemish Reds, this representation is the tops. And the best way to serve it is in a snifter with a slow-burning Cuban cigar while one is laid out on a bear-skin rug in front of a roaring fire contemplating life's mysteries. Life's deepest answers will be revealed.
Supplication, Russian River (Santa Rosa, CA)
Located in the heart of Sonoma wine country, Russian River has become a mecca for beer geeks. Brewmaster Vinnie Cilurzo is often mentioned for his world-renowned Imperial IPA, Pliny the Elder, but it's his innovative use of aging beer in wine barrels that has really captured the industry's attention. With over 600 wine barrels in play, and a whole slew of funky bacterial bugs and critters at his disposal, he is the Sour Wizard of Sonoma. Aged for one year in Pinot Noir barrels, Supplication starts as a brown ale and then morphs into a sour through the addition of sour cherries, brettanomyces, lactobacillus, and pediococcus. The beer unfolds with a beautiful progression of sourness with lively, wild fruit, that's just juicy enough to reign in the sourness which dances on the tongue with Champagne-like bubbles.
Pineus Gose, Bayerischer Bahnhof (Leipzig, Germany)
There are only three traditional Gose breweries left in Germany, and Bayerischer Bahnhof is one of them. This Gose is brewed with at least 50% malted wheat with coriander, salt, and lactobacillus, and lautered through dried pine needles for added flavor. (Lautering is the processed used to separate the wort from the grain solids—you can read more about it here.) The pine needles aren't a wacky newfangled idea: before the rise of hops, brewers often used pine needles and juniper (sometimes along with herbs) to balance the sweetness of malt. Drinking like a liquid version of Scarborough Fair, hints of parsley, sage, and rosemary flood the aroma. The sourness is round and soft, with flavors of candied apricot and herbs mixing with just a touch of salt that piques your ears up like an alert bloodhound.
La Bohème, Perennial Artisan Ales (Saint Louis, MO)
Producing world-class beers in the shadow of Anheuser-Busch's massive St. Louis operation, Perennial is the little engine that can. La Bohème is a blend of three sour brown ales, that were individually aged for two years in Missouri wine barrels (both red and white) with tart Balaton cherries from Michigan. The complexity of the beer is staggering; the nose is a mix of cola, wild red fruit, and vanilla, while on the palate, a mouth-smackingly good acidity and carbonation holds together flavors of dark cherry, coconut, and nougat.
Sang Noir, Cascade Brewing (Portland, OR)
An innovator in the Northwest sour movement, Cascade's operation is nothing short of mind-boggling. With over 750 barrels on site, ranging from local wine barrels to Kentucky Bourbon barrels, the mad brewers send whatever beers they can imagine into wood-aging, including wheats, porters, quads, reds, blondes, and browns, to just name a few. The Sang Noir is a blend of red ales kept in oak and bourbon barrels for one year before aging on fresh Bing and sour pie cherries for six more months. The beer slowly reveals its flavors, starting with a sour spike of fruit at the beginning, then winding into a woody, musty character akin to an earthy Italian wine, leaving one intrigued and forced to assess what the hell just passed across the tastebuds.
Original Ritterguts Gose, Ritterguts (Leipzig, Germany)
Hailing from Leipzig, Germany (the adopted home of the Gose style going back over 1,000 years), Ritterguts brews its version traditionally with coriander and salt through a lactic acid fermentation. Pouring with a cloudy, white fluffy head, it drinks more tart and funky than you'd expect, yet is underpinned with such vibrancy and flavor that your hand instinctively keeps pulling the glass towards your mouth for another sip. Spice and apricots are wrapped up in a lively, refreshing spritz with just the right amount of salt to seal the deal.
2014 La Folie Sour Brown Ale, New Belgium (Fort Collins, CO)
Started on a shoestring budget in 1991, New Belgium has risen to become the third largest craft brewery in the US, and one that also provides cruiser bikes for its employees. And while they're often spoke of for their fan favorite, Fat Tire, it's their Lips of Faith Series where things get really interesting. Paying homage to Brewmaster Peter Bouckaert's time at Rodenbach Brewery, the just-released 2014 La Folie is a Flanders-style reddish brown ale that rested in French oak barrels for one to three years before being blended and bottled. Dark cherry and grainy aromas invite you in. The beer has a nice bitterness akin to Campari, with a bite of fruity acidity that reveals rich caramel and savory soy sauce flavors.
Troublesome, Off Color Brewing (Chicago, IL)
While most brewers fight tooth and nail to keep lactobacillus out of their breweries, it was the first thing they brought in at Off Color Brewing. John Laffler and Dave Bleitner, a talented duo who jumped ship from Goose Island and Two Brothers, respectively, launched a new addition to the Chicago scene. For Troublesome, they blended two beers together: the first a wheat beer, and the second a super acidic and funky sour beer fermented solely with lactobacillus. Coriander and salt are added near the end of fermentation leaving layer upon layer of flavor bouncing from bananas to cloves to black pepper. A creamy lemon tartness brings this baby home in a lively, not overly sour, sessionable brew perfect for the hot Chicago summer.
Far West Vlaming, Logsdon Farmhouse Ales (Hood River, OR)
After an already-impressive beer industry career (he was the first brewer at Full Sail and founder of Wyeast Labs), Dave Logsdon has now gone on to open a farmhouse brewery. Located on a small farm in Hood River County, the brewery is not only surrounded by pastoral paradise, but also Scottish Highland cattle and Schaerbeekse cherry trees imported from Belgium. In traditional West Flanders style, the Far West Vlaming is brewed with local whole-cone hops and lactic bacteria, before aging in oak barrels. The aged beer is then blended with younger beer to balance out the malt sweetness, resulting in a rich, tart red ale that bursts with flavors of stewed strawberries and candied red apple. The malt backbone plays beautifully off the sourness, which is really a more supporting character than the lead performer...just the way the cows like it.
Sour in the Rye (2014 edition), The Bruery (Placentia, CA)
Considered by many to be the greatest brewery in Southern California, The Bruery continues to unveil "special collection" beers that cause Los Angeles gridlock as beer geeks flock to the call. With around 40% rye as a base malt, Sour in the Rye sat in oak barrels for over a year as the yeast and bacteria slowly ate its way through the sugars in the beer, leaving a sour that defies categorization. With dried apricots on the nose, the beer has a beguiling mousse-like texture like whipped cream bubbles, and lots of dried fruit flavor rounded out by a peppery finish with a hint of sweetness. It's rich, spicy, and a touch funky, just what we'd want to put up against a rustic entrée on our next visit to the outdoor patios of California's finest restaurants.
Rubus con Lamponi, Birra Del Borgo (Borgorose, Italy)
The creative brewing coming out of Italy over the last few years has been gaining momentum of late, especially focused in the Northern section of the country. Del Borgo's Rubus con Lamponi is a sour, fruity ale made with wild raspberries grown in the nearby Alps. Drinking totally dry, with a spine of fruit and tannins that allow the acidity to dance beautifully, this is a beer that would win the hearts of anyone foolish enough to scoff at "fruit beers." If you like Smarties candy (and I defy you to show us someone who is cold-hearted enough to not like Smarties candy), then this interplay of fruity sourness is what you should be demanding the next time the Champagne flutes are broken out in celebration.
Gose, Westbrook Brewing (Mount Pleasant, SC)
I'm declaring it right now. Gose is the new summer beer for 2014. The juxtaposition of sour, saltiness, and hedonistic deliciousness all wrapped up in low-alcohol beer is simply better than any other hot-weather refreshment. Westbrook's Gose is the freshly sqeezed lemonade beer you've been craving after mowing the lawn. Tangy, bright citrus flavors and spicy coriander bounce off of one of the tartest Gose examples we tried. Throw a few cans of this on ice, and slather on the sunscreen, kids, cause you ain't going to move from your chair once the Gose starts flowing. You know what? Skip the lawn mowing and go for this beer instead.
Brandy Barrel Pêche, Almanac Beer Co. (San Francisco, CA)
I kept hearing faint whispers of what Almanac has been brewing up in Northern California, but it wasn't until I got my first taste when I cracked this beauty that I understood what all the hubbub was about. The Brandy Barrel Peche begins as a Blonde Ale that's added to brandy barrels with high-summer peaches that were hand-picked in California. POW! Upon hitting your palate, a roller coaster ride of flavor ensues, daring your face to wrinkle up into a pucker...but the beer's balance holds beautifully, the tension as taut as a rubber band. Peach juice, a touch of celery seed, and an orange creamsicle-like center grounds everything as the acidity washes over you. The finish is massively engaging and you sit stunned for a good 20 seconds, waiting to be released from its dizzying barrage of flavor.
The Sour Beer Revolution is Upon Us!
The sour craze has exploded, with American brewers, especially, pushing the category into new and uncharted waters. The vast majority of these beers take years to finally leave their home in the barrel, so we'll be seeing more and more interesting stuff in the next few years to come.
And for me, as more and more boxes of sours arrived at my doorstep for this story—so many that our two-year-old now shouts, "beer!" every time we get a package—I came to respect the risk these brewers took to even begin their journeys into sourness. I'm not sure I'd have the guts.
In addition to those listed above, there are many other breweries doing great work in the sour category. Look for sour beers from Avery, Odell, Allagash, LoverBeer, Uinta, Brasserie Trois Dames, Jolly Pumpkin, August Schell, Yazoo, Dr. Fritz Briem, Evil Twin, Captain Lawrence, Cigar City, Drie Fonteinen, Ithaca, Tilquin, Dogfish Head, Prairie, Ale Apothecary, Hanssens, and, of course, Cantillon, to name a few.
And chances are, there is a brewery near you who has begun to embrace the funk. Seek them out, respect their craft, and do your absolute damnedest to send your face into pucker mode as often as possible.
About the Author: David Flaherty is the Beer & Spirits Director at Hearth Restaurant and the Terroir wine bars in NYC. He is a freelance beverage writer, and pens a monthly column for Nation's Restaurant News. David is a Cicerone Certified Beer Server, a wine geek, a seeker of fine spirits, a father, and a fledgling homebrewer. He blogs at Grapes & Grains. You can link up with him on Facebook and Twitter.
Beer samples provided for review consideration.