The term sour beer has become as vague as IPA. Without some details, it’s hard to know what to expect. Sour beers range in body and flavor all the way from a light, crisp Berliner Weisse to dark, robust stouts. Use these tips as a good reference guide for your next sour purchase.
Kettle or quick sours tend to be light in body and less than 5% ABV. In addition to yeast, these beers are often inoculated with a bacteria strain called lactobacillus, or lacto for short. Not to be confused with lactose used in milk stouts and hazy IPA’s, lactobacillus converts sugars into lactic acid instead of alcohol. This creates flavors that can be described as more tart or tangy than sour, similar to kimchee or Greek yogurt. These beers are called quick sours because the brewer can impart sour flavors without a lengthy fermentation time. Pedicoccus, or pedio, is another bacterium common to quick sours that offers similar flavors as lacto, but more intense.
Examples of kettle sours include Sierra Nevada Otra Vez, Boulevard Berliner Weisse, Ithaca Blueberry Soiree, Druthers The Dare Gose, Brooklyn Bel Air and Ommegang Pale Sour.
Wood-aged sours are typically medium to dark in body, ranging anywhere from 5-12% ABV. Depending on the style of the base beer, wood aged sours can also be light in color but are still of medium to heavy body. Depending on the length of time spent in the barrel or foeder (foo-der), the beer will take on the characteristics of whatever wood it was aged in. While bourbon and a variety of wine barrels tend to be the most common, beers can be aged in any barrel including tequila, scotch, and even absinthe. Often, these beers are inoculated with a domesticated strain of yeast called Brettanomyces. Brett is considered a wild yeast strain that imparts characteristics described as earthy or barnyard. When you see the word wild, you can expect varying intensities of brett flavor and aroma. Adjunct additions like chocolate, fruit, and coffee are common.
Examples of wood-aged sours include New Belgium La Folie, Highway Manor Funky Prowler, Keegan Ales Double Chocolate Bourbon Aged Mothers Milk, Rodenbach Grand Cru, Brown's Highball, Brown’s Solstice and Boulevard Love Child No. 8.
Lambic and geuze style sours are a product of Belgium. Traditional lambic and geuze come in under 5% ABV with a light body and mouthfeel. These beers are almost always fermented in a an open-air vessel known as a kuhlship (cool-ship). Open fermentation allows the wort to be inoculated with truly wild yeast strains and bacteria that exist naturally in the brewery’s environment. Fruit additions are common and change the style designation of the beer. If it’s fermented with cherries it’s a kriek; raspberries, a framboise; and peaches, a peche. Fruit additions and time spent in barrels will result in a heavier mouthfeel and slightly higher ABV. If it’s not brewed in Belgium, it’s technically not a lambic. However, American brewers can mimic the ingredients and process to create as close as you can get. Lambic inspired styles brewed outside of Belgium will often be labeled methode traditionnelle.
Examples of lambic and geuze sours include Rodenbach Alexander, New Belgium Transatlantique Kriek and Captain Lawrence Muddy Kriek.
There’s a sour beer out there for everyone. Hopefully, this quick guide will help with your next purchase. Don’t be intimidated by things you’ve tasted in the past. Every offering will have varying degrees of flavor that are either too intense or not enough for you. It’s like Goldie Locks… this beer was too acidic, this beer was too fruity, but this one was juuuuuuust right!
Korey David is a 9 year industry veteran that's worked on the distribution and brewery side of the business. He's a Certified Cicerone that loves teaching others about great beer as much as he likes enjoying it himself. In addition to writing for Gotbeer, you can see Korey's work in True Brew Magazine. He prefers a dive bar with a good enough beer selection over a modern bar with an insane beer selection. If you see him out at the bar buy him a Maibock, Flanders Red, Baltic Porter or American Pale Ale.