Spring is on its way and with it comes wacky weather, new leaves, baby animals, and… SOURS? It seems the beer industry is already shaping up their spring portfolio with an ample amount of sour offerings. Just in New York State, both Ithaca (Raspberry Soiree
) and Brooklyn (Bel Air
) released a brand new sour for the spring season to add to the multitude of sour offerings in the Northeast. Sours can have flavors as simple as a tart lemonade or as amazingly complex as a Cabernet Franc. If you have had the pleasure of enjoying some of these unpredictable, bacteria-spiked brews, then you might be able to relate. However, if you’re just getting into the realm of face puckering sours, you might be asking the question “Why are sour beers becoming so popular?”
History of Sours
The sourness in beer is caused by wild bacteria or yeast strains that “infect” or inoculate the beer during the brewing process. Before sanitation, or even the knowledge of single cell organisms, all brewed beer would become sour. This is because after boiling the brewers would cool the liquid using open vats, exposing the freshly made wort to wild bacteria and yeast strains that were floating in the air. They would then transfer this liquid to oak barrels to ferment where it would be exposed to more wild yeasts like Brettanomyces living in the wood. Once brewers gained knowledge of how souring was occurring in their brews, they quickly imposed sanitation processes to create cleaner beer; like most beer we consume today. It was only a few of the oldest German and Belgian brewers that held on to the historic traditions of creating sours and are still creating amazing beers in the lambic and Berliner weiss styles.
Nowadays, brewers have complete control of the use of bacteria (“Bugs”) like lactobacillus (the same bacteria that creates yogurt) or pediococcus and can precisely lower the pH of their beer, causing the acidity to increase, which we perceive as sour. This allows brewers to create remarkably simple sours like the Gose and Berliner weiss. Some brewers throw caution to the wind and use a coolship (similar to the historic open vats) to develop deep, funky complexities in their sours… usher in the lambics and newly termed American sours. Whatever their processes may be, there are a myriad of flavors and complexities that can occur in sours, most of which can never be replicated.
Traditionally, spring held the highest variety of wheat inspired beers like the German Weissbier, the original craft wheat beer. These light and refreshing wheat beers offer effervescent simplicity to the consumer after a long and hearty winter full of stouts and porters. However, consumer palate evolution has occurred and they have slowly proceeded onto similar, but more unique flavor profiles. After the German Weissbier came the Belgian Witbier, which has similar qualities to its predecessor, but offer a more exciting yeast flavor profile. Now that Witbiers have dominated the spring market for the last decade, simple wheat sours are beginning to surpass these wheat beers due to natural progression. I call these “gateway sours,” which will prepare your pallet for the world of more complex sours you have yet to explore.
Pick Up a Sour
If you have never tried a sour before I would suggest starting with a “gateway sour” like a Gose (light sour with coriander and salt), Berliner weiss, or a light American Sour. These styles will introduce you to the acidity that you can expect in a sour without adding a ton of funky undertones that can make a beer too complex. There are a lot of examples in this realm of sours and you can even find some with added fruit to change up the nuances. Once you’re ready to go a little bit deeper down the rabbit hole, I would start looking into traditional Saisons like Highway Manor’s SayJohn Saision
. This style has a touch of acidity, but really showcases the flavor complexities of “funk” and savory spices like white pepper. The last stop on your sour progression is imported Belgian Lambics, like a Flanders Red, Straight lambic, or a Gueuze. These multilayered styles put you deep into the land of sours where nothing can stop you from pure beer nirvana.