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Sour Beer Gains Popularity

Posted by on in January 2015 Editions
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At first thought, the idea of sour beer seems neither appealing nor appetizing.  But, to the contrary, the sour beer style has gained popularity among sophisticated beer and wine drinkers who appreciate the complexity of its many flavors

Just as the nuances of single malt Scotch are too difficult to appreciate the first time, learning to enjoy the flavor of any complex beverage often requires certain background information before it becomes an acquired taste. But once acquired, it is a taste to be savored and enjoyed over and over again.  It is much the same with sour beer.  In order to appreciate the sour notes that range from tart to puckery to darkly sour, it is important to know something about the subject before embarking on the sour beer journey.  Although it may seem an unusual analogy, it may come as no surprise that a first attempt at enjoying sour beer is much like attending an opera being sung in a foreign language. Without a libretto in hand, it is difficult to follow the story line. Similarly, it is useful to have reference points to guide you as you sip one of the many sour beers now available in the marketplace.

The Home of Sour Beer

Belgium is considered to be the home of the ”sour beer style.”  Its origins are in the Zenne Valley, which surrounds Brussels, the capitol city. From October through May, local breweries that specialize in brewing sour beer open their windows and allow wild, airborne yeasts to flow in and settle on top of open fermenting tanks. These tanks, known as “coolships,” contain a mixture of malted barley and wheat - the raw materials for a sugary liquid called wort.  Once the wild yeast has settled on the wort and has performed its magic, the sugary liquid becomes a sour flavored mixture of alcohol and carbon dioxide commonly known as sour beer.

Along with wild airborne yeasts, there are a few basic ingredients standard in making sour beer.  Malted barley is mixed with unmalted wheat grist to give the beer its body.  Hops are added, but are used in limited quantities, and are more important as a preservative than as a flavoring agent.  Coigneau is the traditional Belgian hop variety used in making sour beers. In addition, some brewers add fruit such as sour cherries, raspberries, strawberries, peaches amongst others.

After the fermentation process is complete the newly fermented beer is stored in used port, sherry or burgundy wine barrels for aging.  This type of storage is a clear departure from brewing typically top fermented ales where the aging process is short and usually lasts from one week to a few weeks.  Belgian sour beers are often left to develop and mature for a period of one to several years.

The principal type of sour beer is called lambic.  Lambic is a refreshing drink by itself or it may be combined with other beers or fruit.  If two lambics, a young lambic one year old or less is combined with an older lambic (3-5 years), the resultant beer is known as “gueze.”  If sour cherries are added to a lambic it becomes “kriek lambic” or in the case of raspberries is called “framboise.” Faro, a fourth type of sour beer, is a lambic to which other ingredients including: candi sugar, pepper, orange peel, and coriander have been added to make the beer sweeter and more palatable.  All of these classic sour beer styles have been staples in Belgian bars for centuries. 

Brewing Sour Beer in America

Only in recent years has “Sour Beer” become popular among American brewers and beer drinkers. The American beer scene has been historically slow to evolve and to accept new styles of beer, and it should be remembered that not long ago different styles of beer were difficult to find amongst ubiquitous lagers.  Today, however, many freshly brewed styles of beer are widely available including: India Pale Ale, Hefeweizen, Brown Ale or Stout. These beers and others are now everyday staples across the bar. “Sour beer” has begun to make a lasting impression and is getting more and more attention and may soon join the ranks of new beer favorites.

Despite the increasing popularity in the U.S., they are not easily made or readily accepted in many U.S. breweries.  A brewmaster in an American brewery, for example, typically exhibits obsessive/compulsive behavior as it relates to keeping stray organisms (referred to as bugs or beer spoilers), out of the brew house.  

It was discovered recently that wild yeasts used in the fermentation process can also invade and inhabit the brewing vessels and wood beams within breweries.  Unwanted and uncontrolled organisms can easily contaminate and spoil one or several batches of non- beer. As a matter of practice, a brewery that makes beer other than sour beer will segregate sour beer brewing in order not to contaminate and interfere with normal ale and lager production.

According to author Michael Tonsmeire, in his recent book American Sour Beers,  sour beers here in the United States, “……are beers designed to be intentionally tart and are inoculated with souring bacteria.  A yeast strain called Brettanomyces and lactic acids such as Pediococcus, Lactobacillus are added to the wort to produce a liquid with a funky aroma and flavor profiles from dry to tart similar to those of Granny Smith apples or lemons.  The author also noted the same wild yeast strains that occur in Belgium are also present here in the U.S. and throughout the world. These lactic acid bacteria are good bacteria and are used in making yogurt, cheese, sauerkraut and pickles.

Brewing sour beer in the United States is a relatively recent phenomenon. Colorado’s New Belgium Brewery is recognized as the first American brewery to brew sour beer in 1999.  It is no surprise that New Belgium was the  first to brew sour beer as its brew master, Peter Bouckaert, a native of Belgium, had worked in Belgium’s famous Rodenbach Brewery.  Originally, the methods used to make sour beer by New Belgium and other American brewers were modeled after European brewing techniques.  As time went on and more breweries gained experience in producing sour beers, the process in this country has taken on the unique twists of individual brewers.  Certainly, the practice of blending of base beer, i.e. normal ale with a newly produced sour beer, became standard practice.  And, bottle conditioning sour beer has gained popularity. In addition, many brewers also tend to use a more complex grain bill than normally used in Belgium.  American brewmasters have found the use of more predictable micro-organisms injected into the wort to produce a more consistent product.

According to Brewmaster Bouckaert, “……good beer is the result of knowledge, experience and creativity.”  If you want to add a different experience to your beer drinking enjoyment, or if you are interested in giving a customer a recommendation about sour beer, try one of the fine beers in the following table.

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