The word “sour” doesn’t exactly cause warm and fuzzy feelings and it doesn’t sound incredibly appealing when you’re describing beer either. The thing is, sour can be fantastic.
Traditional “sour ales” like lambics, gueuzes, and Flemish sour ales are incredibly popular in Belgium and lately several American craft brewers have started to experiment with the styles.
It’s always a risky gamble, especially because sour beers typically age for so long. After waiting, waiting and more waiting, brewers either end up with delicious tart, tangy flavors or a bad, undrinkable beer that’s been taken hostage by belligerent yeasts.
According to the New York Times article Sour Beer Is Risky Business, Starting With the Name, the Great American Beer Festival introduced the first sour categories in 2002 and received just 15 entries. Last year, brewers entered 119 sour beers in four categories: Belgian-style lambic or sour ale, American-style sour ale, German-style sour ale and wood and barrel aged sour beer.
Photo courtesy of beerobsessed.com
The Times also goes into the dangers of using the very aggressive Brettanomyces yeast to make sour beers. While Brettanomyces adds distinct desirable flavors, it’s not yeast that dies easily, especially in wood. Working with it can be risky and if you’re not careful it can contaminate everything it comes into contact with (like all of the non-sour beers you’re brewing.)
Ron Gansberg, the brewmaster at Cascade Brewing in Portland Oregon, won’t use the stuff. He finds that sour beers made with other yeasts can have more balance and body anyway. His comment I really enjoyed however, was this one; “I didn’t sign on to the hops arms race and I’m not going to go down the road of, ‘My beer is more sour than yours.'”
If you want to drink a good sour ale and decide for yourself, I’d recommend picking up a bottle of Lindemanns Cuvee Renne Geuze or Duchesse De Bourgogne. Both score incredibly well and make a great introduction to the style.
[techtags:SOUR BEER, SOUR BEERS, NY TIMES]