They may be unusual and as divisive as Marmite, but sour beers have a proud tradition and boast unrivalled food-matching credentials. Adrian Tierney-Jones takes a look at this most wine-like of all the beer styles
Sour beer. It’s the latest must-drink in the craft beer world; a post-IPA style of beer that has fewer hops than an arthritic rabbit. Go to most on-trend beer bars and the chances are you’ll find something broadly defined as a sour. Some are low in alcohol, but not all. Most are dispensed in keg. Not everyone likes them.
I have heard some brewers argue that sour beers are a fashion rather than a style and a good mask for brewing faults (that is until their marketing department suggests they need a sour).
These are also not really pint-swiggers, something a licensee might flinch at, especially if he or she invests in stocking several sours and then only sells the odd bottle or half here and there. I would suggest a bit of education about what makes a sour a good drink as well as encouraging it as an accompaniment to the menu.
Inoculated with brett, they have an earthy, barnyard-like note reminiscent of red Burgundy
Finally, if that’s not enough for the downside, there’s the gut reaction to the phrase ‘sour’, which suggests beer gone wrong, the assault of air, the dirty pint that hasn’t been pulled for a day or so.
However, just as bitter is positive and appealing when it applies to a pint, so sour can be just as palate-pleasing when it comes to beer (after all, no one flinches when in the company of a whisky sour or pisco sour). Besides, modern sour beers haven’t been hauled out of a beery magician’s hat; they have an antecedent going back a couple of centuries.
Porter, the great beer of the 18th and 19th centuries (and like fruit-flavoured IPA and sour, one of the must-haves in any craft brewery’s range), was a blend of fresh beer and beer that had been sitting around in massive wooden barrels for a year or more.
These old containers harboured all kinds of micro-organisms such as brett-anomyces (otherwise known as wild yeast or just brett), which worked on the beer, and some beer historians have suggested that at different times in its history many porters would have had a tartness not unfamiliar to the drinker of modern sours.
However, British brewers, especially after World War I, forgot the influence of time. Our brewers simply forgot how to blend different ages of beer; they forgot that sour could be good.
It wasn’t until around 2011/12 that sour beers began to appear again. And like many things in British brewing, this emergence was mainly influenced by American craft brewers, who in turn were influenced by ancient beer styles from across the Atlantic.
Many of the best current sours on the market are influenced by classic European beer styles such as Berliner weisse, Leipziger gose, Flemish red (and brown) ales, gueuze and lambic. They are often inoculated with brettanomyces, adding an earthy, barnyard-like note reminiscent of that found on the best red Burgundies. At its best the modern sour is quenching, refreshing, tart and complex and nothing to be afraid of.
Sour beer pioneers
One of the sour pioneers was Wild Beer, the Somerset-based outfit that recently announced a crowd-funding scheme to raise £1.5 million for a new brewery. Since its foundation in 2012 it’s come a long way with a fascinating beer range, though back then co-founder Andrew Cooper told me that he found it hard to define sour beers.
‘You can see the influence from the US new wave of sours especially with the kettle sours in the UK [this involves adding lactobacillus before fermentation],’ Cooper says. ‘We don’t believe in that approach, we’re trying to add layers of intrigue and complexity with time spent barrel-ageing and the beers are ready when they are ready.’
This conundrum about the descriptive term sour is shared by Burning Sky’s Mark Tranter whose beers are always magnificent whether they be a saison, IPA, pale ale or the growing amount of wood-aged and blended beers. (Burning Sky is described as both a brewery and blender.) At the time of writing, work was coming to a close on a barn next to Tranter’s brewery, which would be used exclusively for barrel-ageing.
Four of the best
The session sour
Chorlton Amarillo Sour 5.4%
Dark orange in colour and gently acidic on the nose with a suggestion of bruised grapefruit; dry; white grape, citrusy and tart.
£36/24x33cl;£94/30l keg, Chorlton Brewing Company, firstname.lastname@example.org
The pre-dinner aperitif
Wild Beer Sourdough 3.6%
Berliner Weisse-style that is fermented with a sourdough yeast and then aged for five months. It’s champagne-like in its brisk carbonation, with a full mouthfeel for its strength and a quenching finish. Contact beergonzo.co.uk/wholesale for more details and prices.
The surprise sipper
Magic Rock Salty Kiss 4.1%
Gooseberries, sea buckthorn berries and salt go into this new wave Gose which is vinous, delicately sour and lightly salty with a background hum of sweetness and a dry, tart finish.
Contact jamesclay.co.uk for more details and prices.
The bonkers one that works
Mad Hatter Tzatziki Sour 4.5%
This Berliner Weisse has been soured with Greek yoghurt and Ouzo-soaked cucumber. It’s clean, tart and fresh and was apparently inspired by the brewer’s holiday on the Greek island of Symi.
Contact Jonny on 07478 161717 or email@example.com
‘What draws me to “sour” beers,’ he muses, ‘is that it started with a renewed interest in Belgian beers a few years ago. Having seen the market saturated with hoppy pales (there’s nothing wrong with that), I was interested in the traditions on our doorstep and one thing led to another. I think the term “sour” is an interesting one and not necessarily accurate but how else to put it? Acidic might be more accurate but it’s no more appealing!’
Linguistic problems aside, another plus for sours is their adeptness in engaging the palate of drinkers who don’t always plump for beer. I have personal evidence of this when I organised a beer dinner for a group of wine-lovers and the beer that engaged them the most was the tart and appetising Oud Bruin from Flanders Duchesse de Bourgogne.
According to Rudi Ghequire, who is brewmaster at Rodenbach, a venerable brewery that is home to some world-classic Flemish Red Ales, sour beer can act as a bridge between beer and wine. Licensees wishing to curate a small but essential beer list for their kitchen might want to consider this.
‘Rodenbach is the missing link between beer and wine,’ he told me recently as he handed over a taster of a five-month-old beer (balsamic, apple, grapefruit notes, refreshing in its sourness). ‘Sour beers also keep you young.’
Sour beers are also satisfyingly versatile when it comes to food. Burning Sky’s Monolith, a dark wood-aged beer with brettanomyces and lactobacillus in the mix, is a wonder with a rich beef stew. Meanwhile, match a salty and pungent Stilton with Chorlton’s expressive and assertive Amarillo Sour and you’ve got the pinnacle of beer and cheese matching.
Talking about the sour beer revolution, we really cannot forget the exceptional selection of beers influenced by Flemish beer traditions from the godfathers of British craft beer, Thornbridge. Sour Brown is its grand old master of a Flemish brown, which is occasionally brewed; while 2016 saw the releases of Days of Creation, a Flemish Red aged in Burgundy beer barrels with raspberries, and Love Among the Ruins, a beer which uses cherries instead of raspberries.
The incredible The Heart Desires is a blonde beer aged with gooseberries in white burgundy barrels. The result is an elegant, juicy, grape-like, gently tart and refreshing beer that even the most ardent of sour-phobes could take to their heart.
We’re trying to add layers of intrigue and complexity with time spent barrel-ageing. The beers are ready when they are ready
As the beers mentioned here and below demonstrate, there’s an elegance to the best sours, where the gentle dissonance of sourness balances itself alongside the melody of sweetness and the percussion of bitterness. The very best sours are beers that have felt the influence of time, acidity and whatever micro-flora the brewer has decided to let in.
Oh and let’s not forget Greene King’s Strong Suffolk, which has its origins in 19th century blending of old and young beer and then ageing in wood (some say that the Rodenbach family got their inspiration from a visit).
It’s official: sour beers are back and we’d better get used to them.