What is a Sour Beer?

There is a growing new trend in beer brewing, referred to by beer consumers as "sours." Technically the beer brewing industry calls this style of brewing "American Wild."

I first heard about sours about 6 months ago on a couple of beer brewing podcasts and also on a Facebook Group called League of Extraordinary Beer Drinkers. Everyone raved about this new brew. I was curious to see what the buzz was a about. About 6 months ago, a nephew brought a few sours from the west coast. A glance at my Untapped account shows that I have tried 12 sours so far.

You may have heard of variations of these beers, and beer brewing styles from other countries before ever knowing about sours. These are Lambic, Gueuze, Flanders Red, or Berliner Weiss, just to name a few. These styles have been brewed since around the 17th century. In general these beers are made by exposing the wort to the open air while cooling and prior to fermentation. In a brewery there are wild yeast strains floating in the air or growing on the walls, which contribute to the flavor of the beer. This usually occurred in the winter or spring- summers are just too hot.

Modern day beer brewing using this technology can produce results that are unpredictable at best. Four agents that are used today to make American wild sours are Lactobacillus, Brettanomyces, Pediococcus, or adding tart fruit. Some these fruits have wild yeasts and bacteria on their skins.

Brewing Business Podcast Episode 9 features the "Mad Fementationist," Michael Tonsmiere, a nationwide sour beer consultant in Washington DC. What I took away from that podcast was that it would greatly help to be a microbiologist to make this style of beer. I found out that producing this beer is also very expensive using the methods that American sour producers are using today. Fermenting and aging could take 1-2 years in a used barrel. Used oak barrels include Pinot Noir, Cabernet Sauvignon, Bourbon, Rye, Port, Tequila, and Rum. Different batches are then blended together to produce a more desirable flavor profile. The complexity of the microbial technology, the long length of fermentation, and the expense of used wine or spirits put brewing sours, for the most part, out of the reach of most home brewers.

The first sour I tried was by Almanac Brewery called Farmer’s Reserve Blueberry. This was a golden ale infused with blueberry. It was shockingly sour with a hint of the blueberry. It was just okay and I wasn't sure what to expect since it was my first. The next one I tried was also from Almanac called Valley of Heart's Delight. I disliked this one even more as it was just plain sour no real character.

Next I tried one from Russian River Brewing called Supplication. This was the best I had tried so far. It was a Brown Ale with sour cherries and was aged in a Pinot Noir Barrel. Next was from Russian River and was called Consecration. This was a dark ale of some kind with currants and aged in Cabernet Sauvignon barrels. This one was my least favorite and it left me with a very sour stomach and the taste was very off putting.

The last I tried so far was again from Almanac and was Farmer’s Reserve Citrus. This was maybe the second best of the five sours I have sampled. It was the most balanced of the group in terms is sour/acidic versus sweet.

Lagunitas Brewing brews a beer called Little Sumpin' Wild that uses slight "wild" techniques to create a Belgian IPA, but this beer is not considered a "sour" but is an American Wild. There are some breweries that only brew sours. This is probably wise because sour brewing can easily infect standard beer brewing unless that is the effect you want to achieve. Borderlands Brewing in Tucson is an example of a brewery that exclusively brews sours.

Overall I find sours interesting, and I had no idea that they would be so bold. My expectations were that sours would be a variation of or similar to Chimay Ale, but they are so sour that they don't seem to resemble any "wild" beers I have tasted before from Europe. I don't see a large future for American Wild or sour beers but instead I see them as a niche beer. A small amount of people will want them and it will make a brewery that brews stand out as being unique. I will keep on trying them until I have tried most of them in hopes that I might find one that I like.

Be open to try new things because you never know when you will be surprised! All styles of beer are not for everyone. Drink good beers you like with other people who drink what they like to drink, and don't be judgemental that other people don't all like the same thing.

Nicole St. Germain

Nicole St. Germain is Creative Director of St. Germain Cellars, a craft beer snob, and a wine novice. Her cocktail of choice is anything with St-Germain liqueur.