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Is Sour the New Hoppy?

We delve into the dark and mysterious world of sours

In our Summer Issue, Jeremy Sambrooks delves into the wild and wonderful world of sour and wild ales. Here is an excerpt from that feature… 

 

Spend time in a good craft beer bar and you’ll eventually hear someone utter the phrase, ‘sour is the new hoppy’. Let’s take a minute to examine that claim. A recent survey revealed that pale ale and IPA are Australia’s most consumed craft beer styles, while sour beers don’t crack the top five. Sales data from the US indicates that IPA continues to extend its lead as the most popular style of craft beer. No, hop-driven beers aren’t going to give up their dominance of the craft beer market any time soon. That said, while sour beers only account for a small percentage of sales, their popularity has risen exponentially in recent years, as more and more craft brewers are taking up the challenge of brewing these notoriously tricky beers.

It should be noted that while the beers discussed in this article all have degrees of acidity, simply calling them ‘sour’ – as is the modern trend – is selling them short. No other family of beers can match their complexity, or their combined abilities for refreshment, food-friendliness and cellar-ability.

The Brewers Association (BA) lists 10 distinct sour beer styles. Seven of these are historic beer styles – four from Belgium and three from Germany. The remaining three are products of the modern craft brewing revolution and have their roots in America.

 

BELGIAN SOUR BEERS

Until recently, almost all of the sour beer in the world was brewed in Belgium. These beers come from two distinct families – lambic and Flanders ale. Lambics are brewed in the Pajottenland region of Belgium, south-west of Brussels and in the city of Brussels at the Cantillon brewery. Much like Champagne or Kölsch, the lambic name is legally protected so only beers made in this region can use the name. Unlike most beers, which are fermented with cultivated strains of brewer’s yeast, lambics are spontaneously fermented through exposure to the wild yeast and bacteria native to the area. They are then aged in wooden lambic barrels where they are further fermented, aged and usually blended before final bottling.

Unblended lambics are rare, bracingly sour and typically served uncarbonated. Gueuze is a blend of young (one-year-old) and old (two and three-year-old) lambic that undergoes secondary fermentation in the bottle. These beers are usually highly carbonated and very complex, with flavours that range from cider, to barnyard and even cheese. Fruit lambics are usually made with young lambic and an addition of cherry (kriek) or raspberry (framboise), although other fruits are also used. Traditional fruit lambics are tart, very dry beers, although some more modern versions are artificially sweetened for a sweet ‘n’ sour finish. These beers are more approachable for most new to sours, though they are often looked down upon by lambic purists.

Flanders ales originate from West Flanders, Belgium and are primarily fermented with lactobacillus, which produces a sour character. They are aged for long periods – often over a year – in oak barrels, where they increase in complexity and acidity. Blenders will combine old and young beer to achieve a desirable balance, though flavour and acidity can vary greatly. Flanders ales are generally maltier than lambics with a fuller body and considerable fruit (usually cherry) flavour, even when no fruit is used. With their acidity, fruitiness and oaky notes, these are the most wine-like beers in the world. The Flanders style is often separated into the lighter, more acidic oud red and the stronger, sweeter oud bruin.

Australia’s first (and possibly only) brewery dedicated to the brewing of wild, spontaneously fermented beers is the Two Metre Tall Company (2MT), based in Derwent, Tasmania. The farm brewery is run by husband and wife team Ashley and Jane Huntington, the former being a lanky 200 centimetres in height, giving the name to the business.

“We’ve been operating since 2005,” says Ashley, “every ale we’ve ever made is a product of wild fermentation – either mixed culture or completely spontaneous. We are farmers, brewing beer on a farm and have openly embraced a method of beer fermentation which does not prohibit naturally occurring, wild microorganisms present in our environment to the exposed wort and/or beer. No days, no beer, no technique ever produces the same result. I love this – most brewers would fight to control this unpredictability, but I revel in it as the never-ending source of flavour excitement.”

 

GERMAN SOUR BEERS

Sour beers of German origin were all but extinct until quite recently. Thankfully, a small number of German breweries have held on to these traditional beer styles and a growing number of craft breweries have brought them back to life. First is Berliner weisse – a cloudy, sour, pale wheat beer of around 3 per cent alcohol, originating from North Germany. It is fermented with a mixture of yeast and lactic acid bacteria, for a clean sour character that is much milder than that found in its Belgian counterparts. The beer is highly carbonated and is usually served with flavoured syrups, most commonly raspberry or green woodruff, though this hides much of the beer’s subtle complexities.

One of Australia’s finest brewers of the Berliner weisse style is Brendan O’Sullivan, who is the head brewer at 3 Ravens. O’Sullivan’s experience brewing sour beers began when he was an amateur brewer.

“I started out brewing lambic style beers and Flanders-style ales, but the feedback loop was so long and I had so much invested in them that when the beers turned out poorly the disappointment was crushing,” O’Sullivan explains. “Berliner weisse (and the fast souring methods I’d heard whispers of) with a two-to-three-month turnaround seemed like a much better style with which to learn the ropes – no Enterobacter pun intended! Berliner weisse is also perfectly suited to Australian summer drinking, as it’s low in alcohol, super refreshing and great with summer fare. It’s also a brilliant gateway beer for cider and wine drinkers. I’ve believed in its potential since I was in my teens and it’s great to see it getting the traction it deserves.”

Gose (pronounced go-zuh) originated from the German town of Goslar, but gained popularity in Leipzig. Made with coriander and salt, gose is unusual for a German beer in that it does not comply with the Reinheitsgebot – it has been allowed an exemption on the grounds of being a regional specialty. Like Berliner weisse, gose is made with a percentage of wheat malt and gets its sourness through inoculation with lactobacillus bacteria. For periods throughout the 20th century, the gose style disappeared completely, but it has since gained popularity with craft breweries around the world.

Adambier is the rarest of the German sour beer styles and was completely extinct until quite recently, when a few craft breweries brewed their own versions of the ancient style. These beers are brown, malty and often smoky with some brettanomyces and lactic character from aging in barrels.

 

SOURS FROM ‘THE NEW WORLD’

Much of the current growth in popularity for sour beer can be attributed to modern craft breweries, which have been recreating once lost sour beer styles and taking them in new directions, creating new styles in the process. These include American-style sour ales, which are generally soured with bacterial cultures, wild beers, which undergo spontaneous fermentation much like their lambic cousins and contemporary gose, which differ from traditional gose by the addition of fruits, spices and other non-traditional ingredients.

One Australian brewer who has been kicking goals with ‘new world’ sours is Matthew Houghton, the owner/brewer at Boatrocker.

“I love everything about sours,” enthuses Houghton, “they are truly a test of skill, but also an adventure. They provide so much satisfaction as a brewer, mainly due to their complexity and ability to be a match for wine on the table. Sour beers present a number of challenges, the most important of which is consistency and a lovely flavour profile. Souring bacteria have the potential to create a lot of undesirable flavours and aromas – think baby vomit, butterscotch and baked beans, so knowing the correct strains to use and how to treat them to ensure you have a delicious sour profile is key.” Boatrocker currently has the largest barrel ageing program in Australia, with nearly 275 barrels filled with all sorts of sour beers.

 

While their challenging and time-consuming brewing methods probably mean that sour beers will never challenge the popularity of pale ale and IPA, it’s pretty clear by now that they are more than just a fad. These beers come from a rich brewing history and with a growing number of modern craft brewers taking them in new and exciting directions, it’s safe to say that sours are here to stay.

 

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