Offer up a sour beer and more often than not you will be met by polite decline or a blank expression.
My first exposure was while visiting a brewery, enjoying a beer with friends, and watching the brew master work his magic over the mash tun. He marched over to our table wearing galoshes and overalls, carrying a plastic pitcher filled with a frothy, cloudy liquid, and proudly offered us a sample of his creation. His excitement was halted abruptly in its tracks by our reaction – a pucker, a grimace, and a forced swallow. But, then… an “aha” moment-what was this new flavour experience? Not quite wine, not quite beer – it piqued my interest.
What exactly is a sour beer? Simply put, a beer style with an intentional, tart taste. A sour begins its life cycle the same as any other beer, with the base ingredients of water, wheat, malted barley, and hops. After the unfermented beer, called wort, is mashed and boiled, it is chilled down to a more hospitable temperature so that yeast can begin its alcohol-producing duties.
Open air fermentation and barrel-aging allow wild yeasts that are present everywhere in the environment to react naturally with the mash, or more practically, it is prompted by inoculation with bacteria such as lactobacillus (the same that produces yogurt), brettanomyces, or pediococcus. It can also be produced by tossing in fruit, exemplified by the kriek style. This genre of beers includes lambics, geuzes, Flemish ales, saisons, gose, and farmhouse ales. Not truly sour, they contain a range of acidic astringency based on method and blending techniques.
Sours are challenging, expensive, and risky to make. While most ales take two to three weeks to produce, sours can take two to three years. When space is at a premium, having this brew sit around, unsure if it will ever evolve into something delicious is a gamble. The nature of this brewing process has kept it at home in Belgium for much of history but the practise has seen a renaissance in North American breweries because of not only more adventurous brewers, but conscientious consumers continuing to demand more sustainable, natural, and locally brewed products. There is an argument that this beer style separates art from industry, and the enthusiast from those who just want a thirst quencher.
So why drink something you will likely not love at first sip? One reason is sour’s ability to pair with food. Their natural acidity makes it work with a range of ingredients and cut through fat. The second reason is ageability. Instead of a “best by” date on the bottle, don’t be surprised to see a “drink after” date. Many of these bottles can be aged for years, and will gain complexity and structure in the bottle. A third is price point; expensive by beer standards, it is a relative bargain in the wine world.
Sours are difficult to source in Calgary but ask your favourite store to point you in the right direction.
Lindemans Lambic comes in at least four flavours – framboise, cassis, peche or pomme – and two sizes – $7/330 ml or $12/750 ml.
The Cantillon Brewery was founded in 1900 and little has changed, offering still only lambics, krieks, geuze and faro styles. You will be able to find a variety of their products, but look for Rose de Gambrinus, a fruity lambic, Iris, made with fresh hops or St Lamvinus, with Bordeaux grapes added to the lambic. $31-$34/750 ml.
Two other Belgian products are 3 Fonteinen Oude Geuze, a blend of one, two and three year old lambics refermented in bottle for one year, and Oud Beersel, with blended lambics from a number of producers and suitably called Mega Blend. Priced from $12 to $40/bottle.
Duchesse de Bourgogne, produced by Brouwerij Verhaeghe is a Flemish red ale. With a taste profile of cherries and plums crossed with crab apples, it is sweet and sour in a bottle. $6/330 ml.
The Bruery from California produces a variety of sours, including Hottenroth Berliner Weisse ($12), Sour in the Rye ($21), containing 40% rye malt and aged in oak barrels for a year, and Tart of Darkness ($23), a sour style stout full of cherries and dark chocolate. All 750 ml.
New Belgium from Colorado has been expanding into our market with more than its regular labels. Their Lips of Faith series offer Transaltantique Kriek and La Folie in 750 ml bottles for $18.99.
One Canadian option is Ontario’s Nickel Brook brewery. Look for their Uber Berliner Weisse ($13.50), a sour wheat beer and Winey Bastard ($19), an imperial stout aged in pinot noir barrels.
Venture out and search for those elusive bottles – sour beer may initially be a bewildering anathema to your taste buds, but expect to be fascinated by the craft.
BJ Oudman is a physical therapist with a passion for food and wine. She travels the world when she has time between consulting in both physical therapy and wine.