Sour beers are a growing summer trend
WRITTEN BY MATT BRASCH
For Digital First Media
The past few years have seen the growth of a beer style in the U.S. generally referred to as “sour beer.” For many of us whose tastebuds normally crave the sweetness of malt and the bitterness of hops, the concept of a sour beer initially might sound downright disgusting. Even if you force yourself past your preconceived notions and try a sour beer, your first sip is guaranteed to be surprising. But with the understanding that the beer was actually meant to taste this way and allowing the underlying flavors to cut through the sourness, you may find that sour beers will become another style to look forward to when heading for an evening at your local bar or brewpub.
As proof that sour beers are truly intended to be sour and were not a brewery accident, the Beer Judge Certification Program 2015 Style Guidelines have identified the style as “European Sour Ale,” and define it as “produced, many (but not all) with a wheat component. Most have low bitterness, with the sourness of the beer providing the balance that hop bitterness would otherwise contribute. Some are sweetened or flavored, whether at the brewery or upon consumption,” as stated in http://www.bjcp.org/docs/2015_Guidelines_Beer.pdf. Within the style of European Sour Ale are several subcategories that may sound familiar to anyone who has read a tap list recently — Berliner Weisse, Flanders Red Ale, Oud Bruin, Lambic, and Gueuze (not to be confused with Gose, which probably should be in the category as well, but is not currently).
Many of the sour beers as we know them today arose from Belgium, through the Flanders Red Ale, Oud Bruin, Lambic, and Gueuze styles. Well-known representations of the styles include Lindemanns Framboise Lambic, Duchesse De Bourgogne Flanders Red, and Cantillion Gueuze. For German beer fans, the Berliner Weisse style is probably the most surprising — although its name indicates it is from Germany, it tastes nothing at all like a standard German lager. It is described by the BJCP Guidelines as, “A very pale, refreshing, low-alcohol German wheat beer with a clean lactic sourness and a very high carbonation level. A light bread dough malt flavor supports the sourness, which shouldn’t seem artificial.”
Steve Robson, the winner of the inaugural Philly Beer Geek competition in 2008, recalls his first sip of a sour beer, “It was the Duchess De Bourgogne from Brouwerij Verhaeghe. I just loved the sweet and tart flavor of it. It made me open my eyes and ask, ‘What is this?! I need to investigate this style of beer more!’ ” Robson still enjoys sour beers, “Aside from the fact that they are sour and great when you want something refreshing, I really appreciate the complexity and nuances of the flavor profile that comes from the varieties of yeast, processes used, and aging — especially aging in wood barrels.”
U.S. craft brewers have embraced the sour beer style. Last summer, Victory Brewing Co. received rave reviews for its “Sour Monkey,” a Belgian style, spiced golden ale brewed with Brettanomyces yeast that provides the tartness; Sour Monkey is coming back this month due to high demand. Lansdale-based Round Guys Brewing Co. has impressed many with “The Berliner,” a Berliner Weisse style that is offered with two traditional flavored syrups — Woodruff and Raspberry — to cut the sourness.
Free Will Brewing Co. in Perkasie is well respected for its sour beers, which is the result of the passion of its co-owner and Brewmaster, John Stemler. Before opening Free Will, Stemler enjoyed sour beers so much that he “decided to start making them for myself. Having studied Biology and Chemistry at college, sour beer creation appealed the most to both my palate and my brain. The intricacies of brewing sour beer is the perfect blend of art and science.”
Free Will’s website describes their lambics as “fermented with our house blend of wild yeasts, and beer-friendly bacteria, to create a superior complexity in this sour ale. Notes of lavender, spice, fruity esters, and the general funk one expects from a lambic, give way to a bright, clean, yet sour character.” http://freewillbrewing.com/index.php/beer/sours/.
In addition to the traditional sour cherry (“Kriek”) flavored lambic, Free Will also produces Peach, Key Lime, Pomegranate, and Barbera Grape lambics. Stemler says that the reactions of those trying his beers for the first time are either “Wow! This is awesome!” or “Wow! This is terrible;” but he is fine with that because “Some people have a palate that enjoys the funky or sour, but others do not and are completely put off.” He also does not believe that sour beer is an acquired taste, “If you do not like it, don’t drink it; there is nothing wrong with that.”
Many sour beers — especially Free Will’s — can be found on taps in the Philadelphia region; but if you want to go to the source, Free Will will be hosting its fourth “Sour Sunday” of the year on Sunday, Aug. 28, 2016 from noon to 7 p.m. The event could be a great opportunity to try a sampling of several Free Will sours and find out whether sour beer is for you. So leave your expectations behind, pucker up and try some sour beer this summer!
Columnist Matt Brasch is a beer enthusiast and a lifelong Montgomery County resident. For more, go to http://thebrewholder.com and follow him on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram at “The Brewholder.”