Sour Beers Are Here to Stay
Despite the early warning cries that they were a passing trend, sour beers—those fermented with wild yeasts and bacteria—aren’t showing any signs of slowing down. So here we are again, taking yet another walk on the wild side.
While sour beers aren’t new—in fact, they are rooted in European brewing traditions that date back hundreds of years—they’ve become surprisingly popular, appealing to beer- and wine-lovers as well as cross drinkers who are fond of an acidic twang in their glass.
To make sours, “wild” yeasts or bacteria—like Brettanomyces, Saccharomyces, Pediococcus and Lactobacillus—are added during fermentation. This can be done somewhat naturally, including through the use of a coolship, a broad, open-top vessel, to encourage spontaneous fermentation, or through measured dosing.
These microorganisms impart a distinct sour imprint as well as possible barnyard, animal or earthy tones. It may sound funky, but the best bottles boast serious personality, complexity and age worthiness.
They might sound funky, but the best sour beers boast serious personality, complexity and age worthiness.
While traditional sours are usually created through a second fermentation and long aging in barrels, a recent rise in kettle souring, where wild organisms are pitched directly into the kettle before a traditional fermentation, has allowed more brewers to jump on the style without the need for a massive barrel inventory or long cellaring times. However, it’s widely believed that the best and most long-lived examples are ones that use traditional methods and barrel aging.
The key to a well-made wild ale is balance. Forward sour, tart and fruity aromas and flavors produced by wild yeast strains and bacteria should be center stage, but not completely overwhelming. A malty core or rich fruit flavors should lend balance to the bright acidity and funky overtones. A pleasant, subtly tannic texture and dry finish, which also comes from oak aging, helps to round out the experience.
Often compared to fine red wines in their acidic and textural attributes, wild ales can be remarkably complex and nuanced. Enjoy your wild ride.