“A good sour beer is like that friend you have who gets along with everyone she’s ever met.”
Sour? On purpose?
There are over 100 different style of beer. Digging into all of those is a feat in and of itself, but then layer on the sour beer styles and welcome to a world of frequent misunderstanding.
It’s not that the stuff is complicated. It’s just that sour beer is a little complex. So let’s go ahead and demystify it. Or try to.
And in a way that way that’s refreshing. And balanced. Not unlike Something in the Water Brewing Co.’s flagship, our Lee River Blackberry Vanilla sour. (The first and hopefully last shameless product plug you’ll find here.)
Sour beer is the oldest type of beer in history. Nearly all beer used to be at least somewhat sour with all the wild bacteria and yeasts flying around. No pasteurization. No sterilization. So naturally the OG beers of the Middle East and Europe were most certainly sour.
Fast forward to today, and LCBO will tell you:
Sour beer is one of the hottest beer styles in the world. These tart, bubbly brews appeal to both connoisseurs and casual beer lovers looking for something a little different. Forget bitterness — instead, these beers balance acidity and sweetness. They drink more like cider or wine than beer, wooing drinkers with their wonderful acidity and fruity centres.
And what do sours today taste like? Lemons? Cranberries? Vinegar?
Sour beer is unique, because the flavour doesn’t really taste like beer at all. Sour beer isn’t bitter, but very fruity. It’s got a tart, acidic kick. You know how a nice, dry champagne tastes? Picture that. Then tone down the bubbliness, and just like rosé or a kombucha, you have refreshment on a ridiculous level.
But yes, some sour beer can possess a very tart flavour. Some beers can even be as aggressive as sucking on a lemon. Or be a bit more balanced, like the sweet-and-sour interplay of a Sour Key candy. But like a great white wine, sour beers balance acidity and sweetness.
Beer writer Crystal Luxmore may have summed it up best: “A good sour beer is like that friend you have that gets along with everyone she’s ever met”.
What makes the beer sour? All those citrus fruits. Right?
You know what? It’s such a fascinating process, it would be a shame to hurry through it. But here’s the quick rundown:
Conventional beers are brewed with a single strain of yeast to yield the same taste in every batch. This is Saccharomyces cerevisiae which makes ales and Saccharomyces pastorianus which makes lagers. In sour beers, Brettanomyces is a wild yeast that makes the beer sour. Then there is also the wild bacteria: lactobacillus turns sugars into lactic acid (it’s the same acid that makes yogurt taste slightly sour) and sometimes pediococcus that’s often used in Belgian beers to add acidity. Some sour beers are made with lactose to get a creamier sourness or lactic acid to get a cleaner, more refreshing sourness.
What’s the best sour beer?
There’s no single definitive type of sour. There’s six styles, actually:
American Wild Ale. (Beers brewed in North America using yeast or bacteria for fermentation, along with a particular species of yeast that’s too wordy and scientific to casually namedrop here.)
Berliner Weisse. (The cloudy sour of around three per cent alcohol by volume, a regional variation of the wheat beer style from Northern Germany, dating back to at least the 16th century.)
Flanders Red Ale. (The sour fermented with different organisms, including one that produces a sour character attributable to lactic acid.)
Gose. (The one usually brewed with at least 50 per cent of the grain bill being malted wheat, with dominant flavours including a lemon sourness and a strong saltiness.
Lambic. (Its unique fermentation process renders its beer dry, vinous, and cidery, often with a tart aftertaste.)
And Oud Bruin. (Let’s just say it’s a long aging process.)
Where to start?
Actually the last shameless plug: start with ours. Our goal was to brew an exceptionally approachable sour. Sour and sweet. But not too sour and not too sweet. Blackberry for some tart, vanilla for some sweetness. If you like our Lee River Blackberry Vanilla, there are so many amazing sours from phenomenal breweries in Ontario and around the world. You will seldom go wrong. If you want recommendations, send us an email!
If IPAs pair with spicy food, what does sour beer pair with? Sour Patch Kids?
That probably would be pretty good, but let’s defer to our friends at the LCBO. They recommend you sip your sour beers with fruit or garden salads. With spring rolls. With fresh goat cheese. With anything you would squeeze citrus on. Fish burgers. Fish tacos. Grilled chicken. Thai curries. Veggie bowls.
There you go. A crash course in sour beer.
If you want more, check out this New Yorker beauty for a history of sour beers. They bring the usual flare and sophistication to the proceedings. Thrillist has a nice little primer, too. Oh, and check out this video from Eater, which also goes the demystification route. All requisite reading — and viewing.
Life is sweet. Have a sour.