The Sweetness of Sour Ales

Wednesday, December 12, 2012

At first blush, the concept of a sour beer seems entirely unappetizing. In most cases, sour beer is unappetizing because it’s the result of unwanted microbes infecting beer as it ferments. However, in skilled hands, these microbes, particularly Brettanomyces yeast and strains of Lactobacillus and Pediococcus bacteria, can be harnessed to make a unique, pleasantly tart range of beers.

Belgian breweries have been making sour beers for centuries, and in more recent years, a few very skilled American brewers have followed suit. Many sour beers are variations on Belgium’s lambic. In this style, the wort, the name given to the liquid extracted from the mashing process, is cooled and inoculated by whatever microorganisms are present in the brewery and its environs in a large pan-like vessel called a coolship. Then it is placed in barrels and allowed to age for a few years, sometimes with fruit such as cherries or raspberries for flavoring and additional fermentable sugar.

After a time (usually one to three years), the aged lambic is blended with younger batches to taste; some brewers will also set aside a small amount of unblended lambic (which is uncarbonated) for limited release. Aside from fruit-infused varieties, lambics are also mixed and bottled by the brewer to form a fizzy, tart beverage known as gueuze (or geuze as it is known in Flemish).

Other popular Belgian sours, including Flemish red and brown ales, undergo a similar fermentation and aging process, but with distinct ingredients, appearances and flavor profiles.

Aside from their characteristic tartness, these beers can have an almost wine- or champagne-like quality from their barrel-aging and lack of hop bitterness and, depending on the style, ingredients and the fermenting microorganisms, have an aroma ranging from intensely fruity to something a bit more, well … barnyard. Perhaps because of these unique characteristics, sour ales have seen a surge in popularity among beer and food aficionados.

Despite their reputation as a sort of beer-geek catnip, sours are also very popular with wine fans or folks who don’t normally like beer, due to their distinct flavor. Altogether, these are funky, fun beers that are worth a taste.

Pair them with salty or tangy cheeses, mussels or cured pork, and beer/food heaven awaits. Below are four Belgian and American sours that are easy to come by and won’t break the pocketbook. Cheers!

Rodenbach Grand Cru (Brouwerij Rodenbach; 6% ABV): A very easy-to-find example of a Flanders red ale, this beer pours a rich reddish-brown color and has a complex aroma, with hints of plums or dark cherries alongside the typical sour barnyard note. Flavor-wise, this beer is a real treat. The sour character is not too intense and is nicely balanced with a sweet fruitiness and a dry oak accent from the barrel. This specimen (and the style at large) is very accessible and reminiscent of a jammy red wine.

Lindemans Gueuze Cuveé René (Brouwerij Lindemans; 5%): If Rodenbach Grand Cru is like red wine, this gueuze is the equivalent of champagne. Gueuzes are blends of young and old lambics that are allowed to undergo another fermentation in bottles, giving them a bubbly, highly carbonated character. Gueuze Cuveé René is a tart, assertive beer with a pale straw color and distinctly dry character that would be familiar to anyone who likes dry white wines. Its relatively low alcohol content also makes it a nice hot-day beer.

Consecration (Russian River Brewing Company; 10.0%): Consecration was originally produced as a one-off beer in honor of Toronado’s 20th anniversary by the Russian River Brewing Company, and its popularity has kept it on the roster since. Consecration is aged with currants in Cabernet barrels for four to eight months and subsequently blended. The result is a dark reddish-brown ale with significant tartness up front, balanced by a full body and a richly complex array of flavors. It’s a sipper at 10%, and (despite the Comic Sans-laden bottle), a technically perfect work of art.

Oud Kriek Vieille (Brouwerij Oud Beersel; 6.5%): It’s pretty easy to know what’s in this beer because it smells like cherries and sports a deep red color with a cheerful pink head. The flavor is pleasantly tart, with a sour cherry character balanced by barrel funkiness. Despite what the presence of cherries might imply, this is not a sweet beer. Some fruit lambics (Lindemans Framboise is a common example) have sugar added to them after fermentation for sweetness, making them akin to a tart (and alcoholic) fruit juice. I like to err on the side of drinking beer, in which case Oud Kriek Vieille is an excellent choice.