Entire industries are built upon preventing food from going sour. But sometimes sour is just what you are after…especially when you are drinking beer.
Now, we aren’t talking about beers that have spoiled here but about beers that are intentionally made sour. Sounds like an odd concept n this day and age but it they are a style that have been around for a long time. The most famous of these beers being the Belgian Lambic beers. These are beers that have no yeast explicitly added to them. The brewers allow wild yeast to inoculate and ferment the beer. This is a concept that would scare most brewers but it is a way of brewing that can produce amazingly interesting and complex beers. These beers can be a real challenge to the novice but can also be very rewarding if you’re prepared to take the leap of faith. The strongest flavoured are described as smelling of wet dog and barnyard and tasting like malt vinegar. Don’t let this put you off. It is well worth discovering the world of sour beers.
There are many ways to approach sour beers and the beers described here provides a (relatively) easy introduction to the style. In addition to starting with more approachable examples of the sour beer style, I have also focussed on beers most people in Australia will be able to obtain with only a little effort. I was inspired to write this by the recent release, in Australia, of a new and interesting sour beer from the crazy guys at Mikkeller.
Where to begin with sour beers? In Australia this can be very difficult as there isn’t an enormous selection available. As our beer scene matures this should change.There are some locally produced examples but they are very few and very had to find. Western Australian brewer Brendan Varis is experimenting and with his track record, these beers are much anticipated. But for the purpose of this article I am going to focus on easier to obtain imports.
The first beer I am going to suggest to take you on your sour beer journey is from Mikkeller. This is not a traditional example of a sour style but a beer I think is very approachable for someone not used to these beers. The beer is from the Mikkeller yeast series and is the beer featuring Brettanomyces. This from a series of beers made with the same recipe, an IPA, but fermented with a range of yeasts. Brettanomyces is a strain of yeast not normally used in brewing though can be obtained in wild ferments. However, it is starting to be explicitly deployed to get the amazing characters it can impart to a beer.
This example has a nice hit of the “brett” character expressing it’s self as green apple like tartness with traces of pineapple and other acidic fruits. There is a very small trace of the musty flavours that are often described as barnyard. Despite how it sounds this is a good thing that you can learn to really enjoy. Add the big smack of hops and you get a surprisingly well balanced, approachable and drinkable beer. Without heading to the world of fruit spiked Belgian lambics this is about as easy an introduction you are going o get to sour beers. It’ a beer that real beer geeks and novices alike can enjoy.
If you make it past the entry level it’s time for something more interesting and more challenging for the palate. The next in line is Gueuze from Belgian brewery Cantillon. This is a truly traditional sour beer from one of the masters of the style.
Made in the traditional style using aged hops and an open spontaneous ferment, this beer is recognised as a benchmark of the style. The beer is a blend of one, two and three year old beers that combine to give a depth and complexity of flavour unrivalled by less sophisticated beers. Due to the way the beer is made the flavour you can expect from it will change from year to year. In this beer the musty barnyard and horse blanket like flavours become much more prevalent. The sourness is much more forward and, due to the very low hopping, you get to experience more of the fruity flavours produced by the yeast. Typically you will experience apple, pear and some tart citrus character. The descriptors used for this style of beer can, not surprisingly, scare people off but you shouldn’t let this happen to you as it can be a rewarding experience for a committed beer lover. This is one of the true classics of world beer still produced in a little shed outside of Brussels. Even if you don’t think you will like it this is one of the beers that all true beer lovers should try.
The third and final beer on my tour of sour beers is the Grand Cru from Rodenbach. This is another traditionally made and blended sour beer from Belgium. Most people who tried to start here would probably think this beer was a joke. It is an intensely sour beer that many describe as reminiscent of malt vinegar. Once I again, don’t let this put you off. Give it a go for yourself and you may be richly rewarded. This certainly isn’t a beer for everyone but those that love it are passionate about it.
This is a decidedly sour beer that does have intense vinegar and fruity aromas. The flavour is intensely sour. People not expecting this from a beer are often seen screwing up their faces. There is more to this beer with amazing oak barrel derived characteristics and fruity fermentation characters complimenting the sourness. Many won’t enjoy this beer but it really is something you should experience to have a complete experience of world beer.
If you are looking for something to eat with your sour beers I can’t help but think cheese. That said cheese can be often found passing through my beery thoughts. The acidity helps cut though the fat which in turn can help to buffer the acidity. I like a really mature cloth bound cheddar but even something creamier and milder would work.
There are many other beers that could be fit into these classes that you could try for an experience in sour beers. These beers have been picked as they represent a good collection that will be relatively easily obtainable. Don’t stop here though. Go out, explore and try as many of these beers as you can.