An emerging category of American craft beers is wild and sour ales. These ales have passionate followings among both brewers and consumers. They are refreshing with intense flavors, sometimes with a rustic character, and can stand alone or pair well with foods such as cheeses and savory meals. To beer lovers, they offer new and vibrant taste sensations.
Sour ale brewing in the United States had its birth with New Belgium’s La Folie, first brewed in 1999. The growth in wild and sour ales in America has been pretty spectacular. At the Great American Beer Festival in 2002 there were only 13 entries for Belgian Sour beers. In 2012, there were 342 entries in American Sour, 29 in American Brett, 70 in Wood and Barrel Aged, 29 in Belgian Style Lambic and 42 more in German Style Sour.
Many people who are adverse to drinking beer because of the bitterness find that the acidity and fruitiness and often tannins and oak flavors in many wild and sour ales closely mimic those same familiar characteristics as in wine.
Sour beers clearly have a name problem. To many, “sour” conjures up something foul without connecting the taste to pickles, sourdough bread, yogurt and other delicious foods. With the growing interest and almost cult status of sour ales, the image definitely is improving. Brewers seem to be as passionate about brewing wild and sour ales as their customers are about drinking them.
The wildness of these ales comes from the use of the Brettanomyces yeast, which also is used for making Lambic beers. The sour character is produced by using specialized bacteria similar to those used for making yogurt. Wild and sour ales often can take between six and 18 months to produce, tying up large portions of the brewery and/or warehouse. These beers usually sell at higher price points than standard craft beers, in the range of $10 to $20 for a 750 ml bottle.
Most wild and sour ales are brewed using low bittering, aged hops since bitter and sour tend to clash. After brewing a base beer for primary fermentation, the resulting beer is aged in barrels, usually wooden oak barrels and often ones that previously held wine. Critical to most wild or sour ale programs is the blending of various aged beers to achieve either consistency, balance or whatever the brewer is seeking. This is important because of the variability of the beer in different barrels.
Wild and sour ales are far from easy to produce. However, they achieve flavor heights unavailable through any other brewing method and inspire both brewers and other beer lovers.
Riserva (11.7 percent alcohol by volume, ABV) is brewed with the addition of raspberries by Weyerbacher Brewery in Easton, Pa. Riserva has a quite sour nose with berry overtones. The light sour and moderate raspberry front moves into a middle where the sourness ebbs a tinge and the raspberry increases to medium. In the finish both the raspberry and sourness grow slightly, both continuing in the aftertaste where they are joined by a touch of oak. The high alcohol level is well blended and not apparent. Ratings: 9/9.
La Folie (6 percent ABV) is made by the New Belgium Brewery in Fort Collins, Colo. La Folie is a sour brown ale and the only beer in the New Belgium’s Lips of Faith series to be brewed year-round. It has a quite fruity, sour cherry aroma, which foreshadows its sweet and sour cherry front. The teasing sour fruity middle evokes thoughts of a sour apple cider. The finish has a beguiling cherry sourness and notes of apple, which continue into the quite dry aftertaste. There is no noticeable hop bitterness. Rating: 9.5/9.5.
Grand Cru (6 percent ABV), a world beer classic, is made by the Rodenbach Brewery in Roeselare, BE. The smooth Rodenbach Grand Cru has a sour nose bouquet with subtle dark fruit. The sour front with restrained sour cherry flavors continues into the middle, joined by a hint of sour grapes. The finish displays a trace of malt as the sour cherry decreases. The sour cherry continues to fade in the aftertaste leaving a lingering, biting sourness to this complex, well-balanced and distinctive brew. Ratings: 9.5/10.