Sour ales—the lemonade of beers some might say—are the ultimate summer sippers. They’re refreshing and generally low in alcohol (great for poolside imbibing), but offer enough flavor intrigue to keep serious beer drinkers happy. Once the norm in leading beer nations like Germany and Belgium, sour brews have a rich and lengthy history dating back to 15th century and culminating in a recent resurgence in popularity—especially in the United States. While the tart and tangy beers available to us today are largely modern interpretations of antique brewing methods and parameters, plenty remain deliciously authentic to traditional flavor profiles in the final brew. Below is an introduction to the sour beers you need to try now—say “hello” to your new must-have quencher.
Berliner Weisse Area of Origin: Berlin ABV: 3-4% Flavor Highlights: Berliner Weisse is bright, crisply tart, and distinct in its signature clear and clean flavor profile. This brew’s zippy effervescence makes it especially ideal for summer. BW’s sour flavor is defined by lactic acid. Brewers following more traditional methods will brew with a bacterium called lactobacillus, which eats sugar and produces lactic acid (along with a number of other compounds) during fermentation. Alternatively, food-grade lactic acid can be added later in the process. This gives a brewer greater control over the acidity, but will not yield the same depth of flavor. Grade-A Domestic Pick: Dogfish Head Festina Peche (ABV: 4.5%)
Gose Area of Origin: Goslar ABV: 4-6% Flavor Highlights: The gose is a complex brew with numerous flavor layers at work: sour, salty, spicy, and delicious. Slightly less tart than a Berliner Weisse, more of the beer’s malted wheat comes through on the tongue. Brewed with lightly salted water, a curious—yet addictive--salinity is this sour ale’s defining personality trait. The beer finishes gently with a delicate hint of coriander. Dynamic and clean, the gose is a must-try for all adventurous beer drinkers. Grade-A Domestic Pick: Westbrook Brewing Co. Gose (ABV:4%)
Lambic Area of Origin: Brussels ABV: 3.5-5% Flavor Highlights: One of the only beers traditionally made through spontaneous fermentation (rather than add yeast to the wort, brewers allow wild yeast into the beer during early stages of fermentation), lambics are highly complex and and vary in taste from bottle to bottle. Lambics are aged for 1 to 3 years to develop character, and most of the final bottled products are a blend of multiple batches, masterfully combined to create balance. To take the complexity a step further and soften the sharp acidity, some lambics are brewed with fruits like cherries (called kriek) and raspberries (called framboise). Grade-A Domestic Pick: Allgash Brewing Company Coolship Red (ABV: 5.7%)
Wild Ales Wild Ale is a category that entails most modern experimentations with tart ales—they include all beers characterized by fermentation with wild yeast and bacteria. They range from light to dark, high alcohol to low, bright and fruity to complex and funky. That said, these brews are a great place to start a love affair with sour sips given their diversity and accessibility. Here are a few of our favorite:
- New Belgium, La Folie Sour Brown Ale, (ABV: 7%) - Boulevard Brewing Company, Love Child No. 6, (ABV: 9.2%) (Keep an eye out for Love Child No. 7, hitting shelves May 2016) - Jester King Brewery, Atrial Rubicite, ABV: (4.9%) - Russian River Brewing Company, Supplication, (ABV: 7%)
*Note: Historically, these are very light and drinkable wheat beers. However, most modern U.S. interpretations have boosted the alcohol by volume (ABV) a bit.