How Sweet It Isn’t: Pucker Up For Sour Beers

By Sid Robinson

This story also appeared in the Jan. 14 edition of the Foothills Reader, a weekly Sunday section in the Los Angeles Times.

 

Just as IPAs captured the taste buds of craft beer drinkers looking for something other than “yellow fizzy beer” just a couple short decades ago, sour beers have recently emerged as one of the craft beer world’s most popular and fastest growing styles.

For people who’ve never tried a sour, or have only tasted a small sample, that probably comes as a big surprise. Their reaction probably was to pucker their lips as if they’ve just swallowed lemonade without a sweetener. It can come as a shock, and it’s far from a traditional beer.

In a world filled with obscure and complex offerings, how did sour beers become so popular? Because they’re good. It may take a bit to develop a taste for these styles that are intentionally acidic or tart, but then they can be light, refreshing and uniquely flavorful.

According to the Brewers Association, sour beer sales increased five-fold in 2016 over the previous year to more than 245,000 cases. The Brewers Association expects that figure to grow another 9 percent in 2017.

Sour beers are actually not new at all, but rather a take on traditional European styles such as Belgian Lambic, Queuze and Flanders Red Ale. American wild ales and mixed-fermentation beers are common at breweries producing sour beers.

The problem, of course, is that most breweries simply can’t mass-produce sours. That’s because sours use a variety of bacteria and wild yeast – rather than a single strain of yeast. Beer is typically brewed in completely sterile environments, and any stray or remaining bacteria could infect other beers, causing them to ferment longer and severely altering their flavor and consistency.

That’s why breweries such as The Bruery in Placentia (Bruery Terreux) and Firestone-Walker (Barrelworks) have opened separate breweries in remote locations for their sour beer programs.

It’s still rare to find smaller craft breweries offering only sour beers; Tool Box in Vista and the relatively new Sour Cellars in Rancho Cucamonga are exceptions. However, sours, including those from Sour Cellars, are readily available at most stores carrying craft beer.

As is advisable with any visit to a new craft brewery for the first time, a flight of sample tasters is the best way to get a feel for the beer maker’s offerings. Sour Cellars, a cool, funky tasting room with an eerie aura reminiscent of the 1990s “Twin Peaks” television drama, offers two separate flights of five beers each, plus two extra brews not on the flight list. They also had the “give me everything” option featuring tasters of all 12.

What separates sours from other styles of craft beer is that most are comparatively lower in alcohol. They also have distinct flavors of berries, peaches, cherries or other fruit. Others simulate wine styles. And, naturally, they are indeed tart.

Even with all of the great fruit-based offerings, my favorite from Sour Cellars was a golden sour ale dry-hopped with Azacca, Idaho 7 and Amarillo hops and boasting a distinct hoppy – but not bitter – flavor.

If you’re not ready for a full sour beer, start with a Gose style. Claremont Craft Ales offers a raspberry Gose on tap and in cans. CCA brews a number of other variations, and there at least six different Gose varieties on tap at Claremont’s annual anniversary event this past summer. Those hit the spot on one the 100-degree days that filled much of our 2017 calendar.

Here’s a tip for easing into an appreciation for sours. Start with a more traditional beer of your preference, and then move to a bigger beer like a stout or a porter (barrel aged is best). Then come back with a sour to cleanse your palate and alternate between heavy beers and lighter sours, which instantly become more refreshing and not-so-sour.

It’s the easiest way I know of turning lemons into lemonade.

 

This column is meant for entertainment and educational purposes and does not condone drinking alcoholic beverages. If you do, please drink responsibly.

Sid Robinson authors a blog, “Sips, Suds and Spirits” (www.sipssudsspirits.com) and is managing partner of the strategic communications and public relations firm Robinson and Associates, LLC. (www.robinsonandassociates.us)