Sour beers seem to be everywhere lately, popping up on the menus of hip restaurants and piquing the interest of beer geeks and casual drinkers alike. What was once a tiny category within the world of beer — and almost nonexistent in American brewing — has mushroomed into a dynamic movement. And while these brews might taste weird to the novice palate, they have staying power.
Sour beers used to be prevalent: Before brewing was a standardized, sterilized process, all beers had a naturally sour flavor profile due to conditions like poor sanitation, use of wooden barrels, and wild yeast finding its way into tanks of beer. With modern methods and materials, sour beers fell into a long period of neglect, with only a few breweries in Belgium continuing to make them.
Recently, though, American craft breweries began to test the public’s taste for sourness, putting out one-offs and occasionally introducing sours as a regular part of the lineup. Experimenting with sours is not just something a brewer can tinker with casually — it requires a big investment of time and money, not to mention crossed fingers. Sours usually achieve their flavor using bacteria like lactobacillus and special yeasts (including wild yeasts and the hardy, ravenous brettanomyces) which can easily cross-contaminate a brewery’s other recipes. Meticulous cleaning, or sometimes a whole different set of equipment, is required to ensure sour-making doesn’t ruin other batches of beer.
After fermentation, which can take months, a sour typically ages for up to a few years, often in oak barrels. (Ex-bourbon casks, former wine barrels, and the like have been popular choices for American brewers.) At the end of this multi-year investment, sours can still come out tasting off and ultimately unsellable.
Still, sours are everywhere this spring, serendipitously poised for pairing with tender green salads and fresh baby vegetables. Their combination of funk and fruitiness is uniquely suited to the changeable weather of March and April — comforting on rainy days, bracing when the wind gusts, and refreshing in the sun. (Our list of 10 great beers for spring list includes the Bruery’s Saison de Lente, a tart, earthy sour.)
Although they were once hard to find stateside, Belgian sours are becoming more common — look for Belgian red ale like Brouwerij Verhaege’s Duchesse de Bourgogne, lambic (or lembeek), gueuze, and kriek, a sour made with wild cherries. Berliner Weisse, made with lactobacillus and rapidly growing in popularity, provides a bright, citrusy base for mixing in flavored syrups — the traditional way to enjoy it. American sour ales are cropping up everywhere. Locally, check out Peekskill’s Simple Sour and Other Half Lembeek; nationally, see the several offerings from Jolly Pumpkin. Just don’t freak out over the prices — because they take so long to reach maturity, sours often cost significantly more than the average ale.
Not convinced that you’ll like them? Lucky for you, bars all over the city have jumped on the sour wagon and you can taste for yourself. The Farm on Adderley (1108 Cortelyou Road, Brooklyn) celebrated “Sour Beer Week” last week, and will keep pouring as the spring progresses. Standbys like the Ginger Man (11 East 36th Street), Blind Tiger (281 Bleecker Street), and Jimmy’s No. 43 (43 East 7th Street) also have sours available, as do Proletariat (102 St. Marks Place), the Double Windsor (210 Prospect Park West, Brooklyn), and Taproom 307 (307 Third Avenue).