How I learned to stop worrying and love sour beers

Sour beers have been commercially available in the U.S for nearly 50 years, but have been in existence for much longer.  But my introduction to them, admittedly, did not go well. I think now, my tongue and my palate were just not prepared.

Then this happened.  I was sitting at the beer bar at Whole Foods in the Central West End.  Molly was behind the bar as I perused the on-tap list, deciding on Urban Chestnut’s Mercator.  The funny thing is I ordered it not really knowing what it was, or perhaps I thought I was ordering something else, but the reality was I just ordered a sour.

I learned this just a moment before my first sip, as I rushed to take a picture for my UnTappd check-in. In doing so, I learned that Mercator was indeed a sour, or more specifically a Flemish Sour.

My re-introduction to sours went much better this time, as I think I learned how to drink them.  For me, sours are to be sipped, not guzzled, like taking small bites from a delicious meal.  The pleasure in the sour is in the swallow and this is where you determine your love or non-love for a sour.

Why is this important?  For me, it’s because, while I know one person cannot love everything they drink, it is possible and much more fun to be able to appreciate everything they drink.  So, discovering a huge, new style of beer, makes drinking them and writing about them much more enjoyable.

A sour beer, simply put, is a beer with a lower pH, which is almost always achieved through the addition of lactic acid. There are a variety of ways to create a sour beer but they mainly fall into 3 categories. 1) The Quick Sour, 2) The Slow Sour and 3) The Cheater Sour.

The Quick Sour is also commonly known as kettle souring and usually takes around 24 hours to process.  The wort, (pronounced wert) which is the liquid extract from the mashing process, is boiled and fermented with traditional ale yeast. The result is a pleasant, refreshing tartness.

Ever heard of a Berlinnerwiess and Gose? They are both quick sours.

The sourness in this beer is stable from the time that the beer boiled, it will not sour anymore if its aged.

“The benefit of brewing sour beers this way is simple. Its quick,” says sour brewing expert Derrick Langeneckert, Head Brewer at Alpha Brewing Company in South City. “It’s a simple way to create a good product.”

The Slow Sour or Aged Sour usually takes months to years to achieve. Beer styles that are brewed with Aged Souring would be Lambic, Gueuze, Flemish styles (Mercator) and other barrel aged or Foeder aged sours.

The process for an Aged sour is to brew a normal beer, boil it like any other beer and then pitch lactic acid fermenting bacteria into the fermenter along with brewers yeast.

This production method usually allows brewers to blend flavors from oak barrels, the beer absorbs the flavors of the barrels, creating a more complex beer.

Typically in this production method, the brewers’ yeast will eat most of the sugars in the initial wort. This is where the barrel becomes more important. The wood is slightly porous and allows micro-oxygen into the beer allowing the lactic acid producing bugs to continue their fermentation.

“The upside to brewing beers this way is the complexity of the flavor,” said Langeneckert. “The downside is that it takes a long time. A minimum amount of time you’d ever want to brew an aged sour would be 6 months. Some of these beers can take years.”

According to Langeneckert, The Cheater Sour is a boneheaded way for mega beer factories to create sour beer. “It’s pretty easy with no risk. Brew a beer, add commercially available lactic acid. Done. Its cheap, it’s easy, and it tastes like it.”

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