The year was 1990. I was a young pup starting the 5th grade playing around on the school yard when I saw something strange. All of the kids were huddled around a lucky boy who looked to be sharing a new treat with the school yard. I wasn’t quite sure what it was, but it seemed like everybody was being give one of these flying saucer shaped candies, popping them in their mouths, making a disgusted look, then laughing as they ran away with distinctly blue tongue, showing anybody that would care to look. My curiosity was peaked so I thought I’d give it a go. I popped one in my mouth and immediately produced the exact face that everybody else had made and immediately spat it out. I’m not sure exactly WHY I thought my reaction would be different, but regardless this was my first introduction to sour candies.
Fast forward to 2014 at one of Dennis’ house parties and our introduction to sour beer was very similar. A friend opened a new beer we hadn’t seen or heard of before so we all huddled around with tasters curious to try it. He didn’t know what it was and picked it specifically because it had a cool looking hawk on it (FYI hawks are cool!) and was made by Driftwood. With all tasters poured we all took a sip and, just like the school yard kids years ago, we all had that look of disgust as we attempted to swallow this new “beer” and some even spat it out into the sink. Jesse quickly grabbed the bottle to read the label. “What the f%ck is a Flanders Red? Is it supposed to taste like this?”. The short answer? Yes. However, unlike the sour candies we’d tried in the past (and this being beer), we decided to stick to it and give it another shot. After having a few more sips we began to appreciate the type of flavor that was being produced. This was our first introduction to Sour Beers and was our first step into a much larger and very interesting world.
So far there are six official styles for Sours (according to BCJP), but many brewers are all ready experimenting and creating soured versions of their regular beers. This can make it difficult for the new comer to find a starting point to ease into the Sour styles and fully appreciate the flavors that are being produced and discover what styles they may or may not enjoy. Rather then give a detailed description of all the styles, we’re going to share a few of the basics so that you can get a better idea of what to look for when you decide you want to dip your toe in. Enjoy!
Love me a good Berliner Weisse! It is light in alcohol, effervescent, and refreshing. Making for a great summer seasonal. While the sourness can be quite sharp, it is actually very clean and has characteristics similar to Champagne. In fact, Napoleon’s troops referred to the style as “The Champagne of the North” all the way back in 1809 (before sour candies). If somebody was to ask me “what style of sour should I start with” this would be your safest bet. Some good local commercial examples we’d recommend can be found at Old Abbey Ales in Abbostford and Four Winds Brewing in Delta.
While I’ve grown to love the style, it is not for the uninitiated (see paragraph number two). Think of this as a maltier, higher alcohol, and more complex Berliner Weisse. Which, now that I write that out, suggests that it’s not really anything close to a Berliner Weisse at all. So scratch that last statement. It’s much darker, smoother, and has a more substantial fruity character. Very similar to a fine wine but, you know, sour. Depending on the brewer, the sourness can range from balanced to intense and typically has a much higher alcohol level. If somebody offers you one of these you may want to deeply inhale the aroma first to properly prepare you for what lies ahead. Some tasty local examples can be found at Yellow Dog Brewing in Port Moody and Storm Brewing in Vancouver.
What about Wild Ales?
Sours are really popular right now, but Wild Ales are also all the rage. These are NOT to be confused with Sours, but some may have sour or tart characteristics, these do not necessarily mean they are categorized as “sour beers”. The most common ingredient with these beers is a microbe called “Brett” (short for Brettanomyces) that can create a broad range of different flavors and aromas. This is added during fermentation and typically creates a musky “horse blanket” funk to the aroma, while also introducing tropical fruit and earthy farmhouse characters to the flavor. Sounds weird? Yeah, kinda. However, when you consider that those microbes are typically found in farmhouses and barnyards where farmers used to brew their own beer it all makes perfect sense. Traditionally speaking Brett can be found in Saisons and other Belgian beers, but lately brewers have been experimenting with its use in non-traditional styles. Brett IPA’s, Brett Browns, Brett Blondes…throw out a beer style and there’s a good chance that they’re adding Brett to it (and yes, Sours can be thrown in with those styles). It’s hard to give proper commercial examples, but if you’re about to try a “Wild Ale” from a local brewer, then you may want to inquire on how it came to be. Some may have a mixed fermentation using a combination of Lacto (short for Lactobacillus and is the key to souring beer) and Brett to create something very complex and different from traditional Sours. If those types of questions go over the bartenders head, then fear not! For, if it is sour, there’s a good chance that Lacto is in there somewhere making it some kinda weirdo Sour-ish, Brett, Wild Ale monstrosity. The likes of which mere mortals have never seen!….Or not…Most likely not….okay forget I ever said that. Just drink it, I’m sure it’s tasty. Four Winds are actually become widely renowned for their Wild Ales. Here’s hoping they come up with a few more sour styles in the near future as well!
So that’s it for now. Again, these are just some basics and are generally pretty easy to find locally. Oud Bruins, Lambics, Geuzes, and Fruit Lambics are other traditional styles to keep an eye out for, but may be harder to find since they usually require longer aging, the blending of older batches, or are just a little too sour for most peoples palettes. Keep in mind that Sours are not for everybody. If you try a few and don’t like them then it doesn’t mean you’re a bad person, it just means that your taste buds may be extra sensitive to sour flavors or you may not have found one that you like. So best not to commit to filling a 64oz growler or a bottle until you’ve figured that out. Sours can also be more costly to produce which means you may be spending more money on something that you may not even like. I’d encourage you to visit the tasting rooms and stick with tasters until you find something that works for you. Enjoy!