Stylin’ & Profilin’: What is a Sour Beer?

Stylin’ & Profilin’ is a brief look at different beer styles that will help you learn whether they’re right for you. Ultimately, words can’t truly turn you on to a solid craft beer. You have to smell, taste, and savor each sip to truly discover if it’s one you’ll come back to in the future. But the background info obtained in this post won’t hurt anything either.

What is a Sour Beer?

Sour Beer GlassSours are a beer style characterized by an intentionally bold acidic, tart, and, just like the name says, sour taste. Any beer style can be soured, but the most common styles that lead to the most drinkable sours consist of lambics (more on those momentarily) and gueuzes.

How is this sour flavor accomplished? In a removal from standard brewing practices which are performed in a sterile environment to guard against the intrusion of wild yeast, sour beers gain their tart flavor profile by allowing the wild yeast strains or bacteria into the product. This practice was utilized by Belgian brewers who allowed the wild yeast to enter naturally through the barrels, but many brewers of today tend to avoid this process due to its unpredictability and risk of producing an inadequate finished product.

The three most common agents used in creating a sour beer are:

  • Lactobacillus – a major part of the lactic acid bacteria group, named as such because most of its members convert lactose and other sugars to lactic acid
  • Brettanomyces – a non-spore forming genus of yeast in the family Saccharomycetaceae and is often referred to as “Brett.”
  • Pediococcus – a genus of gram-positive lactic acid bacteria placed within the family of Lactobacillaceae.

Another popular method for achieving tartness is adding fruit during the aging process to cause a secondary fermentation. The most common fruits utilized in this practice are cherries (which produces kriek, a Belgian lambic style) or raspberries (which produce framboise, another lambic style).

Because there is so much involved in regards to uncertainty when it comes to utilizing wild yeast, the sour beer brewing process is one that requires incredible patience. Like some beer styles that can go from creation to consumption in a matter of weeks, this beer style takes months to ferment and, in many cases, can take years to mature. 

Despite what’s known as a risky and highly-specialized form of beer brewing, many brewers and breweries are taking their love affair with sour beers to new levels and making this style more popular and mainstream in the modern beer world. Staying innovative in craft beer is all about pushing the envelope, and we are seeing that with more and more modern brewers all the time. Originally established in 1836 in Belgium by the Rodenbach Brewery, the sour beer brewing process has spread beyond those borders with great acclaim. Many American breweries have implemented barrel-aging programs and production of these unique, tangy options are in full swing. Without question, this is one style of beer that’s seen a tremendous rise in popularity in recent times. 

Acquiring a taste for sour beers is not unlike when you transitioned from light, fizzy beer to your first craft offering(s). Undoubtedly, whether your selection was malt-forward or featured the bitterness of a Pale or India Pale Ale, your taste buds simply weren’t accustomed to the overwhelming contents of your pint glass. However, as you continued experimenting and trying new beers, your palate adjusted and your mind opened up.

Your experience with sour beers will be very similar. At first, that sharp front end will make you pucker up like in a big way. But as you adjust, you’ll begin to appreciate the uniqueness this beer style delivers. And, to further your appreciation, keep in mind that what you’re drinking took months, even years, to create.

Sour beers are not a style you’ll find on regular tap rotation at your neighborhood watering hole (yet). However, many craft beer bars who specialize in delivering rare and unique options to their patrons will have them available for your consumption. In addition, many of those same bars will hold special events and tap takeovers revolving around sours. When that happens, take a walk on the wild side and pucker up, baby!

Here’s a great article I found by David Flaherty of Serious Eats that will introduce you to, what he labeled, “The 20 Best New Sour Beers In The World.” As always, get out there, do some digging, and discover your favorite sour beers!





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