Tapped In: The sweet taste of sour beers makes a comeback

February 14, 2015, 2:00 PM UTC
New Belgium Brewery co-founder Kim Jordan
New Belgium CEO Kim Jordan drinks a Fat Tire beer in the Foeder Forest, brewery’s wood beer cellar in Fort Collins, CO.
Photograph by Benjamin Rasmussen for Fortune

Valentine’s Day may be generally associated with sweetness, but if you want to win the heart of a craft beer lover, sour is the way to go this year.

Tangy, sour tasting beers are the hottest trend in the craft world these days – and they’re resulting in some really interesting (and really tasty) concoctions.

Despite the name, not every sour is a lip-puckering experience. Some are aggressively tart, but others are more earthy – and it’s one of the few beer styles where “funky” is a compliment. And because of their distinct taste, they’ve become an increasingly popular choice for food pairings, going especially well with seafood and select cured meats and cheeses.

Creating a sour beer is often more challenging than putting together an IPA or other common style. Instead of keeping wild yeast out of the brewing process, it’s encouraged – and it’s easy for things to go wrong. As a result, some craft brewers are approaching the trend cautiously.

Some, though, like California’s Russian River Brewing Company and Colorado’s New Belgium, are rushing in. New Belgium makes three varieties, while Russian River has four barrel aged beers that sit for anywhere from four months to a year in wine barrels.

“I like that the yeast is in charge,” says Vinnie Cilurzo, co-founder of Russian River. “In all of these, the beer tells the brewer when it’s ready, not the other way around. … I think it’s the next great challenge for brewers. I don’t want to say we’ve conquered hops, but … everyone and their brother makes IPAs now. This is an extension of the brewer’s creativity.”

Sour beers can be an acquired taste, but the good news is they come with varying layers of tartness. Here are some of the best we’ve found (and, as always, be sure to add your suggestions in the comments below):

Westbrook Gose – Once virtually extinct, Charleston, SC’s Westbrook single-handedly brought this German-style sour wheat beer back to the U.S. It has a salty, sour-y taste that’s surprisingly refreshing. You’ll smell the coriander it’s made with, but the mouth experience is more citrus-like, with hints of grapefruit and green apple. The salt brings about a slight pucker at the finish, but it’s not overwhelming. And if you’ve got access to it, it could easily become a favorite summer beer. (ABV: 4%)

Russian River Consecration – Widely considered one of the best sours on the market, Consecration is a well-balanced ale that’s aged for 4-8 months in Cabernet Sauvignon barrels. It has a tangy tartness that mellows into a beer with black currant/sour cherry notes that linger a bit on the finish. If you’re unable to get your hands on this, Russian River’s Supplication (a sour brown ale) is just as good – and maybe better, depending on your tastes. (ABV: 10%)

New Belgium La Folie – Credit New Belgium with being up-front about this Flanders Oud Bruin. The company labels the bottles as part of its “Lips of Faith” series. The sour cherry flavor that goes with this style of beer is present, but La Folie is unquestionably a heavy pucker sour. It has a nice yeasty funk and good acidity and it’s a beer that would seemingly pair wonderfully with Chinese take-out. Worthy of note: It’s only available in a bomber bottle, so find someone to share it with – as 24 oz. may be too much for a single person. (ABV: 7%)

Brouwerij Van Honsebrouck Bacchus – Craft brewed in Belgium, Bacchus is a good starter beer for people dipping their toes in the sour waters. It’s a Flanders oud bruin style beer that smells and tastes of sour cherries with a dark red/brown appearance. There’s a malty sweetness layered in with the sour that balances things nicely – and this is a beer that really opens up as it warms in the glass, giving it a wonderful compexity. (ABV: 4.5%)

Evil Twin Sour Bikini – You don’t find a lot of sour ales around, so Evil Twin wins points for originality. Sour Bikini is tart and refreshing, but not overpowering. The ale and sour tastes get a bit muddled, but that’s not a bad thing, actually. There’s none of the hoppy bitterness you might expect from an ale, with citrus instead proving to be the lingering flavor. It may be a bit light for colder climates right now, but it’s another example of a sour that’s well suited for warm afternoons. (ABV 3%)

Petrus Aged Red – Very heavy on the sour cherry flavor, it’s easy to get just a so-so first impression from this one. Let it warm up a bit, though, and it’s a flavor explosion in your mouth. The tartness is fairly muted. In fact, it’s an incredibly sweet beer, leaning more towards the Lambic family with its fruity tastes. It’s a great way to finish off a good meal. (ABV: 8.5%)

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