Getting to know sour beer takes true dedication; the process is not like experimentation with any other kind of beer. When I think, “I could really go for a beer right now” (which is often), I seldom mean a sour.
But the reality of sour beer is that it compliments lots of foods, it is a prestigious category of brew, and some of the world’s most interesting beer lies here. I began drinking them a little over a year ago because my curiosity was piqued by Garrett Oliver’s The Brewmaster’s Table. Over the past year I have learned that sours are very divisive. Oddly, though, I don’t feel that I love them or hate them.
Once you get to know the radically different flavors and hopefully come to embrace them, sours are big-time palate enhancers!
I began last week dedicated to try more sours. On a very rainy Thursday (my one day off, how predictable) I talked my friend Adam into a beer hunt. It wasn’t hard.
But first, I’ll offer a brief and perhaps oversimplified breakdown of what is known as sour beer.
Think of the sour beer group as a big Venn diagram. Many of the brews fall into multiple categories based on their characteristics, and several types are exceedingly narrow and not found in their purest form in the U.S.
Sour Ales, according to the Beer Judge Certification Program, can be broken into several catergories: Berliner Weisse, Flanders Red Ale, Flanders Brown Ale, Straight Lambic, Gueuze, and Fruit Lambic. Technically speaking, a Lambic is only a Lambic if it is made in a very specific part of Belgium. True Lambics are exceedingly rare outside of Belguim, most are blended into a Gueuze or Fruit Lambic. Many American sours are often simply labeled “sour” or “wild ale” (but those two designations are by no means the same). Confused?
I won’t continue to
bog nerd you down with the details, but if you are interested, consult The Brewmaster’s Table or various resources online such as Beer Advocate for more information.
Anyway, back to the rainy Thursday. I was on a mission for the quintessential Flanders Red Ale: The Duchesse de Bourgogne. I’d wager that this is the most commonly seen Belgian sour on American tap lists. I made some calls, and it was off to the Red Cow for us!
When we arrived, we were very sorry to learn that they had just changed over the keg and the Duchesse had eluded us. But after a dedicated staff witnessed my disappointment, the manager was SO kind to retrieve another keg. I’m not sure where it came from and it was nothing short of magic. I truly appreciated it!
Flanders Red Ales date back to ancient tradition but began to be classified as such in 1820 by the Rodenbach Brewery.
The Duchesse de Bourgogne is a legendary beer. The beer is matured in oak barrels for about 18 months and then blended – older and younger beer together.
The beer is initially sweet and generally fruity and then takes an immediate left turn into very tart cherry notes. Some stone fruit, earthiness, and cocoa adds to the complexity. It ends with a very sour finish.
Flanders Red Ales are reminiscent of cider and of wine, but remain distinctly beer-y.
The beer paired perfectly with my Barcelona Burger – the sweet cut through the spicy aioli and the sour really underscored the smoky roasted red pepper and manchego. To top it off, the salted prosciutto made everything pop!
I really didn’t feel ready to head home after one sour, so I made my way to Muddy Waters in the Lyn-Lake neighborhood.
I was informed that Muddy Waters actually has a dedicated “sour line”, according to the bartender who kindly poured me a Le Terrior. They always have at least one sour available.
Le Terrior is the newest beer from the Lips of Faith series by New Belgium (remember their collaboration with brewery Vivant?). Translating to “the soil”, this is a hoppy take on a sour beer.
As discussed, this beer is dubbed as “American Wild Ale” or, more specifically, a “dry hopped sour ale”. It has been aged in barrels for two years and then hopped with Cascade and Amarillo.
Historically, hops have been used in wild ales purely as anti-bacterial agents with relatively little attention being paid to their flavor. Of course, over the years experimentation with hops has changed, as evidenced by the precise use of them in this brew.
I found the interplay of sour and hoppy to be intriguing. The fruitiness of the Amarillo hops comes through nicely and the tart acidity plays well.
The aroma is that of resin and citrusy notes. The beer is tart throughout, with characteristics quite unlike the Duchesse. The hops are impossible to ignore, but they don’t overpower anything else.
Sour ales are such a treat within the beer world. The are often overlooked by those that have never experienced them, but they are also adored and favored by many. They offer some of what cider and wine can in terms of food pairings and they offer the drinker a historical experience, as well.
The land of beer would not be the same without sour ales.
Stay tuned for a more in-depth look at Lambics, and as always, please suggest some of your favorite sour ales!
Addendum: The Twin Cities is spoiled in terms of excellent liquor stores. For tricks on finding sours if you aren’t so lucky, see: BierBattered’s advice.