When a Sour Taste in Beer is Good

Sour is not typically a flavor you look for in beer — in fact, it’s usually a fault with the brew.

But sometimes a sour taste in beer can be a good thing.

This was the subject of a recent article in The New York Times entitled “Sour Beer Is Risky Business, Starting With the Name.”  Writer Lucy Burningham described this unusual style of beer that is popular in Belgium and starting to gain momentum in the United States.

In addition to the not so mouthwatering name, sour beer is not a sure bet for the brewer.  Some batches take as long as three years to develop the tart taste, while others may not develop at all.  Both can be very costly.  Still for many sour beer fans, it’s worth the risk.

From the article:

“I almost regret that we call them sour beers,” said Tom Nickel, owner of O’Brien’s Pub in San Diego. “The word ‘sour’ requires a bit of a leap of faith.” The best of some sour styles, such as gueuze, he said, have flavors like champagne or fresh lemonade. “You may not like the idea you’re drinking sour beer, but your mouth will like it.”

Sour beers get their distinctive taste during fermentation with special yeasts like Brettanomyces and lactic acid bacteria.  For additional flavor the beers can be aged in wood or stainless steel, or mixed with fresh fruit like raspberries or apricots (think Belgian fruit lambic).

Intrigued by the article, I decided to seek out a sour beer.  I picked up a bottle of La Folie, a sour brown ale from New Belgium Brewing in Colorado.  The beer (from the appropriately named “Lips of Faith” series), rests in French oak barrels between one and three years before it is bottled.

Color-wise the beer looked like any other brown ale, though I noticed a slight tart citrus aroma.  I took my first sip — wow, was it sour!  Almost like sucking on a lemon.  Of course I knew the beer would taste sour but I was unprepared for how sour it would actually be.

During my next few sips I was able to pick out more flavors.  The sourness came through first, much like the fruit in a “fruit forward” New World wine.  It was a mix of tart lime and sour green apple.  Beyond the sourness was the distinct flavor of the brown ale, dry with earthy undertones.

Together the flavors made for an unusual and complex treat for the tongue.  It was not a beer I could drink quickly; I took my time between sips.

Despite liking the sour taste of lemons and limes, I wasn’t too crazy about this beer at first — though it did grow on me as I continued to sip.  However I found my mouth tiring from the tartness after a while, and couldn’t finish the entire glass.

Would I drink sour beer again?  Sure, though I don’t think I would order it over my preferred styles.  But I’d definitely recommend it to anyone who is interested in tasting something new and different.

From The New York Times: Sour Beer Is Risky Business, Starting With the Name