Despite the early warning cries that they were a passing trend, sour beers—those fermented with wild yeasts and bacteria—aren’t showing any signs of slowing down. So here we are again, taking yet another walk on the wild side.
While sour beers aren’t new—in fact, they are rooted in European brewing traditions that date back hundreds of years—they’ve become surprisingly popular, appealing to beer- and wine-lovers as well as cross drinkers who are fond of an acidic twang in their glass.
To make sours, “wild” yeasts or bacteria—like Brettanomyces, Saccharomyces, Pediococcus and Lactobacillus—are added during fermentation. This can be done somewhat naturally, including through the use of a coolship, a broad, open-top vessel, to encourage spontaneous fermentation, or through measured dosing.
These microorganisms impart a distinct sour imprint as well as possible barnyard, animal or earthy tones. It may sound funky, but the best bottles boast serious personality, complexity and ageworthiness.
They might sound funky, but the best sour beers boast serious personality, complexity and ageworthiness.
While traditional sours are usually created through a second fermentation and long aging in barrels, a recent rise in kettle souring, where wild organisms are pitched directly into the kettle before a traditional fermentation, has allowed more brewers to jump on the style without the need for a massive barrel inventory or long cellaring times. However, it’s widely believed that the best and most long-lived examples are ones that use traditional methods and barrel aging.
The key to a well-made wild ale is balance. Forward sour, tart and fruity aromas and flavors produced by wild yeast strains and bacteria should be center stage, but not completely overwhelming. A malty core or rich fruit flavors should lend balance to the bright acidity and funky overtones. A pleasant, subtly tannic texture and dry finish, which also comes from oak aging, helps to round out the experience.
Often compared to fine red wines in their acidic and textural attributes, wild ales can be remarkably complex and nuanced. Enjoy your wild ride.
Recommended Sour Beers to Try, 90 Points and Above
Beachwood Blendery Funk Yeah (Belgian-style Gueuze; Beachwood Blendery, CA); $20/500 ml, 96 points. A golden beauty, this blend of one-, two- and three-year-old Belgian-style lambics is an homage to traditional Belgian gueuze bottlings. Fermented and aged in oak barrels, it’s a complex and layered selection, with an earthy, woody overlay to the ubertart and mouthwatering stone-fruit, white-grape and citrus characteristics. The palate is full of acidic energy and vinous in feel, yet also simultaneously concentrated in wild grains, barnyard straw and fresh-cracked wheat before resolving on the finish to a bright lemon-zest twang. It’s superbly balanced, with a long, evolving finish. While it’s easy to enjoy now, this should age wonderfully over the medium-term. abv: 6.4%
Side Project Brewing Blanc de Blancs Blend #2 (Bière de Champagne; Side Project Brewing, MO); $20/375 ml, 95 points. Fermented in wine barrels with California Chardonnay grapes and aged in oak for more than 18 months, this is an intricate, nuanced pour that should appeal to wine- and beer-lovers alike. Aromas of white grape, green apple, lemon peel and pineapple rind immediately waft from the glass, while hints of fresh wheat, yeasty spice and barnyard appear upon deeper nosing. The palate is bright and lively in feel, despite the alcohol, thanks to tart citrus and stone-fruit flavors framed by aggressive acidity. Subtle hints of lemon pepper and earthy funk linger on the close. abv: 10%
Springdale Friends in Merlot Places (American Wild Ale; Springdale by Jack’s Abby Brewing, MA); $13/500 ml, 94 points. From Springdale, the sister brewery for ale and wild-fermentation experimentation to the lager-centric Jack’s Abby Brewing, this oak-aged sour was brewed with California Merlot juice then aged eight to 12 months in red-wine barrels made from French and American oak. The result is a harmonious, vibrant and grapy pour, with assertive vinous aromas of tart raspberry, cherry and balsamic that are partnered with seductive hints of cocoa powder, caramel and raw sweet dough. The palate is light and effervescent, with a tart mouthwatering pucker that leads the finish but is followed abruptly by whispers of sweet oaky spice, cocoa nib and leather. abv: 9.5%
Area Two Brett Noir (American Wild Ale; Two Roads Brewing Co., CT); $12/375 ml, 92 points. From Brewmaster Phil Markowski and the new Two Roads outpost, Area Two, this tasty exercise bridges the wine and beer worlds. An ale fermented with Pinot Noir grapes and Brettanomyces Bruxellensis yeast, then aged for nine months in French and American oak sourced from two Napa Valley vintners, it has a pronounced vinous character, with notes of tart cherry, balsamic herbs, pink apple, lemon pith and dry, oaky spice. It’s tangy and refreshing, with a cleansing pucker followed by an evolving finish that offers notes of leather, dried orange blossom and cocoa-dusted cherry skin. abv: 6.5%
Hopewell Brewing Co. Electric Jewel (American Wild Ale; The Hopewell Brewing Co., IL); $14/500 ml, 92 points. This oak-aged wild ale, which was refermented with over 200 pounds of fresh, local pawpaw fruit, is a bright and tangy delight. It’s not shy in its fruity profile, with abundant aromas and flavors of green mango, pineapple core, underripe papaya, lemon and, of course, pawpaw fruit. Those fruity tones are complemented by an earthy overlay of barnyard hay, yellow flowers and oak, all harmoniously integrated into the experience. The texture is light and brisk in feel, with good carbonation and tart, slightly funky acidity that carries through to the mouth-puckering close. abv: 6.2%