The Craft Beer Cognoscenti Embrace Sours (Again)

sour beers trend
Animation by Eric DeFreitas

Brewmaster Christophe Gagne of Hermit Thrush Brewery, which exclusively makes sour beers, can barely keep up with demand. When the Brattleboro, Vermont-based brewer opened six years ago, it produced two batches of beer per week. Now, the facility operates 16 hours a day, seven days a week to keep up with sales. It recently introduced new versions of its signature sour, Party Jam, with flavors like passion fruit and blackberry.

“We got a lot of eye rolls [when we opened] in 2014, but I think I get the ‘told ya so’ moment pretty soon,” says Gagne.

Craft beer enthusiasts accustomed to parsing the crispness of Pilsners, the hoppiness of India pale ales (IPAs) and the sumptuousness of stouts have increasingly embraced sours. It’s a catchall name for beers often fermented with wild yeast and balanced with unique combinations of fruit and other flavors.

Purists who typically regard adjunct ingredients as signs of an inferior beer now effuse over the blueberry-pomegranate-coffee blend in Mikkeller’s Jammy Buggers, and praise FREETHOUGHT’s Fourth Wave, which is soured on lingonberries and brewed with sansho pepper and lemon verbena.

Sours have gained a significant following in part because they appeal beyond beer’s usual crowd. Some feature a pungent finish that borders on vinegar that might attract certain cocktail or natural wine fans. In others, the fruit articulates itself discreetly, like the stone fruit notes of a Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc. Wine lovers might admire the terroir of the yeast or effect of barrel-aging. Some sours simply have the light ring of a golden apple with none of the bitterness that turn some away from traditional beers. Many craft beer drinkers have gravitated toward sours because, like hazy IPAs, they are generally fruit forward.

Sour Beers are Here to Stay

As is often the case, what’s new is actually quite old. Sour beers span centuries in Belgium. However, as recently as 2000, their U.S. audience was mostly the geekiest of the geeks.

Bart Watson, chief economist at the Brewers Association, says that exact sales figures are hard to pinpoint because sours are often sold at boutique retailers and craft beer bars, whose numbers fly under the barcode radar. Still, Watson says that, by volume and sales, sours are up 25% or more in each of the last two years. He suggests that number is probably far lower than the actual increase.

“I haven’t seen the market for these beers do anything but rise.”—Jen Schwertman, owner, Fluid State Beer Garden

Two Roads, a stalwart of the New England craft beer scene, founded Area Two, focused on wild ales, sours and other experimental beers, in 2019. “We observed a growing interest in not only sour and wild beers but, in general, an increasing demand for beers that push the envelope,” says Brewmaster Phil Markowitz.

He sees strong potential for sours.

“With their distinct acidic bite, sour beers have a unique sensory appeal to both wine and cocktail enthusiasts who may not be attracted to other beer styles such as an IPA,” says Markowitz.

Kevin Martin, director of operations for Cascade Brewing, a sour beer specialist in Portland, Oregon, has also seen considerable growth. In the past decade, the company went from 100 oak barrels in its cellar to 1,000 barrels and nine foudres, plus five stainless steel tanks for long-term aging and fruit fermentation.

In 2010, Cascade was rarely sold outside of Oregon. Now, it’s in 40 states and a dozen markets abroad.

“I haven’t seen the market for these beers do anything but rise,” says Jen Schwertman, owner of Fluid State Beer Garden in Ventura, California. When she opened in 2017, four of her 24 draft lines were sours.

How Belgium Became the Burgundy of Beer

Schwertman also notes the Belgium tradition for sours, and how breweries like Cantillon have become revered among U.S. craft beer drinkers.

Belgium was the route that longtime craft beer enthusiast Marty Wood took to reach his love of American sours. He cites Rodenbach as a gateway beer.

“The thing I like about sours is the variety of experiences from extremely tart, to light and fruity, to dry and herbal, to more vinous experiences that showcase the ingredients,” says Wood.
Schwertman predicts continued growth for sours.

“There’s no going back,” she says. “There will always be a place in the market for sours since they serve the palate in a way that no other beverage can.”

Published on August 21, 2020
Topics: Beer