Just a decade ago, Jolly Pumpkin Artisan Ales of Dexter, MI, embarked on an ambitious program of producing barrel-aged ales, modeled after spontaneously fermented Belgian ales such as gueuze. Their blended sour ales feature deliciously tart, funky, tongue-curling flavors.
Sour specialty breweries such as Rare Barrel in Berkeley, CA, Jester King in Austin, TX, and Wicked Weed in Asheville, NC, have since popped up. And with larger breweries such as the Goose Island Beer Co. and New Belgium Brewing Co. now expanding their sour beer portfolios, sours have found their sweet spot.
Sour ales are rewarding but challenging to make and serve, according to Michael Tonsmeire, author of the new book, American Sour Beers: Innovative Techniques for Mixed Fermentations (Brewers Publications, 2014) and a brewing consultant based in Washington D.C.
“Sours require a big investment in the production,” says Tonsmeire. “It’s labor intensive to fill 30 or 40 wooden barrels that each require maintenance and care during fermentation, instead of a single, large stainless-steel tank that can be sanitized and filled with relative ease.”
Sour ales also span several beer styles, such as Berliner Weisse, a German sour wheat style, Belgian gueuze and lambics, spontaneously fermented wild ales, and American interpretations of sour styles, often barrel aged in wine or spirits barrels.
As a result, sour beers are often limited editions. Avery Brewing Co. in late spring released its Rufus Corvus, a blended sour beer produced by combining eight different beers from 40 oak barrels, with 858 cases shipped to key accounts.
Rufus Corvus is one of nine beers to be rolled out from Avery’s barrel program this year, constituting about 1,500 barrels of blended, wood-aged beer—a ten-fold increase over last year. Firestone Walker released just 350 cases of its Bretta Weisse Berliner Weiss style beer.
Kevin F. Afghani, owner of beer bar/store Craft & Growler in Dallas, describes sour ales as popular with both genders, and also in demand during the summer months due to the puckering, refreshing flavors. “We have several sour ales on draft and several more in bottles,” Afgani says. These include La Folie from New Belgium and on draft, St. Arnold Brewing Co.’s Boiler Room, a Berliner Weisse with an almost citric bite that is also lower in ABV, about 5.5%.
Tonsmeire notes that sour beers on draft require careful line maintenance. “The wild yeasts and bacteria in the sour beer, such as brettanomyces, lactobacillus and pediococcus, can turn beer vinegary if allowed to grow unchecked,” he says.
Yet the acidity makes balanced sour beers an ideal crossover for wine drinkers accustomed to acidity and wood tannin flavors. And many sour beers are packaged like wines, in large format 500-ml., 750-ml. and 22-oz. glass bottles, often with corked seals for tableside presentation.
Here are a few sour beers to check out.
Black Angel Cherry Sour, Wicked Weed Brewing Co., Asheville, NC
At 6.6% ABV, this fruity ale is dark black from fruit skin and dark malts, but lightly tart and sweet on the palate. Black Angel is fermented with house yeast and then moved into stripped Four Roses whiskey barrels and aged on tart cherries, sweet cherries and Italian plums. Limited draft; available in 500-ml. bottles.
Consecration, Russian River Brewing Co., Santa Rosa, CA
Beyond the boundary of an Oud Bruin, this brown sour ale is aged in cabernet sauvignon barrels from California wineries. It is aged for four to eight months with black currants, brettanomyces, lactobacillus, and pediococcus added to each barrel. The flavors of sour malt, bitter chocolate, funk and oak-aged cabernet are heightened by peppery 10% ABV. Limited draft; available in 375-ml. bottles.
La Folie, New Belgium Brewing Co., Ft. Collins, CO
La Folie, French for “the folly,” is a Belgian-inspired sour brown ale; it ferments for one to three years in gigantic oak barrels. La Folie is sharp and sour, full of green apple skin, like a Granny Smith, followed by malt and flavors of roasted plum. Pouring a deep mahogany, the mouthfeel is puckering, with fine carbonation. Available in 22-oz. bottles.
La Roja, Jolly Pumpkin Artisan Ales, Dexter, MI
A sour, oak-aged ale, La Roja is inspired by the style of Flanders sour brown ales. Funky, burnt caramel, peppery, and sour notes develop through natural barrel aging with house wild yeasts. Unfiltered, unpasteurized and blended from barrels ranging in age from two to 10 months, La Roja is warming at 7.2% ABV. Available in 750-ml. bottles.
Madame Rose, Goose Island Beer Co., Chicago
Madame Rose is a Belgian style sour ale fermented with wild yeast, aged on sour Michigan cherries in cabernet barrels for 18 months, with house and wild yeasts. The sour ale is funky in the aromatics, effervescent and dry in the finish at 6.7% ABV. Madame Rose is a crossover beer for Bordeaux enthusiasts and drinkers fond of Belgian kriek lambics. Excellent with grilled game, and buttery aged cheese such as Manchego cheese. Limited draft; available in 750-ml. bottles.
Vinosynth White and Vinosynth Red, Upland Brewing Co., Bloomington, IN
With a focus on local ingredients, Upland collaborated with Oliver Winery to create Vinosynth White and Vinosynth Red. These collaboration bottles feature Upland Sour ales aged on Indiana-grown grapes. Vinosynth Red is aged on Catawba grapes and Vinosynth White is aged on Vidal Blanc grapes from the Oliver Creekbend Vineyards. A seasonal, limited release.
Simple Sour, Peekskill Brewing Co., Peekskill, NY
Jeff O’Neil, formerly of Ithaca Brewing Co., brews a highly refreshing, 4.5% ABV sour ale modeled after a Berliner Weiss, but made with a blend of wheat, malted barley and corn and fermented with brettanomyces. The sour-sweet flavor of Simple Sour complements sushi and grilled seafood. A seasonal, limited release.