Better Know Your Beer Style: Category 17- Sour Ale

8 06 2010

It never ceases to amaze us. Forty years ago, American beer was essentially dead. Only a handful of breweries existed in the country. People drank mass-produced-dead-in-the-can industrial product. And now look how far we have come. People are racing for the most flavor, most character, most life to their beers. They are getting big beers and laying them down to age, just as one would do with a fine wine. People will line up for hours for a special release of beer. People are taking beer seriously. And just as people are exploring unusual beers from all over the world, including Belgium and France, they are exploring quite possibly the most unusual of unusual beers: sour ales.

Five years ago, sour ales were a tough sale. Ten years earlier than that, it would have been an impossible sale. Giving some one a beer that tastes of sour lemon, green apple, lime, fresh berries, or even yogurt, horse, hay, and vinegar is still a tough sale. Afterall, those are not the flavors we usually associate with beer. But now, as more and more people are trying Berliner Weisses, Flanders Ales, Lambics and Guezes, the demand is growing.

Just as hop heads five years ago were lusting after the newest strain of hop or able to identify a Warrior bitterness to a Amarillo fruitiness in the IPA, people are now looking for beers inoculated with Brettanomyces, Lactobacillus, and Pediococcus.

The first time a person drinks a sour ale, one or two things could go through their minds: “I think this beer is spoiled” or “Is this beer? This cannot be beer!” The answer to the first question is simple: no, the beer is not spoiled.  It is designed to be that way. The brewer will often ferment in large, open tanks. This allows for any and all wild yeast, bacteria and mold to fall into the beer. In older breweries, such as in Belgium or Germany, the fermenting cellars are carefully conditioned with centuries of experience. The air is rich with the perfect blend of critters to make the beer taste the way it does. The result is a sense of place, also known as terrior. In newer breweries, such as those in the United States: like New Belgium, Russian River and Allagash, the brewers carefully inoculate their beers with cultures in order to make sure the right critters go in and the wrong ones stay out.

The taste can be a bit disconcerting at first. These yeast and bacteria cells are often associated with spoilage and so our experience with them in the past have taught us to recognize these smells and taste with spoiled or rotten food. But do not worry, these beers will not make you ill.

As to whether or not this is beer, the answer is simply: “yes.” If we return to one of our original posts where we asked “What is Beer?” we will recall that beer is water, malted grain, hops and yeast. These beers all contain these ingredients at their core. While a sour ale may resemble a wine, yogurt, or some other item entirely, it remains essentially beer.

As more and more American breweries, bars, and stores carry sour ales, it becomes easier to pick apart the the finer details of the sour ale genre. But for the uninitiated drinker, it can be a bit of a confusing world.

The BJCP offers six subcategories. Berliner Weisse is sour wheat ale from Germany. It is often drank with a shot of fruit syrup: often berry or essence of woodruff–an herb. The Flanders region of Belgium is known for its sour red and brown ales. The red ales from the region are often a blend of vintages and have a sharp, acidic character. Flemish reds are known as the “Burgundies of Belgium” and resemble wine. Flemish browns have a more malt forward character and less of an acidic note. They will often be a blend of vintages as well. Lambics are the most popular of the sour ales in the United States. They can either come in a straight (unblended) vintage; a blended vintage known as a “Gueze”(Garret Oliver says that one should practice saying “Goose” while clearing the throat and adding a few random “r”s and that is a close approximation on how to pronounce the name); and a lambic can be sweetened with fruit or sugar (a technique known as “faro”).

Better Know Your Beer Style: Category 17- Sour Ales

Photo Credit: Bernt Rostad CC

Aroma: A sharp sourness should be present for a Berliner Weisse with no hop aroma. The sourness may mellow with age into a citrus, fruity character. Some Brettanomyces (“Brett”) character can be present- namely an earthy, “damp” character. In Flemish Red and Browns a complex fruitiness should be present: plums, prunes, oranges, black cherries and possibly some spicy phenols including pepper, vanilla, oak and chocolate. Browns should have a hint of caramel or other malt. Lambics should have a sharp sour note that mellows with age. Brett qualities should be present including barnyard, horse, blanket, hay, and mildew. Fruit lambics should be sweet and sour that has an apparent resemblance of the fruit used to sweeten it.

Appearance: Berliner Weisses are very pale straw in color and hazy. Pour head retention due to acidity. Flemish reds should have a bright red quality with white head of medium retention. Flemish browns should be earthy brown with a tan/off white head of medium retention. Straight lambics should be pale yellow to deep golden with the beer darkening with age. Young lambics tend to be hazy while the older ones tend to be clear. Poor head retention. Guezes are bright clear and have a thick, mousse-like head that has excellent, near perfect head retention. Sweetened lambics will take on the color of the fruit sweetening it and will have a thick, near perfect head retention.

Flavor: All sour ales will (obviously) be sour. Berliner Weisse will be the least sour though. The Lactobacillus delbruckii will give a “yogurt” or “sour milk” like quality. Flanders Reds will resemble a red wine with notes of plum, orange, cherries, pepper, vanilla, oak, and chocolate. A long dry finish with no hops present. Flanders Browns will also resemble a red wine with similar notes to the Flanders Reds but will be more malt forward with notes of caramel, toffee and tobacco. There should be no vinegar qualities as it ages. Lambics should be quite sour when they are young but balance better as they age. The Brett qualities should balance with age as well. There should be no smoky quality. Fruit lambics should take on the character of the fruit that is blended with them. There should be more acidic quality rather than sour.

Mouthfeel: There should be a tart, puckering character to all of them. Straight lambic is served flat while Berliner Weisse, Gueze and fruit lambic should be effervescent. Flanders styles should have medium carbonation with no astringency.

Ingredients: Berliner Weisse should have at least 50% wheat and is often paired with pils. Top fermenting yeast works with Lactobacillus delbruckii to create sourness. Flanders Red and Browns are made with base of Vienna and Munich malts with medium to dark specialty malts including Caras and Special-B. Low alpha-acid hops are used. A blend of “wild” yeasts including Saccharomyces, Lactobacillus and Brettanomyces (and acetobacter). Lambics are made with wheat, pils and aged hops. The hops are for preservative effect rather than bitterness. Wild yeasts, including but limited to Saccharomyces, Brettanomyces, Pediococcus and Lactobacillus are found in the breweries of lambics.

Technical Notes:
Original Gravity:
1.028-1.072
Final Gravity: 1.000-1.012
SRM (Grain Color): 3-22
IBUs: 0-10
ABV: 2.8-8%

Commercial Examples:
Berliner Weisse:
Schultheiss Berliner Weisse, Berliner Kindl Weisse, Nodding Head Berliner Weisse, Weihenstephan 1809 (unusual in its 5% ABV), Bahnhof Berliner Style Weisse, Southampton Berliner Weisse, Bethlehem Berliner Weisse, Three Floyds Deesko
Flanders Red Ale: Rodenbach Klassiek, Rodenbach Grand Cru, Bellegems Bruin, Duchesse de Bourgogne, New Belgium La Folie, Petrus Oud Bruin, Southampton Flanders Red Ale, Verhaege Vichtenaar, Monk’s Cafe Flanders Red Ale, New Glarus Enigma, Panil Barrique, Mestreechs Aajt
Flanders Brown Ale: Liefman’s Goudenband, Liefman’s Odnar, Liefman’s Oud Bruin, Ichtegem Old Brown, Riva Vondel
Straight Lambic: Cantillon Grand Cru Bruocsella
Gueze: Boon Oude Gueuze, Boon Oude Gueuze Mariage Parfait, De Cam Gueuze, De Cam/Drei Fonteinen Millennium Gueuze, Drie Fonteinen Oud Gueuze, Cantillon Gueuze, Hanssens Oude Gueuze, Lindemans Gueuze Cuvee Renee, Girardin Gueuze (Black Label), Mort Subite (Unfiltered) Gueuze, Oud Beersel Oude Gueuze
Fruit Lambic: Boon Framboise Marriage Parfait, Boon Kriek Mariage Parfait, Boon Oude Kriek, Cantillon Fouee Foune (apricot), Cantillon Kriek, Cantillon Lou Pepe Kriek, Cantillon Lou Pepe Framboise, Cantillon Rose de Gambrinus, Cantillon St. Lamvinus (merlot grape), Cantillon Vigneronne (Muscat grape), De Cam Oude Kriek, Drie Fonteinen Kriek, Girardin Kriek, Hanssens Oude Kriek, Oud Beersel Kriek, Mort Subite Kriek

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