Sours are funky beers that have been brewed with wild yeast and bacteria, raising the beer’s acidity level. Fruit is sometimes added to create a secondary fermentation or to introduce microbes. Traditionally, all beer has been somewhat sour due to brewing techniques involving porous barrels and open-air fermentation that allowed wild yeast and bacteria to permeate.
Nowadays, sour beer brewers introduce wild yeast, bacteria, or fruit strategically. But even when done with intention, the process is an unpredictable one that takes months or years and doesn’t always produce uniform results. That means funky beers such as sours are ripe for experimentation. Surprising styles are pouring out of breweries around the country, and drinkers who embrace the funk can be constantly delighted by intriguing new offerings.
“Craft beer drinkers, in particular, are very adventurous and seeking new experiences,” says Kevin Zelnio, director of brewing operations at Wrightsville Beach Brewery in Wilmington, North Carolina. “Funky beers offer a unique flavor profile that can’t be achieved with traditional brewing methods and ingredients.”
Common styles of sours include lambic, which is a light, tart wheat beer brewed with fruit; red Flanders, an acidy-sweet Belgian ale with fruit notes; oud bruin, a Belgian brown ale with a rich, fruity, malty character; American wild ale, a versatile type defined by the kind of yeast used; gose, a German beer that is salty, herby, and sour; and Berliner weisse, another German beer made from wheat that has a lemony tartness.
“There are so many fun beers in this category these days,” says Jesse Gallo, former bar manager at City Tap House Nashville. Some of the beers that come across his taps are “truly different,” such as a sour farmhouse ale by Vermont’s Hermit Thrush Brewery called Supah Phunk #7, which is brewed with a wild yeast strain rescued from another brewery that closed down more than 30 years ago.
Craft brewers across the U.S. are merrily experimenting with all manner of new varieties, such as soured IPAs like Wrightsville Beach Brewery’s Tarticus Tart IPA and Belgian strong pale ales like Allagash Brewing Co.’s Confluence ale from Portland, Maine.
As more and more diners accustom their palates to the tartness of sour beers, they are increasingly demanding to see these on menus.
“While sours may not be as mainstream as the IPA, they are certainly seeing a resurgence that resembles what we saw for IPAs 10 years ago,” says Dave Delaplaine, general manager of Washington, D.C.’s Roofers Union. Part of the appeal is that there are so many different varieties to try, making it likely that drinkers will find something they like.
“From the bartender’s perspective, sours have been a great tool to get people that ‘don’t like beer’ to start drinking craft beer,” says Gallo. “Sours appeal to a wide spectrum of beer enthusiasts with different palates and preferences.”
They even satisfy those who usually prefer cider or hard fruit soda. Delaplaine recommends a radler, a light, low-alcohol sour lemon beer such as Boulevard Brewing Co.’s Ginger Lemon Radler from Kansas City, Missouri. “Think beer soda, incredibly refreshing,” he says. “You’ll never go back to lemonade.”
Another appealing thing about funky beers is their cost relative to other equally discerning tasting experiences, such as wine. While sour beers tend to be more expensive than mainstream beers due to the greater difficulty of brewing them, they are still far cheaper than wines of similar complexity.
“You can spend $100 in a night on world-class sour/wild ales to share with four or five friends and walk away feeling value,” says Andy Farrell, Nashville’s City Tap House brand director.
Business behind the brews
Funky and sour beers will come in at a higher price than mainstream beers and even than many craft microbrews. Diners unfamiliar with the terrain may balk, but a waitstaff educated on the reasons for this discrepancy can explain sour beer’s unique value.
“These funky sours require a lot of thought, patience, and creativity from the brewers,” Gallo says. “The amount of different processes that brewers can use to achieve a funky finish is kind of mind-blowing.”
Farrell, also of City Tap, notes the purposeful inefficiency of the brewing process for these beers. “The artisanal chemistry is pretty advanced,” he says. “There is a lot of experimentation going on in barrel rooms. What makes it into packaging is the result of a lot of trial and error—and that comes at an expense.”
Days, months, or years go into each step of the process, and results are just as affected by nature and luck as they are by skill and knowledge. “Barrel fermenting with a variety of yeast and bacteria strains is as much an art as a science,” says Zelnio of Wrightsville Beach Brewery.
Drinkers are not only paying for the ingredients in the beer—or even just the skill of the brewer—but also for the alchemy of transforming unpredictable wild materials into an elixir in a bottle.