Pucker up, because for this list we’re wrapping our chops around beers representing one of the trendiest styles of the last few years: sour ales. It’s a cheek-pinching, lip smacking booze that gets the majority of its tart, sharp and acidic flavours from wild yeasts and bacteria.
Back in the days before yeast came in packets, it’s likely that most beers possessed a degree of sourness to them. But as yeast became more controllable, producing cleaner, more predictable beers, brewers began to abandon wild fermentation methods with only pockets of Belgium and Germany continuing to regularly embrace those sour flavours.
Recently there has been a return to the wild side and contemporary breweries are keen to get their hands on these less predictable yeasts, either by leaving their brews open to the surrounding atmosphere, harvesting them from fruits or other local sources, or by using wild strains such as brettanomyces or the lactobacillus bacteria that have been tamed and supplied ready for use. Styles such as Lambic, Flemish Red, Berliner Weisse and Gose are now being replicated throughout the world and provide the base for a range of ale experiments – from barrel ageing to the addition of fruit and other flavours – and the beer drinking public is lapping them up.
Be warned, sour beers are not to everyone’s liking, but if you can persuade your taste buds to enjoy them you’ll be opening up a whole new world of beery flavours to explore, as this global list demonstrate.
1. Verhaeghe, Duchesse de Bourgogne, 6.2%: £2.99 for 330ml, Beers of Europe
This is a classic Flemish red ale, a blend of eight- and 18-month old, oak-matured beers, with a complexity that has been an inspiration for modern barrel-ageing brewers. The drinking experience starts with a vinous maltiness, punctuated by rich fruit astringency, before drying out with oak and apple flavours. It’s a smooth brew, with bubbles that caress the tongue and a gently soothing, spicy warmth. This Duchesse is a sophisticated lady.
2. 8 Wired, Gypsy Funk, 7.5%: £9.89 for 500ml, Honest Brew
New Zealand’s 8 Wired brewery has a love of barrel ageing and produces a fine array of beautifully matured sour ales. This funky brew, aged for up to two years in wine barrels, has been given an added flavour boost from dry hopping with a hefty dose of New Zealand’s famous hops. It’s a beer of two halves: resinous, vinous and sweetly boozy at first, as if mimicking a Greek retsina; then pungently sour with bitter pine and lemon. A complex, modern and very sour wild ale.
3. Oud Beersel, Oude Kriek Vieille, 6%: £4.89 for 375ml, Beers of Europe
This is a Lambic-style beer, oozing with flavour from the sour-maker’s favourite fruit, the cherry. Those cherry flavours announce themselves from the outset and linger long after the dry, woody finish to each mouthful. Meanwhile, the wild flavours – often described as “funk” and including notes of cheese and barnyard (but in a good way) – loiter in the background adding layers of interest to the central tart cherry characteristics.
4. Crooked Stave, St Bretta Citrus Wildbier (Meyer Lemon), 5.8%: £8.95 for 375ml, Beer Gonzo
Americans, as you might expect, have taken the sour beer style to a whole new level with breweries such as Wicked Weed, Cascade and New Belgium conjuring up weird and wild creations. It can be tricky, and expensive, getting hold of them in this country so we’ve summoned Denver’s Crooked Stave to represent the country’s sour output. The beer has a fresh and funky lemony aroma, with more of the same to taste. The sourness causes a trembling in the cheeks without quite turning them inside out and there’s a lovely dryness throughout, making this beer an obvious summer hit.
5. Dugges Ale & Porterbryggeri / Stillwater, Tropic Thunder, 4.5%: £4.40 for 330ml, Beer Gonzo
This modern Swedish-American beer collaboration is fermented with a trio of tropical fruits – mango, passion fruit and peach – and the sour-making lactobacillus, making it a refreshingly fruity number. The sourness is well tempered and there’s a hint of dry spice as each mouthful disappears. It’s a beautifully simple wild ale, fun and flavoursome, making it a good first foray for anyone nervous of dabbling with the sour stuff.
6. Oude Geuze Boon, 6.5%: £2.90 for 375ml, Beer Merchants
A geuze (otherwise spelt as “gueuze”) is a blend of Lambic beers, combining young batches with their older neighbours to kick start fermentation and provide a soft, foamy, Champagne-esque sparkle. Boon’s version of the blender’s art is a classic, with the sweet, dry and tart notes evenly spread among crisp, fruity and grassy flavours, making it one of the more gluggable sours on the market.
7. Berliner Kindl, Weisse, 2.7%: £2.09 for 330ml, Beers of Europe
This beer is a rare survivor from Berlin’s 19th century sour weisse peak, when over 700 breweries operated in the city. It’s a simple, low strength, unfussy beer which is often served with a sweet syrup to provide the fruitiness that modern brewers are now so keen on adding during the brewing process. Its aroma and base taste is similar to a standard weisse beer, with hints of banana, but it’s the cidery, sour yeast flavours that dominate. A great starting point for a tour of Berliner-style weisses.
8. Siren, Calypso, 4%: £2.80 for 330ml, Beer Merchants
British brewers are now producing their fair share of sour beers, with Elgood’s Fruit Coolship and Wild Beer’s Ninkasi among our favourites, but we’re heading to wilds of Berkshire for this list. It’s a crisp, acidic Berliner-style weisse, dry hopped with a different variety for each batch, bringing a fruity tartness to the individual hop flavours. Makes a great replacement for wine at the dinner table.
9. Birrificio Del Ducato, Chrysopolis, 5%: £7.49 for 330ml, Honest Brew
Italian brewers are more experimental than most and this is one of the more unique beers you’ll find. It’s a blend of barrel-aged rauch beer (a young beer brewed with peated malt) and a third beer fermented in wood. The result is an uncarbonated pale, dusty golden ale with a light, dry body and some soft vinegar sourness. It would be all quite mellow and restrained were it not for a fruity acidic streak that wakes the beer up, delivering a crisp, refreshing finish.
10. Mikkeller, Hallo Ich Bin Berliner Weisse, Raspberry, 3.7%: £4.10 for 500ml, Beer Gonzo
Danish brewing magician Mikkeller can always be relied upon to create beery works of art by any method going, and it’s got a great range of sour beers in its catalogue. The Berliner Weisse series includes this raspberry edition, a vision of cloudy pink topped with an enticingly soft, fluffy head. Delve in and you meet a flicker of yeastiness before being engulfed by a wave of tart raspberries. There’s a tight sherbet fizz throughout and a lingering tobacco bitterness at the finish, but mostly it’s all about those funky raspberry flavours.
The Verdict: Sour beers
It’s great that the world has woken up to the delights of sour beer, but the Belgians still do it best and the Duchesse de Bourgogne is one of the finest beers of any style you’re likely to find.
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