Check out more of Jason Foster’s beer news and views at onbeer.org
Go Ahead, Be a Sourpuss
One of the least understood beer characteristics is sourness. The vast majority of beer should avoid any hint of sour or tart like it was kryptonite. Sourness is not a component of most beer styles, therefore it is normally a sign that something has gone (horribly) wrong.
There are a handful of traditional styles where that puckering sour/tart experience is essential. But most beer drinkers have no idea what to make of it. Not only does it surprise them, they – and this is an honest reaction – aren’t sure what a sour beer is supposed to taste like.
So, it seems like a good idea to spend some time talking about sour beer. It is a particularly appropriate time since this past summer Alberta had a couple homegrown attempts at tart beer. The results of the experiments (at least one of them) didn’t go the way the brewer hoped it would. But that is less consequential than the reaction from the drinking public. Many commenters weren’t sure what a tart/sour beer should taste like, and so were kind of anchorless in judging the beer.
So what is tart beer? In short, it is beer that has intentionally been exposed to Lactobacillus, Acetobacter, Pediococcus (feel free to Wikipedia) and/or other wild bacteria that ferments residuals sugars left behind by yeast to produce a tart, sour flavour and aroma.
There are three traditional styles that use a souring technique to either accent or create the beer. And it won’t surprise you to learn that the Belgians make two of them.
The Germans offer the third, and it is the rarest. Called Berliner Weisse, it is a low alcohol (2.5%-4%), effervescent beer with a noted sharpness to it. It is, essentially, a small weizen beer with lactobacillus fermentation to create sourness. Germans often add sweeteners, such as woodruff or raspberry syrup, to cut the tartness. It is a favoured morning beverage. The beer should have some delicate earthy, grainy malt base, almost no hops and then a moderate kick of clean, tartness. It is considered one of the most refreshing beer styles in the world. As it works out, there are no commercial versions available in Canada (that I am aware of).
Turning to the Belgians, there are two sour traditions. First are the Flanders beer – Red and Brown (Oude Bruin). Here you get a fair bit more malt – both in terms of colour and flavour. They generally offer a complex fruitiness, some soft honey and vanilla notes. The sourness kicks in during the latter half, making these beer quite balanced. The Brown is both maltier and tarter, while the Red often offers a red wine character. Again, the tartness should be clean and rounded. We have the good fortune of having Duchess De Bourgogne in these parts as an example of the Red, but my personal favourite is Rodenbach Grand Cru. For an Oud Bruin Liefman’s Goudenband is available.
Then we come across the grandpappy of sour beer – lambic. Lambic, which I have written about before, is a family of beer, all anchored by a light, very tart, spontaneously fermented ale. Traditional lambic is made by allowing the natural yeasts and bacteria found in the local air to inoculate the beer. It is then fermented and aged for more than 3 years. You will almost never find straight lambic – as its tartness would be overpowering. Instead you can get Gueuze, which is one, two and three-year lambics blended. More commonly you will find it blended with various fruit – sour cherry, raspberry, apricot, peach, grape, etc.
Tart is the dominant characteristic in these beer. Well-made lambics can be quite puckering but they are also unbelievably refreshing and surprisingly complex. The tartness should be upfront but not take over other flavours, such as the fruit. Cantillon (available in Alberta) is the pinnacle of lambic brewing, but we actually have a wide selection available these days, including examples from Tilquin, Liefman’s, Lindeman’s and Boon.
Brewers are not necessarily limited to those traditional approaches. Many brewers sour other base beer, as experiments, which can often be quite pleasant. But the above three are the classics.
I should clarify what I mean by a clean tartness. The sourness should cause your mouth to tingle and pucker – like sour does – but it shouldn’t give you any other experiences. For example, vinegar also gives off a harshness that makes your nose recoil. You also shouldn’t have any citrus note to it – we are not talking lemon here. That is what I mean by clean – a soft, straightforward tartness that seems almost rounded and smooth. Any undue harshness, medicinal character, or general cringing effect should be avoided.
Tart can be hard to describe. All I can really suggest is go out and buy a Duchess De Bourgogne, or a Cantillon Oude Gueuze. THAT is what sour beer is supposed to taste like. And then you will know.