As Michael Pollan points out in “The Botany of Desire,” cultures vary enormously in their affinity for bitter and sour flavors, but a taste for sweet stuff seems near universal.
Most beer is a combination of sweet malt and bitter hop flavors. And while some beer drinkers still gravitate toward one side or the other — becoming self-identified malt lovers or hop heads — enjoying extremely high bitterness levels has become a badge of honor among beer geeks.
When it comes to sour beer, though, there are far fewer aficionados. That was apparent one evening when John Roberts, the brewer at Atlanta’s Max Lager’s brewpub, treated curious drinkers to a taste of a mystery beer.
It was undeniably acidic, with a notable bit of funk and an intensely tart edge that a few liked and many didn’t.
“It’s a fairly controlled sourness,” Roberts noted. “It’s not medicinal or vinegary and it has some balance of sweetness.”
Flashing a mischievous grin, Roberts revealed that the beer was 16 years old, and its sour flavor was a happy accident.
A keg he’d nearly forgotten spent some time outdoors, where it likely encountered a wild yeast strain. Later, it was stored in a dark corner, where the yeast worked its weird ways on the beer inside.
The result was the acerbic essence of the sour styles Belgian brewers have been producing for hundreds of years, often using similarly rustic fermentation methods, then aging and blending the beers.
Nowadays, some American craft brewers are experimenting with those styles and methods.
In July, a sour beer celebration at Aromas wine bar in Athens, dubbed Funky Fest, featured some of the best and rarest sour beers currently available in Georgia — including the recent American/Belgian collaboration Terrapin/De Proef Monstre Rouge Imperial Flanders Red Ale, as well as New Belgium Eric’s Ale and Jolly Pumpkin E.S. Bam.
“The festival was a testament to the growing demand for sour beers and the maturing American palate,” said Aromas owner Sachin Patel. “It allowed beer lovers not only to understand what sour beers from Europe are like but also what American brewers are capable of producing.”
“The range of rare, funky, sour ales impressed the crowd,” said Athens beer writer Owen Ogletree, who helped promote the festival. “Wild, sour beers are rooted in the ancient history of beer making, but now seem to represent a chic, gourmet, extreme beer aspect of the new craft beer movement, illustrating the diverse and interesting nature of beer styles.”
If you’re ready to challenge your palate with the mysteries of sour beer here are a few to try:
The Bruery Hottenroth Berliner Weisse. A tart, elegant German-style sour wheat beer that’s low in alcohol but gets its powerful pucker from lactobacillus and a hint of brettanomyces.
Brouwerij Verhaeghe Duchesse de Bourgogne. A wonderfully fruity example of the Flanders red ale style, known as the Burgundy of Belgium, with a complex, wine-like character and cherry notes.
Cantillon Rose De Gambrinus. Not your soda pop lambic, this dry, tart raspberry beer is aged in oak casks and features a profusion of natural fruit flavor to go with its wild and funky sour notes.
Boon Oude Gueuze. The palate-challenging Belgian gueuze style exhibits aromas described as barnyard, earthy and horsey, with intensely sour, acidic flavors that devotees find utterly refreshing.