With the recent surge in popularity of sour beer, it’s remarkable to think that sour beer is actually the oldest type of beer in history. It may be hard to believe, but there was a time when almost all beers had a slightly sour taste before pasteurization and sterilization practices were perfected.
Today, sour beers have gained increasing popularity among both beer enthusiasts and those who don’t typically drink beer. Beer enthusiasts appreciate the layered flavors of sour beers, while non-beer-drinkers enjoy the fact that they don’t taste exactly like traditional beers. To put this popularity into perspective, sales of sour beers increased from 45,000 cases to 245,000 cases between 2015 and 2016. Despite this increase in popularity and availability, many people are still unfamiliar with sour beers. That’s why we’re here to answer any questions you may have!
Why do sour beers taste sour?
In simple terms, brewers need to introduce fermenting agents such as a yeast genus called Brettanomyces, acid-producing bacteria, or unconventional yeasts in order to make a beer sour. When brewing non-sour beers, brewers ferment the unfermented beer (wort) with different species of Saccharomyces yeast. This yeast consumes the sugars in the wort and produces alcohol, carbon dioxide, and various flavor characteristics. These fermentations are carefully controlled to ensure a consistent taste in the finished beer.
When brewing sour beer, however, brewers often incorporate acid-producing bacteria and wild yeasts like Brettanomyces in addition to the traditional Saccharomyces species. In the presence of oxygen, Brettanomyces can transform alcohol into acetic acid, giving the beer its vinegary acidity. Along with the acidity, Brettanomyces adds a complex range of flavors, ranging from earthy and funky to tropical and fruity. These flavors continue to develop and change throughout the fermentation process, resulting in some of the most complex beers imaginable.
What is the difference between sour beer and more traditional beer styles?
When comparing sour ales with more familiar beer styles, it’s important to note that they use different ingredients and fermentation methods. Sour beers have a tart flavor and are produced using wild bacteria and yeasts, whereas traditional beers are made in sterile environments using specific non-wild yeast strains. In this context, “sterile” doesn’t mean that sour beers come from dirty places, but rather that they are made and formed naturally. Belgium is renowned for producing some of the best sour beers in the world. In Belgium, sour beers are often aged in oak barrels, allowing them to interact with the surrounding microorganisms. If not aged in barrels, these microorganisms can form when the wort is exposed to open air during the cooling process.
What are sour beers made of?
Before we delve further, let’s define the components of a sour beer. Currently, two different bacteria varieties and one wild yeast strain are the main influences in sour beer production. Lactobacillus is one of the bacteria varieties that converts sugar into lactic acid (the same acid that gives yogurt its slight sourness). Pediococcus, another type of bacteria, is often used to introduce acidity to Belgian beers. Pediococcus can metabolize without oxygen, and the longer it remains in the beer, the more acidic it becomes. Over time, it can produce diacetyl, which imparts a buttery flavor to the sour beer.
The wild yeast strain used is Brettanomyces. Yeast is known for adding a funky and earthy quality to beers. However, Brettanomyces has gained a reputation for potentially ruining the beer, as it can contribute a repulsive bitter taste and aroma. At its best, though, Brettanomyces adds a balancing layer of earthiness, making it an intriguing component in sour beers. Together, these wild organisms create a captivating and desirable sour beer.
Is sour beer more like wine than beer?
Although sour beer is categorized as a beer, its production methods are highly comparable to winemaking. Both beverages can be blended, aged in oak barrels, and balance sweetness with acidity. On top of that, both pair exceptionally well with cheeses, meats, and fruits! However, it should be noted that each has its own distinct flavors that make them unmistakably wine or sour beer.
With so many fantastic new options available, we highly recommend giving sour beer a try!