The Bitter Truth About Sour Beer
The intense world of sour beer includes ales with creative stylistic names like lambic, geuze, Berliner weisse, wild ale and Flanders red ale. These beers rely on old-world techniques to create a tart, tongue twisting experience that is a welcome diversion from the hop-heavy trajectory favored by most American craft breweries.
In the formative years of brewing, all beers had some sour component due to the inability to prevent wild yeast strains and bacteria from entering the brewing and fermenting processes. In the modern age, some adventurous brewers are resurrecting these additives to create a new generation of sour beers, not by accident, but to appease a growing class of discerning beer fans.
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Brettanomyces, or “brett” for short, is a yeast strain that imparts a decided “barnyard” flavor to beer, often described as “horse blanket,” earthy or dirty. For beers celebrated for “funk,” brettanomyces is most often the secret ingredient behind the bitter mustiness. Beers that include brett are often straw dry and incorporate light-fruit flavors. For a fabulous brett-forward beer experience, try Russian River Sanctification, an American wild ale that is fermented 100% by brettanomyces yeast.
Lactobacillus is a bacteria that, similar to yeast, consumes the sugars found in the pre-beer solution known as wort. Instead of converting sugar to alcohol, lactobacillus instead coverts sugars to lactic acid. Lactobacillus is the same bacteria used in kimchee and yogurt and creates the slight sour turn found in milder sours like goses and Berliner weisses. For a lactobacillus tasting, give Justin Blåbær by Evil Twin Brewing a try.
Pediococcus is a bacteria as well, and also creates lactic acid. But it’s more of a souped-up big brother of lactobacillus and produces much more lactic acid in a shorter amount of time. That aggressive nature results in much harsher tastes and aromas. Seek out a traditional Belgian lambic or one of the Allagash Brewing Coolship-series beers which are fermented in a traditional open-air style to experience pediococcus at its fullest.
For first time sour beer drinkers, the flavors can be very intense, sometimes shockingly so, but it’s amazing how quickly palates adapt and learn to appreciate new experiences. So, get out of your comfort zone and use your sour beer knowledge to impress your friends and try some new styles.