We Love Sours!!!

Americans are getting sweet on sour beers

Belgian tradition is catching on with U.S. craft brewers.

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Sour beers or aged ales, many in the Belgian style, are available from Total Wine & More in Tustin.

Normally, beer makers are meticulously careful to keep their environment sterile. Rogue yeasts and bacteria are enemies of a good brew, spoiling the taste of the product.

Sour beers turn that attitude on its head. Wild yeast strains or bacteria are deliberately introduced during the beer-making process, producing a tart or even sour taste as the beer ferments.

Back in the old days, sour beer was an extreme niche product in this country. Traditionally it was produced mainly by a handful of beer makers in Belgium: Flanders red and brown ales; lambic, in which fermentation occurs spontaneously by absorbing yeast in the environment; and gueuze, which is a mix of older and younger lambics. Old wine or whiskey barrels are often used for aging.

But the American craft brew world continues to expand, and it was only a matter of time before sour beer, too, attracted adventurous brew masters. Small labels such as Santa Rosa’s Russian River Brewing Company, Portland’s Cascade Brewing Barrel House and Weyerbacher Brewing Company in Pennsylvania have tried their hand at sour beer. So have local craft brewers such as Placentia’s The Bruery. You can find it at some of O.C.’s trendier bars.

The sour beer trend in America “began in earnest under the radar about three years ago,” said Rob Hill, a beer expert who works at Total Wine & More’s corporate headquarters in Potomac, Md. “It’s a little different here than in Belgium.”

That nation’s brewers have strict rules about what kind of beer is called sour. “On the American side there are some (beers) that don’t fit into the strict Belgian categories,” Hill said. “Some are called American wild ales. ‘Wild’ refers to the wild yeast that would produce the sour (taste) and the funkiness – what some people call the ‘horse blanket’ taste.”

Hill noted that sour beer attracts a group of connoisseurs who don’t normally drink brews: the wine set.

“What I’ve noticed is that sour beers are getting the attention of some knowledgeable people in the wine industry. They’re really into big Old World wines. They appreciate these beers for their ascetic character and the fact that they’re very complex and are great for pairing with food.”

Making sour beer is a high-risk, time-consuming project. Brewers must wait as long as three years to find out if their barrel-aged sour beer is delicate and drinkable or an unpalatable, cloudy mess.

Some Belgian brew masters use spontaneous fermentation, allowing the wort (pre-fermented beer) to come into contact with naturally occurring yeasts and bacteria in the environment.

Most American sour beer makers avoid that kind of risk, Hill said. They add souring bacteria and often use a yeast called Brettanomyces. The bacteria produce strong sour notes. The Brettanomyces adds complex qualities: tartness, sweetness, subtle fruits, earthiness and what some describe as “barnyard funk” not unlike the aroma of pinot noir. Some brewers enjoy its effect; others avoid Brettanomyces in favor of yeasts that are less dramatic in their influence.

There seems to be room for a wide gamut of tastes in the sour beer world. “Some will make you pucker up real fast,” Hill said. “Others are more integrated with other flavors from the malt. The sourness is barely there.”

So what do foodies serve sour beers with?

“They pair well with cheeses, like all beers,” Hill said. “A cheese not only tempers some of the sourness, but (beer and cheese) will cleanse the palate of the other taste, which makes for a great pairing.”

Hill has other pairing suggestions. “A salad with vinaigrette would be nice. And for some, a Belgian Oud Bruin would be a perfect pairing with a big juicy steak.”

If you’re curious about traditional Belgian sour beers, here are some respected names. All are sold in 750 ml bottles. They can be found at Total Wine & More and other large retailers, and most are under $10 a bottle: Deus Brue des Flandres, Duchesse De Bourgogne, Glazen Toren Ondineke Oilsjtersen, Jester King Le Petit Prince, Oud Beersel Oude Geuze Vieille, Oud Beersel Oude Kriek Vieille, Petrus Aged Pale, Rodenback Grand Cru, St. Feuillien Saison and Timmermans Lambicus Blanche.(OCRegister)


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