For those of you who haven’t really ventured into the world of delicious beer, I’d like to introduce you to what I call “gateway” beer: sours.
Sours are commonly made with wild yeasts and are often products of spontaneous fermentation. Styles that fall into this pretty broad category include lambic, gueuze and Flanders red ales – mostly Belgian styles. The brewing process is tricky but when done right it can result in an ale as complex as many wines. Keep in mind, the name rings true; sours are tart but they’re also really good.
In preparation for this guide, I tasted several sours. I’m sharing the ones I think you might like best. Branch out and find your own favorites too, and let me know about them!
Since sour ales began as a mostly Belgian niche brew, I thought it fitting to try a Rodenbach. This brewery, which began as a family-owned operation in Belgium (it’s now owned by the Palm Breweries company), specializes in barrel-aged sour beers.
The Rodenbach Original is a good place to start. The finished product is a combination of ale aged for 2 years in barrels (25 percent) and “young” ale, or freshly brewed ale (75 percent).
The tartness and even a bit of vinegar start right in the aroma. The flavor combines cherry, raisin and plum and a good shot of fig comes with the finish. It’s a nice introduction to sour ales.
Monk’s Café Flemish Red Ale
Some of you might be familiar with the famed Monk’s Café in Philadelphia, Pa. This ale actually hails from Belgium but Brouwerij Van Steenberge makes it specifically for that Philly restaurant.
Even though it comes from Ghent, Belgium, it is a pretty tame selection as sours go. The aroma is smoky and very mild and the flavor features raisins, plums, dates and a light sour tone. It’s sweet without being too tart and Monk’s even describes it as a palate cleanser.
You can get this ale in stores, but I highly recommend taking a jaunt to the café itself and pairing this brew with the pomme frites.
Boon Oude Geuze Mariage Parfait
No, not Boones. This is Brouwerij Boon, owned by Frank Boon himself and located near Brussels, Belgium. It specializes in traditional Belgian styles like lambic and geuze.
Their Oude Geuze Mariage Parfait is very tart. It’s something you can sense even in the nose. The tartness is complemented by flavors of white fruit, grapefruit and a touch of pear.
This is an intense brew, so it might be best to try this with a friend. You might want to have some salty food on hand to offset the inevitable sour faces.
Calabaza Blanca Artisan White Ale
Jolly Pumpkin, the Michigan brewery responsible for this brew, is known for its farmhouse-style ales often made with wild yeast. The brewery adopted the Belgian sour and made it its own. The Calabaza is no exception.
Aged in oak casks, the ale is a nice, mild brew. The aroma features a prominent ginger note as well as a touch of lemon. Citrus and lemongrass complement a very mild sour.
I recommend enjoying this refreshing yet only slightly sour brew outdoors. It’s a nice drink for a summer day.
As you’ve seen, several U.S. breweries have attempted sours. This rarely found gem that comes from Cisco Brewers in Massachusetts is a fine example of the sour that Belgians have perfected over the years.
Lemon and ginger aromas meet flavors of tart plum, cherry and a touch of brown sugar. It’s a nice blend that doesn’t cause any sour faces at all. Savor this one – enjoy it slowly like you would if you were sitting on a dock in Nantucket.
Chicago’s Goose Island Beer Co. has been brewing since the late 1980s. Last year, Anheuser-Busch purchased the remaining majority of the brewery. Even before that, they initiated an impressive vintage line of beers that features several Belgian styles, including this sour beer named Juliet.
The ale is aged in wine barrels which might give it that extra appeal for a wine drinker. While sour, the brew is as refreshing as iced tea. In fact, the aromas remind me of an Arnold Palmer with a strong combination of lemon and herbs. The flavor isn’t far off from that. I tasted herbs and lemony sourness along with some hints of cherry and blueberry.
Goose Island may no longer be a craft brewery by technicality, but they still make some very good beers, notably Juliet.
Liefmans Oudenaarde is a brewery that’s been around since the late 1600s. Duvel now owns it, but it is still brewing the same beers that have been perfected over the last 400-plus years.
This Flanders Oud Bruin ale is an amazing representation of the sour category. The bottle is wrapped in paper – a traditional Belgian brewing practice. It’s kind of like opening a present when you get to drink it. It smells like strawberry candy and tastes like a well-rounded combination of figs and dates, along with a flash of citrus in the finish.
Of all the sours I’ve suggested, this is one that everyone should try. It’s a special treat from Belgium.