Sour Beer: The next IPA?


The India Pale Ale, known as IPA, is the most popular craft beer style being produced in America today. To enjoy the hop forward ale – often happily described as bitter - is a badge of honor to some beer drinkers. Trends and fads come and go throughout the beverage industry, but IPA is, apparently, here to stay. 

But if you spend some time in beer circles these days, you’ll hear people using words like bugs, funk, Brett, puckering, and tart. They are talking about sour beers, an old style that is receiving renewed attention.  Many are speculating that sour beer could be the next IPA. In modern beer terms, sour typically means acidic. The primary difference between the ales and lagers commonly found on shelves and at bars around the world versus sours is, simply enough, the pH, or acid content.
“Most beers are in the low four pH range.” says Michael Tonsmeire, author of American Sour Beers: Innovated Techniques for Mixed Fermentations. “Sour beers are more acidic than that, mid threes in terms of pH. It might not sound like much a difference but every one full point increases acidity ten fold.” 
Sours start off like every other beer and contain the same ingredients – water, malt, hops, and yeast – but it’s the last bit, the microbes, yeast, and extra time, that give beer its sour disposition. 
The most popular yeast strain in sour beers is Brettanomyces, or Brett – a common term in wine circles. The most common word used to describe the flavor and aroma of Brett is barnyard, usually clarified as ‘horse blanket’. Not the most appetizing imagery, but while it is rather earthy, Brettanomyces also produces spicy pepper notes, even tropical fruit, which lend real character to beers. It’s the additional bacteria, or bugs (Lactobacillus or Pediococcus) in the beer that add acidity to the final product. These bacteria are inoculated during the aging process – one that takes place in barrels over a generous amount of time. 
“Generally speaking making a beer is about a 35 day process,” says Patrick Rue, the founder of the Bruery in California.  But he also said that for at least one of his sour offerings, the beer ferments slowly in a puncheon (an English measurement term applied to barrels used for aging wine or spirits) for two months and is then transferred to smaller barrels and aged 16 months before being bottled.  
Among the most common types of sour beers are lambics, a Belgian style that generally undergoes spontaneous fermentation; fruit may or may not be added. Most are low on bitterness with an acidity that balances malt sweetness. Often they finish very dry. It is not uncommon for brewers to blend older batches with younger batches to create a palatable balance.  
While sour beers are not a style that the casual beer drinker is likely to start with, those with experienced wine palates often appreciate the great charm of sours. Perhaps it's the fruitiness exhibited by the yeast, or the dry finish, their ability to age well over time, or how they compliment a variety of cheeses.  
With more than 3,100 breweries currently operating in the United States only a handful are producing sour beers, making them highly sought. Because of the aging time associated brewers often can not release much to the general marketplace, especially if they need production space for other beers with quick turn around times, like stouts, lagers and IPAs. In recent years breweries have been adding on additional spaces or even whole breweries to increase sour beer production. 
Are you ready to try a few? Here is a quick list to get you started. 
Berliner Weisse - lemony characteristics
Flanders Red - stone fruit aromas and flavors and the 
Oud Bruin - balsamic notes often present
Notable American breweries leading the charge in the sour beer movement: 
John Holl is the editor of All About Beer Magazine and the author of the American Craft Beer Cookbook. On Twitter @John_Holl. 

Mentioned in this article


  • Snooth User: purc
    982225 6

    Beliner Weisse, Red Flanders and Oud Bruin are Belgian lambics??? Do you know what you are talking about?

    Dec 01, 2014 at 3:15 PM

  • I believe that your association between sour/lambic beers and Brettanomyces is greatly overstated. The flavors that this yeast provides are much more heavily associated with Saison beer, where the very light malt lets these flavors dominate. Sours/lambics are much more associated with the fact that they are so sour and vinous (a.k.a. winey), espeially the bruin and reds. Berliner Weisse is a relatively funk free beer in comparison to saison, although crisp and lomeny are ideal descriptors. Lactobacilus/pediococcus acidilactici is much more important as a defining factor for these beers. You have also comppletely failed to mention the wonderful food pairings these beers provide, especially since you are writing on a wine blog.

    Dec 01, 2014 at 3:22 PM

  • I love all about beer magazine though, maybe I could be the editor?

    Dec 01, 2014 at 3:28 PM

  • Do you ever wonder why you don't see people smoking cigars with sour beers like an IPA? Most cigar tobacco is alkaline so that smoking a cigar with an acidic beverage like an IPA is like brushing your teeth (toothpaste is alkaline) and drinking orange juice. Just as the toothpaste makes your orange juice taste bitter the alkaline cigar will make your IPA taste even more bitter. There are a few cigars tobaccos, like Pennsylvania Broadleaf, that are more acidic. If you can find a cigar with a natural PA Broadleaf you will find that the acidity of the cigar will balance the acidity of the IPA and make it less sour. Of course, those of you that are looking for sour won't want to do this. The Panacea Green Label is wrapped with Pennsylvania Broadleaf and is an ideal pairing with an IPA, btw. You can get more information regarding Wine and Cigar and Craft Beer and Cigar pairings on the CigarVolante website, We are the Virginia Distributor for Panacea and sponsor of the Virginia Wine and Cigar Trail, specializing in cigar and beverage pairings.

    Dec 01, 2014 at 5:18 PM

  • Snooth User: HenriT
    1023447 14

    I've always tried to keep the special joy I get from Belgian lambics within a tight circle of beer confidantes. I guess I've grown weary of trying to explain to beer Luddites that "sourness" is not a sign that something's gone wrong with it. Thank you for blowing the froth off the matter. And since you have done us all a service, I will return the favor by calling worthy readers' attentions to my most sacred of all beer pilgrimage destinations: Mort Subite in central Brussels near the Grand Place and just beyond the arcade. It has been a special place for me ever since two local gentlemen from Flanders first accompanied me and and my brother to its hallowed fin-de-Siecle threshold back in 1981. A simple pint of the Gueuze they keep on tap is all I needed then, and all I need now. I'm really glad to see American craft brewers getting on board. I'll be looking for these when I'm next in the States. Can't wait 'til the holidays!

    Dec 02, 2014 at 6:31 AM

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