Thursday, 07 April 2016 20:04

Pucker Up! An introduction to the world of sour beers and wild ales

Written by  Joe Boomgaard
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Lindemans Oude Gueuze Cuvée René and New Belgium Transatlantique Kriek Lindemans Oude Gueuze Cuvée René and New Belgium Transatlantique Kriek

In America, the IPA reigns supreme among craft beer drinkers. 

But many beer lovers have discovered a new-found love for some of the oldest of beer styles that date back centuries to the earliest of brewing traditions in Europe. 

Back in the day, brewers made sour beers and wild ales because that’s all they could make. They didn’t have the cultured brewers yeast that’s available today. Rather, they relied on the natural “bugs” and open fermentation to do its work. 

The styles have undergone a renaissance in recent years and are growing in popularity among local breweries. (See related story.) The beers can pack huge flavors or subtle complexities and typically are aged in wood and blended from a range of vintages. 

Many craft beer drinkers immediately dismiss them on principle because of the connotation with the name of the style — “Beer should be hoppy, not sour, because ’MERICA!” — but even the American palate seems to be coming around to embrace the funk. 

That said, they’re certainly not for everyone and that’s part of the process of discovery.

Generally speaking, traditional Belgian sours can lean more toward the Balsamic vinegar spectrum of flavors and have a higher alcohol content (around 7 percent ABV). By comparison, the German sours and wild ales are lighter, often in the 3 percent to 5 percent ABV range, and focus on tart flavors. American versions of the styles — well, they’re all over the map. 

To understand the sours and wild ales and the many variations of these beers, Revue called up brewer Mitch Ermatinger, the co-founder of the yet-to-open Speciation Artisan Ales, for help with a guided tasting. Here’s what we uncovered. 



Barrel Weiss 

Brewery Vivant, Grand Rapids, Mich. 

Style: Berliner weisse (a “loose interpretation”)

ABV: 6%

Berliner weisse (pronounced “vice”) is a bright, traditional German-style wheat ale with an ABV ranging from 3-4 percent. The style can be very effervescent and champagne-like with flavors that span from tart to sweet in each sip. They’re a showcase of lactic acidity, rather than funky notes.  

Tasting notes:  This anniversary ale is bigger than a typical Berliner weisse and the aromas ranged from apple cider vinegar to dill. The flavor featured a grainy cereal quality (think Cheerios) and then some citrus notes. It pours deep amber in color. Thin but bubbly. 


Otra Vez

Sierra Nevada Brewing Co., Chico, Calif. and Mills River, N.C. 

Style: Gose-style ale brewed with cactus and grapefruit

ABV: 4.5%

Gose (pronounced “goze-uh”) is a traditional German style wheat ale that’s often spiced with coriander and salt, leaving a nice tangy finish. These are light beers that would taste great on warm summer days. 

Tasting notes:  This would be a great starter sour — an easy transition for fans of wheat beers. It’s simple, crisp, balanced and somewhat fruity, although it lacks the salty finish of most iterations of the gose. With a light body, it’s tangy and refreshing. 


Oude Gueuze Cuvée René

Brouwerij Lindemans, Vlezenbeek, Belgium

Style: Old gueuze

ABV: 5.5%

Gueuze (pronounced “gurz-ah”) is an aged Belgian lambic style beer made with aged hops and unmalted wheat and spontaneously fermented without the addition of any cultured yeasts. The beer is aged and then various vintages are blended, leaving a wonderful complexity. Gueuzes are often very effervescent and earthy, with some funk. 

Tasting notes:  Pours a clear golden color with a nice head. The aroma features a distinct funky, woody and wheaty quality that really defines the experience of this complex beer, which is reminiscent of a fine champagne. Great, long-lasting finish. Lindemans is known for its fruity lambics but this is really a better beer from them, one that flies way under the radar yet is highly available. 


Golden Sour

Pike 51 Brewing Co., Hudsonville, Mich. 

Style: American wild ale

ABV: 8.6%

Brewers have different interpretations of American wild ales, but this beer was fermented in a used “super-funky” barrel without the addition of any yeast. The base was an imperial blonde ale. It’s the Wild West for the American style but they can range from barnyard flavors, like this one, to minerally and grainy. 

Tasting notes:  Sour beer nerds like to throw out odd descriptors like “wet dog in a phone booth” or “horse blanket,” the latter of which really fits this beer’s grassy character. The aromas are an interesting study and not everyone will like the funky flavors and finish. 


Bam Bière

Jolly Pumpkin, Dexter, Mich.

Style: Farmhouse ale or saison

ABV: 4.5%

Jolly Pumpkin was among the early American breweries to embrace wild and sour ales. They ferment all their ales in large wooden barrels known as foeders and use a mix of Belgian-strain yeast and yeast brought in on the outside air at the brewhouse for a true “Michigan” terroir. 

Tasting notes:  It’s a straightforward wild farmhouse ale that should improve in complexity (and acidity) over the years. Light and drinkable with a bitter finish, an easy entry into the style. 


Le Terroir (2014)

New Belgium Brewing Co., Fort Collins, Colo. 

Style: Dry-hopped sour ale

ABV: 7.5%

Le Terroir starts as a golden beer with peachy aromas that’s aged in wooden foeders for three years. The yeast and the wood give it an earthy quality that’s then dry-hopped with Amarillo and Galaxy hops to add even more fruity flavors. New Belgium pasteurizes its beers, meaning that aging it in the bottle does not really add to the complexity of flavors like in unpasteurized examples. 

Tasting notes:  Straight forward, easy-drinking and approachable. The flavors, with notes of peaches and citrus, would not be foreign for fruit beer drinkers. Very enjoyable and smooth with a tart bite. 


Blue Sunday Sour (2015)

New Holland Brewing Co., Holland, Mich.

Style: American wild ale

ABV: 7%

Each year, New Holland blends vintages of cellared barrels of Blue Sunday with newly made ale. The result features the barrel flavors as well as the malt in a tart, sour ale. 

Tasting notes:  Some sours produce butyric acid that’s close in taste to bile or vomit and that was detected by a couple of tasters here. It can be — and was — off-putting. The dominant smell and flavor was vinegar, which finished dry and dull. This was not a favorite among the beers sampled at the tasting, but it could develop into something different in the bottle as it’s aged over the years.


La Folie (2015)

New Belgium Brewing Co., Fort Collins, Colo.

Style: Sour brown ale

ABV: 7%

New Belgium uses the solera method to make this beer. La Folie starts as two beers, a pale named Felix and a dark beer named Oscar, which age for two to three years in the wooden foeders. Each of the foeders has a different “ecosystem” of yeasts that imparts unique characteristics to the liquid. Once the beers are blended, the foeders are topped off with fresh beer and the process starts again. 

Tasting notes:  La Folie pours a clear burnt umber color and features a brash aroma of caramel, berries and malt, which carry over to the flavor, along with the addition of some stone fruit notes and green apple. Definitely a favorite among tasters, this beer could easily become a go-to sour.  


Grand Cru

Brouwerij Rodenbach, Roeselare, Belgium 

Style: Flanders red ale

ABV: 6%

Flanders red ales are boiled for many hours. They often highlight very sharp, sour and tart flavors developed using special yeast strains and are aged over a long time in oak foeders. Typically, these examples are blended using two-thirds vintage and one-third young beer. 

Tasting notes: The vinegar and berry aromas of Grand Cru welcome you into this beer. Its flavor is malty and fruity with hints of blueberries as well as some balsamic vinegar notes. It’s complex, earthy and funky, yet accessible. 


Transatlantique Kriek

New Belgium Brewing Co., Fort Collins, Colo.

Style: Kriek 

ABV: 7%

Kriek (pronounced “creek”) is a Belgian lambic style ale produced with cherries. The cherries impart a sour tart quality and give the beer its signature red color. Krieks made in the old Belgian tradition should not be sugar bombs, but rather taste like fresh-picked cherries with a hint of the barrel. 

Tasting notes:  This pleasingly red beer with a pink head smells like fresh cherry pie with some malt. The flavors are tart, sour cherries with only flashes of effervescent malt sweetness. Highly drinkable and balanced, it would be a great dessert beer. 

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