The beer of the hour is the sour. At a time when craft brewers and small cask ale producers are pushing the boundaries to escape run-of-the-mill offerings, it was inevitable that they’d begin to push backwards through time to an era when wild yeast strains led the flavour of sour brews astray. Now, the intentional replication of these wild conditions is a risky and highly specialised form of brewing, with many going where no brewer has gone before. This results in the creation of whole new taste sensation for beer lovers to enjoy.
From a musty must-have to a caustic cult
In many ways the sour was the original beer, spanning back to the prehistoric beginnings of beer brewing. Unlike the many modern-day brews on offer, the acidic, acrid bite of the old sours was not entirely intentional or entirely controlled. Before the advent of sterilisation, temperature regulation and, you know, not dipping your dirty hands in the beer, there was no way to prevent wild strains of yeast from entering the brew and diverting it. Before the Industrial Revolution there were few ways to effectively discourage this from happening, and the products were often far less tasty and hygienic than today’s counterparts.
Although beers often ended up turning sour for better or worse, the first people to actively encourage the souring process were Belgian brewers, who allowed wild yeast to enter the brew naturally through the barrels or during the cooling of the mashed wort in the outside air. This procedure was unpredictable, leading to a wide range of flavours and an unusually high proportion of spoiled batches. Although this production process has fallen out of favour to be replaced by more predictable systems, it led to the sharp, dry tang common to many Belgian beers, especially in the sour beer tradition.
Now, after many years of primarily Belgian production, sour beers are coming into fashion around the world once again.
Taste the drink and feel the bite
There is a word that describes the flavour of sour beer, and it’s pretty self-explanatory (you guessed it: sour). People have even gone so far as to deem some brews pungent and razor-edged. In some circles, such aggressive-sounding descriptions are actually considered a compliment. Like so many other areas of business, the recent democratisation of brewing has meant that every type of beer has a brewer, even the most extreme sours.
A distinctive variety of this characterful beverage is the fruit sour, where fruit is added during the ageing process to achieve a secondary fermentation. Unsurprisingly, these are generally lighter, with anything from summer berry to citruses complementing the initial fermentation.