Sour Power: Or, How I Learned To Stop Worrying and Love The Funk

Horse blanket. Barnyard. Unripe berries. Wet soil. Sour lemons. Slate. Sweat. Feet.

It's time to talk about sours.

Likely the oldest style of beer in existence, sours have a long and storied history both intentional and accidental. While a certain level of tartness was to be expected in nearly all ales prior to the creation of modern anaerobic storage and fermentation vessels and sterilization techniques, deliberate sour beer production can trace its roots back many hundreds of years-- records of Belgian lambic-making date to at least the mid-1500s, while the German tradition of the Berliner Weisse, a wheat ale soured with the Lactobacillus microbe, can be reliably dated to the 1640s. The point is, sours have been around for a long time-- far longer, certainly, than most modern-day consumers would be led to believe. Yet to most casual beer consumers, sour beer is a recent style, something to be requested at bottle shops and bars almost timidly, as if unsure of oneself. So what happened to this proud style to bring it so low?

Well...that's not actually all that easy to guess at. The simplest answer, though, although it's a bit of a sensitive one: post- World War II America happened. Palates that had historically been conditioned to the unique patchwork of flavors that made up mainland Europe were suddenly exposed to a tremendous wave of Yankee--there's no easy way to phrase this--timidity. This can be seen across a wide berth of categories in the post-World War II world-- the advent of the Americano, ostensibly to cater to the tastes of American GIs; the bastardization of Chianti in the 1950s and 1960s, much of it done to cater to an overwhelming Anglo-American demand for cheap, "rustic" wine; and the near-death of traditional Franco-Belgian and German sours as breweries, many of them still reeling from the hardships of a wartime economy, rushed to capitalize on the international boom of soft drinks by creating Frankensteinish sweet-tart concoctions with all the similarity to traditional sours of, well, caffè Americano to real espresso. (Sorry, Americano drinkers. Not a fan.)

But if America taketh, then America giveth as well...and anyone even moderately well-versed in the history of American independent brewing knows what happens next. Jack McAuliffe builds his brewery, Ken Grossman rents his warehouse in Chico, Jim Koch loads up his suitcase and takes to the streets of Boston. And amongst this scrappy, nascent revival of independent brewing and appreciation for the diversity of flavor in beer, a cult of sour drinkers is born, grows, and helps keep alive the last holdouts of continental European sour beer production. Jean-Pierre Van Roy at Brasserie Cantillon begins exporting to the United States in 1986, Armand Debelder at Brouwerij 3 Fonteinen does the same in 2000, Frank Boon at Brouwerij Boon continues to develop the infrastructure and trade connections throughout Belgium and all of Europe that enable the Belgian lambic community to thrive--and amidst all of this, a tiny flame begins to flicker in the hearts of a handful of American brewers. Cambridge Brewing Company opens its doors in 1989, thrilling and terrifying area drinkers by turns with its Belgian-style and especially sour offerings. Pioneering bars like Falling Rock Tap House in Denver and Boston's own Deep Ellum and Lord Hobo preach the gospel of sour beer to anyone who will listen--and more and more people do, brewers and consumers alike.

Flash forward to 2017, and sours have seemingly proliferated into nearly every corner of the American brewing and beer-drinking communities. Yet many who approach sours still do so hesitantly, perhaps fearing the associated terminology more than the category itself. (See the top of this post--who really wants to drink something that tastes like feet?) That hesitation need never exist, though--while some sours can certainly be potent, even aggressive, in their pursuit of funk, there are many ways to dip your toes into the sour beer pool without getting too wet. Here, for your consideration, a few of the beers that helped me learn to love the gumline-tingling power of the sour.

Off Color Brewing, Troublesome (Chicago, IL): A member of the once-nearly extinct and now resurgent German sour ale style known as the gose (so named for its original production in Goslar, though it was in neighboring Leipzig that it truly became a regional powerhouse), Troublesome acquires its tangy, lemony bite from Lactobacillus, the same microbe that turns milk into yogurt. The addition of coriander and sea salt adds an effervescently briny dimension to this complex interplay of sweet, round, bready flavors derived from the base wheat malt and tart, citric sharpness from the Lacto, yielding a beer that is at once biting and soft, delicately salty but endlessly refreshing.

Abbaye Notre-Dame d'Orval, Orval (Florenville, BE): On the surface, this might seem like an odd one to include. Orval, after all, does not advertise itself as a wild ale--and yet, as anyone who has had it before can attest, there is a certain...something about it that isn't quite typical of a Belgian pale ale. That something is Brettanomyces lambicus, a yeast strongly associated with Belgium's Senne Valley that is famous--or infamous, in winemaking circles--for its imparting of earthy, funky-floral flavors and aromas. Orval, in addition to its funkiness, is vigorously dry-hopped with Hallertau, Strisselspalt, and Styrian Goldings, all of which will further accentuate Orval's famed earthy-herbal profile. Endlessly complex, possessed of a remarkable capacity for aging in bottle, always a joy to drink--if I was pressed to select a desert island beer, Orval might just be it.

Mikkeller, Hallo Ich Bin Berliner Weisse -- Blueberry (Copenhagen, DK): Mikkel Berg Bjorgso, aka Mikkeller, has been a consistent force for change, disruption, and evolution in the beer industry since he formally entered the industry in 2006. The Ich Bin... series is a collection of fruited Berliner Weisses--like the gose, a German sour ale inoculated with Lactobacillus, clean and tart with bracing acidity. Hallo Ich Bin... Blueberry is possessed of a body fairly unique among the Hallo Ich Bin... series, marrying a surprisingly soft and full body against the bracing tartness of fresh blueberry.

I have left so very, very many beers out of this list, many of them staples of their respective styles (no Boon Gueuze? No Bahnhof Gose? No Cantillon?? Heresy!!)--this is just the barest smattering of the beers that have influenced me to embrace the world of sour power, and if any of them speak to you...come on in! I'm always game to talk funk.

-Ben

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