The Wild Side: American Sour Beers

You might remember those old Keystone Light “bitter beer face” commercials—some guy takes a sip of harsh (gross) beer that makes his face implode. Today many craft brewers are making beer known as wild or sour beers, with the goal of making you pucker up.

The term “wild” comes from the wild yeasts that ferment the beer. The brew is left open to the environment (allowing natural microbes floating around to spontaneously inoculate the beer), or put into barrels that already contain wild yeasts. (Side note: this is the definition of a wild beer. There are different types of sour beers—made sour by adding an acidic element to the beer.)

The bacteria add acidity and tartness, but also cause more subtle flavors and aromas that many people describe as funky, musty, or even being barnyard-like. The most common types of wild yeasts added to beer are Brettanomyces (“Brett” for short), Lactobacillus, and Pediococcusthe latter two are used in a lot of fermented foods, cheeses, and sour cream (that’s why it’s sour).

If you haven’t heard of sour beers or tried any yet, here are some great ones I’ve recently tried over the last couple weeks that you can find around the New York City area:

Allagash Tiarna

Allagash Tiarna

Allagash Tiarna 7.10% ABV

Tiarna is a wild ale recently released by Allagash Brewing Company in Portland, ME. It’s a blend of two different beers: one aged with Brett in oak barrels and another brewed in stainless-steel tanks with two different Belgian yeasts. It’s a really drinkable sour beer that is balanced on all fronts. There’s nice sweet orange and pineapple, but it’s not super tart. It’s also not overwhelmingly funky. It goes down nice and smooth and is a really great beer for someone new to sours.

Bruery Rueuze

Bruery Rueuze

The Bruery Rueuze 5% ABV

A gueuze or geuze (goo-zuh) is a blend of new and older lambics.  In the case of Rueuze, brewed in Placentia, California, the brewers blend different barrels of their sour blonde ale, each aged for a different amount of time in oak barrels.  Since you can only truly call your gueuze a gueuze if you’re in Belgium, they had to come up with a clever moniker for this brew.  (Mike discusses this distinction in his post about Allagash sours.)  There’s a ton of apricot, orange and lemon with funky barnyard aromas and flavors from the Brett. This beer is very tart and may not be for a beginner, who’s turned off by strong sourness, but give it a try if you’re feeling adventurous!

Westbrook Gose 4% ABV

A gose (pronounced go-zuh) is a traditional German style beer that is now being brewed more often in the craft-beer world. More American brewers are making gose-style beers, which are traditionally brewed with wheat, salt, and often coriander. The Westbrook version, brewed in South Carolina, is much more tart than more traditional German versions (like the gold standard Leipziger Gose from brewers Gasthaus & Gosebrauerei Bayerischer Bahnhof). It’s got a nice balance of sweet, saltiness, and sour funk from the added lactic acid.

Jolly Pumpkin La Roja

Jolly Pumpkin La Roja

Jolly Pumpkin La Roja 7.2% ABV

La Roja is a Flanders style amber ale (Flanders red) brewed by Jolly Pumpkin Artisan Ales in Dexter, Michigan. You’ll get a lot of sour cherry, oak, and vanilla flavors. Flanders red ales are usually pretty high on the sour end. But La Roja did not strike me as tart as many Flanders, making this a good one to try if you’ve never had one before.

Stillwater Artisanal Ales Debauched 6.7% ABV

Debauched is a Farmhouse saison—one of the most popular styles of beer right now. The sour level on saisons range from virtually non-existent to very tart. Debauched, brewed in Baltimore, has a mild tartness and funk from the added Brett and also a subtle bit of smoke—a flavor component that’s more common in saisons than other sour styles. It’s brewed with juniper bushes that give the beer a bit of herbal fruitiness. It’s a very light-bodied saison that is really refreshing and bubbly.

Crooked Stave Wild Wild Brett Batch #60

Crooked Stave Wild Wild Brett Batch #60

Crooked Stave Wild Wild Brett Batch #60 6.7% ABV

This wild ale from Crooked Stave Brewery and Taproom—a Denver brewery that only brews sour ales—is hopped with Amarillo and Citra hops, giving the beer a nice citrusy flavor of orange, lemon, and some sweet peach. But where this beer shines is in the funk. It’s extremely funky, like a mildewy hayride, complete with a few horses to pull the wagon. Wild Wild Brett Batch #60 is a very complex sour (it’s also very sour), and probably not the best beer to start with if you’re just starting to taste wild ales. Work your way up to this one.


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