John Hayes and Dan Norton from Enki Brewing recently approached me with some questions about sour beers. Like many even fairly well educated beer drinkers they both felt that their knowledge and ability to judge the sours was not quite where they would like it. As a BJCP beer judge I really appreciate those who know their beer shortcomings and want to improve on them! I know several ranked judges who specifically request not to judge these categories of beer simply because they don't like them...to me this is something they should work at and either learn to like them or at least recognize good from bad examples!
I had already been amassing a collection of sour beers after our recent Belgium trip, so this was a perfect time to break some of those out and see if I had the chops to teach others what I know of the sour styles. I have been thinking of doing a BJCP prep class for the Western Suburbs in the next year or two and this would be a great way to test my skills. And an excuse to have some great sour beers!
My friend (and sour beer aficionado) Andrew and his wife Janelle joined us for this and contributed some cool beers as well. John, Dan, Dan's wife (who isn't a beer person at all) and Sj all showed up for the tasting. We had a few cancellations, and luckily another friend, Jesse, was able to fill in at the last minute!
I tried to start with the more accessible beers, since those are often viewed as "gateway" beers for non-sour drinkers. We would then move into the more extreme examples.
We started the grouping with what many would consider the easiest sour beer to handle: Flanders Red. This style is a mixed fermentation including traditional beer yeast, lactobacillus, pediococcus, acetobacter, and brettanomyces yeast, usually fermented or aged in wooden barrels or foedors. Also known as the Bergundy of Belgium, these reddish hued ales combine cherry or other dark fruit flavors with a tart or sour bite. Most of these beers use a blend of older/more sour beer with a younger/less sour beer to get the right balance. One of the most commonly found examples of this style here in Minnesota is the Duchesse De Borgogne. This one is very approachable since it's tartness is tempered by back-sweetening, resulting in a sweeter and easier to handle flavor. I used to really like this beer, but now it seems way too sweet for my palate. I still have plenty of friends who love the beer, and have no problem with that!
From there we went to a homebrewed example that I brewed up in 2009. This one has continued to increase in tartness over time, and certainly has more than The Duchesse. I've been brewing one of these each year since 2008, and my skills are slowly increasing. With the need to age for such protracted time (a year or so) zeroing in on the right recipe and making changes can take a bit of time! I haven't quite gotten to the point of blending myself but I'm starting to think this is the way to go!
The third beer we tried was New Glarus Enigma. This one has aged several years and has more of a tart cherry pie flavor than I remember from when it was fresh. Still nice, but overall people liked my version better (Eric pats own back here...)
The last beer was the Jolly Pumpkin La Roja that I brought back from our recent trip to Michigan. This one is not entirely traditional for Belgium, but is very close in style for tasting. The complexity in the beer is incredible compared to our previous two examples. Initially most of the unseasoned sour drinkers in the group loved the Duchesse, but by the end of the tasting several liked the Jolly Pumpkin more.
Flanders Brown Ale/Oud Bruin
The Belgian sour brown is really an offshoot of the Flanders Red, but tends to be a bit more mellow and darker in color. Often these will be back sweetened or blended to have just a touch of acidity or sourness to them. These beers usually have more dark fruit, raisin, prune, and some caramel or toffee malt flavors to them than the Flanders Red. These are also often aged for some time and may have a bit of oxidation or sherry character. There are not many local examples of this style and it hasn't caught on as much with the American craft beer scene yet, though does often act as a base for fruit beers. I discovered a paper wrapped bottle of Leifman's Goudenband at The Four Firkins that would do nicely here! This one was a hit with its smoother sourness and I think everyone liked it well. I have had the chance to try a 20 year old bottle of this beer when in Antwerp that was still amazing.
Gueuze is really usually a blend of three years worth of spontaneously fermented lambics. I did get a chance to taste some of the young unblended lambic beers in Belgium, but trust me, they get much more complex when blended together with older and more tart beer. Brussels is the epicenter for this style of beer, but they can be found elsewhere, and now American brewers like Allagash and Jolly Pumpkin are doing their own versions of these beers. The hot wort is traditionally run into a large flat copper coolship where it cools overnight and gets inoculated with random brewery bacteria. It is then added to used wooden barrels (where most of the real wild yeast and bacteria reside) and fermented for 1-3 years.
I started here with the Timmermans Oude Gueuze (also from The Firkins). I had never had this beer before, and expected one that was fairly mellow, based on the sweetness and mediocre sourness levels of the Timmermans fruit lambics I've tried. It came as a bit of a shock that this beer was incredibly tart, virtually bursting with lemon flavors that made it stand out as very unique amongst geuezes I've tried in the past.
We then tried Andrew's Girardin 1882 which is one of the better and more accessible examples of the style. This one was more balanced and complex than the Timmermans and is one of my favorites (if I can't find a Cantillon!) The group was a little more challenged by this style but several still enjoyed the lemon-crazy flavors of the Timmermans.
What most people think of when they hear the word Lambic is slightly tart fruit beers. The quintessential and most available of these is Lindemans. They have several flavors, but the Kriek (cherry) and Framboise (raspberry) are the most popular and most traditional. These, like The Duchesse use a sour beer base, but back sweeten to the point of being nearly syrupy and cloyingly sweet. The New Glarus Belgian Red and Raspberry Tart are very similar American examples. I do like these, but after having the more traditional tart versions of these beers I have a harder time dealing with the sweetness. All of our group (except us seasoned veterans) really enjoyed this beer. Again--I don't judge!
We moved on to the Boon Marriage Parfait--a more classic Kriek with a much more sour and tart finish. I really like this beer and find it to have a better balance of cherry flavor, but without the overwhelming sweetness. This one wasn't as big a hit as I'd expected it to be.
Lastly we tried Andrew's Lindemans Kriek Cuvee Rene. I had not heard of this beer before, though have tried the base Geueze Cuvee Rene which is quite good. This is a Kriek that is amazingly different from their above-mentioned sugar-bomb. I really enjoyed getting a chance to try this rare beer and it proved to me that Lindemans is certainly a good sour producer--even if they make most of their money on overly sweet versions of their beer.
This is where it gets weird. As with anything Americans like to do their own thing. Follow traditional brewing methods that have been around for hundreds of years? Nah! Let's do something different! Some of our sours are made like in Belgium, but many push the styles into new territory either by methods, ingredients or trying something completely new. Unfortunately some of these experiments are either ill-conceived or brewing mistakes that are unintentionally sour--giving the rest a bad name. I've had American sours that are as good or better than some in Belgium. I've also had travesties that are amongst the worst beers I've ever put in my mouth. Paint thinner and silage are NOT good flavors in a sour beer!
One of the best examples of great American sours is Cascade Brewing from Portland, OR. I went to their barrel house tasting room last year and that place blew me away! Instead of the more common brettanomyces fermentations, they focus on the lactic or acidic/tart styles. They do various fruit beers like Strawberry, Blueberry, Cherry, but also some unusual strong ales like Vlad the Impaler. For this event I cracked a two year old Cascade Blueberry that had changed quite a bit since I had it previously. A lot of the blueberry had faded and a strong smoky phenol flavor had shown up. I still liked the beer, but it was an entirely different experience for me. Reviews on this one were positive, but not the overall winner of the day!
We had more to try, but at this point were losing folks. The guys from Enki ordered us pizza and we had a great time with this event! I hope that this brought everyone closer to enjoying sours as a broad style--or at least taught them what styles to focus on for their personal taste. Andrew and I didn't get a chance to crack a few of our other beers so ended up doing that later in the week...perhaps I'll write those up as well.