Hey there! This site is reader-supported and we earn commissions if you purchase products from retailers after clicking on a link from our site.
If you are a beer aficionado, pub owner, home-brewer, or just love prowling the craft beer section at the store, you have probably heard of sour beers. Maybe you would even like to try making it yourself. Sour beers are not new to the world of beer, and they are constantly evolving. For that reason, anyone can try a sour beer and find something that they enjoy. If you ever wondered about sour beers, including where they came from, what they taste like, which styles can be considered sour, and our top sour beer picks, then this article is for you.
Table of Contents
- What is Sour Beer?
- The History of Sour Beer
- What Makes Sour Beer Sour?
- How Are Sour Beers Brewed?
- The Different Types of Sour Beer
- What Foods Pair Well With Sour Beer?
- What Kind of Glass Do You Use for Sour Beer?
- Our Top Picks of Sour Beers
- Pucker Up, It’s Time for a Sour Beer
What is Sour Beer?
Believe it or not, sour beer is the oldest kind of beer out there. Prior to pasteurization and sterilization practices, every kind of beer had some kind of sour note to it. Today, sour beers are considered any style of beer that tastes tart or salty. It also has to be made with a wild yeast. In comparison, most mass-produced beers are fermented in highly sterilized conditions and with specific strains of yeast.
The wild yeast is what makes sour beer so different. You can find a wide range of sour beers that are either sweet or sour or so light and refreshing you would think you had a lager in hand.
Presently, some of the most popular and well known sour beers are crafted in Belgium. However, craft breweries around the world are starting to experiment more with this beer style.
The History of Sour Beer
As mentioned earlier, sour beers have a lengthy history that begins with the dawn of fermentation. Beer has been on the menu since 4,000 BC, and at that time, the practices people use for brewing modern beer were not around. It was soured fruits, water, and yeast making the alcoholic magic.
Back in 4,000 BC, many wild yeasts, including the “sour milk bacteria,” known as lactobacillus, could be found in many sources. The presence of lactobacillus and other bacteria imparted a funky taste to beer. Yet, while all beer used to be sour, the sour beers that we know today were developed during the eighteenth century in Belgium. To this day, there are many breweries in Flanders that have been operating for centuries, thus gifting humanity with traditional sour beer.
Refrigeration and pasteurization changed things for many years. It was not until the 1970s when sour beers began resurfacing. Immigrants that escaped from Belgian and Germany during the early 1900s brought with them age-old practices and started introducing America to sour beers slowly.
What Makes Sour Beer Sour?
One sip of sour beer and you will realize the distinctiveness. Although all beer is brewed with yeast, it is the special kind of yeast and bacteria used in sour beer that gives it a whole new flavor. Modern day sour beers utilize two kinds of bacteria and a single strain of wild yeast.
Bacteria first. For sours, lactobacillus and pediococcus are the important players. Lactobacillus has the ability to convert sugars into lactic acid. You may recall that thicker, tangier yogurts contain large amounts of lactobacillus. Additionally, lactic acid is what makes your muscles burn during a workout. The next bacteria, pediococcus, is much like lactobacillus and even belongs in the same family. Pediococcus is favored for sour beers for a few reasons: it metabolizes without oxygen and it creates diacetyl, which adds a buttery taste.
The next piece of the equation is a wild yeast called Brettanomyces, or Brett, for short. Most beers are crafted with either Saccharomyces cerevisiae or Saccharomyces pastorianus. Brett, however, has a reputation for mucking up good beer, which is why it is not a favorite among brewers. Should Brett be allowed to go wild with your homebrew, you might end up with a beer that looks and smells like an unflushed toilet bowl.
When Brettanomyces decides to do good, it adds an ambrosial balance to your brew and a touch of earthiness.
Check out this video that looks at how sour beers get so sour:
How Are Sour Beers Brewed?
Any kind of brewing requires a decent amount of attention and focus. You will feel like a mad scientist, composer, and artist when home-brewing a beer. Sour beers, though, are known for being fussy at best and nightmares at their worst. The wild yeast and bacteria you need eliminates any wiggle room you have with other recipes. If you plan on brewing a sour beer, be prepared for a challenge.
The process for brewing sour beer:
- Make your mash. Like all other beers, you must first mash your grains. In other words, you immerse your grains into water and heat them until the starches are converted into fermentable sugars. The time spent on this step depends on whether you are using extracts or all-grain brewing.
- Add in some hops. If the recipe calls for hops, then you are going to need to add them for flavoring and aroma while boiling the wort. Keep in mind that many sour beers use little to no hops, because the chemical compounds in hops could stunt bacterial growth.
- Cool the wort. After boiling your wort, it is time to let it cool. Once the wort is no longer boiling hot, you can transfer it to a fermentation vessel. Usually, this primary fermenter is a carboy, but there are other vessels as well.
- Toss in your yeast. Now for the essential step. You must add in a combination of yeasts, whether it is commercial or wild. Bacteria, namely lactobacillus, must also be added so that the sour notes of lactic acid can begin to form.
- Fermentation. As part of the natural process, fermentation will begin right away and can last for several months. Some recipes will tell you to add bacteria or wild yeast during primary fermentation.
- Aging. After days or weeks, you will need to test the sourness of the beer to see if it is satisfactory. Then you are ready to drink or sell the alcohol. There are some types of sour beers that are placed in old wooden casks and left to age for many years like whiskey.
The Different Types of Sour Beer
There are many well known types of sour beers, and brewers are continuously creating new styles. When it comes to making sour beer, one thing is for certain: unpredictability. Wild yeast often means that loads of experimentation are required before a sour beer is perfected. Sometimes, the results are so exceptional that they cannot be crafted again to the same measure. This is why many craft breweries offer only a limited amount of seasonal sour beers throughout the year. Furthermore, some sour beers age very well, changing their characteristics over time, much like wine.
Here are some of the most common forms of sour beer:
When you hear someone talk about sour beer, you may immediately think of a Belgian lambic. This ale is spontaneously fermented and gains crispness from the large amount of wheat malt. Depending on the age and flavors added to the beer, it may be light or dark in coloring. Fruit lambics, such as framboise (raspberry) and kriek (cherry) are popular, but you may also see peach, blackberry, or strawberry lambics on the store shelves.
American Wild Ale
Developed within the American craft brewing scene, this sour beer is a mix of Brettanomyces yeast and other strains, like wild yeast from fruit. This fact alone typically defines American wild ales, as few other rules have been made for this style.
Flanders Red Ale
Also known as Flemish Ale, Flanders beer is sour yet fruity and has a gorgeous red color. What makes this beer special? It’s old and young beer fermented together. Open oak barrels or vats are used to add some complexity to the flavor.
A traditional beer that is from the province of Flanders in Belgium. “Oud Bruin” looks a lot how you would expect it to look—deep brown or copper. The level of acid is close to vinegary, but there is also a blend of malt, tartness from fruits, and sweetness involved. You can barely detect hops in Oud Bruin beer.
A variety of German beers with a sour side. Berliner Weisse is made with wheat and comes with a fruit syrup that is meant to balance out the sourness. This is a low ABV beer.
Pronounced go-ZUH or goz-UH, this German beer is unique in its creation. Gose uses salty water, at least 50% malted wheat, and wild yeast to get its snappy, herbaceous flavors. Recently, this style of beer has returned to the limelight after having been overlooked for many years. Good to have you back, Gose.
Not to be confused with Gose, a gueuze is a kind of lambic beer that combines old and young lambic beer and ages them together. Most often, sweeter fruits like cherries are added to balance out the acidity of the brew.
What Foods Pair Well With Sour Beer?
A sour beer is an adventure, because they are never what you would expect. By adding food into the mix, you can create some surprising and delectable combinations. Here are some ideas for the best sour beers and food pairings:
- Cheese. A slightly fruity sour can be elevated with sharper cheeses, including gorgonzola or cheddar.
- Deli meats. The salt in deli meats heightens the thirst-quenching qualities of your beverage.
- Beef. Fattier cuts of beef brings out the lightness of sour beer.
- Spicy foods. Spices, particularly those used in Mexican or Spanish cooking, complements the tartness of sour beer.
- Mollusks. A bit of brine offsets the sour beer. Be sure to use a little butter and lemon with your seafood.
- Deep-fried food. The greasier the food, the lighter the beer. A bit of tartness can also make the salt on your fries or onion rings pop.
- Roasted vegetables. The heartiness of roasted vegetables, like carrots and potatoes, pairs well with the robust flavors of many sour beers.
- Creamy desserts. Want a cooling contrast to the salinity of a Gose? Try some ice cream or pastries and cakes filled with creams.
What Kind of Glass Do You Use for Sour Beer?
When you love drinking beer, you know that the glass can make or break the experience. Although you can pour sour beers in nearly any kind of glass, the one that truly brings out the brilliance of this variety is a tulip glass. The tulip-shaped cup allows for the sour beer to breathe a little, which is key. The aromas of a sour beer are often complex and can add depth to an otherwise lip-puckering brew.
Sour beers can also be served up in a tumbler, wine goblet, or snifter. If you decide to order a sour beer as part of a tasting flight, be sure to drink it after the heavier beers. It will be the light note you need to round off the other samples.
Our Top Picks of Sour Beers
Ready to pick up some amazing sour beers? There are plenty of breweries out there playing around with sour beers. These top picks were chosen for their availability and flavors. Check them out:
1. Anderson Valley Brewing Co. – The Kimmie, The Yink, and The Holy Gose Ale
Long name for a Gose, yes, but its worth the mouthful—literally. No list of the best sour beers would be complete without a mention of Anderson Valley Brewing Co., which has been credited with bringing Gose to North America. In the hands of AVBC, Gose has been introduced to many a beer drinker in the States.
The Holy Gose is bright, warm, and has a punch of tropical zest. It’s approachable, not overly sour. Think of it as a sea breeze as opposed to drowning in salt water. To this day, The Holy Gose is winning awards. Once you have tasted the original, opt for AVBC’s Cherry Gose, Briney Melon Gose, Framboise Rose Gose, or Blood Orange Gose.
2. Dogfish Head – SeaQuench Ale
To quote Paste Magazine, “Basically, [SeaQuench Ale] tastes like a margarita without all the sugar and it makes me want to go straight to the beach.”
Dogfish Head has been coming up with some amazing year-round offerings, and their SeaQuench Ale is one of them. As a blend of Gose, Berliner weisse, and a Kolsch, this beer is worth the try. You get limes and salt and juiciness on the tongue. It is refreshing and thirst-quenching. Coming in at only 4.9% ABV, it is an accessible beer for those who want something that tastes like a canned summer holiday.
3. Almanac Beer Co. – Sournova
Here is a fun fact about Almanac’s Sournova collection: they put it into a four-pack after extensive research. Somehow, they made sour beer that can last for more than a year on the shelf. Plus, Almanac delivers to 25 states.
But what makes this good? First off, Sournova is not kettle soured but instead conditioned in barrels with fruit. That introduces natural wild yeast to the beer. Thus, you get flavors like peach, blackberry, and apricot. The beers are unpasteurized and continue fermenting even when canned. About the time you crack open a can, the beer will have aged spectacularly and pour like a wine.
If you are unsure about sour beer but like wine, this is one you will want to try.
4. Allagash Brewing Co. – Coolship Resurgam
Rather than referring to this as a Flanders or a lambic, Allagash named their sour beer a “wild beer.” This has to do with their method of brewing, called coolship, which allows natural bacteria to enter the brew with little intervention from the brewer.
How do they do this? Coolship Resurgam is left to sit out overnight, letting bacteria from the environment enter the beer. From there, the beer is placed inside French oak barrels for aging. Additional ingredients, like apricots, are used to give Coolship Resurgam more depth and flavor. This is one beer where every bottle you open is going to be unique!
Pretty cool, right?
5. Crooked Stave – Sour Rose
Specializing in enticing sour beers, Crooked Stave has mastered something tantalizing with its sour rose beer. Blackberry, raspberries, and the flavors of oak have been added to a beer that sizzles on the tongue. It is more like champagne than beer, but that is why it’s so great. You can also partake of Crooked Stave’s Cellar series, which packages some of their magnificent sour beers in wine bottles.
But that aside, Sour Rose is a worthwhile pick if you have had sour beers before and want to see how creative they can get. Sour Rose is complex. It is not for everyone, mind you. Those who prefer a sour sting alongside the flavors of berries. Overall, it is crisp, light, and effervescent.
Pucker Up, It’s Time for a Sour Beer
What is sour beer? It’s beer made with souring bacteria and wild yeast, creating out-of-this-world flavor. There are many kinds of sour beer, like lambics and Gose, but they are all worthy of sampling at some point. You won’t believe how varied sour beer can be. To get started, check out the list of popular sour beers that you can buy and try today. Don’t forget to let us know which one is your favorite!
What’s The Point of Non-Alcoholic Beer?
If you’re looking for a way to enjoy beer without consuming loads of alcohol, non-alcoholic beer might be exactly what you are looking for.
Half and Half Beers – A Wholesome Experience
If you never had a Half and Half beer cocktail before, you are definitely going to want to try one out by the end of this article. So let’s get started.
Craft Beer vs. Regular Beer: What’s The Difference?
You can’t tell the difference between a favorite local craft beer vs regular beer that is mass produced. Don’t worry. We've got the answers.
Is Beer Gluten Free?
We’re going to answer the most poignant question: Does beer contain gluten? If so, is there low gluten beer or gluten free beer available?
Is Helium Beer Real? What is Helium Beer Anyway?
There is some science as to why helium beer is more or less impossible. It can be done, but not in the way that people would want.
Unpasteurized Beer Explained – What You Need to Know
While unpasteurized beer is more common than you might realize, there is a special reason why it’s been a hot topic for the past few years.