I have a confession: I am not a fan of sour beers. In fact, I pretty much hate them. Whenever I’ve had one, my reaction to them has typically been something like “Eww” or “Well, at least that wasn’t as bad as that one.” Not quite a winning endorsement. But when I heard that my homebrew club, CHAOS (Chicago Homebrew Alchemists of Sud) Brew Club, was hosting a sour beer tasting, I was intrigued. I decided to attend to see if there were any sours out there that I could
stand like. What I found is that no two sours taste alike, and there are some “training wheel” sours that might allow me to take the plunge into further developing my palate. I was hoping to gain a better appreciation of the style, at least.
The hubby and I arrived at the community brew space a little after 7pm (we were running late for a change!) and some bottles of various sours were being set out. David Williams and Daniel Barker, two CHAOS members who are huge sour fans, were leading the tasting and began with a brief overview of the history and different types of sour beers. We learned that historically Belgian brewers did not purposely add bugs; it just happened spontaneously. David told us that if a brewery was going to move, they would take the wood partitions from the original brewery with them in order to ensure similar bugs and flavors in the new location. Fascinating! One type of these bugs, Brettanomyces, is typically found in wood and imparts that horse-blanket aroma and flavor.
David and Daniel also explained that sours contain a lot of complex flavors, like wine, due to all of the bacteria. It also takes a lot longer for a sour to reach maturity than your typical beer because one has to wait for all of the different types of bacteria to go through their separate lifecycles to impart their particular funkiness. Vintages of the same beer from the same brewery will taste different due to the inability to truly standardize the process of these wild beers. The thing that really surprised me was to learn that sour beers are not that high in alcohol; typically when I hear about a barrel-aged beer (which most sours are), I always think about an imperial stout or barleywine. But many of the desired bugs would not be able to survive with a high alcohol content so the majority of sours are in the 6% ABV range.
We were starting with the Flanders style, which is typically sweeter than gueze or lambic, although I was pretty certain I was not going to describe any of them as “sweet.” We had a variety of beers that fell into this category to try and it was fascinating to experience the full spectrum of sourness within this one style. We started with the Rodenbach Grand Cru, a Belgian ale that is a blend of new and aged beer. It was brown in color and sweet, but in a sweet-and-sour sauce kind of way. It made the sides of my mouth pucker but sweetness was imparted from the young beer. There were hints of grape or cherry flavor.
The second beer of the night was Duchesse de Bourgogne, a Flanders red ale. This beer was also a blend of young and aged beers and was reddish brown in color. This one was not crazy sour; it had a sour taste but didn’t feel sour (e.g, your mouth doesn’t pucker). This beer was actually pretty malty and I really liked this one in that it was a little sweeter and not as sour as other beers we sampled that night. I started getting very excited that I actually found a sour that I really liked. Then David had to burst my bubble by explaining that sugar was added to appeal to Americans. Needless to say, David and Daniel both thought it was too sweet. Oh, well. Baby steps, right?
Next up was New Belgium La Folie, an American interpretation of a Flanders brown ale brewed with assistance from the brewer at Rodenbach. This beer had sweetness on the nose but a very sour taste, almost like drinking dirt or a smoothie of rotten fruit. This was a little too advanced for me. Zoetzuur is a Flanders red al from the De Proefbrouwerij brewery. This beer was sweet on the start, but not a good sweet; it tasted like cherry cough syrup. The finish definitely had that Brett, horse blanket flavor. I was not a fan of this one either.
Monk’s Café Flemish brown ale was next in the line-up. This beer was brewed in Belgium exclusively for a bar in Philadelphia. This beer had the best aroma of any of the beers we tried that night and smelled like a sour; it didn’t trick you like the La Folie did. It was bottle conditioned and the heavy carbonation assisted is lessening the sour punch. The soft bubbles were very nice and helped cleanse the palate, as well. I really enjoyed this one.
The winner of the strangest brew we tried that evening was Two Brothers Moaten. Apparently this was a beer that was brewed in 2009 but one of the CHAOS members found a couple dusty bottles in a beer store a few weeks ago and thought it would be a nice addition to the lineup of sours. This is described as an oak-aged Flemish style red, although it just came through as an amber ale. As one of the attendees said, “This is like you brewed an amber ale, but were afraid it was infected.” It wasn’t terribly sour; it was more malty with a light body and a slight “off” flavor.
Next was Goose Island’s Madame Rose which was undeniably the favorite of all of the sour lovers in attendance. This was also a little advanced for me but it was clean and pretty tasty for a sour. It had a pronounced Brett, barnyard flavor but it wasn’t overpowering. Next was Telegraph Obscura Arborea, a Flanders brown from Santa Barbara, California. This had a sweet, malty aroma with only a slightly sour flavor. This was bottle conditioned which lended a champagne quality. It was pretty tasty but there were not a lot of sour notes.
Our tasting of Flanders style ales concluded and then it was time to move on to guezes and lambics. If some of the above brews were too sour for me, I was not optimistic that I would like any of these. According to David and Daniel, lambic is a lighter, tart, drier style of sour beer. If a lambic is aged on raspberries, it is called framboise, and if it is aged on cherries it is called a kriek. A geuze is a type of lambic that is made by blending young and old lambics together. The first beer in this line-up was Boon Geuze which was pale golden in color and tasted like rubber. To my unsophisticated palate, anyway. Next was Oude Gueze which was blended from lambics of three separate years. This was especially funky with a band-aid aroma and tasted of feet. Not that I’ve ever tasted feet before. But if I did, I am pretty sure this is what it would taste like.
The last beer of the night was Kriek Fonteine, a lambic aged on cherries. It poured a bright red and had a subtle aroma of cherries under the sour aroma. The flavor had a cherry essence; it was sour on the front but the flavor of cherries came through, although none of the sweetness of the fruit was present. I was very impressed with myself that I actually liked this one! Maybe there is hope for me yet…
My top two beers of the evening were the Duchesse de Bourgogne and the Kriek. Neither were the sourest of the evening but both definitely had sour qualities and were stepping stones for me as I am trying to train my palate to enjoy the funky flavors. After this class, even though I didn’t care for everything, I have a much deeper appreciation for these complex brews. CHAOS Brew Club has just started a sour program and some members are even working on brewing 60 gallons of a Flanders Red that will be added to a red wine barrel. I can’t wait to try it, even though it won’t be ready for a year and a half. I’m sure it will be worth waiting for.